I cannot pretend that there is a single, simple explanation for the precipitous drop in church attendance over the past few generations. Like most sociological situations, it is certainly a multifaceted problem with numerous, concurrent reasons. Certainly, the recent push of New Atheism has found its audience, but the majority of Canadians still identify as religious, even in the absence of any sort of religious involvement. Why do “believers” not attend church – or synagogue, or mosque or temple?
A recently published study by Papyrakis and Selvaretnam in the International Journal of Social Economics partially answers this question. Religious activity, they argue, decreases because our lifespan is increasing. When your average Canadian lives to be 81 years old, the expected “payoff” of religion – heaven, afterlife, reincarnation – is so dramatically delayed that the cost-benefit ratio is quite literally not worth it for most people.
In this respect, a higher life expectancy discounts more heavily any expected benefits and costs in the afterlife and is hence likely to lead to postponement of religiosity and ageing congregations. For the same reason, any contemporaneous benefits linked to religious participation (e.g. in the form of expanding a person’s social circle, communal activities, spiritual fulfilment, support and guidance) are likely to weigh more heavily in the decision-making process compared to what might happen in the less certain and far distant afterlife.
According to our analysis, religious organisations should be hence prepared to attract older members to the congregations… While many religious organisations place particular emphasis on increasing youth membership, they should not lose sight of incentives needed to attract older people… In light of rising life expectancy, it is important to emphasise contemporaneous socio-spiritual benefits, rather than uncertain rewards in the afterlife.
They contrast data from the developed world with that of underdeveloped countries like Nigeria, where with a life expectancy of just shy of 50 years old, the afterlife is something that needs to be attended to much earlier. The paper goes into some intense mathematical modeling that I cannot pretend to fully comprehend, but ultimately the point they are attempting to make is clear. Human actions are at least in part, based on analysis of cost-benefit ratios. If I subscribe to a Christian doctrine, ultimately, church attendance for my entire life isn’t going to help me get into heaven. When I’m old, and Death looms ominously in the shadowy corners of my house, I’ll repent then and deal with a more tangible reward. You can hardly expect people who become impatient with 3 minutes of commercial breaks to be proactive for 50 years down the road, especially if doing it later does not hurt their capacity for reward. Ultimately, this is a glorified restatement of Pascal’s Wager combined with procrastination. I’ll be religious because it can’t hurt my odds – but later. The afterlife is so rarely a threat to young Canadians that hedging your bets can wait. It is better to be ambivalent than to be committed to something that will not benefit you for decades.
Combine the increasing life expectancy with a dramatically decreased infant mortality rate (grief and comfort surely intensify religious conviction), corruption of church officials, and frequent denial of scientific reality perpetuated by the church, and you have an excellent cocktail for creating heathens. And ultimately, if religion functioned as more than fire insurance, if it truly was fulfilling an innate need to have a close personal relationship with God, wouldn’t all of this be irrelevant?