Short report on the Interim Conference: "The transmission of religion across generations: a comparative international study of continuities and discontinuities in family socialisation"

in Münster from 9-11 June 2022
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More than 30 researchers from nine countries met at the University of Münster’s Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” in June to discuss interim findings from the research project carried out in Germany, Finland, Italy, Canada, and Hungary on the transmission of religion in families across generations. Also present as a special guest was Prof. Dr. Merril Silverstein, who, as head of the US partner project “Pro-Social Values and Spirituality in the Absence of Religion Among Millennials and their Families”, presented the initial findings of his study.

Internationally renowned experts were invited to comment on the country reports, including Prof. Dr. Lori Beaman (University of Ottowa), Prof. Dr. Christel J. Manning (Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut), Prof. Dr. Per Pettersson (Karlstad University), Prof. Dr. Detlef Pollack (University of Münster), Prof. Dr. Jörg Stolz (Université de Lausanne), and Prof. Dr. David Voas (University College London).

Led by Prof. Dr. Christel Gärtner and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, the project has been investigating the transmission of beliefs, values and worldviews across generations since October 2019. To begin the conference on Thursday afternoon, Gärtner first presented the history of the research project, the central research questions, as well as the innovative potential of the theoretical and methodological approaches, this potential residing above all in its linking of two concepts of generation (familial and historical) and in its triangulation of methods. Gärtner named as a preliminary but essential finding two dynamics that intertwine in the transmission and transformation of values, beliefs and worldviews: while transmission is promoted by warm and open relationships between generations, parental accordance, and a homogeneous religious tradition, transformation owes more to the social context. This could be explained by the fact that the interviewees have to position themselves in a different religious field than their parents – when they were in their phase of adolescence. Transformation thus takes place in each generation’s formative phase of adolescence, when each generation adapts through interpretive appropriation to developments in society with regard to religion. This (preliminary) finding shows the fruitfulness of the two different concepts of generation, which make it possible to relate the dynamics of intra-familial generational relations to the social context, and thus to grasp the intersection between the inherent dynamic process of social change and biographical experience. At the end of the introduction, Gärtner announced the good news that the John Templeton Foundation would fund the project for another two years.

Each of the five country panels began with two 15-minute presentations on the qualitative and quantitative sub-projects. The introductory presentations were each followed by a critical commentary from the expert panel, this then leading into detailed and constructive discussions.

You can find the announcement of the event here.

East and West Germany

The presentation of the German sub-project discussed the important role for transmission of religious family practice and a homogeneous religiosity on the part of parents. Both the quantitative and the qualitative investigation confirmed the very different conditions for transmission in East and West Germany. Due to the comparatively homogeneous religious field in East Germany, secularization tendencies were already more pronounced in the first half of the 20th century than in the mixed-denominational West, where the denominations competed against each other. In the GDR, the churches were persecuted and subject to state repression from the beginning of the 1950s. In such a context, families themselves have to create the conditions in which they can pass on religiosity – if they want to pass on religion at all. In West Germany, it was not until the cultural changes of the 1960s that the ideals of upbringing associated with religion changed, these ideals no longer being oriented towards values and virtues such as discipline, obedience and diligence, but more towards self-development, personal responsibility and making one’s own decisions, which can also mean deciding not to continue religion.

The family interviews show very clearly what conditions parents create for transmission and how they transmit religion. The qualitative study distinguished different dimensions with regard to the transmission of religion (identity, values, practices, rituals, belief, attachment to religious institutions) and showed that Christian values (such as love of one’s neighbour, solidarity and the willingness to help others) have a higher continuity across generations than belief. Even when there is successful transmission, this is accompanied by clear transformations, e.g. the stronger demand for participation in religious institutions, combined with the demand for recognition of one’s own involvement.

The question of whether the religiously active minority (core group) in East Germany actually differs from believers in West Germany in the intensity of their religious practice was the subject of heated debate. The question raised in the very first panel of how the qualitative and quantitative data could be more closely related to each other was taken up again and again in the rest of the conference.


