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Why has every postwar generation since the 1950s become less religious?

Adolescents actively shape the transformation of religion and become the bearers of new religious patterns, worldviews, and values.
a painting of a building with a red sky in the background.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach, Wikimedia Commons
Key Takeaways
  • A unique study focused on how religion is transmitted across three generations — from grandparent, to parent, to child.
  • The transmission of religion from one generation to the next always entails transformation in how the religion is practiced.
  • Adolescents actively shape the transformation of religion and become the bearers of new religious patterns, worldviews, and values. 

For Western countries, surveys show that each successive postwar generation since the 1950s has been less religious on average than the previous generation. Besides a decline in religiosity such as church service attendance, we also can see a decline in religious socialization in families, which affects religious practice and educational goals in families. While there is agreement that this decline is due to a generational change, we do not yet understand how precisely this change takes place. Moreover, the conditions under which religious and non-religious worldviews and values are passed on have rarely been the subject of comparative studies.

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In this article, I will present some findings on how family matters for the transmission of religion, while context matters for the transformation of religion from an international research project funded by the John Templeton Foundation, “The transmission of religion across generations: a comparative international study of continuities and discontinuities in family socialization.” The project addresses the research deficits mentioned by investigating Canada and four European countries (Germany, Finland, Hungary, and Italy). Our main goal is to gain a better understanding of how faith and worldviews are passed on, transformed, or come to an end across generations. We believe that, besides the international comparison, our project is innovative for three main reasons.

A unique study

First, we focus on three generations. By doing so, we follow up on the consensus among scholars that a generational effect plays the key role when it comes to the decline of church-based religious practice and belief, and to religious change in general.

Second, as it is considered crucial for the transmission of religion, we concentrate on family socialization. However, to understand the transmission of religion in families across generations, we use two different concepts of generation. Families are settings in which members of different generations meet: grandparents, parents, and children all have a vertical generational relationship to each other, while also belonging to different historical generations, since each had different social experiences in their adolescence. As families are generally embedded in society and milieus, we deem both familial and societal conditions to be crucial for transmission. This systematic interweaving of the familial and the societal reveals the dialectic between the general (the historical-generational layer) and the specific (the families and milieus). I will illustrate this by using an example shortly.

Third, drawing on quantitative and qualitative data, we use a mixed methods approach with the intention of combining the strengths of both methodological paradigms: namely, we use surveys that provide representative results and allow us to make causal explanations, and we use family interviews with members from three generations that allow us to reconstruct the mechanisms and patterns of transmission across generations in a precise manner.

The conversations begin

We begin the interviews, which are conducted collectively with members of three generations in each family present, with an open question about the transmission of religion and values. This is usually followed by negotiation among the family members as to who is to start. All family members are given space to share their own experiences of receiving and passing on (non-)religious values and practices, such as helping others or showing mutual respect. We can observe that they are interested in one another’s views, and that is especially the case when it comes to first generation (grandparents) and third generation (grandchildren).

There is sometimes also astonishment at the very different experiences described. For example, in many families, the youngest generation expressed surprise that churchgoing was obligatory for the grandparents. Or, in turn, the elders were taken aback to learn that the grandchildren reflected sincerely on religion. Grandparents also sometimes discern signs of their grandchildren’s religiosity, even if the latter no longer follow church rules. While the grandchildren make decisions about participating in religious rituals with their parents, they often mention the grandmother (to whom they are close) when it comes to the teaching of religious practices such as praying. Reflecting on her efforts, one grandmother reported: “I sang with the grandchildren, I prayed with the children when they were little and, when they got older, they were allowed to pray by themselves.” When asked what they should pray, she replied: “Tell the dear God simply how it was during the day and you can also say if it was stupid and then thank him.” Non-religious families also convey gratitude for successful decisions or a privileged life.

