Do atheists make better parents?

Do atheists make better parents? November 20, 2009

I’ve done a few posts recently about fertility, so how about the next stage, parenthood? How do non-religious parents differ from religious ones?

Here’s a study by Bart Duriez, from the Catholic University Leuven in Belgium, which looks into just that. He quizzed over 900 secondary school students in Belgium about their religious attitudes and their parents approaches to parenting. He also asked their parents the same questions.

Duriez used a rather nifty measure of religion, specially developed at the Center for Developmental Psychology in Leuven. It separates Christian beliefs along two dimensions: how strong is their belief in the transcendent, and how literal (or fundamentalist) are their beliefs.

Their measured four different aspects of parenting style: support, regulation, extrinsic goal promotion (i.e. wealth, popularity, good looks), and conservation goal promotion (i.e. conformity and tradition).

So… drum roll… who makes better parents?

Well, it turns out that there was no difference between atheists and strong religious believers on the amount of support given to children, how much parental control there was, and whether the parents promoted so-called ‘materialist’ ideas (extrinsic goals).

But there was a strong an consistent difference on conservation goal promotion. Religious parents were more likely to promote conformity and tradition, rather than openness to change. Previous studies have found that a parental focus on goal conservation leads to decreased well-being and increased authoritarianism.

You might expect that fundamentalists were more conservative, but this study didn’t find that. Biblical literalism was not independently related to conservation goal promotion.

It’s the the intensity of beliefs, rather than the parents’ so-called ‘cognitive style’, that matters. Where biblical literalism did have an effect was on materialism – fundamentalists were less worldly.

Previous studies have found a link between religion and parental control, and Duriez & Co speculate that their failure to find the same may be a statistical aberration. They conclude:

… although adolescents of religious parents may be less likely to engage in problem behaviors, this might be accompanied by a rigid and closed-minded functioning.

So, who makes better parents? It depends what you mean by ‘better’.

ResearchBlogging.orgDuriez, B., Soenens, B., Neyrinck, B., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2009). Is Religiosity Related to Better Parenting?: Disentangling Religiosity From Religious Cognitive Style Journal of Family Issues, 30 (9), 1287-1307 DOI: 10.1177/0192513X09334168

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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