An Age Problem, or a God Problem?

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I noticed today that Heather Mac Donald has just engaged in another dialog with Michael Novak about God over at Beliefnet. As an unabashed vocal unbeliever Heather is exceptional on the American Right (compare to George F. Will’s relative diffidence about his agnosticism). Simultaneously, there has been some concern that the youth vote swung so decisively toward the Democrats this election. Since it is also known that the young people are more secular than past generations, I wonder if some of the shift might not simply be due to the stronger association between American conservatism and a specific religious tradition (conservative Protestantism). Below the fold are tables which I generated using the GSS. I combined ages and political ideologies to simplify the categories (e.g., adding extremely and slightly liberal together with liberal into one category). Also, I filtered the sample so that all respondents were white.

18-35 35+ % Change from Older To Younger
Liberal 31.2 21.8 30%
Moderate 38.7 38.9 -1%
Conservative 30.1 39.3 -31%

Confidence In The Exist of God

18-35 35+ % Change from Older To Younger
Don’t Believe 2.8 2.2 21%
No Way To Find Out 6.5 3.7 43%
Some Higher Power 9.6 9 6%
Believe Sometimes 4.9 4.5 8%
Believe But Doubts 21.2 16.5 22%
Know God Exists 55 64.1 -17%
Know God Exists

18-35 35+ % Change from Older To Younger
Liberal 22.3 17.6 21%
Moderate 37.2 38.7 -4%
Conservative 40.5 44.2 -9%
Don’t Believe, No Way to Find Out, Some Higher Power, Believe Sometimes, Believe But Doubts

18-35 35+ % Change from Older to Younger
Liberal 40.9 31.8 22%
Moderate 36.2 36.1 0%
Conservative 23 32 -39%

I am struck by the decline in self-identified conservatives who are not 100% sure that God exists. Below is a chart showing the change in the proportion of more secular sectors. I simply added all the categories except for the two most religious ones.

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  1. I’m “conservative” (well, more right-wing) and am not 100% sure God(s) exists.

  2. Of course, to be fair, I really don’t care if he/she/it does exist.

  3. I am definitely in the “not 100% sure God exists” camp. How can anybody be so sure that God exists (or doesn’t)?  
    I think the arguments by Steven Hawking in A Brief History of Time are the best argument against the existence of God. 
    (Warning: this is grossly oversimplified and it would be a good idea to read the whole book if you are interested) 
    In A Brief History of Time Hawking argues the possibility of a “spherical” universe in which time goes forward when the universe expands but then goes backwards when the universe re-contracts, with the “big bang” and “big crunch” being like poles in imaginary time. This essentially abolishes the idea of a single beginning time of the universe and the need for matter to be created at a point in time. 
    If true I think the above scenario would abolish the need (if still not the possibility) of a God, gods, or some kind force that could violate the First Law of Thermodynamics.

  4. Razib, 
    I’m surprised you’re struck by this “decline”.  
    I think all this data shows is that people get more conservative as they get older and have more experience with the world. 
    It’s a bigger (10 point) shift for those without religion, simply because they are the folks who wise up the most with experience. Those who are religious start skewed more conservative … and so the shift is less (4 points). 
    That squares with my experience. I’m in the “I think God exists … but rationally … what the hell do i know?” camp. I’m much more conservative than i was as a young punk. I’m a natural Hamiltonian — science, progress, technology, commerence. But as i’ve aged and grasped human nature, one appreciates the Jeffersonian — distrust of bigcentral government — side of the debate more. It’s the history of the 20th century. I appreciate our constitutional system, and am ticked at the judicial activists tearing it down. 
    I’m am “open” enough to at least have a foreign wife (Indian), but as i’ve aged (and had kids) i appreciate that “culture matters”. I’m pretty darn happy to be the inheritor of the Anglo-Protestant culture we have (even though i was raised Catholic). And i’m pretty ticked at the multi-culturalists, and the PC police trying to tear it down … and most of all yelling “racist!” when they aren’t preening about their moral superiority. 
    In other words … i account for the of those 35+ Conservative 32% that would not have been in the 23% at age 18. 
    My point — this is probably, MOSTLY, an evolution of individual humans as they age, not a change in the country in time. 
    If you have data from a previous GSS say 1990, then you could show that it’s shifted.  
    But generally, aren’t the young always young and foolish … eternally?

