Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Death of Religion is a Two-Generation Process?

Back in February, I wrote a blog about the demise of Christianity in America and offered some informal arguments about how it would take two or three generations for it to really fade:
I'm reminded of what happens to immigrants and their "mother tongue" when they come to America. The grandparents who immigrated still speak their native Italian, Spanish, German, Polish, and so on. Their kids learn English pretty well, but also speak their parents' language because that's what's spoken at home. But the grandchildren, the second generation, almost never learn the family's native tongue fluently, and often not at all. By the third generation, it's gone.
This month I ran across an excellent article in Free Inquiry magazine entitled Is Loss of Faith a Two-Generation Process?, written by Tom Rees. As you can tell by the title, it validates my thesis. But more importantly, Rees' article gives a much more thorough sociological basis for the claim.

Let's illustrate with a somewhat hard-to-believe claim, "There is a magical god in the sky who watches you, and will either give you fantastic rewards or horrifying punishment depending on whether you believe in him or not. But you can't see him. I'm just telling you this." If you simply made that claim nobody would believe you. But suppose that person sees you devoting a huge amount of time and energy to it – such as going to church three times a week, or supplicating yourself and praying to Mecca five times a day, or even more dramatic deeds like self flagellation. It gives credibility to your claim. It shows that you really believe in this god.

The concept of cost signaling is well known to sociologists: your own actions give credibility to your claims.

Human evolution has programmed us to soak up information when we're young – our ability to pass information culturally rather than just through genetics is what distinguishes us from all other animals. It's important for children to have signals to know which knowledge is important and which is trivial, and cost signaling is one of the best ways. If someone devotes significant energy and resources to a particular bit of knowledge then it's a good bet (from an evolutionary perspective) that the information is highly significant.

Tom Rees' hypothesis is that religion takes two generations to die because of cost signaling. The first generation is highly religious, goes to church regularly, and spends a great deal of time and effort signaling that they believe in God.

The second generation, their children, believe in God (because their parents signaled so strongly and paid a high cost), but have trouble with organized religion, particularly as it conflicts with science and common sense. So they adopt more of a liberal perspective: they don't go to church but they still believe and want their children to believe too.

Unfortunately (for religion), those parents aren't giving the "signal" to their children, the third generation. While the parents believe in God and the afterlife, they're not doing anything to show it. The children follow their instincts: this particular belief doesn't seem to hold much weight with the parents, so it must not be important.

Rees concludes, and I totally agree, that religion is on its way out in America. But it will take another generation for it to really lose its grip.

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  1. That's exactly what happens on my own family. Very religious grandparents, moderate religious parents, and absolutely no religious children (my brothers and I).

  2. This happened in my family as well, but even my grandparents were not all that devout in their Lutheran faith. My own family has chosen the pagan path, rather than the conservative Xtian one I was introduced to. Even then, we are not practicing our faith as we should, but we are still learning about it. Just leaving the dogma of the Semitic-based religions for the Ancient Celtic path has been satisfying enough.

  3. Same thing here with my family, except my parents were just as devout as the grand parents and us kids are not religious at all.

  4. Anons -- Well, like anything in sociology, this "rule" is broad generalizations. Many families follow a different path. I hope nobody takes this "two-generation" as a rule – it's just a general observation.

    However, I'm glad you escaped from religion by whatever path your family took.

  5. This makes sense and I've observed it in many families as well as my own. But there are other variations, and two generations is not a hard and fast rule.

    One variation is where the mother is very devout and the father is not, and then some or all of the children become normal, non-religious individuals.


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