Parent Failure to Transmit Faith to Kids Helping Fuel Growth of Religious 'Nones,' Study Suggests

The study, conducted by the Barna Group in collaboration with the Association for Biblical Higher Education, asked parents of prospective students to identify what they consider to be the goals or ultimate purpose of college education. | (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

A new study lends supporting evidence to the theory that a failure of parents to transmit their faith to their children is a factor in the rise of the number of Americans who say they have no particular religious affiliation and identify instead as a group popularly known as religious "nones."

The study, "Religious/secular distance: How far apart are teenagers and their parents?" authored by Ryan T. Cragun, Joseph H. Hammer, Michael Nielsen, and Nicholas Autz was published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality last month.

In the study, cited by PsyPost, researchers developed a tool called the Nonreligious-Nonspiritual Scale which measures secularity along two spectrums: from nonreligious to highly religious and from nonspiritual to highly spiritual.

"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," Cragun who works at the University of Tampa told PsyPost.

Some 196 students and 328 of their parents/caretakers were surveyed at a high school just outside of New York City for the study. Students were found to be significantly more secular than their parents.

The students were reportedly less likely to agree with survey statements from the scale such as "I'm guided by religion when making important decisions in my life" and "I have a spirit/essence beyond my physical body."

"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," said Cragun.

He noted however that the study is limited and needed to be replicated to draw conclusions from a more representative sample of the U.S. population.

"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," he 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," he added, noting that if America isn't careful it could soon follow in the footsteps of the UK where the nonreligious now outnumber the religious.

Another recent study showing a connection between parenting and faith found that those raised by religious hypocrites, parents who don't model their faith to their kids, are more likely to become atheists at a younger age. 

The 2017 book Abandoned Faith: Why Millennials Are Walking Away and How You Can Lead Them Home, co-authored by Alex McFarland and Jason Jimenez, and published by Focus on the Family, argues that the abandonment of Christianity by many millennials is often fueled by family breakdown. 

"As a pastor, as a researcher, as an educator, as just a Christian who cares, the single greatest contributor to the attrition rate [of the Christian faith] has been the breakdown of the family," McFarland said in an interview with The Christian Post

In 2016, some 23 percent of Americans described themselves as atheists, agnostics or "nothing in particular," according to the Pew Research Center. A year later in 2017, the American Family Survey noted that 34 percent of Americans reported being atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular."

In their analysis of the factors driving the growth of religious nones in the U.S., Gregory A. Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center and Alan Cooperman, director of religion research at Pew Research Center said while it appears the U.S. is becoming less religious, some contend that's not necessarily the case.

They argue that the growth of the "nones" may simply indicate that people who are not religious are becoming more forthright and willing to say they have no religious affiliation, perhaps due to increased social acceptance.

Pew's researchers also pointed to a generational shift on religion as a factor.

"If you think of America as a house of many different faiths, then instead of imagining the 'nones' as a roomful of middle-aged people who used to call themselves Presbyterians, Catholics or something else but don't claim those labels anymore, imagine the unaffiliated as a few rooms rapidly filling with nonreligious people of various backgrounds, including young adults who have never had any religious affiliation in their adult lives," they said.

"Young people who are not particularly religious seem to be much more comfortable identifying as 'nones' than are older people who display a similar level of religious observance," they added.

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