Using data from Hungary, the presentation on Thursday evening discussed the positive effects of multigenerational religious upbringing involving both parents and grandparents, and showed that the loss of institutional religious upbringing during the communist regime (1948-1989) could not be compensated by purely intra-familial religious socialization. The data confirm the widespread thesis that the decline in religiosity is a generational effect, i.e. the following generation is less religious than the previous one. The increase in institutional religious upbringing after 1990 does not contradict this, as it is not accompanied by a strong family religiosity. Rather, it suggests that the parents’ choice of an institutionally religious setting is often not religiously motivated, but is due to the good reputation of educational institutions. This was also observed in the Italian context.

Does the transmission of religious and non-religious beliefs differ?

Another finding of the quantitative study from Hungary was that religious persons attribute their religiosity to an influence from family members, but non-religious persons do not attribute their non-religiosity to such members. Making a comparison with the familial transmission of a passion for birdwatching, the presentation raised the question of whether the transmission of non-religiosity is marked by similar mechanisms and processes as the transmission of religiosity. After all, someone who acquires a passion for birdwatching could name family role models very precisely, but someone who is not an amateur ornithologist could not attribute the absence of this passion to specific persons.

In the further course of the conference, a common denominator was found on the basis of examples from the family interviews from several countries as well as the studies on the non-religiosity of the experts present: namely, the need to take the diversity of non-religiosity into account. Non-religiosity is not simply the absence of the characteristic of religiosity, but can be anchored very differently in the family identity and has a range of relations to religion – from a belief in God or a higher power alongside a rejection of institutional religions, understanding oneself as spiritual but not religious, and an indifference to religion, to strong rejection from an atheistic position. Family role models are cited, such as atheist uncles or simply the absence of religious socialization or the experience that religion does not benefit one’s life. This discussion raised the question of whether non-belief in Hungary can be explained by the stronger extra-familial socialist context.


Friday morning saw the Italian colleagues present the qualitative and quantitative results of their country study, and they highlighted gender-specific influences of socialization in the transmission of religion. On the one hand, they emphasized the positive effect of a uniform parental upbringing on the continuation of religiosity across generations, while on the other pointing out that the influence on daughters is the greatest. The quantitative data showed that the influence of parental socialization on the religiosity of younger cohorts has increased overall.

The qualitative sub-study presented three different styles of transmitting religiosity. These can be broadly assigned to different generations. The findings show a clear change in patterns of religious socialization and point to change in the extra-familial environment. For the younger generation, it is also important to approach their religiosity through a personal search for meaning and no longer simply to adopt the religion of their parents. The example of Italy shows clearly that the marked increase in the employment of mothers since the 1960s impairs the continuity of religion, either because the transmission is less effective or because it becomes less important to working mothers.

It was suggested in the discussion that, with regard to the still very strong Catholic identity, more attention be given to the role of national pride and religion, which (according to the thesis put forward by the sociologist of religion Roberto Cipriani) is closely interwoven with culture and is at the same time becoming increasingly diffuse. The role of the interweaving of religion and culture is also a question to be examined in more detail in relation to Finland and Canada.


The qualitative country study from Canada underlined the positive role of religious communities for the continuity of religiosity across generations. This factor plays an important role especially among the (on average more successful) evangelical and Muslim families. Discussed in this context was the thesis that religious communities are particularly successful in the transmission of religion when they shield themselves from the secular context of Canada and withdraw into themselves. For many believers of the younger generation, it is also important to reconcile their religiosity with socially progressive attitudes.

The quantitative sub-study was used to discuss how to operationalize the transmission of religion in a meaningful way. While religious affiliation is declining overall, this decline is not evenly distributed across all religious groups. The indicator of the “religious gap” presented takes into account that religious affiliation is still passed on more strongly, especially among Catholics and Muslims, but that subsequent generations barely reach the same level of religiosity. In this context, it could be shown that migrant families also show a decline in religiosity over the generations, albeit starting from a higher initial level.


The presentations from Finland on Friday afternoon showed very clearly the decline in religiosity, and pointed to the strong influence on this decline of cultural change since the 1960s, the prevalence of liberal styles of upbringing playing a decisive role in the discontinuity of religiosity from one generation to the next.

The decline in religiosity among women is particularly pronounced in Finland and Italy, the most religiously homogeneous countries in the sample, so that further project work can use these data to examine again the question of the different roles of mothers and fathers in religious socialization.

