Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations

Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations
Vern L. Bengtson, with Norella M. Putney, and Susan Harris
Oxford University Press USA 2013

Few things are more likely to cause heartache to devout parents than seeing their child leave the faith. And it seems, from media portrayals, that this is happening more and more frequently. But is religious change between generations common? How does religion get passed down from one generation to the next? How do some families succeed in passing on their faith while others do not? Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations seeks to answer these questions and many more.

For almost four decades, Vern Bengtson and his colleagues have been conducting the largest-ever study of religion and family across generations. Through war and social upheaval, depression and technological revolution, they have followed more than 350 families composed of more than 3,500 individuals whose lives span more than a century—the oldest was born in 1881, the youngest in 1988—to find out how religion is, or is not, passed down from one generation to the next.

What they found may come as a surprise: despite enormous changes in American society, a child is actually more likely to remain within the fold than leave it, and even the nonreligious are more likely to follow their parents’ example than to rebel. And while outside forces do play a role, the crucial factor in whether a child keeps the faith is the presence of a strong fatherly bond. Mixing unprecedented data with gripping interviews and sharp analysis, Families and Faith offers a fascinating exploration of what allows a family to pass on its most deeply-held tradition—its faith.

Vern L. Bengtson is the AARP/University Professor of Gerontology and Sociology Emeritus and Research Professor of Social Work at the University of Southern California. He has published sixteen books and over 220 articles. He was elected President of the Gerontological Society of America and has twice been granted a MERIT award from the National Institute on Aging for his 35-year Longitudinal Study of Generations, on which this book is based.


“What if we could study the transmission of faith for four generations spanning 35 years? What would we learn about what practices do (and do not) effectively pass on the faith? In this brilliantly researched study of over 3000 subjects and over 300 multi-generational families, Vern Bengtson turns some of the most widely accepted conventional wisdom about faith transmission on its ear. Written in a warm, engaging style, this book is a must read for parents, grandparents, and leaders who long to see faith faithfully passed on to the coming generations.” —Mark DeVries, Founder, Youth Ministry Architects; Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families, First Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee

“Research on the religious and spiritual lives of American young people and on the transmission of religious faith across generations has grown tremendously in recent years. Families and Faith makes a major and very impressive contribution to our knowledge in these areas, using data across multiple generations to shed light on processes at work over long stretches of time. This is now one of the best books on the market in this general area of study. I highly recommend it.” —Christian Smith, author of Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults

“Vern Bengtson’s Families and Faith is an important contribution to our understanding of how faith is or isn’t transmitted within families across generations. It charts changes and continuities across the various generations over the past century and is full of new insights that challenge many of our taken-for-granted assumptions. An excellent empirical study.” —Wade Clark Roof, J.F. Rowny Professor of Religion and Society Emeritus, Research Professor, University of California at Santa Barbara