Families and Faith

How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations



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Authors: Vern L. Bengtson, Norella M. Putney, & Susan Harris

Few things are more likely to cause heartache for devout parents than seeing their child leave the faith. And it seems, from media portrayals, that this is happening more and more frequently. But is religious change between generations common? How does religion get passed down from one generation to the next? Families and Faith seeks to answer these questions and many more.

For almost four decades, Vern Bengtson and his colleagues have been conducting the largest-ever study of religion and families across generations. Through war and social upheaval, depression and technological revolution, they have followed more than 350 multigenerational families with more than 3,500 individuals whose lives span more than a century–from the World War I Generation to the Millennials–to find out how religion is, or is not, passed down from grandparents to parents to youth. What they found surprised them.

Despite enormous changes in American society, a child is actually more likely to remain within the fold than leave it, and even the nonreligious, such as atheists, are more likely to follow their parents’ example than to rebel. A crucial factor in whether a child keeps the faith is the father’s warmth; parental piety cannot make up for a devout but distant dad. Families and Faith offers a fascinating exploration of what allows a family to pass on its most deeply held tradition—its faith.