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Passing on Faith – Olwyn Mark

November 5, 2016

pofaithWhat do parents think about passing on their faith – their beliefs (or lack of them) about God – to their children? How seriously do they take it? And what difference do they make?

British parents, the polling shows, are generally not too bothered about whether their children go on to share their beliefs, although that varies – significantly – depending on the faith of the parents in question, with atheist, agnostic, Christian, and other religious parents having some very different views.

The academic literature, in contrast with this, is clear about the impact parents can have. In the first instance, insights from psychology show that children have a natural propensity towards ‘belief’ of some kind. Building on that, and examining and assimilating the findings of 54 published studies, Olwyn Mark shows that the family and the home is incomparably important when it comes to passing on faith.

ONE in four parents in the UK is reluctant to teach their children about religion for fear that they might be alienated at school, while the majority of parents chooses not to actively pass on their own beliefs, research from the think tank Theos suggests.

In its report Passing on Faith, released today in partnership with Canterbury Christ Church Univers­ity and Con-iRes, less than a third (31 per cent) of the 1013 parents surveyed by COmRes agreed that they would want their children to inherit their belief in God or a higher being; 59 per cent disagreed.

This was compared with 30 per cent who said that they would want to “actively pass on their beliefs” to their offspring, and 60 per cent who said that children should make their own choice, “independently of their parents”.

These figures were only margin­ally higher for the 458 parents who identified as Christians: 36 per cent said that they would want their children to inherit their belief in God or a higher being. Of those Christian parents who said that they attended church once a month, or mere (102), however, 69 per cent said that they would want their children to share their belief in adulthood

This was higher than participants who identified as atheist (19 per cent), agnostic (nine per cent), or “indifferent” to God (15 per cent), but lower than the 57 Muslim

parents surveyed, 85 per cent of whom said that they would want their children to inherit their beliefs.

Fewer than half of all the parents surveyed said that they had spoken to their children about faith. And 34 per cent expressed concern that technology and social media would have “more of an impact” on their children’s beliefs than their own input.

The role and faith commitment of both parents, and the integrity, consistency and unity of parents’ beliefs, practices and relationships are all shown to be ey influencers on whether believing children become believing adults.

The author: “Despite the perceived strength of other social and cultural forces, parents should have confidence that they can make all the difference to the way their children spiritually grow.”


The problem with these data, however, is the widely-recognised capaciousness of self-definition, particularly when it comes to the term ‘Christian’. When the data were broken down further for ‘Christians’, 57% of those self-defined Christians who believed in God said that they would like their children to hold the same beliefs (about God or Higher  Power) when they are older, and 69% of those Christians who attended church once a month or more elt the same way. In other words, the more engaged Christians were with their faith, the more likely they were to want to pass it on to their children (though  this is not to overlook the fact that nearly a third (28%) of church-attending Christians did not mind whether their children share their beliefs).

Of least concern (for only 15% of parents) was the fear that they “wouldn’t know how to start the conversation”, with about the same number of parents (16%) feeling that they “may be doing something ethically wrong” and might be putting them off (17%). Nearly one in five parents (18%) positively said that it was “not my role as a parent to pass on my beliefs to my children”, whereas about one in four (23%) said that they were worried that they might be alienated at school, and the same proportion said they were concerned that their children “may have questions I couldn’t answer” (26%). By some way, the greatest concern parents had was about social media, over a third (34%)  saying that they felt that “technology and social media would have more of an impact on  my children’s beliefs than my input.”

A sense of powerless is undoubtedly a mark of parenthood throughout the ages, but

one wonders whether it is particularly intense today. Whether or not that is the case, it is certainly true that with a commitment to passing on faith comes anxiety, as pretty much every one of the concerns mentioned above was felt more by religious parents, in particular by church-attending Christians, but rather less by atheists, agnostics and the generally indifferent. This will naturally be a part of holding something to be important and therefore being concerned about the manner in which it is passed to children, but it may also reflect a normalising element within culture, whereby the seriously religious feel that passing on their beliefs in a generally more agnostic or secular culture is somehow harder or even less proper.

A somewhat higher proportion of ‘Other Religions’ (69%) wanted their children to hold their beliefs, and a higher still proportion of self-defined Muslims (85%) –although it is important to realise that this last figure was from a sub-sample size of only 57, which is too small to be reliable.

