How Parents Make Their Children Religious (or Not)

How Parents Make Their Children Religious (or Not) January 7, 2022


The most important factor in whether or not children hold on to their faith and go to church when they are older is their parents.  That does not always hold true, of course, but in general, if the parents are religious, their children eventually will be also.  And vice, versa.  Again, with exceptions, if the parents are not religious and do not go to church much, neither will their children.

Oxford University Press has published a book on the subject by sociologists Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk entitled Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation 

The researchers have written about their findings in Christianity Today in an article entitled Parents Set the Pace for Their Adult Children’s Religious Life with the deck “‘Handing Down the Faith’ shows a vast majority of Americans don’t choose their religious beliefs. They inherit them.”  Here is an excerpt:

Parents define for their children the role that religious faith and practice ought to play in life, whether important or not, which most children roughly adopt. Parents set a “glass ceiling” of religious commitment above which their children rarely rise. Parental religious investment and involvement is in almost all cases the necessary and even sometimes sufficient condition for children’s religious investment and involvement.

This parental primacy in religious transmission is significant because, even though most parents do realize it when they think about it, their crucial role often runs in the background of their busy lives; it is not a conscious, daily, strategic matter. Furthermore, many children do not recognize the power that their parents have in shaping their religious lives but instead view themselves as autonomous information processors making independent, self-directing decisions. Widespread cultural scripts also consistently say that the influence of parents over their children recedes starting with the onset of puberty, while the influence of peers, music, and social media takes over.

According to Smith and Adamczyk,  the so-called “Generation Gap,” much heralded in the 1960s, does not really exist for today’s young people.  They do listen to their parents and they are influenced by them, whether they admit to it or are even aware of it or not.  The religious influence of parents comes not just in what they say to their children but in the day-to-day practices of the family–going to church or not; praying or not.

Evangelicals tend to stress conversion experiences.  I have had evangelical students who were troubled that they were “raised in a Christian home,” as opposed to living a life of sin and unbelief until the Holy Spirit broke in upon them.  People with that mindset are often vulnerable to attacks on their faith that say, “you just believe that because you were raised that way.”

But surely, God gives parents the prime responsibility for the spiritual lives of their children, as underscored throughout the Bible  (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:9-10; Proverbs 22:6; 1 Corinthians 7:14; 2 Timothy 1:5; etc.).  In the great passages on vocation in Ephesians,  this is made explicit:  “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

As we show in Family Vocation, the vocation of parents, even more so than that of pastors, is the evangelism and Christian formation of their children.  This starts by bringing them to Baptism, where Christ makes them His own.  And then feeding their children with the Word of God at church and at home. And ensuring that they have the “instruction of the Lord”–that they are taught about Christ, that they know the Law that brings them to the Gospel–and the “discipline” of the Lord, the life of the Church and the Christian life.

This doesn’t mean that religious beliefs are “inherited,” despite the Christianity Today headline.  Children must make their parents’ faith their own.  But it does mean that religious beliefs “run in the family,” just as the Old Testament saints invoked the “God of our fathers.”  And that “letting the kids decide about religion for themselves when they are older” generally means the kids will share their parents’ indifference.

And if transmitting the faith is part of the vocation of parents, this also means that God Himself is at work in and through what the parents do.  It may not seem like the children are receptive and they may well rebel against what their parents have taught them, but, in the long run, what God does by means of parents will have its effect.

But if parents pass down their faith to their children, why is church membership declining so much?  Well, according to another study, “Younger Americans have had less robust religious experiences during their childhood than previous generations have.”  And, perhaps even more to the point, Christians have been having significantly fewer children.  (See Philip Jenkins’ book Fertility and Faith.)


Image by Geralt, via Pixabay

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