The Spirituality of Aging and Religion

By Robert Bernstein

 The full title of the July Humanist Society of Santa Barbara talk was “The Spirituality of Aging: Comparing Religious and Non-Religious Older Adults” by Dr. Vern Bengtson
Here are all of my photos.
10,000 Americans turn 65 every day in America. How do seniors view religion? Dr Vern Bengtson is a Research Professor at the University of Southern California. At the Roybal Institute on Aging of the School of Social Work.

With the help of a Templeton grant, he did a study of 122 older individuals to find out how seniors view religion.

He showed this graphic of how the Baby Boom population bulge affects the population age distribution.

His study had 77 women and 45 men. Average age 76. Most were highly educated people from Southern California communities. Some were from South Central Los Angeles.
100 considered themselves religious. 20 considered themselves unaffiliated. 32 were priests, pastors or rabbis. The study involved 1-3 hour in-depth interviews. The subjects were asked their religious practices. Their description of God. Moral views. And more. The names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
Sylvia says she is an atheist. Sometimes. Depending who asks. She was raised a Mormon. To her friends she says she is an atheist. To others she says she is a “non-believer”. She would rather spend time on a trail on a Sunday than in a building.
How do religious seniors identify themselves? For Protestants it can get quite complex. They may be a member of a traditional denomination like Presbyterian or Episcopalian. Or of a less well known denomination like Church of God, Cornerstone, Wayfarer, etc.

Or they may describe themselves as “Christian”, “Bible-Focused” or “Following Jesus”.
How about the non religious seniors? They may identify as Atheist, Humanist, “None”, Seeker/still searching, Spiritual but not religious, Agnostic, Materialist or Pagan/pantheist.
73 year old Nolan said, “Science is more powerful than religion.” As for a higher power? He said E=mc2 shows that there is a lot of energy out there in the universe.
Religious people have a variety of views of God: A personal god. A Trinity. All powerful. “He loves us.” “He is within me.”
Non-religious views are even more varied: A higher power. Some sort of energy or force. No god.
Pamela said God is made from ignorance as a way to control people. To get used to having a boss!
Are these views on a continuum or are they polarized? It seems the divide between believers and unbelievers may be unwarranted. There are many differences among believers and among non-believers. There may be more similarities between the two groups than within them!
What do seniors actually practice? 77 year old atheist Anita said, “We believe in doing good deeds.” She says at atheist meetings it is mostly single men who are into themselves and not social. She wants to change that.
When she gives money to a homeless person they often will say, “God bless you.” She explains she is an atheist and lets the person know, “You were helped by an atheist today.”
She says religion can affect how people vote. Climate change is an issue that matters.
Some surprising similarities in practice between believers and non-believers include: Meditation, group practices, social justice/service and being in nature. And even prayer!

Pagan Marcy said that she prays to loving spirits. Wise, sentient beings who have stuck around to help us.
Meditation is quite common among non-believers and many do so in groups.
When Sheila sees a homeless person asking for food or money, she often will take them out for breakfast. Just to make a human connection and talk to them.
How about facing mortality and death? 73 year old Vincent has been diagnosed with cancer, with two years to live. He was raised in a religious family, but during grad school he realized religions can’t all be true. Some must be made up; maybe all are!
He developed coping skills on his own. Letting people know he loves them is more important than having them care for him.
For the religious, some do have hope for life after death. Some hope to be resurrected through their belief in Jesus. Some even see death as the beginning of life. Some think Jesus will create a new kingdom here on Earth without sin or death.
For the non-religious they see death as the end of their individual existence. But they see a certain continuation of their existence. Perhaps through simple conservation of energy and of the material of their bodies. Vincent sees himself going back to the energy pool of the Universe.
Sylvia notes that when a flower dies it can feed a new garden. She is deciding which park she wants her ashes to go to feed it.
In 1998 a survey asked people how they would feel if their daughter married a Muslim? A bank robber? An atheist? At that time, atheist was least popular of the options!
Our region of SLO-Santa Barbara-Carpinteria polled as 22 least religious out of 84 US regions.
Geriatricians need to recognize the wide variety of spiritual practices the non-religious engage in. Hospitals have no chaplains for atheist patients. They need to recognize the coping strategies of the non-religious, too.
Dr Bengtson then opened up the discussion to the audience.


Most interesting for me: Someone said he had been talking to a rabbi and asked her why so many Jews are getting into Buddhism. She said that few American rabbis even believe in God!
It seems that for most Jewish Americans, they stay Jewish to maintain a cultural, secular lineage affiliation. This is in contrast to many Protestant religions which have God belief as central. But that is not true for all. The Unitarians downplay God belief as central.
I asked if people do become more religious as they age. One person said his father told him there are so many old people in church because they are cramming for the final! Dr Bengtson said people do in fact become more religious as they age. Even the Baby Boomers. But the Baby Boomers are less religious to begin with than previous generations were.
He showed this graphic which helped show the demographics

There are deathbed conversions to religion. But there are also people who curse God as they die!
HSSB President Roger Schlueter said he sees “atheism” describing beliefs. And “agnostic” describing knowledge. He identifies as an agnostic atheist.

Another interesting moment came at the very end. HSSB Board Member Clover Gowing said she does not even like making distinctions at all. Hence, she does not like the term Humanist! Interesting, considering her position!

Dr Bengtson certainly gave us some valuable information to understand the differences and similarities among religious and non-religious perspectives.


Written by sbrobert

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