The majority of Americans now believe that it is possible to be moral without being religious, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center. 56 percent of US adults surveyed told Pew that it is “not necessary” to believe in God in order to have good values, up from 49 percent in 2011.
Most interestingly, Pew observes that the growth seems to be coming from changing attitudes among religious individuals – including white evangelical Protestants. Although the increase is mostly due to responses from the religiously unaffiliated, the percentage of religiously affiliated adults who say belief in God is unnecessary for morality increased by three percentage points since 2011, and 32 percent of white evangelical Protestants now say belief in God is unnecessary for morality.
So the data does not indicate that Americans are throwing out their bibles in droves or becoming less religious – indeed, the majority of evangelicals still say that morality hinges on a belief in God – but the data does suggest that even religious folks now believe that morality can be taught and exercised outside of religious contexts. That public sentiment could trickle down to how parents teach their children, perhaps heralding a shift from religious moral education to secular humanistic values.
Fortunately, preliminary studies suggest that teaching children secular moral values, disentangled from religion, could be a good thing. One recent study found that secular families have higher levels of solidarity and emotional closeness than religious ones, while a separate study found that some children raised in religious households are actually less altruistic than their peers.
These findings do not denigrate the value of religion for families per se, but broadly suggest that ethics tied to religious belief may be harder for children to internalize. Regardless, it seems likely from the Pew data that parents will be shifting their moral lessons from religious to secular values.
How that will influence the next generation’s moral compass remains to be seen.