  5. I think all this data shows is that people get more conservative as they get older and have more experience with the world. 
    cite the data that people do get more conservative. it seems plausible, to the point where everyone accepts it, but i’d like to actually see some data. 
    That squares with my experience 
    frankly, i don’t care about your experience :-) blah, blah, blah, me, blah, blah, me, me, blah, blah, friend, friend, blah :-) personal narrative serves to illustrate hypotheses which your audience accepts. i’ve gotten more liberal with age, but obviously i wouldn’t generalize that.

  6. Razib, 
    Ok, it was blah, blah, blah. 
    I’ll have to go learn to prowl around the GSS myself.  
    But this general pattern younger more liberal, older more conservative was i thought generally well established. Taught in my pol-sci class back in the 70s … not that that means anything. 
    Obviously it’s strength would go up and down with politicalsocial events.  
    I’ll go check.

  7. But this general pattern younger more liberal, older more conservative was i thought generally well established. Taught in my pol-sci class back in the 70s … not that that means anything. 
    Obviously it’s strength would go up and down with politicalsocial events.
    the early 70s exhibited among the most extreme age disjunctions in political attitudes in american history from what i recall checking out old archives of the gallup report. in the 1980s there was a period where the young were more republican than the old.

  8. Yes, i agree. Older people are — obviously — more set in their ways, but each generation of young people is more affected by events. Either reaction to the disfunctions of the 60s and 70s, or attraction to Reagan pulled the 80s from the more normal pattern. Now with Obama or disillusionment with Bush could be working the reverse. 
    I just believe there’s a general life pattern as people settle down in have kids. Also could be “being more set in ones ways” — i.e. old brain. 
    Anyway here’s the cumulative GSS data. I conglomerated the cells — probably possible to do it online, but i’m ignorant how, i did it in Excel — to decade. Then i conglomerated the three libcon buckets again. 
    The pattern looks like that rough a-bit-less-then-10-point shift: 
    AGE OF RESPONDENT Teen 20s 30s 40s 50s 60s 70s 80+ 
    EXTREMELY LIBERAL 4.45 3.18 3 2.37 2.68 2.07 1.63 1.69 
    LIBERAL 17 14.62 12.12 11.27 10.22 8.93 9.28 7.94 
    SLIGHTLY LIBERAL 17.4 16.11 15.07 12.95 11.12 10.14 9.4 9.15 
    MODERATE 38.65 38.54 37.1 37.54 38.48 41.26 41.33 42.45 
    SLGHTLY CONSERVATIVE 11.3 14.88 17.25 17.86 16.88 16.54 15.06 12.83 
    CONSERVATIVE 9.6 10.65 12.91 15.09 16.77 16.63 19.44 21.18 
    EXTRMLY CONSERVATIVE 1.65 2 2.56 2.9 3.85 4.42 3.85 4.71 
    Summed Liberal 38.85 33.91 30.19 26.59 24.02 21.14 20.31 18.78 
    Moderate 38.65 38.54 37.1 37.54 38.48 41.26 41.33 42.45 
    Summed Conservative 22.55 27.53 32.72 35.85 37.5 37.59 38.35 38.72

  9. I have a theory; old people seem to revert to childish behavior after age 65+; they turn cranky and petty, just like little kids. People who are always pissed off become conservative, or radical (remember Chris Rock’s idea that old black men hate whitey more than any other group). Another theory: kids become more liberal only during college. Remember in high school, how guys always called each other fags, gay, homo, etc. If you are an ethnic minority, like an Indian, stupid white trash kids ask you if you worship snakes, elephants, etc. Then, the more academically talented go to college, and become politically correct, and racially sensitive.