While the survey shows that memories of talking about religion with family members were rather sparse, the feedback at the end of the family interviews was very revealing, with many families expressing their gratitude for the interview, and seeing it as an opportunity to talk about religion. A mother (second generation) from a Protestant family said: “That’s actually stupid… that you need a call so that you can talk about this topic as a family… you talk to your own children about everything, but never about that.” Her son agreed and reported that he had talked with his parents about faith “only after I had moved out… in the evening with a little wine; I found that quite exciting.”

Other parents state that it became difficult for them to talk about religion to their children after the latter began adolescence. Even if members of the older generation say in the interviews that it used to be unusual to talk about religion, families today talk with interest about this issue with each other. From the interviews, we conclude that there has been in the families a shift in the relationship as well as in the communication structure toward mutual respect. This corresponds to the change in values that surveys observed — values like obedience and following norms have been replaced by values such as personal empowerment and encouraging children to make their own decisions (“narrative of choice”).

We see that loving relationships in the family are one condition for being able to communicate and accept differences. Conversely, the authoritarian transmission of religion may well contribute to its continuation, even if it causes a crisis of faith. A mother (second generation) who was brought up in a strict Evangelical milieu said that her parents had always viewed misbehavior as religious misbehavior, thereby mixing religion with morality: “Being a believer means I have to be morally totally on point and… my life has to be totally straight… then I am… also a good Christian.”

Transformation in transmission

Let me now give an example where our research can shed light on the question of the transmission and transformation of religion across generations. We asked ourselves what actually constitutes successful transmission. The data shows that positive conditions of socialization such as a good, loving relationship between parents and children do not necessarily mean the successful transmission of religion, and that a less good and stricter parent-child relationship certainly can mean successful transmission. On the other hand, it is also clear that transmission always entails transformation (that is, looser ties to religious institutions, the importance of personal relationships with religious authorities, a decrease in importance of religious practice, and the questioning of religious rituals and traditions), and we can therefore put forward the provisional formula: “Transformation in Transmission.” This is more likely than finding a successful transmission in which religiosity is not transformed. 

Our survey data highlight the role played in successful transmission by mothers, grandparents, and a homogeneous family religion. The findings from the quantitative data in most countries show that the mother is important in the successful transmission not only of religious traditions and values, but also of non-religious values. 

We discussed this question of who is more important for successful transmission: either the mother or, as other scholars suggest, the father. If we add the assessment of religious intensity to the findings discussed above, we can see that the respondent’s religiosity is at the same level as the father’s religiosity as the respondent perceives and assesses it in his or her own childhood. Take Peter or Carla (fictional cases exemplifying son or daughter): Their religiosity in their adult lives is at the same level as the religiosity that they attributed to their father in the survey. This raised the question of whether the father’s lower level of religiosity is passed on and is ultimately decisive for the respondent’s level of religiosity.

After discussing this question intensively, as well as triangulating the analyses of the survey data with those of the interviews, we came to a more nuanced conclusion that shows the benefit of using a mixed methods approach: While the mother seems to be the important person in terms of transmission, transformation results not from the father’s lower religiosity, but from the social context. This can be explained by the fact that the respondents have to position themselves in their phase of adolescence in a different and — in Western countries — less religious field than was the case for their parents in this phase. This means that the transformation takes place in the formative phase of adolescence of each successive generation, with each generation reflecting upon its own values and faith, and adapting to social changes by way of interpretive appropriation. Adolescents actively shape this transformation and are the bearers of new religious patterns, worldviews, and values.

The family interviews show this transformation across all generations — although with varying intensity, especially if we consider the different religious dimensions. This finding shows the fruitfulness of the two different concepts of generation, since they allow us to relate the dynamics of intra-familial generational relations to the social context, that is, how the autonomous process of social change impinges upon biographical experience. In other words, we found in our study that Peter’s and Carla’s religiosity was influenced not only by their families, but also (as with their peers and classmates from their own generation) by the social contexts in their phase of adolescence. That is, they also position themselves religiously in a way peculiar to their own generation and thus bring about religious change.