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Religion - Patterns Of Religious Participation

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Many studies in religious gerontology have sought to document how often older adults engage in various kinds of religious expression. Through this research gerontologists typically differentiate among several discrete dimensions of religious participation. These include formal or organizational religiousness, informal or nonorganizational religiousness, and what is termed subjective religiousness.

Gerontologists define organizational religiousness as public participation in organized activities of churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions. Indicators of organizational religiousness include affiliating with a denomination or congregation, regularly attending worship services, taking a leadership role in one’s congregation, and volunteering at one’s place of worship. According to data from the 1990 General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, attendance at religious services at least once per week is increasingly common among successively older age groups. Among adults age sixty-five and older, at least weekly attendance exceeds 46 percent. This represents a rise of nearly 10 percent over data collected in the 1970s.

Gerontologists define nonorganizational religiousness as participation in private religious activities, most typically at home or with one’s family. Nonorganizational religious indicators include regular prayer, participation in study of the Bible or other scriptures, watching religious television or listening to religious radio, and saying grace at meals. Findings from the 1988 General Social Survey paint a picture for many of these activities that is similar to that for organizational religiousness. Daily prayer, for example, is considerably more common in older than in younger adults. Nearly three-quarters of adults age seventy-five and over pray at least every day—almost twice the frequency of adults age eighteen to twenty-four.

Besides organizational and nonorganizational religiousness, both of which have to do with religious behavior, religious gerontologists are interested in self-assessments of personal religious attitudes, beliefs, and motivations. These are sometimes classified under the heading of subjective religiousness. Indicators of subjective religiousness include self-ratings of overall religiousness, reports of the importance of religion, intense feelings of religiousness, and professions of belief in God or a higher power. National survey data are less consistent for this type of religiousness than for public or private religious behavior, but still show markedly higher ratings among older adults.

An important issue that arises in interpreting data on age patterns in religious participation is the need to address aging, period, and cohort effects. The disentanglement of these possible effects is an issue that arises frequently in gerontological research. It concerns identifying the underlying explanation for age differences observed in a particular phenomenon, such as the age differences that exist in patterns of religious participation. Only through multiwave longitudinal studies lasting many decades can these three types of effects begin to be separated. Until such studies are conducted in religious gerontology, the best that scientists can do is to rely on reasoned speculation.

The presence of a cohort effect in religious participation is suggested by generational differences in religious socialization experienced by older age cohorts. Examples include religious formation before Vatican II among Catholics, during the flourishing of Classical Reform Judaism, and prior to the decline of mainline Protestantism in the face of evangelical inroads. Not all of these trends, however, imply greater religious training in prior generations. Further, as Moberg noted, if a cohort effect were present, then we would expect to observe less religious participation among each successive generation of older adults. There is little evidence for this; as trends toward greater religiousness in older age have persisted for decades.

This might be explained by the presence of a period effect—that is, an influence of a past epoch or event of religious or societal history that significantly impacted all people living at a certain period of time, but exerted a differential or diffused impact across subsequent periods. Examples, both secular and religious, include the Great Depression, World War II, and the charismatic movement. Evidence of a period effect in religious participation, however, is weak. Not only have trends toward greater religiousness in older age persisted, but absolute levels of religiousness have persisted as well. For example, in the United States national survey data on the frequency of weekly attendance at religious services, across all groups, has hovered just above 40 percent for decades.

Cohort and period effects on religious participation may still be present to a limited extent in certain subgroups of the population, but the most acceptable explanation for greater levels of religiousness observed among older adults is the presence of an actual aging effect. This means a trend toward greater religiousness throughout the life course, signifying increasing reflection on matters of ultimate concern as people age. The psychologist Sheldon S. Tobin, writing from psychoanalytic and developmental perspectives, explains that religion offers continuity across the life course through emphasizing the enduring meaning of life, engendering a sense of being blessed, and providing personal and community resources that enhance coping with age-related losses.

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