Professor’s Book Challenges Prevailing Notions about Faith and American Families

February 25, 2014
by Vincent Lim

Public discourse in American society today would suggest that religion is losing its hold on people’s lives. Religious scholars and media reports underscore the point that Americans are now less religious than ever before, at least in terms of church membership and attendance.

This is sobering news for religious leaders and has left many anxious about the imminent exodus of followers and the growing challenges parents face in keeping their faith for future generations.

Vern Bengtson, a senior scientist at the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging at the USC School of Social Work, thinks faith leaders and parents should not despair.

“A lot of people become more religious as they age,” said Bengtson, a past president of the Gerontological Society of America.

He predicts baby boomers will take a prodigal path back to religion in later life much like previous generations of Americans.

“It’s too soon for a religious resurgence to manifest itself in the baby boomer generation, but we will probably see it in the next decade,” Bengtson said. “They will be involved in religious activities like their parents were as they enter into their 70s and 80s.”

Findings from his book Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations support his beliefs and suggest further religious continuity for generation X and millennial generation members.

Analyzing data from his landmark Longitudinal Study of Generations that surveyed the religious beliefs and spirituality of more than 350 four-generation families over 35 years, Bengtson found that despite the many changes in society and family structures in American society in the past decades, there is still remarkable religious continuity between parents and children.

“There was greater parent-child similarity in terms of religion than I would have expected,” Bengtson said. “In fact, the degree of parent-child similarity has not changed in the over three-decade period of our study.”

Loyalty to specific Christian denominations or branches of Judaism may be on the decline, but the passing down of core religious beliefs and values remains high, and those who leave the religious flock tend to return to their faith in old age.

Findings in the book offer some clues as to the type of glue that can keep religious bonds strong across generations.

Appropriate modeling of religious practice by parents — preferably of the same faith — undoubtedly matters to children. If Christian parents speak about the importance of studying the Bible but never read the Bible, then their child will see hypocrisy and turn away from their family’s religion, Bengtson said.

Yet what seems to matters most is the emotional quality of children’s relationships with their fathers.

“One of the surprises was how important the warmth of fathers is because it’s so much more important than the warmth of mothers,” Bengtson said. “Ministers and priests are correct in saying that fathers should be an example and bring their kids to church and be a good role model.  But that’s not enough. The key for fathers in faith transmission is being affirming and nurturing, not strict and authoritarian.”

Not only are fathers a major influence on children, so too are grandparents.

“I was very surprised by the strong role of grandparents because they’re one step generationally removed from primary socialization, and in our society, the popular stereotype is that grandparents are kind of irrelevant, which they aren’t,” Bengtson said. “To see that in the lives of these young adults there was so much generational influence in terms of religious beliefs was intriguing and rewarding for me to see, as a grandparent myself.”

Still, nearly a quarter profess no religious identity. The data show atheism and secular humanistic values are passed down just as well and sometimes better than religious traditions, Bengtson explains.

Finding His Calling

Bengtson’s work is in some ways an unexpected culmination of his own personal spiritual journey.

As he was finishing up his book, Bengtson himself had an unexpected spiritual experience and is now actively involved in Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, Calif., singing every Sunday in the choir.

“In my 60s, I started thinking more seriously about my personal life and how the spiritual dimension was so important, as it had been to my family,” Bengtson said.

His later-life professional interest in studying religious transmission across generations stemmed from reflections about his family’s long history of religious involvement and his strained relationship with his mother.

“As a young adult, while I moved away from the Christian fundamentalism that characterized my childhood, my widowed mother became more and more distraught,” Bengtson writes in his book. “Each of us loved the other so much, but we were formal and uneasy together because of the religious gulf between us.”

He wanted to find out what encourages faith values to be passed down in families and what discourages faith values from being passed down in families, though that was not the original focus of his Longitudinal Study of Generations.

As a new assistant professor at USC conducting research in the cultural milieu of the 1960s, Bengtson was curious about investigating changes in family relationships over time and their connection to mental health. The National Institute of Mental Health agreed to fund his project because of its interest in research that could possibly explain the apparent generational rift dividing the younger generation and their elders at the time.

“It was at a period when the ‘Generation Gap’ was a very hot topic in the American mind,” Bengtson said. “I wanted to find out whether the “Gap” in values and attitudes was as wide as it appeared.”

The study asked parents and children questions on a whole range of topics including politics, religion, women’s rights and psychological issues in an attempt to determine generational similarities and differences.

Data from what would become one of the longest, continuously running studies of intergenerational family relationships allowed Bengtson to publish numerous academic articles and several books, but he had little interest in examining and analyzing the data collected about religion until decades later.

Thirty years later, in 2000, Bengtson and a graduate student, Casey Copen, became curious about determining precisely which responses to questions had the highest degree of parent-child similarity and grandparent-grandchild similarity.

To his surprise, he found the greatest similarities were in religious beliefs and values.

Looking to explore this surprising finding further, Bengtson and his research team secured further funding and conducted interviews with a sub sample of the families in the study.

The data and excerpts from the interviews are what make up the contents of his book Families and Faith, which is unique in its focus.

There have been very few studies about spiritual changes and development across the lifespan, and those studies had very small samples sizes or had not been able to follow the same individuals over their lifetime.

“Nobody else had ever done extensive research on religious transmission or continuities in spiritual values from one generation to the next, and nobody that I know of carried it out with the sort of personal interest that I had,” Bengtson said.