Secular As Kids, Religious As Adults?

At, Dylan Matthews argues (with charts) that the retention rate among people raised with no religion is much lower than among people raised with religion — in other words, that people raised with no religion as children are more likely than people raised with religion to change their religion as adults, in this case, to become religious.

“Do kids raised without religion actively seek it out and convert all that often,” as has been popularized in television, he asks? “As it turns out, yes.”

Matthews admits the data he uses is imperfect, but that it “does suggest that religion has a somewhat easier time transmitting across generations than irreligion does.”

This struck me as a bit off the mark, so I posed the question to Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology at Pitzer College, founder of that institution’s unique Department of Secular Studies, and author of, among others, the forthcoming book, Living the Secular Life. Zuckerman told me he found the data “sort of bizarre” and that it “runs counter to all that I know on the topic.”

In the upcoming book, Zuckerman notes that while there is a paucity of research on secular parenting, there are longitudinal studies on the future impact of a secular childhood on adult religiosity are out there, and they show that retention rates of irreligiosity are very high.

In particular, University of Texas-Pan American sociologist Stephen Merino, in a 2012 paper, “Irreligious Socialization? The Adult Religious Preferences of Individuals Raised with No Religion,” found that “those with religiously unaffiliated parents as children are significantly less likely to express a religious preference as adults.” Indeed Merino, using data from the General Social Survey, found that along with increasing numbers of Americans raised with no religion, “[e]ven more notable is the growing tendency for those raised with no religion to have no religion as adults.” In fact, Merino adds:

Among cohorts born after 1955, a clear majority of those raised with no religion have no religion as adults. Among the most recent cohorts, over 70 percent have remained unaffiliated. While some have cautioned that recent cohorts have had less time to acquire a religious preference, particularly given that religious switching is often a function of life course events, the trend across cohorts is clear and pronounced. Moreover, it is not limited to the most recent birth cohorts. The 1944-1955 cohorts, comprised of baby boomers, show a much greater propensity than earlier cohorts to remain outside of a religious tradition after being raised with none.

Merino adds: “Acquiring a religious preference after being raised with no religion remains common, but is a far less frequent occurrence for later birth cohorts.” And while some studies have “cautioned that higher rates of non-affiliation among later birth cohorts may recede as individuals have more time to acquire a religion and undergo key life course events linked to increased religiosity such as marriage and childrearing,” Merino argues that his analysis “demonstrates that the growing tendency for those raised with no religion to have no religion as adults goes back as far as the 1944-1955 cohorts. This trend has only intensified for more recent birth cohorts.” (emphasis mine)

Zuckerman says this data is further backed up by a study, in the 1980s, by a Penn State sociologist, Hart Nelson, who found that 85% of children raised by two secular parents remained secular as adults. What’s more, two Scottish sociologists, Steve Bruce and Tony Glendinning, found that “if someone was not raised in a particular faith, the chances of acquiring one later in life are small.” Very small, in fact, as Zuckerman notes: just five percent.

(This post originally stated, erroneously, that Merino is at Pennsylvania State University, and that his paper was published in 2012. It has been corrected.)