Around the world, a notable shift in religious demographics is occurring. The number of people who don’t identify themselves with any organized religion is growing, and this change is most notable in young people. The rise of the “nones” may be partly driven by a disconnect between children and parents when it comes to transmitting values, according to a new study published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
The world is seeing a large wave of secularization. Consider that church attendance rates in the UK are at their lowest point ever, with only 2% of British citizens regularly attending church. Similarly, for the first time in the history of Norway, there are more agnostics and atheists than those who define themselves as religious. These are just a couple examples of the growing trend of secularism.
A New Scale For Secular/Religious Beliefs
The lead author of the study, Ryan T. Cragun from the University of Tampa, developed a new method of evaluating where someone is on the religious/secular scale. Cragun explains that former measures/surveys of religiosity did an inadequate job of asking questions that could even be answered by the nonreligious. According to Cragun, they also frequently failed to ask questions that were relevant to secular people.
For this reason, Cragun and colleagues developed the Nonreligious-Nonspiritual Scale (NRNSS), a method of identifying people’s positions along two different spectrums: religiosity and spirituality. Many previous studies have not made a distinction between these two concepts, yet Cragun believes it is important to distinguish between the two ideas.
Cragun says that measuring how secular an individual is makes it possible to create a universally applicable measure of group religiosity, because the system isn’t measuring how religious someone is with regards to specific practices, rather it seeks to measure how non-secular the person is generically. Cragun says that the NRNSS system creates opportunities to make more relevant, interesting cross-religious and cross-cultural comparisons because it tracks an individual’s religiosity in terms of secularity, the opposite of religiosity.
Cragun went on to apply the NRNSS to the secular/religious differences between children and their parents. The study examined how religious/secular parents communicated with and imparted values to their children. Cragun explains:
Because the parents and children in the study came from very different religious backgrounds, only the NRNSS would work in allowing us to make a universal comparison between parents and children. Thus, this particular study illustrates the utility of the NRNSS for making cross-religious comparisons.
Using The NRNSS To Assess Differences In Parent/Child Beliefs
The research team collected information provided by 196 high school students, as well as 328 of their parents or guardians. In general, students were much more secular in their lifestyle and beliefs than their parents were. The high school students were substantially less likely to indicate agreement with NRNSS survey items similar to “I possess an essence or spirit that exists beyond my physical body,” or “religion acts as a guide when I make an important life decision”.
Summing up the findings of the research, Cragun explains that at least in the United States, children tend to be less religious than those who raised them. The results help explain the quickly growing demographic of secular, non-religious people throughout the US. Cragun says that the research indicates a substantial driving force of the rise of the non-religious is that parents aren’t transmitting their religion to their children, as was more commonplace in previous generations.
Cragun says that the study demonstrates how the NRNSS is an extremely useful instrument for determining how secular/religious people are and that it has proven robust, as it can be used to track secular/religious attitudes across many different religious viewpoints.
Cragun acknowledges that the study does have its limitations, such as the fact it was done on a single population of high school students/parents located at a high school just outside New York City. Cragun says that wider-scale, more representative studies will need to be done in order for the findings of the study to be confirmed.
Cragun says it is important to understand the patterns affecting the shift from predominantly religious societies to predominantly nonreligious societies, as many nations around the globe are seeing this exact shift. Currently in the UK, the nonreligious are thought to outnumber the religious, and this situation could occur in the United States as well over the next couple decades should the trend continue.
Understanding The Larger Trend
Yet while Cragun acknowledges that the findings of the study may not hold true in other areas, what does seem to be true is that, in general, young people are becoming more secular. A PEW study released this year found that in 41 countries younger adults were less likely to be affiliated with any specific religion. Poland, Greece, Chile, Romania, Portugal, Lithuania, the United States, Mexico and 37 other countries all saw young people say religion was less important in their lives than older adults. The pattern is strongest in North America, Central America, Europe, South Korea, Australia and Japan. The Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa didn’t see quite the same change.
There are other explanations for the dramatic decline in religion, such as open access to the internet and information. Access to the internet seems to be tightly correlated with a decline in religiosity, so it could be that the culture of the internet is driving young people (who have grown up with the internet as a constant fixture in their lives) away from religion.
Whatever the cause of the growing ranks of “nones”, it is important to understand how secularism is changing the political and social landscape. Cragun says that there are close relationships between religious values/lifestyles and one’s political beliefs, with religion impacting views on fertility, parenting, medicine, abortion, charity, education, etc. Therefore, Cragun argues, understanding these religious-to-secular shifts will be one of the biggest areas of research for the social sciences in the 21st century.