Religion and Aging: Findings from a Sixty Year Longitudinal Study

Michele Dillon
Sociology Department, University of New Hampshire

Date: March 30, 2005

Event Recap

On March 30th, Michele Dillon, a sociologist from the University of New Hampshire and author of numerous studies of American Catholicism, spoke on her most recent research on religious attitudes and practices as they develop over the life course. Unlike most studies on religion and spiritual practices that study a sample at one point in time and do not account for the effects of an evolving personality over time, Dillon’s work is based on data from a sample of babies and children in the 1920’s who were followed and interviewed at periodic intervals over 60 years of their lives. The continuity of the data over the respondents’ lives gives us a fascinating insight into how religiosity and spirituality wax and wane as individuals age and mature.

Interestingly, Dillon and her co-author, the psychologist Paul Wink, find that although respondents’ religiousness and spirituality tend to increase most sharply in the period between the ages of one’s 50’s and 70’s, that people are actually quite stable suggesting that people do not tend to experience radical shifts in their religious and spiritual worldview, even after having negative life experiences. Further, their evidence suggests that the religious atmosphere in their family of origin is the single best predictor of religious involvement in late adulthood, reinforcing the important influence of religious formation in the family.

Dillon and Wink also examined the relationship of religion and spirituality to a concern for others, in order to explore hypotheses that associate spirituality with self-centeredness and organized religion with fostering broader social commitments. In their sample they found that both highly religious and highly spiritual people were likely to show a deep and genuine concern for others and were also more likely to be socially engaged with people, groups and activities. However, the religious and the spiritual show this concern and care in different ways. Highly religious people (defined by the routine exercise of religious practices) tend to connect in a communal, interpersonal way through relationships with family and friends. Their everyday routines showed time spent on social activities with family and friends and community service done within a group setting. Highly spiritual people (defined by the routine exercise of spiritual practices) on the other hand tend to express their connections through creative projects and in social activities that reach beyond their own family and friends and might leave a legacy that “would outlive the self.” These people tend to show a broader societal perspective and more incisiveness into the human condition. Dillon and Wink also look specifically at measures of spirituality and narcissism and find no link. This finding is significant in that it appears to counter the more popular association some cultural analysts have made between spirituality and a self-regarding individualism. This study provides important data to the contrary.