Religion. Faith and Spirituality
Our Invisible Means of Support
Religion. We looked at relationships—the connections we have with others. It concerns itself with the most intimate relationship of all: our connection with who we are at our core and how we understand our place and our role in this life, and, depending on our perspective, what may come after this life has run its earthly course. We took the quote that begins this to heart and asked ourselves and hundreds of other people: “What do you believe?”
Then, we asked if these beliefs had changed or remained the same over the years. If they had changed, we wanted to know why and in what ways. Religion, faith, spirituality. Whichever of these guides our lives and our decision-making, it is a response to a need inherent in our species—to comprehend the unknowable—and addresses that need in a way that makes sense to each individual. Defining our terms for this chapter ranged from simple (religion) to nearly impossible (spirituality).
Religion is fairly easily defined. It comes from the Latin verb religio, which means to bind together. So, religion is essentially an organized set of beliefs with a membership that adheres (to varying degrees) to those beliefs. The Merck Manual reports that people sixty-five years of age and older comprise the most actively religious demographic in the United States. Ninety-six percent of these adherents believe in God or a universal spirit, more than 90 percent pray, and more than 50 percent attend a weekly religious service. The reasons for their engagement with religion are many and complex.
Apart from the basic function of providing a spiritual home, religious organizations are essentially social in nature. They provide emotional support, care for physical needs, and provide opportunities for socializing and volunteering. These functions become increasingly important as we grow older and find our youthful independence and good health eroding. It’s inevitable, then, that at some point we will need to rely more and more on others, and often our religious choices fill that need, putting us in close contact with like-minded people who are oriented toward helping others within their community. It’s true that there’s safety in numbers. If everyone around you is a like thinker, you are affirmed.
Finding The Perfect Fit
Some religions tolerate a certain degree of independent thinking among their members; others do not. It’s probably for this reason that people who didn’t follow any particular religion were labeled freethinkers in times past. Some of our respondents had once been members of a religious group, but instead of experiencing support and acceptance through this association, they were shunned because their lifestyles didn’t mesh with what was acceptable to the congregation or they voiced opposition to the group’s social or political activism.
Consequently, they left religion behind, or as some shared with us, their churches abandoned them. For others, familiar religious rituals bring comfort, but they no longer believe their religion has all the answers. Some of our respondents were angry at God, fate, or karma.
It may be helpful to remember that religions are organizations of people; some of these people are good and kind, others are not. If one religion has let you down and you feel the need to belong to a group of people who think as you do, know that there are more than 2,400 religions worldwide. One of these may be the perfect fit for you.
1.Have you ever felt anger at God or fate or karma? How did you resolve that anger?
2.Are you comfortable talking about your belief system with others?
3.How have your beliefs changed over the course of your lifetime? What circumstances caused these changes?
4.Have you arrived at a belief system that you are comfortable with and secure in? If not, how are you continuing your journey to find the answers you seek?
5.Would conversations with friends help you sort out the issues?
Faith is the belief in that which cannot be seen. It’s an integral part of religion and can be a component of spirituality affiliated with a religion. Faith is confidence that all is somehow working toward the greater good. For those who have faith in God, in a higher power, or in the eventual triumph of good over evil, the answers can wait and some of our respondents are comfortable not having their questions answered now.
Defining spirituality turned out to be similar to defining art. Essentially, it’s in the eye of the beholder. Those of our respondents who chose spirituality as their core were quite clear as to what it meant to them individually. There seemed to be as many variations of spirituality as there were denominations of religion.
Chart Your Own Path
For many of our respondents, their faith was their anchor in times of stress, grief, and joy. It gave meaning to life and the hope of something beyond this life. For others, religion was less important than spirituality, and they were quite clear in the differences. And still others challenged the very necessity of a belief in a higher power. Perhaps more than any other identifier, faith, religion, and spirituality speak to who we are. If our parents were religious, our indoctrination began at birth and continued throughout our formative years.
When we reached the age of questioning, religion came in for its fair share of examination. Some of us kept the faith of our youth, while others sought new ways to answer the eternal questions: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Where am I going?” And for some respondents, ethics and morality were not tied to any specific core group of beliefs or practices. Others took solace in the belief that the universe was unfolding as it should. One thing became clear as we spoke with our respondents: everyone had given serious and prolonged thought to the importance of religion or spirituality in their lives.
Arriving at a final decision was the culmination of a lifetime of experiences, both good and bad. It seemed that life itself was the catalyst, and faith, religion, and spirituality the end products of the experiment. Older adults are believers, skeptics, and other-thinkers. Research tells us that people who believe in something—a power greater than themselves—live longer and are healthier than those who have no such beliefs. Perhaps at the crux of this is the social dimension, especially as mobility decreases, along with the ability to access other, more physical outlets, and the benefits of a faith system become more essential to health and well-being.
Isolation and depression are serious issues among the elderly, and to help combat this, many religious groups offer transportation to their older members so that they can attend religious services and social functions at their churches, temples, mosques, or synagogues. Faith, religion, and spirituality give us something to lean on when we need support. They give us strength to face pain, loss, and the unknown. Whatever belief system supports you on your journey through life, it’s likely the right one for you.
If we learned anything from our respondents, it’s that faith, religion, and spirituality are intensely individual. There are skeptics among us, as well as staunch believers. Each person is unique, and so is the journey. Did our respondents’ beliefs change as they aged? In some cases, yes, and in others, no. It didn’t seem to matter what hardships or losses they faced. If they were comfortable in their beliefs, they felt supported. If they did not experience support from their religious affiliation, they felt betrayed, isolated, and confused.
Many of these former believers sought other avenues to give them solace and a sense of purpose. The search for the answers to life’s questions and problems is common to the human experience. Of all the creatures on Earth, we are the only ones who ask “Why?” For some, faith, religion, and spirituality provide the answers. For others, the search continues.
Getting real about getting older
Linda K. Stroh, PhD
Karen K. Brees, PhD
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