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Dec 29 2012

Elderly Atheists Have It Worse

Atheism is growing in this country, but the growth is mostly among younger people. Surveys show that older people are far more likely to believe in God than younger people, which, I’m sorry to say had never occurred to me, almost certainly means that older atheists are more likely to face hostility among their social group than younger people are. A PBS station in California has a report on the matter.

[Brigit] Clarke-Smith started Atheists Anonymous after a fellow La Costa resident asked if she was a Christian.

“I thought, that’s a strange thing to say, and I said, ‘no,’ just like that,” Clarke-Smith said. “And she said, ‘well, what are you?’ And I said, ‘I’m an atheist!’ And she was angry, and she walked right out.”

A woman overheard Clarke-Smith and shared some advice.

“She said, ‘oh, we’re atheists, but we want to remain anonymous,’“ she said.

Clarke-Smith decided to start a group for atheists like that woman. She named it Atheists Anonymous in her honor…

But despite the increase in popularity, Clarke-Smith said some residents of La Costa Glen don’t appreciate her efforts.

“I’ve been called anti-Christ, I have been called a Jew lover, and one day I was standing in our mail room, and two ladies were looking at a poster that said ‘Brigit Clarke-Smith, Questions? Call Me,’” Clarke-Smith said. “And one of them said, ‘you see this woman’s name? She’s a sinner, she’s going to Hell, and she’s going to burn forever.’ ”

We put a lot of focus on helping younger people organize secular student groups and the like. I think we should put some focus on helping older atheists do the same thing as well.

30 comments

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  1. 1
    tuibguy

    Considering that we will be there sooner than we would like, I think helping elderly atheists is a capital idea.

  2. 2
    chisaihana5219

    I guess I am what you would call an “elderly atheist” as I will be 69 soon. I’ve never had problems with it among other seniors. Just before Christmas, another senior who knows I am a non-believer, asked if it was okay to say “Merry Christmas” to me. I said “Sure is, and Merry Christmas to you too.” Yes, there are probably people around me who think I am going to hell, or who thinks it’s sad that I don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, but they don’t say anything out loud about it. Maybe that part of “Minnesota Nice”. I don’t think we need to be militant about atheism. As for the elders who are militant believers and insult non-believers, it’s just that they are trying to reinforce their beliefs to themselves. They need to do that so that death won’t be so frightening. If they believe in Heaven, then it’s okay to die. Those of us who don’t believe in life after death know that it’s all part of the natural world and we accept it like snow in winter.

  3. 3
    machintelligence

    As a member of the demographic mentioned above, I learned to keep a pretty low profile. It does seem to fly in the face of the trope that atheist conventions are hotel ballrooms full of old men (some truth there — but becoming less true all the time). I have become more outspoken in recent years, and I think that the increasing acceptance of atheists will continue. Of course I have always lived in urban areas in the Northern USA, so I never experienced real discrimination.Because a lot of us aren’t joiners, it probably won’t do a lot of good, but it’s worth a try.

  4. 4
    tuibguy

    In the nursing homes that I have been to, and especially in the one where my dad lived out his final months, there was Godsign everywhere. My dad was religious, so of course it didn’t bother him. But, I imagine that an atheist in his shoes would have felt that he or she needed to keep a low profile in order not to feel ostracized in their final social milieu. Especially those who receive few visitors.

  5. 5
    Bronze Dog

    My grandmother wasn’t an atheist, but her first degree was in biology, so she did believe in evolution and the general scientific consensus for a lot of things. At the retirement home, there were some people she just couldn’t talk to. One of the extreme examples was a flat Earther who refused to look up at the night sky because “they’re trying to trick us.”

  6. 6
    John Hinkle

    She’s a sinner, she’s going to Hell, and she’s going to burn forever.

    Now that’s the way to spread the Good Word. Nothing like the ye-olde-tyme-religion-lake-o-fire-and-brimstone message to let non-xians know where they’re headed in the afterlife. This is the kind of thing that swells the roles of Xians in the nation’s churches, right?

  7. 7
    Argle Bargle

    I’m 64 and I’ve been facing hostility over my atheism for my entire adult life. I’ve even had my life threatened because of my atheism (me putting a fish-gutting knife an inch from his left eye convinced him that threatening me was a bad idea). I haven’t noticed the frequency of sneers and rancor increasing or decreasing over the years.

  8. 8
    Gretchen

    A lot of people are only out as atheists on the internet, and that’s where they find their support structure. I think we will become the first generation of elderly atheists who don’t have such a problem with acceptance, for that reason.

