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Families and Faith

How are our values formed? How do we pass faith on to our children? This sociologist has devoted 35 years to these questions.

By Vern Bengtson, Santa Barbara, California

As appeared in

I am a believer–in God, and in scientific data. I’ve studied religion from the inside as a person of faith and from the outside as a social scientist.

This may seem paradoxical to some people. To me it’s been a journey of discovery, about my own faith and about how faith is passed from one generation to the next. I’ve been surprised at the way my own faith journey has been borne out by the very research I’ve done.

For 35 years, my research team and I have interviewed thousands of people from different generations in a study of families and health that included questions about religion.

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What I’ve learned is this: Even with all the societal pressures families face today, when warm and loving parents practice faith, most often their children will follow them in faith.

Maybe not exactly in the same way and not without periods of questioning, but the data from our study are clear: A warm, faith-based home most often produces faith-based children.

Parents Set the Foundation
It’s easy to get the impression that young people don’t listen to their parents, especially on matters of religion. But people were saying that same thing generations ago. It wasn’t particularly true then, and our data show it’s not true now.

My research indicates that children who grow up in what they experience as close, loving relationships with their parents are nearly twice as likely to share their parents’ religious beliefs as those who say their parents were distant and unaffectionate.

Another researcher, Scott Myers, a sociology professor at Montana State University, analyzed the results of numerous nationwide studies and concluded that “parents’ religiosity is the primary influence on the religiosity of their adult offspring.” Not by dictating faith practices but by setting a consistent example.

My own experience is a case in point. I was born into a very religious family. As far back as the 1600s, the men in my family were church leaders. My dad was an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor. I was an only child, and it was assumed that I would be called to be a minister too when I grew up.

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Every Sunday I sat in the church listening to my father preach about how God is always with us, always guiding us, telling us what his will is for us. At home my dad would ask for God’s guidance in everything, the smallest decision in his life, praying aloud, his head bowed.

“God speaks to us every day,” he told me. “You just have to listen.”

My parents encouraged me in everything I did. I excelled in school, especially science. And in music. When I was old enough I joined the church choir. All those voices joined as one, the organ soaring, the poetry in the words, it all filled me with joy. That was what I looked forward to most about church.

But guess what? God never spoke to me, not once, certainly not the way he conversed with my father. So how could I be a preacher, as my parents wished? I prayed. But as far as I could tell, no one out there was listening.

I could see the hurt in my parents’ eyes when I told them I wanted to go into science, not ministry. But I did please them by going to our church college, North Park University in Chicago. There I found some amazing classes that opened my eyes to the variety of religious experiences.

Then I was off to doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, where I met students and faculty who said, “God is dead,” and who felt modern society had outgrown religion. It was the 1960s, and nothing was sacred. This new generation, my generation, seemed to want to tear everything down.