Families and Faith

Families and Faith

How do we pass faith on to our children? This researcher says the answer is simple.

Vern Bengtson in his library

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.

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.

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.

Where was all of this coming from? What role had their parents played in shaping these students’ values? The upheaval of the time stimulated my curiosity as a scientist. I would spend the rest of my life seeking data to answer questions like these, both personally and professionally.

I joined the gerontology faculty at the University of Southern California. My wife and I began attending a church quite different from the faith I grew up in. I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore, and this was also true of many young adults I was interviewing in my research.

But with two children of my own I thought it was important that we go to church–and I loved the music. Then tragedy hit: My beautiful young wife died of leukemia. Our daughters were only seven and four. Where was God? Where was that voice I needed to hear now more than ever?

All around me the world seemed dark, lonely, unforgiving and joyless. Where could I possibly turn?

Faith of Our Fathers
Mothers, of course, play a crucial role in their children’s religious upbringing, but in my research I found that fathers are often the key. Children raised by loving, affectionate, affirming fathers are twice as likely to follow their parents in faith as are children with distant, authoritarian fathers. Our data are clear on this.

My father’s work as a pastor kept him busy. I often wished he had more time to spend with me, but I never doubted his love. He was a warm, cuddly guy. Unfortunately he died before I reached full adulthood. Still, I see his influence alive in much of my life today.

I learned from his organizational and management skills as a pastor, from his passion for people and his ability to bring out the best in them. “Always do your best,” he would tell me. “God gives us gifts, but how we use them is up to us.”

He taught my eighth-grade confirmation class. I sometimes found his answers to my continual and probably annoying questions less than satisfying, but I could see he respected me for posing those questions. He never put me down for doubting.

Like this article? Sign up for our Your Weekly Inspiration newsletter, and get more stories like this delivered directly to your inbox