Talking about religion

Based on the finding that less is said (about religion) in Finnish families than in other countries, participants discussed again and again the importance for transmission of talking about religion. Given the clear finding that family religious practice has a strong relevance for the continuity of religiosity, the question arose as to when and how talking about religion is part of this practice. For example, is religion talked about more often in families when it is no longer shared as a matter of course in society? While the quantitative data only show that talking about religion is relevant for transmission, the qualitative data from the different countries show that talking about religion includes very different things, such as the design of religious rites of passage, criticism of churches or religions, or religious plurality in society. Faith itself or the content of faith seems to be the issue least talked about. Attention was also paid to the seemingly contradictory finding that, contrary to statements of older persons in the questionnaire that they had not or hardly talked about religion in their generation, the grandparents participated very openly in the family interviews in the discussions about religiosity and its transmission in the family – also by emphasizing the difference. This speaks for a clear change in the communication culture in families, so that grandparents and parents currently talk about religion much more openly than they used to.

Interestingly, the media did not come up in the family interviews in relation to religiosity and its transmission, the exception being Muslim families, for whom the internet is an important source of information, suggesting that Muslim minorities have a greater need for religious knowledge in dominant Christian majority cultures.


Merril Silverstein presented the first quantitative findings from the US partner project on Saturday morning. The analyses are based on empirical data on the transmission of religion and values in US families. The tenth wave (2021) of the survey, which began in 1971, makes family data now available across five generations. A central point of the presentation was the role of religiosity in prosocial orientations. The study showed that religiosity indirectly promotes altruism in the next generation, because a higher level of religiosity in the parents is often accompanied by strong altruism in the children. This is passed on even if religiosity declines in the next generation. Similar correlations were observed in the German qualitative sub-project when general Christian values are passed on, but not the contents of faith.

The subsequent discussion focused on the importance of intensity with regard to transmission, because the data from the United States show that both very religious and very secular families are relatively successful in transmitting their value system to the next generation.

“Narrative of Choice”

This was followed by an overarching discussion about an essential aspect of the transformation in transmission that is linked to the change in parental ideals of upbringing (especially from the second generation onwards): namely, the idea of “narrative of choice”. This idea, according to which everyone has the right and the responsibility to decide on their own worldview and individual way of life, is found, as expected, in non-religious families. But it also shows up in the narratives of religious families. Even believers no longer simply adopt religious orientations unquestioningly, but see it as their task to develop and justify them on their own responsibility. However, the family interviews also show the limits of this ideal, for example if one’s own children were to decide in favour of the Muslim faith (which requires more justification) or a commitment to the Catholic Church (which has recently been criticized above all because of the abuse scandals).

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Final discussion

The researchers returned at noon on Saturday to the methodological discussions that had arisen again and again during the conference, the different methodological approaches to data collection (family interviews and population survey) being the object of (sometimes critical) reflection: Do three generations of a family present really talk openly about religion and do conflicts also come up? Are the retrospective assessments collected in the survey reliable indicators? The final discussion also dealt with the challenge of combining the qualitative and quantitative analyses (“mixed methods”). The country teams, which have so far kept the two methodologies strictly separate, argued that the strengths of both methodologies can be better exploited if they are not combined too early. The question of comparability also arose, because family generations (grandparents, parents, children) are the unit of study in the qualitative sub-project, whereas birth cohorts have mostly been analyzed so far in the quantitative sub-project. Ideas for joint publications were also developed in this regard, e.g. the comparison of religious socialization within the respective generations. A precise comparative analysis of the survey data and the family interviews would have to pursue a common question on the one hand, while fulfilling the prerequisite that generations and birth cohorts are brought into line on the other.

All participants are looking forward to the following two years, when the focus will be on the comparative analyses of methods and countries.

A final excursion to the Museum of Religious Culture RELíGIO in Telgte, a small town in Münsterland that is the site of pilgrimages, allowed the participants to gain insights into the diversity of world religions and their rituals, of Christian nativity scenes around the globe, as well as of Muslim life in Germany. The participants ended the conference with a dinner together in Telgte.

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