  9. 9
    josephmccauley

    I have encountered no open hostility although I am an open atheist. Maybe I get flak behind my back, but that’s fine with me. My religious friends just shake their heads.

  10. 10
    Thorne

    Don’t know if 62 qualifies as elderly, but I can’t say I’ve had any problem with my atheism. I was quite open about my views when I was working, and even had some discussion about them with coworkers, at least those who weren’t afraid they might get struck by lightning if they stood too close to me.

    But I’ve never been a real vocal atheist, especially with family, because my mother was a true believer, and there wasn’t much sense in getting her upset. She knew I didn’t believe and never argued about it, but she didn’t like us talking about it around her, so we didn’t. It was only after she died, though, that I learned that my father had lost his faith as a teenager, and only went along with the church stuff for my mother’s sake.

    As for social issues with atheism, that hasn’t proven to be a problem at all, since I’m anti-social to start with. I’m not afraid to acknowledge my atheism, had to do so several times when dealing with my parents’ deaths, and have never gotten any flack from others.

    From reading about the experiences of others, both here and in some other forums, I sometimes think I must live in some placid little bubble where there’s no controversy, no hatred, no violence. Just peace and tranquility in my world. Until my brother-in-law comes to visit.

  11. 11
    janiceintoronto

    The Boomers (of which I am one) really need to die off for any meaningful social change to occur. Seems like older folks have a hard time with the changing times.

    On the other hand, there are a few like me (volunteer for CFI) and try to bring about some kind of positive change, though it’s an uphill battle.

    Life it change. Embrace it.

  12. 12
    janiceintoronto

    like me (volunteer for CFI) who try…

    oops.

  13. 13
    regexp

    I suspect many elderly are like my parents. They go to church simply because that’s what they always have done. And they don’t really believe. They just like the community and tradition. Creating alternative support groups is a capital idea.

  14. 14
    mh47

    My mom recently had a stroke, and it was appalling to me just how Christianized the rehab centers all are. At the meeting with the social worker, we get through the questions about advanced directives and do you have funeral plans, and it was OK, and then we get to religion. And Atheism isn’t an option. And None isn’t an option. The best we could do was “no preference” which isn’t the same thing. Not at all. Same exact thing at the other center. I hope we made it quite clear the Reverend Frank is not to pester her. Not optimistic.

  15. 15
    magistramarla

    I’ve thought about this. As a military family, and when I was teaching in Texas, we’ve had to keep very quiet about our non-belief. I still keep quiet when I’m among military spouses.
    As we approach retirement age, I’ve thought about the overt religiosity in many retirement communities and nursing homes. I have chronic autoimmune issues, and I have no doubt that someday my husband won’t be able to care for me and I will be in such a facility.
    It would be nice to know if there are any strictly secular retirement centers and nursing homes.
    I would prefer to not be prayed over when I’m too far-gone with dementia to know about it.
    Perhaps we older Atheists should work toward founding some?
    I think that we should be setting up secular funerals, too.

  16. 16
    left0ver1under

    I wouldn’t doubt that many are being taken advantage of and made captive audiences by the religious just as children are.

    The difference is, children can’t escape because they are under the authority of parents, while some of the elderly can’t escape because they lack the mobility to get away from proselytizers.

  17. 17
    bubba707

    Personally, I’ve gotten more hostility from younger atheists than from the religious for pointing out that there really isn’t an atheist movement, just a bunch of groupd busy fighting with each other. I’ve been told “my kind” isn’t wanted, whatever that means. Honest observations aren’t any more welcome by atheists in general than they are in church.

  18. 18
    CONWAY

    The first out and open atheist I ever knew was a man of about 55 years old. (This was around 1978.) He was an ex-priest. He was very much a hippie. He was gay. Most of his friends were gay hippies.

    He told me that he was much more uncomfortable telling people he was atheist than he was telling them he was gay. This at a time when admitting you were gay could get you fired or beaten or killed.

  19. 19
    Gretchen

    Honest observations aren’t any more welcome by atheists in general than they are in church.

    Yeah, that must be it. Atheists really can’t stand honesty.

  20. 20
    jenny6833a

    We put a lot of focus on helping younger people organize secular student groups and the like. I think we should put some focus on helping older atheists do the same thing as well.

    I think you should wait to be be asked for help, and doubt that you’ll get many requests. Older atheists are quite capable of looking after themselves. Like anyone else, they tend to resent self-appointed do-gooders.

    Please, please, don’t be big-brotherish!

