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Done With Religion? It May Not Be Done With You

Our second project built on research showing that religion is inextricably linked with values, particularly Schwartz’s Circle of Values, the predominant model of universal values used by Western psychologists. Values are the core organizing principles in people’s lives, and religion is positively associated with the values of security, conformity, tradition and benevolence. These are “social focus values”: beliefs that address a generally understood need for coordinated social action.

For this project, we asked a single group of study participants the same questions as they grew older over a period of 10 to 11 years. The participants were adolescents in the first wave of the survey, and in their mid-to-late 20s in the final wave.

Our findings revealed another stairstep pattern: The consistently religious among these young adults were significantly more likely than religious dones to support the social focus values of security, conformity and tradition; and religious dones were significantly more likely to support them than the consistently nonreligious. While a similar pattern emerged with the benevolence value, the difference between the religious dones and the consistently nonreligious was not statistically significant.

Together, these projects show that the religion residue effect is real. The morals and values of religious dones are more similar to those of religious Americans than they are to the morals and values of other nonreligious Americans.

Our follow-up analyses add some nuance to that key finding. For instance, the enduring impact of religious observance on values appears to be strongest among former evangelical Protestants. Among dones who left mainline Protestantism, Catholicism and other religious traditions, the religion residue effect is smaller and less consistent.

Our research also suggests that the religious residue effect can decay. The more time that passes after people leave religion, the more their morals and values come to resemble those of people who have never been religious. This is an important finding, because a large and growing number of Americans are leaving organized religion, and there is still much to be learned about the psychological and social consequences of this decline in religion.

The growing numbers of nonreligious

As recently as 1990, only 7% of Americans reported having no religion. Thirty years later, in 2020, the percentage claiming to be nonreligious had quadrupled, with almost 3 in 10 Americans having no religion. There are now more nonreligious Americans than affiliates of any one single religious tradition, including the two largest: Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism.

This shift in religious practice may fundamentally change Americans’ perceptions of themselves, as well as their views of others. One thing that seems clear, though, is that those who leave religion are not the same as those who have never been religious. Given the rapid and continued growth in the number of nonreligious Americans, we expect that this distinction will become increasingly important to understanding the morals and values of the American people.

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The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. The Conversation is wholly responsible for the content.

Philip SchwadelUniversity of Nebraska-Lincoln and Sam HardyBrigham Young University

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