Friday, July 25, 2008

Age and atheism: Eyeballing the 11,000 responses given by participants in the General Social Survey to the question about belief in God, it looks like the percent who are atheists begins to drop in the 50's age range. But visual inspection isn't very trustworthy, so let's divide people up into under age 50 (N= 6,819) and 60 plus (N = 2,594).

What we get is 2.6% for the younger group (CI: 2.2-3.0) and 1.9% for the older group (CI: 1.4-2.4). Now the confidence intervals do overlap a bit, but readers know that I don't fret too much about statistical significance on this exploratory blog.

If we regress confidence in the belief in God on age, we see a small positive relationship (B .01, Beta .08, T-statistic 7.84, p = .000, R-squared = .01). So it looks like atheism slips a bit as one begins to approach that Great Beyond. It's probably due to fear and hedging one's bets, but I suppose it could be a reconsideration of views developed during one's audacious youth.

(By the way, I didn't realize the percent of Americans who are atheists (of whatever age) was quite this low. I thought it was on the order of 5%, but perhaps surveys throw in agnostics.)


  1. Anonymous11:05 PM

    I think all atheists are really agnostics or are people who WISH there was not a god.

    I mean hell, if the sky lit up and a gigantic wizard-looking figure appeared that was miles long in size and threw fireballs at the earth with a magic wand, screaming that he was God and was mad about us letting some kind of chipmunk go extinct...............I'd be inclined to think all but a few hundred die-hards on the planet would "believe", dont you?

    I think atheists mainly reject the "gods" of "religions" that have been offered for the most part out of the many I know and talk to. Its not as if they would refuse to believe a very big supernatural event if they actually saw one personally, but they have no evidence so they conclude that the "present" notions of a "Creator" must be wrong. I dont think they are completely closed to the idea though of a creating force or entity out there light years away. Maybe there IS one..............maybe it doesn't give too much of shit about this one planet in a universe of billions of them. Until we have real proof...................nobody will be able to say for certain.

  2. Zardad's Dog11:21 AM

    Ron, an alternative hypothesis is that the folks in their fifties and folks in their sixties came of age in rather different cultural milieus despite the close proximity of their ages. People in their sixties are mostly pre-boomers who came of age in the 1950s and early 1960s, whereas those in their fifties are all boomers and came of age during or after the dramatic cultural shift of the 1960s.

  3. Anonymous11:48 AM

    You've corrected for cohort effects, right?

  4. Respondents were asked this question starting in 1998 and through to 2006. Atheists are so rare, I maximized N by including all ages from all years. So the younger group is made up of all cohorts going back to late Depression babies, while the older group has people born from circa 1900 to the the first year of the Boomers.

    So multiple cohorts are mixed into each group, but as readers are suggesting, the pattern I find could be due to more atheism from the Baby Boomers forward. The numbers of atheists are too small to be able to follow a specific cohort over time.

    And now that I'm thinking about it more, the safest conclusion is to be skeptical about an age effect.


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