  21. 21
    poose

    I suppose I also need to support the “I’m not elderly” meme, but at 48 I’m no spring chicken either. I applaud that the young’uns are making traction, and I think that theism, in all its glory will be a thing of the past in the future.

    What I notice more than anything else is the amount effort required. For example, to fight the “war on christmas” on the theist side required energy, input and airtime-potentially expensive from not only a personal resource perspective (maintaing that level of hate has to wear on you) but likely physically expensive as well…

    We didn’t even need to lift a finger, save to support sites like the SSA, the FFRF and even the (gasp) ACLU!

    Let them beat themselves up. It’s actually very cheap, and entertaining to boot!

    I love the perspective age brings!

  22. 22
    bubba707

    Gretchen, I guess you’re one of em. If you had any reading comprehension you’d know that I indicated atheists are no different than any other tribe. No better, no worse and just as hostile concerning nonditto thoughts.

  23. 23
    noelplum99

    The religiosity certainly seems to be something that remains within each cohort rather than people simply getting more religious as they get older (unlike, for example, political stance – as people get older they become more right wing).
    Some very interesting data for the UK is to be found here:
    http://ir2.flife.de/data/natcen-social-research/igb_html/index.php?bericht_id=1000001&index=&lang=ENG
    If you go to section 12 (on religion, the whole section is a good read) then flick through to page 182 you will see an extremely interesting table which shows that, between 1983 and 2010 each cohort (measured in groups of a decade each) maintain their religiosity across the period but each younger cohort is less religious than the last.

    Jim.

  24. 24
    Freeman

    bubba707 #22:
    …no different than any other tribe. No better, no worse and just as hostile concerning nonditto thoughts.

    Dan Kahan’s research at the Cultural Cognition Project refers to this common phenomenon as “cognitive illiberalism“. He has an interesting recommendation for countering it called expressive overdetermination that I think holds much promise. I suggest that anyone interested in rigorous scientific research into the social psychology of political science would find his work as fascinating as I have.

  25. 25
    imback

    I know KPBS has to limit URL length somehow, but truncating to elderly-members-atheist-group-face-jeers-fears-pee sends quite a different message.

  26. 26
    Michael Heath

    bubba707 writes:

    I indicated atheists are no different than any other tribe. No better, no worse and just as hostile concerning nonditto thoughts.

    What an amazing assertion, even if we granted tolerance for a modest amount of self-evident hyperbole. Do you have a citation empirically validating your claim?

  27. 27
    bubba707

    Michael, I guess you haven’t been reading the blogs or following the general hostilities going on these days. What hubris to imply you’re better than anyone else. Perhaps you can back that up?

  28. 28
    Michael Heath

    bubba707 to me:

    Michael, I guess you haven’t been reading the blogs or following the general hostilities going on these days. What hubris to imply you’re better than anyone else. Perhaps you can back that up?

    I have followed what’s been going on, but that is anecdotal and in no way even compelling evidence your assertions are true of entire sub-populations. You asserted a fact about an entire population relative to all other populations. So you have the obligation to back-up your assertion when challenged, that is if you practice intellectual honesty.

    I also never implied anything about myself in what I wrote, that is simply a blatant lie on your part since there’s no text in post which could lead to anyone even coming to such a misunderstanding. Nor did I assert or insinuate the atheist population has a population of zero which demonstrates the types of poor form you describe. Instead I’m challenging your assertion such poor form as you describe within the atheist sub-population is equivalent to other groups given your statement I quote here again:

    . . . atheists are no different than any other tribe. No better, no worse and just as hostile concerning nonditto thoughts.

    So, citation requested empirically validating such. Someone with integrity would either provide a convincing cite(s) or retract their statement.

  29. 29
    noelplum99

    Michael Heath @26

    What an amazing assertion, even if we granted tolerance for a modest amount of self-evident hyperbole. Do you have a citation empirically validating your claim?

    I agree with you, that if you take bubba707 literally that his assertion is, indeed, amazing. It could well be that his assertion is true but without any data – and it is hard to even imagine what kind of data would resolve this here – it seems far more likely that atheists would either be slightly better than other groups or slightly worse than other groups (and it is equally hard to conceive that every other group is equally as bad as one another).

    What i think is a more reasonable observation is that qualitatively (as opposed to bubba’s quantative assertion) all the same issues which we point and laugh at in other groups exist, to a greater or lesser extent, amongst atheists and this is not something we should be in any way surprised about.

  30. 30
    Gretchen

    I was simply trying to point out that it shouldn’t be surprising that atheists are no different from other groups in that, when someone says something thoughtless and insulting about them, however “honestly” it is done, the response is not exactly positive.

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