“No Atheists In Retirement Homes”

So apparently Frank Newport (editor-in-chief of Gallup Poll, and recently author of God is alive and well: the future of religion in America) gave his book talk in Madison, NJ, and included a line he’s been using for some time: “There are no atheists in retirement homes.”

My mother-in-law is an atheist
In a southern retirement home
She reads Dawkins and Hitchens, and Dennett and Krauss,
And she sends me her thoughts on each tome
She’s a volunteer, there, with the hospice
So she sits with her friends when they die
Since she has no illusions she’ll see them in heaven
She just wants to tell them “goodbye”
She’s aware that her days must be numbered
And that death will arrive for her, too
I suspect, if she met with Frank Newport one day
That she’d happily tell him… fuck you!

Yeah, actually, every bit of this one is true. She sends me clippings from atheist articles in the news, was practically giddy when she heard about the Brights (I think she’s a card-carrying member), and read God Is Not Great before I did (actually, she sent me her copy when she finished).

On the other hand, she is a staunch Republican who favored prayer in public schools because Reagan did.

I think she has been an atheist for as long as I have known her. I’m not certain, though–I know that she has, in contrast to Newport’s expert opinion, become more vocal in her atheism over the years, in part because she no longer feels obliged to keep her opinions to herself. Once you have a certain number of decades under your belt, in her view, you have earned the right to speak your mind.

Newport insinuates that the fear of death–whether in nursing homes, or in the foxholes his quip borrows from–drives religious belief. I have to say, very few outside of particular professions are more familiar with death than my mother in law. She has been a hospice volunteer for decades now, becoming friends with people she knew were going to die. Many, many times she was the only one–not family, not clergy–to stay with them in their final hours. My mother in law has no illusions about mortality.

The wording of a poll has tremendous influence over the answers that are given (I’ve written before about a researcher who claimed that Americans were very accepting of atheists… but his research chose not to use the term “atheist” because so many people were put off by the very word); it seems clear that Newport has A) a chip on his shoulder and B) a book to sell, when it comes to counting atheist numbers.

I know it was only a rhetorical exaggeration, but a universal claim is disproven by even a single example. My mother in law’s existence is sufficient to prove Newport wrong. But I want more… I want the two of them in a cage match. Newport doesn’t stand a chance.


  1. screechymonkey says

    Newport insinuates that the fear of death . . .drives religious belief

    Which is an odd thing for someone on his side of the theism divide to brag about, isn’t it? It’s like all those folks who predicted a deathbed conversion for Hitchens. “Oh sure, you say now that you find the evidence for a god unconvincing. But someday, you’ll be so wracked with pain and/or fear that it will override your rational mind, and THEN you’ll agree with me!”

    I wonder if this “works” in other contexts? “Oh, I’ve seen all your scientific studies about how alcohol impairs driving abilities, and the statistics on drunk driving — but one day you’ll be drunk when the bar closes at 2 am, and you’ll agree with me that driving home seems like a perfectly fine idea!”

  2. arno says

    “Oh, I’ve seen all your scientific studies about how alcohol impairs driving abilities, and the statistics on drunk driving — but one day you’ll be drunk when the bar closes at 2 am, and you’ll agree with me that driving home seems like a perfectly fine idea!” -screechymonkey

    I love that one!

  3. Some Old Programmer says

    Newport is also tapping into the trope of the faceless elderly; the one where older people cease to be anything but a stereotype. It also comes in the guise of there being no GLBT elderly–hell, no sexuality whatsoever. I’m sure we can all reel off the supposed characteristics of a person that has been drained of every marker of individuality except age. It’s lazy writing and carelessly insulting.

  4. Lofty says

    My mother is a staunch atheist in a christian run nursing home and cracks rude jokes with the staff and patients alike. I doubt she is afraid of dying either.

  5. grumpyoldfart says

    Newport (and others like him) say such things to hide their embarrassment.

    They are smart enough to know that some of their ideas are quite stupid, so they console themselves with the thought that eventually, as death approaches, everybody will accept god’s existence.

    Having told himself that lie, Newport can now regard himself, not as a man with foolish beliefs, but as an “early adopter” of religion – everybody will eventually become religious; he just got in early, that’s all.

  6. dickspringer says

    I am an 83-year-old atheist in a retirement home. I have a number of atheist friends here.

  7. Zugswang says

    OK, brainstorming session!

    There are no atheists in…
    nursing homes
    bear caves
    deserted islands
    sinking ships

    …Hey, wouldn’t asserting that the most compelling reason for belief in the supernatural out of an instinct of self-interest, and our religiously-motivated willingness to mock those who are different, weaken our parallel assertion that religion makes you a good person?

    Nah, keep coming up with more ignorant platitudes!

  8. The Lorax says

    The poster on Fox Mulder’s office wall really sums it up… “I Want To Believe”. Yeah, I’d love for there to be eternal life in endless (optional) bliss. Who wouldn’t? And death is scary… which makes sense, since dying doesn’t exactly help to propagate our genes.

    But… saying that the inevitability (and fear) of death prompts people to accept religion is sort of self-defeating… does it not follow that the inevitability (and fear) of death might have been what inspired mankind to create religion in the first place…?

  9. Randomfactor says

    There’s a local philosophy professor who’s been on and on about “when you get to be my (advanced) age you’ll appreciate religion’s comfort” at local skeptic/atheist presentations

    Especially if that religion is Bokononism, I suppose. Comforting Foma.

    This guy recently cheered a Gallup poll which he interpreted as a slowdown in the growth of the “nones,” saying that it indicated that religion was making a comeback and oh by the way I have a book coming out saying that.

    “Whistling Past the Church,” I suppose.

  10. hexidecima says

    I have a friend, a Mr. Harry Stahlman. We’ve fallen out of contact but he was a WWII vet who is an atheist. I don’t know if he’s still around or in a nursing home, but his existence shows that Mr. Newport is one more liar for Christ, depending on willful ignorance to keep up his faith. And I very much despise him for it.

  11. says

    “Once you have a certain number of decades under your belt, in her view, you have earned the right to speak your mind.”

    Absolutely true. I’ve got a 95 year old great aunt who is definitely considered “spunky”. Got to love those old ladies. And I love your poem. Truly do! Could I reblog it and link it back to you?

  12. markr1957 says

    My dad is an 88 year old atheist in an assisted living home, so I call BS on this one! He tells me he is often invited to meetings of various theologians, which has included the local Catholic bishop, and that in this rarified intellectual environment even the bishop will admit that the evidence for his god is non-existent.

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