How religion is transmitted in families

International survey in Europe and Canada: sociologists of religion at the University of Münster in Germany investigate how beliefs and values are transmitted to future generations – No precise explanations provided yet for the decline in religiosity in Western societies

Press release of the Cluster of Excellence from 2 October 2019

© Holtkötter / Heeke

Given the decline in religiosity in Western societies, sociologists from the University of Münster’s Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” are carrying out a study in Europe and Canada to determine how and why religion is transmitted to the next generation in some families and not in others. “We know that a person’s religiosity depends very much on their upbringing. However, we know little about how exactly values, norms and patterns of interpretation are transmitted between the generations of a family, what leads to their being transmitted or not being transmitted, and how religiosity changes in the process”, explain the sociologists of religion Christel Gärtner and Olaf Müller from the Cluster of Excellence. “What is undisputed is that church religiosity is declining in Western countries, and that there is a link here to changed ideas in religious upbringing. But there is a lack of exact data and explanations as to why some families want or are able to transmit their faith and others not”. The group comprising researchers from five countries will receive almost 1.8 million euros in funding from the American John Templeton Foundation until 2022.

The research team will interview families in Canada, Finland, Germany, Hungary, and Italy in a representative survey and in qualitative interviews with family members from three generations (grandparents, parents and children). The five countries were selected on the basis of their historical differences in terms of religion, society and culture. Besides Christel Gärtner, Olaf Müller, Linda Hennig-Yildirim, and Chiara Porada from the University of Münster, the research group includes Kati Tervo-Niemelä from the University of Eastern Finland, Gergely Rosta from Pázmány Péter Catholic University Budapest, Roberta Ricucci from the University of Turin, and Peter Beyer and Guillaume Boucher from the University of Ottawa. The project is located in the Cluster of Excellence’s Centre for Religion and Modernity at the University of Münster.

Liberal parents are transmitting their religion less and less

“That church religiosity and practice have been continuously declining since the 1960s is empirically proven and undisputed”, says Christel Gärtner. In most Western countries, religious upbringing and the authoritarian style of parenting have declined since the 1970s, and conveying the dogmatic beliefs of the church is no longer a primary goal in families. “But there is no agreement in the research on how to explain the empirical findings regarding the discontinuation of religion”. One common interpretation is that it is a generational effect: religiously liberal parents are transmitting their religiosity less and less to their children. This is particularly the case when people marry – if the spouse belongs to a different faith or is not religious, then the children will be less religious than those from families with only one religion. “But this cannot explain how religion is transmitted or discontinued between the generations”, says Christel Gärtner.

The project is called “The transmission of religion across generations: a comparative international study of continuities and discontinuities in family socialization”. Established in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation, which is based in Pennsylvania, provides funding for research in physics, biology, psychology, the social sciences, philosophy, and theology. In 2018, it provided funding of 323 million dollars for 322 projects. (vvm)