With all the attention in the media of late about the decline of religion and the rise of atheism, you'd be forgiven for thinking belief in God is on the way out.
Thing is, it's not true. At least, that's the finding of a report on religious belief, recently released by the University of Chicago.
According to the report, titled Belief About God Across Time and Countries, while there is "a drift towards lesser belief in God," the changes "are modest in magnitude and mixed in scope."
The report looked at attitudes toward faith in 30 countries in which surveys about belief in God have been taken, in some cases, since 1991.
While noting that religious belief has tended to diminish over time, it found the average increase in the number of atheists was just 2.3 per cent from 1998 to 2008.
The report also found the older people get, the more likely they are to believe in God. On average, 43 per cent of those age 68 and older believe in God, compared to just 23 per cent for those under the age of 27.
For some, this just means it's a matter of time before fewer and fewer people believe in God, and that places like Canada will become more secular. After all, who could expect today's youth -- having grown up in a highly secularized society and seldom, if ever, going to religious services -- to believe in God when they get older?
But the researchers aren't sure. They don't think young people who are more likely to doubt God's existence will carry their disbelief with them as they age. They suggest it's possible they will change their beliefs over time.
"Looking at differences among age groups, the largest increases in belief in God most often occur among those 58 years of age and older," says Tom Smith, one of the researchers and the author of the report. "This suggests that belief in God is especially likely to increase among the oldest groups, perhaps in response to the increasing anticipation of mortality."
This finding is echoed in Canada by University of Lethbridge sociologist Reg Bibby. He acknowledges the proportion of Canadians who claim no religion is rising, especially among youth. But based on his long-term studies, he says he can "report with some confidence that this tends to be a temporary self-designation in most cases."
Within five years, about one in three youth who say they have no religious affiliation identify with some group, Bibby says, and within 10 years that figure has increased to about two in three.
"As these predominantly younger people get older, marry and have children, they typically turn to religious groups for pivotal rites of passage," he observes.
In addition to exploring atheism and the effect of aging on belief, the report also found the country with the highest belief in God is the Philippines, where 94 per cent said they had always believed in God. Eastern Germany had the lowest level of belief in God, with 59 per cent saying they had never believed in God.
Along with the Philippines, countries rounding out the top five in belief in God are Chile, Israel, Poland and the U.S. Along with the former East Germany, other counties where belief is the lowest are the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Unfortunately, Canada was not one of the countries included in the University of Chicago study. But if it was, it would have ranked third from the top among nations where belief in God is strongest -- a nationwide survey in March conducted by Leger Marketing found two-thirds of Canadians say they believe in God.
But while belief in God is strong, the survey also found just 42 per cent of those polled agreed with the statement "religion is an important part of my life."
If by "religion" they mean going to church, synagogue, mosque, temple or other place of worship on a regular basis, that's no surprise: Lots of places of worship are empty on weekends. But not going to services, or professing no religion, is not the same as not believing in God. As Bibby notes, 40 per cent of Canadian adults and 35 per cent of teenagers who report having no religion "not only say they believe in God, but say they believe in a God who cares about them."
In other words, belief in God doesn't seem to be waning in Canada or even in many other countries around the world -- even if the way people express that belief is changing.