Why Do Children Embrace or Reject the Religion of their Parents?

A few days ago the New York Times ran a review of a new book which attempts to understand why religious faith is kept or lost between generations—Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (Oxford University Press). The book’s principle author, Vern Bengston, professor of social work at the University of Southern California, studied 350 families and 2,400 individuals from 1969 to 2008 in order see if religious beliefs were passed down through the four generations of family members that he interviewed and if so, what the determining factor was. His results are summarized in this selection from the article:

According to Professor Bengtson, parents have as much hold as ever on children’s souls. “Parent-youth similarity in religiosity has not declined over 35 years,” from 1970 to 2005, he writes. Denominational loyalty is down — kids feel free to ditch the Baptists for the Presbyterians — but younger generations are no less likely to inherit core beliefs, like biblical literalism, the importance of church attendance or, for that matter, atheism.

As to why some children follow their parents, spiritually speaking, Professor Bengtson’s research confirmed some common-sense assumptions. For example, it helps if parents model religiosity: if you talk about church but never go, children sense hypocrisy. And intermarriage doesn’t help. If you’re Jewish (or Mormon, Catholic, etc.), and want your child to share your religion, it helps to marry someone of the same faith.

But Professor Bengtson’s major conclusion is that family bonds matter. Displays of parental piety, like “teaching the right beliefs and practices” and “keeping strictly to the law,” can be for naught if the children don’t feel close to the parents. “Without emotional bonding,” these other factors are “not sufficient for transmission,” he writes.

Professor Bengtson also found that one parent matters more than the other — and it’s Dad. “But what is really interesting,” he writes, “is that, for religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s fathermatters even more than a close relationship with one’s mother.”

This study discovered that emotionally bonding with one’s father seems to be the most important determinate as to whether or not a child will embrace the religion(s) of the family into which they were born. Not whether the child was properly catechized, or rigorously taught a belief structure, or pushed to deeply explore various worldviews, or given a certain set of moral standards. These things are not necessarily bad, in the right settings they can often be very good, but according to this study they were not nearly as important for belief transfer as it was for a child to feel close to their parents and, in particular, their father.

I think that this leads us to an important point that should be intuitive but in many cases is not (for my part, I wasn’t clued in on this until I met my current pastor)–a crucial part of the Christian life involves intentionally taking steps to better under understand ourselves and then opening up our lives and emotionally connecting with those around us and with God. At first this can seem strange and even uncomfortable because we live in a world, even a church-world, which often leaves us emotionally disconnected or connected in very dysfunctional ways.

For instance, I find that it is easier to debate ideas or rationally discuss a Scripture passage than to be vulnerable and honest with those around me and to take the time and spend the focused energy to deeply understand the pains and joys of those I love. But, if I want my daughter to embrace the Christian faith that so animates my life, I had better not merely talk to her about the truth, I must deeply love her, be transparent and honest with her, incarnate the message that Jesus is Lord in all its breadth and fullness, and emotionally connect with her. Because if I merely give her my faith packaged as a mental idea, my faith will likely die with me.

One response

  1. “emotionally bonding with one’s father seems to be the most important determinate as to whether or not a child will embrace the religion”

    When ascribing causation we need to be more careful and rigorous. It seems as much if not more likely that a child may develop a bond with father precisely as a result of sharing common world views, and not so much because of strong parent/child bonds foster common beliefs. Remember correlation is not causation. Do we not reach out to people we share common interests? Do we not make friends with those we feel most comfortable in mutual self expression? And so it goes with the parent child relationship.

    Unlike times past we do not live in mono-theistic cultural cocoons. The information age has peaked awareness in a vast array of competing ideas and beliefs; many of them contrary or even hostile to Christian values. We are living at an unprecedented time in human history adrift on a huge global playing field of ideas. Given this reality it should come as no surprise that young people at a most open minded stage of life just might be more persuaded by concepts and ideologies that often run contrary to parent’s cherished Christian beliefs.

    Children were not born to be made religious clones of their parents. Young people (just like their parents) are autonomous beings with every right to hold or to reject religious belief as their hearts and minds dictate. Because of the information age the parent’s role is only a small piece of the multi-dimensional puzzle that forms a young person’s belief systems.

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