Religious parents, atheist children, and family strife

Religious parents, atheist children, and family strife July 26, 2009

Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, has been looking into how family harmony is affected when children adopt religious beliefs different from their parents’. You might know the name already – he wrote a book a couple of years back: Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.

In his latest paper, he (along with grad student Charles Stokes) has analysed data from the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. What he was looking at was differences between the child’s rating of the importance of religion and their parent’s rating. He also looked at how often they went to church, compared with their parents.

Then he fed this into a model, along with a bunch of other demographic factors, to see how they related to the child’s report of parent-child relations.

What he found was very specific. Family harmony is hurt if the child is less religious than their parent, but not if the child is more religious than their parent. What’s more, church attendance doesn’t factor – it doesn’t really affect family harmony if the child doesn’t go to church, what matters is whether they think their religion is important.

As Regnerus puts it:

Our findings strongly suggest that those parents who care about religion appear to be frustrated with their children who do not, creating an environment with both opportunities for conflict and for inscribing ‘normal’ conflict with religious meaning. And the greater the magnitude of the discord, the more intense is the negative sentiment from child to parent.

The worst problems occurred in families where parent and child differed by at least 2 points on a 5-point scale (so, for example the parent reports religion as ‘very important’ while the child reports it as ‘fairly unimportant’). Eleven percent of American children fall into the category.

It’s important not to get this out of proportion, however. Religious differences are one of many factors in the model, and all of them combined only explain about 10-15% of the variation in family strife. So most family strife is due to something else!

So what about in the reverse direction? It seems that children who are much more religious than their parents don’t face the same barriers.

Regnerus doesn’t really speculate on why this might be – except to suggest that religious teens may make more effort to live in harmony/be obedient to their parents.

I reckon that it’s more likely to be due to differences between atheist parents and religious parents. For a start, most people are religious in the USA, but there are few atheists. So maybe atheist parents are less freaked out by their kids taking up religion because it doesn’t seem so weird.

Then too, atheists are different to the religious. They are more likely to be college educated, and to have more liberal, freethinking views. Religion, especially in the USA, is more attractive to those who tend to see the world in terms of polar opposites, rather than shades of grey.

So here’s a question to the readers of this blog. How would you feel if your kids (OK, you may have to use your imagination here) became fervently religious? Do you try to shield them from religion?

Would you send them to an atheist summer camp? Would you be more likely to if they failed to ‘see the light’?

Stokes, C., & Regnerus, M. (2009). When faith divides family: Religious discord and adolescent reports of parent–child relations. Social Science Research, 38 (1), 155-167 DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2008.05.002

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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