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Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations
Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations
Vern L. Bengtson
Oxford University Press, 2013
288 pp., $33.95

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R. Stephen Warner


Patience May Be Rewarded

Faith from generation to generation.

If one pays too much attention to the culture wars—to the right-wing jeremiads about moral collapse and left-wing celebrations of individual liberation—it would seem that both religion and family are on their last legs. Neither institution enjoys the authority it once had. Pews are emptying, and parents seem helpless to cajole their teenagers to accompany them to church.

Based on a long-range research project extending over four decades, the authors of Families and Faith argue otherwise. Despite rapid social change in the years since the 1960s, they find that the ability of parents to pass their religious tradition on to their children has not diminished. The majority of parents and their young adult children share the same religious identities. Despite the influence of peers, schools, and media, parents are still the strongest influence on their children's religious identities. Grandparents matter too, and because of increased longevity, the importance of grandparents as religious models and tutors for their grandchildren seems likely only to increase. These outcomes are not automatic—intergenerational continuity varies by religious tradition, religious transmission must be worked at, divorce and intermarriage make it much harder, and missteps are common even under propitious conditions—but the chances of success are better than the authors (and we, their readers, they say) have been led to expect.

These and other conclusions emerge from the Longitudinal Study of Generations (LSOG), initially funded in 1970 by the National Institute of Mental Health as a one-time study. Beginning with men enrolled in Southern California's largest health-maintenance organization, the researchers identified a representative sample of 358 three-generation families whose 2,044 members—grandparents to grandchildren—were surveyed on questions centering on mental health, including questions on religion. Fifteen years later, the National Institute on Aging ...

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