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In our opinion: Instilling faith in children is a growing challenge

FILE "” Jacob Johnson and Luis McCracken and other youth at Christ United Methodist Church in South Salt Lake City work to provide service as they make baby blankets and cat toys on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016.
FILE "” Jacob Johnson and Luis McCracken and other youth at Christ United Methodist Church in South Salt Lake City work to provide service as they make baby blankets and cat toys on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Parents and society should help the rising generation remain tethered to religious traditions.

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonprofit organization with a mission to conduct research on America's ever-changing religious landscape, has noted a trend in the nation’s religious life. In 1991, a mere 6 percent of Americans stated they had no religious affiliation. In the last 25 years, that percentage has more than quadrupled. Today, 25 percent of Americans are “nones,” i.e. people with no stated religious affiliation. That number represents the largest single religious group in the country — or non-religious group, as the case may be.

America is entering into uncharted waters. Religious faith has been a cornerstone of American culture since the beginning of the nation. On the whole, religion has done much to improve our civic life and pass on socially productive values from one generation to the next. It is disturbing to think of what America will be if or when the transmission of those values no longer takes place.

PRRI’s findings suggest that American religiosity breaks down along generational lines. According to its most recent study, 62 percent of those who identify as “nones” who were raised in religious homes abandoned their faith prior to their 18th birthday. Any future for American religion, therefore, requires that these “nones” enter adulthood without casting off the faith they were taught as children unless they are replacing it with another pro-social faith tradition. Nancy Ammerman, a professor of sociology and religion at Boston University, told the Deseret News that part of the problem stems from parents who are reluctant to push religion on their kids because they want them to make their own choices. “Giving kids their own choice, ironically, means not grounding them in any particular tradition and sending the message that religion isn't very important," Ammerman said.

The research bears out her observations. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 73 percent of American adults raised in Catholic homes where both parents “believed religion was very important” are still Catholic today, as opposed to 38 percent who remain Catholic despite being raised in households where the church didn't seem important.

That doesn’t mean, however, that just lecturing children is the right way to keep them in the fold. The optimal approach is to provide opportunities to put their faith into action.

Richard Flory, a sociologist and senior director of research and evaluation at the University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture, recommends that kids get involved in youth groups that “engage the experience of religion instead of sitting around with pizza.” That’s wise advice that, if followed, will lead to more faith, a stronger nation, and a brighter future.