It’s an age-old philosophical question: do morality and belief go hand in hand? For generations, most Americans would be inclined to answer that question in the affirmative. But those generations in the past held more firmly to religious faith than many Americans today. As the number of religiously unaffiliated individuals in this country increases, it stands to reason that the number of those who do not tie decency to faith in God would go up as well.
A new survey from Pew Research has shown that, for the first time, a majority of American surveyed believe that belief in God is not necessary for morality. Among the adults surveyed this year, 56 percent do not see religious faith as a prerequisite for virtue, up from 49 percent in 2011.
Naturally, Pew points out that the increase in the disconnect between morality and religion coincides with the number of “nones” — those with no affiliation to faith — in the United States:
Surveys have long shown that religious “nones” – those who describe themselves religiously as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – are more likely than those who identify with a religion to say that belief in God is not a prerequisite for good values and morality. So the public’s increased rejection of the idea that belief in God is necessary for morality is due, in large part, to the spike in the share of Americans who are religious “nones.”
Indeed, the growth in the share of Americans who say belief in God is unnecessary for morality tracks closely with the growth in the share of the population that is religiously unaffiliated. In the 2011 Pew Research Center survey that included the question about God and morality, religious “nones” constituted 18% of the sample. By 2017, the share of “nones” stood at 25%.
That data makes sense, but there’s another, more surprising reason for the shift in the connection between morality and faith in America. An increasing number of those among the religiously affiliated are beginning to believe that morality can exist without faith — up from 42 percent in 2011 to 45 percent today. Breaking the shift down by denominational groups, the largest increase did not come from more liberal mainline Christians, but from white evangelicals and black Protestants.
But what’s behind the change in attitudes? I’d argue that part of the blame goes to the lessening commitment among Christians these days. More people who consider themselves faithful Christians are at church sporadically, choosing to sleep in, enroll their kids in travel ball teams, and take weekend trips over connecting with the body of believers. Churches are placing more emphasis on programming and events than on discipleship and growth these days, cultivating nominal believers who are spiritually shallow.
However, that’s only part of the problem. We have shifting morality to blame for this fluctuation in attitudes as well. As a country, our views on so many aspects of life — from traditional marriage to gender roles to respect for authority — have radically transformed in recent years. When our culture constantly moves the goalposts on what morality even is, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a change in the view of where morality comes from.
Has it always been this way? Of course not. Despite what modern liberal historians would lead you to believe, many of our founding fathers saw morality and faith going hand in hand:
I believe that religion is the only solid base of morals and that morals are the only possible support of free governments. [T]herefore education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God. –Gouverneur Morris
[T]he only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be aid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments. Without religion, I believe that learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind. –Benjamin Rush
The moral principles and precepts contained in the scriptures ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and laws. . . All the miseries and evils which men suffer from vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery, and war, proceed from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible. –Noah Webster
Religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society. –George Washington
Of course, we can’t go back to this kind of mindset with the snap of a finger, and I fear that our culture will get far worse before it begins to get better. But Christian parents can do certain things to ensure that their children grow up understanding that virtue and righteousness only come from God. Parents, raise your children consistently in church — not in a legalistic way, but in a way that becomes a joyful habit. Help your family view the church not as a place but a community of believers who love each other and encourage one another together.
Make worship a fun and engaging way of life, not just something that is done on Sundays. Read the Bible to your children, and let them see you reading it for your own discipleship development. Teach your kids the joy and importance of serving. And demonstrate how true morality comes from God and His Word, regardless of what the shifting sands of American culture may lead us to believe.
It’s not going to be easy to change attitudes, but at the same time, it’s never too late to try.