Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
The world's poor know there's no sure thing
In Canada, we're pretty proud of our quality of life, our high standard of living, universal health care and excellent life expectancy -- at 81 years, we are 12th-highest in the world.
We also like it when others recognize how good we have it. In May, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported Canada has the second-highest quality of life on the planet (Australia is first).
All that is good news, right? Well, maybe not, as far as religion is concerned.
That's the conclusion reached by British researchers Elissaios Papyrakis and Geethanjali Selvaretnam, authors of The Greying Church: the Impact of Life Expectancy on Religiosity, a new study that applies a cost-benefit analysis to why people choose to be religious or not.
According to the researchers, higher life expectancy makes people less interested in religion and the afterlife.
"Many religions and societies link to some degree the cumulative amount of religious effort to benefits in the afterlife," they say. But higher life expectancy "discounts expected benefits in the afterlife and is therefore likely to lead to postponement of religiosity."
Or, to put it another way, if people think they're going to live a long time, they don't tend to worry about what happens after death -- questions about the afterlife seem just too far away to be an effective motivator.
Research into religiosity in poor countries seems to support their findings.
In some African countries, where life expectancy is short, people tend to have much higher degrees of religiosity. This isn't surprising; when life is not only hard, but could also be suddenly ended by war, natural disasters or disease, people would be more likely to focus on eternal matters.
If the researchers are right, what are the implications of their findings for Canada -- and other western countries -- where people can expect to live for a long time?
One thing it means, they say, is aging congregations. Religious organizations should be prepared to accept and attract a greying church, "with membership skewed toward the older generation, particularly in countries that have high life expectancy, or expect significant increases in life expectancy."
What should churches do if they want to attract younger people? Preaching about benefits down the road, like going to heaven, won't do it, the researchers say. Instead, churches need to talk about benefits today -- things like community, spiritual fulfilment and guidance.
"In light of rising life expectancy, it is important to emphasize socio-economic and spiritual benefits that can be enjoyed during one's lifetime on Earth," they say, adding that these current benefits "can counterbalance the negative impact of life expectancy on religiosity," and therefore encourage religious involvement.
It seems to me many churches are already taking this idea to heart.
Fifty years ago, it was common to hear "fire and brimstone" sermons about avoiding eternal punishment in hell. Today, however, the churches I am most familiar with don't try to scare people into believing. Instead, they prefer to emphasize the positive aspects of following Christ, along with the importance of living lives of virtue and service.
Of course, the idea that any of us has any control over what happens is a chimera, something of which I was reminded recently while visiting farmers across Canada. No matter where I went in this country, from the Maritimes to Alberta, spring was cool, wet and late. Many farms are too wet to work, or worse, completely flooded. Many farmers are facing uncertain economic futures.
More than once, while surveying flooded fields with a farmer, I heard them say: "It's all in God's hands now."
Maybe people who live closer to the land -- and those in the world's poorer countries -- are more likely to remember what many others might have forgotten: There's no sure thing. We really aren't in control, no matter how carefully we plan or how long we expect to live. Life can change in an instant, and there's nothing we can do about it.
Psalm 90:12 seems to provide some good words of advice: "Teach us to number our days, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 9, 2011 J13