© 2019 by Joel Thiessen. All rights reserved.

Passing on Religion

July 23, 2014

Religious socialization is a subject that I have considered at length over the past year. I think about this topic from the vantage point of a professor at a faith-based university interacting with students who are in their late teens and early twenties. I consider this issue relative to friends whose children are growing up far too quickly. I ponder this theme as a board member in my local congregation where family and children are important variables to many. And obviously as a sociologist of religion I cannot help but give dedicated attention to how or if religion is passed on from one generation to the next.

 

In three weeks I will depart for one of my favourite cities, San Francisco. There I will attend the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting. I will also give a paper titled, “Kids, You Make the Choice: Religious Socialization in Canada.” The premise of my paper is simple: parents in Canada are increasingly giving their children the choice of if or how religious they will be that in turn yields lower levels of religiosity from one generation to the next. This deferral to choice is indicative of a larger social reality where parents and children alike deeply value choice in many aspects of late modern society. This preference for choice regarding religion is magnified in a liberal, multicultural, diverse, inclusive, and tolerant Canadian context where people do not believe in forcing beliefs – let alone religious ones – on to others.

 

Based on my interview data I summarize and analyze three common responses to religious socialization among marginal religious affiliates (those who identify with a religion and attend religious services mainly for religious holidays and rites of passage) and religious nones (those who do not identify with any religion and never attend religious services). (1) A hands off approach is the most common. Parents in this category will not socialize their children with any particular set of religious beliefs and practices because they do not believe in forcing one’s religion on to another and they desire for their children to remain open to different religious perspectives and to discover religion for themselves. (2) Some religious instruction is the next approach where parents take any number of the following approaches: send their children to church and/or Sunday school several times a month until their teen years at which point children are given the option of continued involvement … and most teens opt out of religion at that point; baptize or confirm their children and attend religious services for religious holidays; or introduce basic religious beliefs in the home like belief in God or the afterlife or the meaning of Christmas. (3) The third approach is to outsource religious instruction to local churches or religious schools in an effort to impart good morals to their children.

 

Regular attenders are not exempt from this discussion. They more often proactively pass on religion in the home and bring their children to a local faith community. But even regular attenders are ever more likely to give their children the choice of continued involvement once children are in their teen years and this is resulting in generational declines in religiosity among young people in Canada and other modern Western nations.

 

Research is abundantly clear – children are unlikely to become and/or remain religious if their parents do not actively model, instruct, and dialogue about their faith in the home; they cannot depend on religious leaders to pass on religion for them. Further, levels of religiosity later in life tend to resemble one’s teen or young adult years. There are always exceptions, but on the whole if parents do not take seriously passing on religion it is unlikely that children will take on and/or remain religious later in life. As it turns out it seems like children are choosing to pass on religion – to set it aside – in large part because parents are less likely to pass religion on to their children.

 

There are plenty of excellent resources on this topic. If you are interested in reading more about this subject, drop me a note at jathiessen@ambrose.edu.

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JOEL THIESSEN, PhD
sociologist