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In shaping whether we’re religious or not – it’s (still) parents who count most

Candle-lit family worship via Pixabay images

Candle-lit family worship via Pixabay images

August 20, 2017   4 mins

I have a friend who is seven years old. He’s an excellent swimmer, lots of fun and very affectionate. Despite his many virtues, he has a knack of putting the adults in his life in embarrassing situations. One time, he was in the supermarket with his mum. As they turned the trolley into the wine aisle he looked around him, pointing excitedly at the bottles of red and shouted very loudly: “Mummy’s juice!”

They don’t miss much.

Children pick up all sorts of social, cultural and emotional cues from the family home. That’s as true of their religious beliefs – or lack of them – as of everything else. The motto used by Jesuits – ‘give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man’ – remains widely used by faith leaders but it is in the home where a child’s outlook is largely shaped.

The work of Professor David Voas, one of the world’s leading sociologists of religion, finds that the most significant influence on our personal religious affiliation is our parents. Where parents are highly observant, children are more likely to identify with a religion in adulthood than those brought up in non-religious homes1.

91% of children brought up by two parents who are non-religious grow up to identify in adulthood as ‘no religion’. In Britain, the data suggests that the pull away from identifying with a religion is stronger than the pull towards it2 but if you grow up in a religious family you might stick with it. Old childhood habits die hard, and many people who have been brought up with religious observance – storytelling, festivals, ritual, prayers, or attendance at worship – retain some of this heritage into adulthood.

The beliefs of parents are about three times as impactful as attendance at a faith school or a Sunday school

Voas and his colleagues found that where both parents follow the same faith together, 46% of children will grow up following it too. The same percentage will go on to describe themselves as having no religion. On average, one in twelve follow a religion or denomination different to their parents.

The dataset Voas uses doesn’t seem to indicate a difference in families where two parents follow different religions to each other. He suggests that there may be two balancing forces at work: on the one hand spouses who maintain separate religious identities probably tend to be more religious than others, but on the other hand transmission to children is more difficult if the parents don’t share a religion.

In Britain, given our history and our religious landscape, it is much easier to gather data relating to people’s experiences of Christianity than of other religions, as some of the following examples show.

Out of the mouths…(with a nod to Psalm 8:2): When we ask young people about their own experience, they tend to agree. A recent study of 11-18 year olds in Britain which we at ComRes carried out for HOPE and the Church of England found that, of the young people who identified as Christians, 45% said growing up in a Christian family was a primary reason for their affiliation3. This was streets ahead of other reasons given – such as attending a religious school or Sunday school (coming in at 17% and 15% respectively).

Celebrating together: Shared meals, traditions and rituals, particularly at times of celebration, form major moments in a family’s life and in an adult’s memory of significant times. Attendance at worship services, whether it’s the annual visit by some Jewish families to the synagogue for Yom Kippur, the celebrations of Eid following Ramadan fasting by Muslims, or the Christmas carol or Christingle services4, mark the rhythm of the year.

Childhood bereavement: For many of us, the first time we’re introduced to personalised stories of the immaterial is when someone close to us dies. In religious families, the traditions and stories of legacy, memory and afterlife come into their own. Even in families where religious tradition is not devoutly observed, children might be told a story to reassure them that the presence of the deceased person somehow lives on – a star in the sky, an angel close by, or someone watching over us. This is why organisations like Humanists UK point families towards children’s books which describe bereavement without reference to religion.



  • The Most Holy Object In The House: Mireille Jachau remembers her grandmother’s experience of persecution as a German Jew, and her inherited ritual of breadmaking, and compares it with her own experience of growing up in a Sydney suburb.
  • Religion Runs In The Family: Professor Vern Bengtson tells Christianity Today about his research among American families and how – perhaps surprisingly – the influence of parents is as as influential in the passing down of beliefs as in 1970.
  • Muslim Childhood: The first study of Muslim children in Britain under the age of 12 to focus on religious nurture – carried out at Cardiff University.
  • The Bloomsbury Reader in Religion and Childhood: this set of essays analyse some of the ways in which children are involved in religious life, and the institutions which affect their faith formation.
  1. Crockett A & Voas D (2006) Generations of decline: Religious change in twentieth-century Britain. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion
  2. In his 2016 analysis of recent British Social Attitudes data, Professor Bullivant of St Mary’s University Twickenham notes that:  For every one Catholic convert there are 10 cradle Catholics who no longer regard themselves to be Catholic. For every one Anglican convert there are 12 cradle Anglicans who no longer regard themselves to be Anglican.
  3. 45% of young people identifying as Christian attributed their religious identity to growing up in a Christian family, as did 40% of young people identifying as Christian and also attending church at least monthly and praying and reading/listening to the Bible at least weekly – see Q32 in this survey in whicb ComRes interviewed 2,000 people aged 11-18 online between 7th-19th December 2016. Data were weighted to be representative of this audience by age, gender and region.
  4. The Church of England report that while one million people are in an Anglican church each Sunday, at Christmas 7.5 million people attend a Christmas or Advent service organised by an Anglican church.

Katie leads Faith Research Centre at ComRes, helping public, private, non-profit, academic and media clients to gather data and insights about religion and belief, and worships at Riverside Vineyard Church.


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