The Magazine

The God Gene

The family that prays together .  .  . well, you know the rest

Aug 4, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 44 • By WILLIAM MCKENZIE
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One of the realities of Christianity is that the church has always been forming and reforming. This evolutionary phenomenon goes back to the church’s earliest days, when believers identified themselves in various ways, such as followers of Paul or Apollos or Cephas. The divisions were so evident that the apostle Paul urged the church in Corinth to remember that they were united in Christ! This organic aspect of religious belief remains real: Look at the forming and reforming of denominations over issues like same-sex marriage. It is easy to get discouraged over the squabbling when, perhaps, this is just an inherent reality within religious systems.

Vern L. Bengtson, professor emeritus of gerontology and sociology and research professor of social work at the University of Southern California, has spent much of the last four decades looking at religious systems. From 1970 through 2005, he conducted the Longitudinal Study of Generations, specifically examining how religious beliefs move from one generation to the next. Along with his research colleagues, Bengtson has tried to answer three fundamental questions, which he puts this way in Families and Faith:

1. To what extent are families able to pass on their religious faith to the next generation in today’s rapidly changing society?

2. How has this changed over the past several decades, in the context of remarkable cultural, familial, and religious change in American society?

3. Why are some families able to achieve their goal of transmitting their faith to their children while others are not?

Bengtson’s research certainly identifies some of the evolutionary aspects of religious systems. For example, we learn about families whose descend-ants shirk the values of previous generations. They do so by rejecting their family’s faith altogether, becoming more zealous than their parents in their religiosity, or becoming prodigals who eventually return to the faith or something close to it. 

The rebels essentially have too much religion in their upbringing; the zealots become far more intense in their adult years; and the prodigals wander home often because of a warm parent, families giving them latitude, and/or a strong religious foundation from the beginning. These are the types that react to the traditions of their families. And we probably all have seen them. But what is counterintuitive about Bengtson’s findings is the degree to which families still pass on their religious beliefs (or lack of them) to the next generation. Many of us may find it surprising, given the common perception that Bengtson describes:

In the eyes of many, families have lost a disturbing amount of their moral and religious influence, seemingly a consequence of parental divorce, excessive individualism, and a breakdown in traditional social structures.

The data he and his crew have unearthed challenge that view. They discovered their findings through looking at “linked lives,” which are the social networks that include parents and even grandparents. Their research examines seven generations that span nearly 100 years. The first group of interviewees came from the World War I generation that was born as early as the 1890s. The last set belongs to the millennial generation, born in the 1980s. 

Across that long arc, Bengtson and his fellow researchers found that the familial part of social networks remains critical in transmitting religious beliefs-—-or a lack of such. “Religious momentum across generations” remains a reality, Bengtson contends. Bengtson’s study especially found “momentum” with Mormon, Jewish, and evangelical Protestant families. Each had a fairly steady transmission rate, as the sociologists call it, between 1970 and 2005. Here are a few key data points:

In 1970, 67 percent of Mormon parents had young adult children who shared their religion. By 2005, 85 percent did.

In 1970, 70 percent of evangelical parents had young adult children within the same tradition. By 2005, 62 percent did.

In 1970, 94 percent of Jewish parents had young adult children who shared their religion. By 2005, 82 percent did. 

Obviously, Mormons did the best. But the slippage in evangelical and Jewish transmission rates was not very great, especially when compared with the drop-offs for mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics. The so-called parent-child similarity rates for mainliners dropped by 33 percentage points between 1970 and 2005, while they declined 41 percentage points for Catholics.