While Americans are known for switching and shopping for faiths, family ties and influence are still the main way that religious identity, and beliefs and practices are spread. That is the argument of the recent book Families and Faith (Oxford University Press, $29.95) by Vern L. Bengston, with Noella Putney and Susan Harris.
It’s probably the most extensive study of the role family influence in American religion, based on data from 300 families and 3,000 individuals (though not a representative sample).
Somewhat unexpectedly, Bengston and colleagues found little change in the rates of religious influence transmitted from parents to children; between 1970 and 2005, there was a statistically significant similarity between parents and children in the dimensions of religious affiliation, belief, practice, and participation, with evangelicals and Mormons having the highest rate of transmission.
Mainline Protestant and Catholic families had more difficulty transmitting the faith across generations. In 2005, 62 percent of parents surveyed had young adult children who were following in their evangelical tradition, “down slightly from 70 percent in 1970. On the other hand…mainline Protestants declined by more than 27 percentage points, and Catholics dropped an eye-opening 41 percentage points.”
Such transmission can work both ways—strengthening, weakening or secularizing religion. Much of the reason for the religious polarization of recent years is that the baby boomers have transmitted values to their children that put them on opposing sides of the spectrum of religious affiliation and non-affiliation. Bengston finds that the success of religious transmission depends on the closeness between parent and child, but gender differences, parenting styles and the presence of interfaith marriages (without conversion) also have strong effects. Because grandparents are living longer than in previous periods, they are having greater impact on religious socialization of grandchildren.
Especially interesting are the chapters looking at interruptions and failures in religious transmission, including those the author calls “rebels” who break from their religious upbringings (although they often return to the fold), and the much discussed growth of the non-affiliated or “nones.” Non-affiliation and even atheism are increasingly transmitted through families rather than through interruption in such a process; in fact, the researchers were surprised by the high levels of family solidarity and closeness evidenced by most of the non-religious youth.