The rate of children who adopt their parent’s faith has remained stable in the past 40 years, despite increasingly anti-religious influences outside the home, according to research published in a new book, Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations.
The research found that six out of 10 people have adult children who share their religious affiliation, a rate that has remained steady for four decades. A New York Times review of the book points to a few key factors that increase the likelihood of faith continuity from one generation to the next, including strong family bonds, marriage between two people of the same faith, and a connected father figure.
The book’s lead researcher, professor Vern Bengtson of the University of Southern California, began studying 350 families in 1970 to understand why some people adopt the faith of their families while others reject it. He regularly interviewed the same families—a total of 3,500 individuals spanning four generations—until 2008.
“Parents have more religious influence than they think,” write Bengtson and his two co-authors, Norella Putney and Susan Harris. But they say that “alarmists” have persuaded some parents that the battle with a secular popular culture is lost, and that they should throw up their hands and resign, a position that often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, said Naomi Shaefer Riley in a Wall Street Journal review of the book.
More than strict church attendance, obedience to rules and guidelines, or teaching moral beliefs, Bengtson and his co-researchers found that strong emotional bonding is vital for children to adopt their parents’ religion.
“But what is really interesting is that, for religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s father matters even more than a close relationship with one’s mother,” Bengtson writes.
Not just any father has influence, he said, because “fervent faith cannot compensate for a distant dad.” Bengtson found in his interviews that “a father who is an exemplar, a pillar of the church, but doesn’t provide warmth and affirmation to his kid does not have kids who follow him in his faith.”
His own experience with faith and family exemplifies his research. Bengtson was raised in a devoutly religious family, however when he was in graduate school, he left his faith, he said in an interview with the New York Times.
“Don’t give up on prodigals, because many do return,” ” he told the Times. In his late 60s, Bengtson returned to Christianity. He attributes his family’s strong faith to strong male leadership.
“I had this great big jovial grandfather, who just exuded warmth,” he told the Times. “There’s this pattern of paternal warmth that seems to characterize the Bengtson family. And that may be why there are so many evangelical Bengtsons.”