The Meaning of Religion Project is led by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and it’s the qualitative half of a longitudinal study of how faith and values are passed down across generations. It’s a joint project with researchers at Syracuse University, who are conducting a survey. The project is funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

The Longitudinal Study of Generations was initiated in 1970 to investigate how values are transmitted within families across generations. This wave of the study adopts a mixed methods approach, combining a large-scale survey with interviews. For the current wave of the study, we will survey roughly 1,700 members of the original southern California families who participated in 1970-1971, including their third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation descendants. We will also interview 150 of those who have completed the survey.

We are interviewing young people, their parents, and their grandparents because we want to compare different generations and understand changes over time. Because we want to understand how deeply held beliefs and worldviews influence what people value, our interview sample emphasizes diversity and includes those who are religious, spiritual, or secular. 

Our interviews inquire about a range of subjects, including life history, relationships with family members, values and beliefs, and religion-related behaviors.

Prior research has shown that younger generations of Americans are less likely to identify as religious than older generations. More than one-third of millennials, who are those born after 1980, describe themselves as having “no religion” or “no belief in God.” Research has also shown an increase in religious and spiritual diversity, with many people today identifying as “spiritual but not religious” or drawing on multiple religions in their beliefs and practices. Amidst this secularization and diversification, evidence also points to strengthened prosocial (humanitarian and collectivistic) values in millennials compared to preceding generations.

Our goal is to understand the relationships among prosocial values, religion, spirituality, and secularism, especially for younger generations. How are families transmitting values from one generation to the next, with and without the aid of religion? How are people sharing and acting on their values, inside and outside of religious institutions? How has the role, significance, and meaning of religion changed with its ostensible decline?

Our project will provide a new picture of the changing landscape of American religion by attending to the diverse ways that people live their values, be they religious, spiritual, or secular.

This research is approved by the Human Subjects Committee of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Human Research Protections Program at Syracuse University.

By clicking here, you can find out more about our companion project, the Secular Communities Survey, which focuses more on very secular people and compares them with others who are non-religious.