Why living longer destroys your faith

A British study has linked increased life expectancy to a decline in church attendance, as young people figure they'll have time later to worry about heaven and hell

With people living so much longer, younger generations are worrying less about life after death and so are less inclined to invest time in religion, a new study finds.
(Image credit: Corbis)

Ever wonder why church attendance appears to be down just about everywhere? British researchers have found a surprising culprit: life expectancy. Economists at the University of East Anglia in England say — in a study published in the International Journal of Social Economics — that as people in developed countries live longer, they put off worrying about deep spiritual questions when they're young, and put off going to church. Here, a brief guide to the findings:

What does life expectancy have to do with going to church?

In countries where life expectancy was higher, young people didn't see much benefit in getting their spiritual lives in order — at least, not yet. Ten additional years of life expectancy was linked to an 8.4 percent decline in the number of people who called themselves religious, and a 15 to 17 percent decline in church attendance. The reason? Young people who expect a long life put off worrying about heaven and hell, says the study's co-author, Dr. Elissaios Papyrakis, which translates into a "posponement of religiosity." In other words, they figure church, mosque, or temple can wait.

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How did the researchers figure this out?

They applied the economic principle of cost benefit analysis — identifying positive factors and weighing them against negatives — to look at how the adoption of religion was affected by life expectancy. The data they looked at came from the World Value Survey Dataset and the World Bank. The perceived positives of religion — preparing for the afterlife, for example — were measured against negatives, such as having to spend time at religious services. The researchers controlled for factors such as income, former communism (which typically causes a decrease in religion), and the prevalence of Islam and Catholicism in the countries they studied, and the numbers still held up.

Does the finding contradict previous research?

Yes, in some sense. Previous studies found that churchgoers were more likely to live longer than their non-religious counterparts. Considering that, this new study "is fraught with irony," says David W. Freeman at CBS News.

Are there other reasons church attendance might be down?

Of course. The study's director, Ruth Powell, says the decline is probably more accurately attributed to "major generational changes that have happened over the last few decades" than to life expectancy.

What might this mean for religious institutions?

Papyrakis says they should expect a "graying church," as older people increasingly outnumber younger ones in the pews. To counteract this, they should focus on the benefits of religion in the here and now, not in the afterlife, to attract younger worshippers. "In light of rising life expectancy, it is important to emphasize socioeconomic and spiritual benefits … for example, expanding a person's social circle, communal activities, spiritual fulfillment, support and guidance, rather than uncertain rewards in the afterlife," he says. "These benefits can counterbalance the negative impact of life expectancy on religiosity."

Sources: Fox News, About.com, Sydney Morning Herald

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