Review of ‘Families and Faith’ by Vern L. Bengtson, Norella M. Putney, and Susan C. Harris


familiesandfaith Vern L. Bengtson, Norella M. Putney, and Susan C. Harris, Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Hardback / Kindle

For four generations now, the men in my family have been named George Wood, though each has a different middle name. My grandfather (G1), father (G2), and I (G3) also are ordained ministers in the Assemblies of God. Someday, I would love to see my son (G4) give his son (G5?) our common first name. I would even love to see him (them?) become a minister. (My wife is not so sure.) But my greatest hope is that my son—and his children after him—will practice the Christian faith in which his mother and I are raising him.

The transmission of faith and practice across generations is an important part of biblical religion. Deuteronomy 6:1–9, for example, outlines God’s commandments and emphasizes that parents are teach these to their children daily, through both word and deed.  Similarly, Ephesians 6:4 addresses fathers particularly when it says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Not surprisingly, religious parents are happy when their children practice the faith and unhappy—sometimes deeply distressed—when they don’t.

The past five decades have witnessed tremendous changes in American society generally and the American family structures particularly. For example, through increased immigration and enlarged access to information, America is more diverse—racially, ethnically, religiously, ideologically—than it has ever been. And while some changes in values and mores have been for the better (progress in civil rights, the increased presence of women in the work force), other changes have led to entrenched social pathologies (out-of-wedlock childbirth, widespread divorce, endemic poverty).

Surveying these changes in American society and the American family, you might assume that the process of transmitting your faith to your children has become more difficult. As Vern L. Bengtson and his colleagues demonstrate in their new study, Families and Faith, that is actually not the case. Based on quantitative data from the Longitudinal Study of Generations (1970–2005) and on qualitative data from interviews (2005–2008) with 156 members of 25 LSOG families, Bengtson, Putney, and Harris conclude: “Religious families are surprisingly successful at transmission.” Indeed, despite incredible stressors on the American family, they argue that, contrary to stereotype, “Parental influence has not declined since the 1970s.”

Success at transmitting religion is unequally distributed, however. According to the authors of Families and Faith, “High-boundary religious groups have high rates of transmission.” Specifically, Evangelicals, Jews, and Mormons do a better job at handing on their faith than do Mainline Protestants, who have declined numerically since 1970. Those groups also do a better job than Catholics, whose declines among native-born Americans have been masked by large-scale immigration from predominantly Catholic countries, especially in Latin America.

The question is, why? The data point to three factors: (1) “strong and intentional bonds between family and church or synagogue, in which religious activities are built around family activities with high family involvement in religious education”; (2) “emphasis on parents’ role modeling, evidenced in their investment in the tradition and their articulation of its beliefs; and (3) “family solidarity, characterized by warm emotional relationships, frequent family interaction, help, and assistance.”

As a father, I would like to note especially the crucial role dads play in religious transmission. The authors write: “Particularly important, according to our data, is the role of a fathers’ warmth. Parental piety—religious role modeling, setting a good example—will not compensate for a distant dad.” Let me shorten, emphasize, and repeat that statement: Parental piety will not compensate for a distant dad. In other words, if I want G4 to be a Christian like G1, G2, and G3 have been, then I must be involved in his life.

(I should note, of course, that these factors express statistical probabilities rather than absolute certainties. Even in the most ideal situations, some children will reject the faith. Nonetheless, though they do not offer guarantees of successful transmission, these factors point to useful guidelines.)

One of the most surprising conclusions in Families and Faith is the intergenerational transmission of unbelief. According to the Pew Research Center, the nones have grown from 7 percent in 1972 to nearly 20 percent in 2012. The assumption has been that this growth represents people leaving the religion in which they have been reared. Bengtson, Putney, and Harris demonstrate, however, that a considerable number of the nones were raised in religiously unaffiliated families, whether those families identified as atheist, agnostic, or spiritual but not religious. They, too, have been successful in transmitting their irreligion.

Obviously, sociology cannot tell us which religious faith is true or why it ought to be handed on. That is the job of theologians and clergy. Sociology can tell us, however, what families who successfully transmit their faith do well. And that is in fact what Families and Faith tells us.

I highly recommend this book to conscientious parents, Christian clergy, or anyone else interested in handing on the faith once delivered to the saints. It can be done. Here are some data-driven suggestions how.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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2 thoughts on “Review of ‘Families and Faith’ by Vern L. Bengtson, Norella M. Putney, and Susan C. Harris

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  1. “Bengtson, Putney, and Harris demonstrate, however, that a considerable number of the nones were raised in religiously unaffiliated families, whether those families identified as atheist, agnostic, or spiritual but not religious. They, too, have been successful in transmitting their irreligion.”

    I have had occasion to converse with many atheists, agnostics and nones as a result of my books, talk show interviews and Social media contacts. Almost without exception they have come from early Christian teachings and influence. For various reasons they have become disillusioned and often times spiritually wounded either by abusive rules and regulations or by dogmatic doctrines they were not permitted to question. In my 63 years of Christian ministry I have seldom met an avowed atheist who was indoctrinated against God from birth.

    In my opinion, the problem of the empty church pews may not originate from those who are “transmitting their irreligion,” but, rather, from those who are transmitting a religion of control, irrelevance and exclusion. This is exactly the kind of religion Jesus condemned. And, of course, it’s the kind of religion that ultimately condemned Jesus. ~ Ivan A. Rogers

    1. Those two options are not mutually exclusive, Ivan. Some religious nones have left the faith in which they were raised, and some religious nones are continuing the lack of belief in which they were raised.

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