Pope Benedict XVI waves as he leads the Sunday Angelus prayer from the window of his private apartments at the Vatican April 3, 2011.
“Many religions and societies link to some degree the cumulative amount of religious effort to benefits in the afterlife,” said Elissaios Papyrakis, an economist at the University of East Anglia and one of the study’s authors. “We show that higher life expectancy discounts expected benefits in the afterlife and is therefore likely to lead to postponement of religiosity, without necessarily jeopardizing benefits in the afterlife.”
In Canada, the percentage of people aged 15 or older reporting no religious affiliation whatsoever had grown to 16 per cent by 2001 compared to four per cent in 1971, according to Statistics Canada. Data also shows the proportion of people attending religious activities weekly had shrunk to 21 per cent by 2005 from 30 per cent in 1985.
Based on data from between 2005 and 2007, Statistics Canada said the average life expectancy in Canada is 80.7 years of age, up from 78.4 a decade earlier.
The study, published in the online edition of International Journal of Social Economics, noted that religious participation is high in less developed countries where life expectancies are low. For example, it said that 95 per cent of people in Nigeria attend church at least monthly, and that rate is 91 per cent in Pakistan. It said this kind of religious participation is at just 15 per cent in Britain.
Rev. Kevin DeRaaf, pastor of Faith Christian Reform Church in Burlington, Ont., said he’s never considered a link between living longer and declining interest in religion, but said it could be a factor.
“When you have a good healthcare system, when people are able to manage crises very much through practical means, it can push some of the faith issues to the background,” DeRaaf said.
The U.K. study said religious organizations looking to attract members should focus less on benefits in the afterlife, and more on what can be offered in one’s worldly life from the Church. Such things could include expanding one’s social circle, participation in various activities, spiritual fulfilment and guidance.
DeRaaf said he agreed with that notion to some degree, but added that consideration about the afterlife can’t be dismissed, because it is so central to religion.
He added that churches across Canada have made efforts in recent years to become more involved in the practical matters of their communities. As an example, he said his own church is involved in social housing.
“The central story for us is the story of Jesus, who had a strong teaching and healing ministry,” DeRaaf said. “He encountered people and made an immediate impact on their lives in the here and now, which drew them into the larger story of eternal issues.”
Rev. Robert Dalgleish, executive director of ministry development for the United Church of Canada, said for him personally, religion has always been more about how to live currently rather than a preoccupation with heaven or hell.
“But I think the Church has not always made that clear to people, so I would agree with the (study) authors’ claim . that the Church does need to make the case that religion is about life -it’s about this life,” Dalgleish said.