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Poll: Older Americans are among the most spiritually skeptical

(Photo: Unsplash/Cristian Newman)
(Photo: Unsplash/Cristian Newman)

When I commissioned a national poll to find out how many Americans believe that God is real, I expected to find that young people would be among the most skeptical. While that turned out to be true, I was shocked to discover that their spiritual doubts are matched — or even exceeded — by the oldest Americans.

The survey, taken in conjunction with my new book Is God Real? Exploring the Ultimate Question of Life, disclosed that only half of seniors (51%) strongly believe that God is real, which is the lowest among any American age group.

Spiritual skepticism might be expected among Gen Z (born 1995-2009), which has been called the first post-Christian generation in America — and the survey bears that out. One-third of Gen Z doubt that God is real, with 10% expressing strong doubt and 24% indicating they’re somewhat doubtful. Just 66% of Gen Z somewhat or strongly believe that God exists.

More surprising is the skepticism of the so-called Elder generation (born pre-1946). I thought that as they approached the end of their lives, they would be more inclined to trust that God is real and that Heaven might await them.

But like Gen Z, one-third of seniors expressed doubts about God to some degree. In fact, nearly twice as many Elders as Gen Z were adamant about their skepticism. While 10 percent of Gen Z strongly disagree that God is real, that number soars to 18% among Elders. Another 15% of Elders somewhat disagree that God is real.

Belief that God is real is the most robust among Gen X (born 1965-1980) and Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). Among Gen X, 80% somewhat or strongly agree that God is real, while 79% of Baby Boomers concur. For Millennials (born 1981-1994), the number is 77%. Overall, three out of four American adults somewhat or strongly agree that God is real.

While nobody is suggesting that mass numbers of older Americans are turning to atheism, the results of my survey are concerning. Britain has seen some similar indicators in recent times.

A report from Southampton University showed that over two decades, the proportion of older Brits who felt that religion was important to them fell from almost three-quarters to less than half.

“It has been assumed that older people’s faith remained constant, but that no longer appears to be the case,” British professor Peter Coleman, who conducted the research, told The Guardian. “This appears to be part of a general questioning of authority in society.”

Psychiatrist George E. Vaillant of the Harvard Study of Adult Development said he expected his research would show that Americans moved more toward faith as they got older. Instead, he found that many people moved in the opposite direction. 

Granted, polling is mixed on the importance of faith to older Americans. The National Poll on Healthy Aging reported last year that 84% of people between the ages of 50 and 80 say they have religious or spiritual beliefs that are somewhat or very important to them.

“I don’t think we’re at risk of older Americans leaving or avoiding faith in a wholesale way, but I would caution pastors and church leaders not to merely assume that the older a person gets, the more they are drawn to faith in Christ,” said Mark Mittelberg, executive director of the Center for Evangelism and Applied Apologetics at Colorado Christian University.

“The Elder generation has been through a lot of traumas through the decades — wars, social upheaval, scandals, and so forth,” he added. “This could contribute to a sense of uncertainty, disillusionment, and skepticism. In our all-out efforts to reach young people with the gospel, let’s not ignore the very real spiritual needs of our seniors. People of all ages — and not just the young — need to be taught the fascinating array of facts and evidence that support our Christian beliefs.”

As far as Gen Z is concerned, I believe that skepticism toward God is contributing to their increase in despair and hopelessness, since doubts can rob people of the peace and purpose that can be found in Christ. A 2023 report from the Centers for Disease Control showed that 60% of young females suffered from persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year, with a quarter of them making suicide plans.

“The bad news,” said youth ministry expert Greg Stier, “is that Gen Z is flat on its back, knocked down by sadness, loneliness, and anxiety.”

While that’s disheartening, it could mean that the soil is becoming more fertile for planting the seed of the Gospel. Indeed, Stier said he’s seeing more openness among young people to seeking spiritual answers. Evangelist Shane Pruitt, who travels America to speak to teens and college students, said that he has seen more young people commit to following Jesus during the past two years than in his previous 18 years of ministry combined.

“Gen Z is spiritually starved,” pastors Kyle Richter and Patrick Miller wrote recently for The Gospel Coalition. “The disorienting circumstances of the last three years — a global pandemic, countless mass shootings, the woke wars, a contested election, rapid inflation, and widespread abuse scandals — created a famine of identity, purpose, and belonging.”

Consequently, they said, Gen Z “is hungry for the very things the empty, desiccated temples of secularism, consumerism, and global digital media cannot provide, but which Jesus can.”

My new book Is God Real?, builds a relentlessly logical case for the existence of the God of Christianity by presenting compelling evidence from science, history, and philosophy. It also grapples with the two biggest objections to Christianity — if God is real, why is there suffering? And if God is real, why does he seem so hidden?

We have a rational God, and he made us in his image. It was this sort of evidence for Christianity from history and science that brought me — an investigative reporter trained in journalism and law — out of atheism and into faith in Jesus more than forty years ago. And if God can change a hard-headed, hard-hearted legal editor like me, then there’s still hope for the oldest — and even the youngest — among us.

Richter and Miller said it well. “In the wake of the Asbury revival last spring, it looks as though the Holy Spirit is priming the souls of hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults for renewal — the very generation that has been repeatedly touted as the least religious ever,” they wrote.

“This may sound impossible, but Jesus got it right: ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God’ (Luke 18:27). Dry bones are rattling to life. The question is whether we'll be attuned to the Spirit's work and join him.”

As for me, I‘m all in.

Atheist-turned-Christian Lee Strobel, a New York Times best-selling author, is founding director of the Lee Strobel Center for Evangelism and Applied Apologetics at Colorado Christian University. For a free excerpt of Is God Real?, visit www.IsGodrealbook.com.

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