A failure of parents to transmit religion to their children could be driving the rise of nonreligion

The number of so-called “nones” — individuals who do not identify with any organized religion — is rapidly growing in the United States. New research suggests that this trend could be driven, at least in part, by a disconnection between parents and their children.

The study, published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, found a large gap between the religiousness of parents and their teenage children.

“In an earlier publication, Joseph Hammer, Michael Nielsen, and I developed a new scale for measuring how secular someone is,” said study author Ryan T. Cragun of the University of Tampa.

“There were many reasons why we developed that scale. The obvious reason was that no one had done anything like that before. But there are two other important reasons. Most prior measures of religiosity either did a really poor job of asking questions that could be answered by the nonreligious or didn’t even ask questions that were relevant to the nonreligious.”

The Nonreligious-Nonspiritual Scale (NRNSS) measures secularity along two spectrums: from nonreligious to highly religious and from nonspiritual to highly spiritual.

“If we measure how secular someone is, it’s possible to develop a universal measure of ‘religiosity’ that applies to all people because it isn’t measuring the specific ways in which they are religious but rather it measures how far away from being secular they are in a generic fashion,” Cragun explained.

“The development of the NRNSS opens up an opportunity to make interesting cross-cultural and cross-religious comparisons because it provides a universal way to measure ‘religiosity’ by actually measuring the opposite of religiosity, ‘secularity.’

“Once we had a measure that could be used regardless of someone’s religious worldview, we thought a useful application would be to compare the religious/secular distance between parents and children (this was largely inspired by co-author Nick Autz, who was a high school student at the time we undertook the project),” Cragun said.

“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.”

The researchers surveyed 196 high school students and 328 of their parents/caretakers. They found that students were significantly more secular than their parents. The students were less likely to agree with survey items from the NRNSS such as “I’m guided by religion when making important decisions in my life” and “I have a spirit/essence beyond my physical body.”

“There are two things people should take away from the study. First, the NRNSS is a very useful instrument for measuring how secular people are and it can be applied across religious worldviews,” Cragun told PsyPost.

“Second, children — at least children in the US insofar as our study can be generalized to them — do tend to be less religious than their parents. That finding helps to explain the growing rates of nonreligious people in the US as much of the rise of nonreligion is the failure of parents to transmit their religion to their children.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“The major caveat is that the study was conducted with students at one high school just outside of New York City and their parents. A more representative study replicating our findings is really necessary in order to confirm our findings,” Cragun said.

“Given current trends, understanding what nonreligious people are like and why people are leaving religion is going to be of growing importance both in the US and in many other developed and developing countries around the world.”

“In the UK, the nonreligious now outnumber the religious and, if patterns continue as they currently have, it won’t be too much longer before the US follows suit and less than 50% of Americans are religious,” Cragun added.

“Given the interesting relationships between religiosity and politics, parenting, fertility, attitudes toward the abortion, etc., understanding these shifts in religiosity/secularity will be one of the most important questions facing the social scientific study of religion/nonreligion in the 21st century.”

The study, “Religious/secular distance: How far apart are teenagers and their parents?“, was authored by Ryan T. Cragun, Joseph H. Hammer, Michael Nielsen, and Nicholas Autz.