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Faith in the family: How belief passes from one generation to the next

Published: Thursday, Dec. 26 2013 9:00 a.m. MST

Three generations of a Jewish family light a Hanukkah menorah. Jews involve multiple generations, teaching their beliefs and traditions to children in the home to preserve the faith.

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On Easter Sunday three years ago, Vern Bengtson opened the doors of Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, Calif., and felt a religious feeling he hadn't experienced since his youth.

"I was just struck by the sound of the choir and the organ, sunlight radiating through the stained glass windows, vaulted stone ceilings reaching to the heavens," he said. "I just sat down in the pew and started crying. I felt the spirit."

For more than three decades Bengtson had strayed far from his Christian upbringing in rural central California, where his father was pastor of a small Evangelical Covenant Church. A sociology professor at the University of Southern California and noted scholar on the dynamics of aging, Bengtson had compartmentalized his faith from his academic work until he began delving into how and why religion is passed down from one generation to the next.

"It's interesting and you could say coincidental that my religious reawakening coincided with this research project of intergenerational transmission" of faith, he said.

His examination of religious rebels and prodigals, cohesive and conflicting faith across generations and the role parenting styles play in transmitting belief from one generation to the next was in some respects an examination of his own life. And of the many lessons learned from his study of 360 families stretching across four generations, Bengtson said parents and clergy shouldn't panic or despair when a young adult leaves the family faith.

His team found the transmission of faith has remained remarkably stable over the past 40 years with six out of 10 parents with young adult children today who report having the same religious tradition as their parents compared to seven in 10 in 1970.

"There is a strength about religion that’s not going to go away especially among youth. There is a life course trajectory by which a lot of young people leave religion and then come back," he said, referring to his findings recently published in the book "Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations." "My hypothesis is that in the next decade or two you will see a resurgence in church attendance as baby boomers retire and return to church."

Religious transmission

Bengtson's first inkling that his generation felt differently about faith than the one before came as a University of Chicago graduate student in the 1960s. He recalled that he and a Mormon classmate were among the few still clinging to their families' faith traditions.

"We felt like strangers," Bengtson said. "Young people everywhere were rebelling against their elders. Yet in my family, my 32 cousins on my father’s side and 22 on mother’s side, all of us were still Bible believing Christians. So I wondered why is it that in some families there were so many faithful followers and in other families there was this chaos?"

The question led to a landmark research project that began in 1970 with 2,000 people belonging to 360 families. Bengtson tracked his multi-generation sample for more than three decades, which produced more than 260 scholarly articles and 16 books about the psychological and social impacts of aging on family relationships.

He asked family members about their religious beliefs and practices. But he didn't see much use for those responses until about 2005, when he took notice of other surveys finding a growing number of so-called "nones" — people who said they weren't affiliated with any organized religion, but some of whom described themselves as spiritual.

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