A study, published in Society and Ageing from the Cambridge University Press, looks at whether religion helps people cope better with ageing and was carried out by Peter J. Wilkinson and Peter G. Coleman.
Although a variety of research projects have been conducted on the benefits of religious coping in older adults, no direct comparison between atheism and religious faith has been published. The study reported in this paper tackled this issue by interviewing two matched groups of people aged over 60 years living in southern England, one of 11 informants with strong atheistic beliefs, and the other of eight informants with strong religious beliefs. Five paired comparisons were undertaken to examine the role of the content of the belief system itself in coping with different negative stresses and losses commonly associated with ageing and old age. The pairs were matched for the nature of the loss or stress that the two people had experienced, but the two individuals had opposed atheistic and religious beliefs.
The analyses showed that all the study participants — regardless of their beliefs — were coping well, and suggested that a strong atheistic belief system can fulfil the same role as a strong religious belief system in providing support, explanation, consolation and inspiration. It is postulated that the strength of people’s beliefs and how those beliefs are used might have more influence on the efficacy of coping than the specific nature of the beliefs.
The authors say further research into the strength of belief systems, “including atheism”, is required to test and elaborate this hypothesis.