The transmission of religious faith from parents to children and individual faith choices

A sociology book published in 2021 emphasizes the role of parents in religiosity in the United States. From an excerpt:

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Parents define for their children the role that religious faith and practice ought to play in life, whether important or not, which most children roughly adopt. Parents set a “glass ceiling” of religious commitment above which their children rarely rise. Parental religious investment and involvement is in almost all cases the necessary and even sometimes sufficient condition for children’s religious investment and involvement.

This parental primacy in religious transmission is significant because, even though most parents do realize it when they think about it, their crucial role often runs in the background of their busy lives; it is not a conscious, daily, strategic matter. Furthermore, many children do not recognize the power that their parents have in shaping their religious lives but instead view themselves as autonomous information processors making independent, self-directing decisions. Widespread cultural scripts also consistently say that the influence of parents over their children recedes starting with the onset of puberty, while the influence of peers, music, and social media takes over.

Other common and influential cultural scripts operate to disempower parents by telling them that they are not qualified to care for their children in many ways, so they should turn their children over to experts. Further, the perceptions of at least some (frustrated) staff at religious congregations is that more than a few parents assume that others besides themselves (the staff) are responsible for forming their children religiously (in Sunday school, youth group, confirmation, catechism, etc.).

Yet all empirical data tell us that for intergenerational religious transmission today, the key agents are parents, not clergy or other religious professionals. The key location is the home, not religious congregations. And the key mechanisms of socialization are the formation of ordinary life practices and identities, not programs, preaching, or formal rites of passage.

There are multiple implications of these findings. I’ll briefly consider one hinted at above. In the United States, religion is often considered an individual matter. A believer is one who has consciously made a choice in their religious beliefs, behaviors, and belonging. In the American religious system, there is plenty of freedom to make such choices, whether one is identifying with a different religious tradition, putting together multiple pieces from different traditions, or citing no religiosity at all.

But, sociology as a discipline suggests no one is a complete free agent. This applies in all areas of life, including religion. We are pressured – a negative connotation often in the American context but social pressure can be positive or negative – by society and its parts.

If a religious tradition then emphasizes agency and authenticity regarding faith, it has the possibility of ignoring or downplaying social forces at work. Take evangelicals. According to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, one feature of this group is conversionism. This emphasis on a religious conversion often refers to an individual moment when a believer made a decision and/or had a definable conversion experience. This helps establish that this is a true and authentic faith, in comparison to being a cultural Christian or adopting the faith of one’s family or people.

The excerpt above does not suggest that the actions of a parent – or other social actors or institutions – always leads to a certain outcome but rather that how parents interact with religion increases or decreases the likelihood of religious faith of their kids. It is not deterministic but it is a demonstrable pattern where social forces – parents – influence individuals regarding religiosity.

If parents influence the faith of a teenager, is that teenager’s faith less real? Or, is this how human life works: we are influenced by social forces around us and we have the ability to exercise some agency?

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