The news for religion in the United States keeps getting bleaker. A new study out this week found that since the 70’s there has been a 75% increase in the amount of American 12th graders who don’t believe that religion is important to their lives. In addition, teenagers are half as likely to attend religious services today as in the mid to late 70’s. If this trend continues, religion in America will go the way of Britain and France, where more than 50% of British citizens don’t consider themselves a part of any religion and 42% of French citizens say they are either atheists or agnostics.
What can we do to stem this decline? It turns out that social science has a lot to say about religious motivation. According to Richard Ryan’s extensively researched and empirically sound theory of human motivation, known as Self Determination Theory, religious motivations can be divided into two types: introjected and identified.
Introjected religious motivation is where people are religious for reasons that extend beyond their own internal value systems. They might be religious because they want to avoid hell, they crave community acceptance, they want to go to heaven, they don’t want to disappoint their family, etc. Identified religious motivation is where the person is religious because they feel personal identification with the values espoused by the religion.
Research has shown that people with identified religious motivations are better off on multiple domains of life and their religiosity will have greater longevity. People with introjected religious motivation, conversely, are worse off from a health and wellness perspective and are more likely to be prejudiced towards people different than themselves and have a more rigid uncompromising approach to their religion.
If we examine the methods used to increase religious motivation amongst young people, we find that many introjected methods are used. It is little wonder, therefore, that young people start to reject religion. This is why the ancient proverbs tell us to ‘Educate a child according to his way; [so that] even when he grows old he will not depart from it, ‘ (Proverbs 22:6). Instead of taking the individual’s personality and the zeitgeist that they are influenced by into account, religion nowadays often uses an entirely top down and dictatorial approach. Many religious leaders expect adherents to give up all personal feelings and values and have them entirely replaced by religious values. This is not an approach that is working.
Based on what we now know from Self Determination Theory, and from the ancient proverb, a better approach would be to show young people how the values of religion and their own inherent values as human beings are really united. Many young people have the desire to better themselves and live a more transcendent life, all humans innately want to live a life of meaning and purpose and most people will agree that honesty and integrity are values they hold dear. All of these are also religious values and religion offers a unique and often highly practical approach to them all.
Our starting point must be understanding the innate values of the individual and the values of the prevailing culture. Then we can demonstrate how religion can strengthen and enhance those intrinsic values. This way people’s religious motivations would be ‘identified ‘ rather than ‘introjected ‘ and religion would be both more appealing and have greater longevity amongst young people.