Overall, despite the perceived strength of other social and cultural forces, ‘faith’s’ most effective ‘not-so-secret’ weapon in passing on beliefs and practices to the next generation remains parents.


It is unclear whether nurturing the spiritual nature of a child is popularly classified as good parenting. For while packing a healthy snack for break time or teaching a child to safely cross the road undoubtedly are, practices which promote spiritual curiosity, wonder and faithfulness are a little more contentious.

Psychologists point to an inherent propensity of the child towards the spiritual. This includes a ‘relational consciousness’ that is not confined to a particular religious doctrine, but accords with a relational nature that connects to something larger than the self.

Included in this is a child’s concept of God. Professor Justin Barrett, Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development at Fuller Seminary in the US, adopts this ‘preparedness’ hypothesis in his observations of the religious cognition of children. He argues that we are all in fact ‘born believers’.

This suggests that we have a specific framework of thinking within which we understand the concept of the divine or spiritual.

This contradicts other accounts of the origin of religion, which state that a child’s concept of God and the spiritual is a result of indoctrination rather than a matter of intuition.  Instead of a natural propensity for belief in the supernatural, adults exploit the fact that “for good evolutionary reasons, children are highly credulous, and believe anything that the adults in their immediate circle tell them”.

While agreeing with the tendency of children to trust their parents and other adults, Barrett responds to this position by noting that children are not likely to believe everything their parents teach them. Nor are all ideas equally well-received: Good luck teaching a five-year-old that people don’t really have conscious minds or that it is okay to murder the neighbours in their sleep. The preponderance of scientific evidence (peer-reviewed and published) shows that some ideas find in children’s minds infertile ground, whereas others readily grow and flourish.

understanding faith development through the lens of psychology has its limitations. For one, it may offer only a reductionist, cognitive-centred understanding of human nature and religious experience, perhaps at the expense of the affective or emotional. In addition, an approach to understanding religious growth in ‘stages’ does not fully reflect the ‘complexity and uniqueness’ of faith development in the life of the individual.

Nor, indeed, does it fully reflect the impact of the social environment on this process. Importantly, adopting a scientific framework in which to observe faith development only asks the ‘how’ questions. It cannot give an account of the ‘why’.

A secularist like Richard Dawkins draws a distinction between the participation in mere “harmless traditions” and the anti-rationalist proposition of “forcing” on children “un-evidenced opinions about the nature of life or the cosmos.”

Indeed, if this “indoctrination of children before they reach the age of reason” were abandoned, suggests AC Grayling, the world may well move on from religious belief altogether.

It curiously follows that the teaching in the home of culturally approved, un-evidenced, ‘neutral’ values such as tolerance and respect is still welcomed; yet the expressed aspiration to ‘pass on’ religious beliefs and values is viewed as morally problematic.

Central to the discussion in this report is the understanding that parents invariably pass their values and beliefs on to their children – both intentionally and unintentionally – as the home remains the most effective channel of socialisation.

Of particular note for this report is the finding from the Church of England’s Church Growth Research Programme that half of the children of churchgoing parents do not attend as adults.

A generational change in religiosity is perceived to be the key reason for religious decline in modern Britain. This presents a clear challenge for the future of the British church if the following assumption is adopted: “Retaining children/ youth is critical; it is easier to raise people as churchgoers than to turn the unchurched into attenders.”

This position is further enforced by the expectation that religious beliefs and  practices are largely settled by the time an individual reaches their early 20s and “if they are not religiously inclined in their youth they are unlikely to become so in later years.”

Indeed, a recent study suggests that only two percent of Anglicans in England and Wales are converts.

The value placed on a young person’s autonomy is one reason given for failing to prioritise religious transmission. This is in line with what is noted to be a distinct feature of religion, indeed of life, in modern Britain, namely a culture shift from obligation to choice.

Young people have not inherited the rebellious hostility to the Church of their parents’ generation, although for many of them religion is irrelevant for day-to-day living”.

Islamic sources outline in detail the mutual obligations of parents and children towards one another, including the parental responsibility for the religious nurture and education of children. A saying of the Prophet Muhammad, often quoted by Muslims, reads: “A father gives his child nothing better than a good education.”

By normal processes of socialization, and unless other significant forces intervene, more than what parents might say they want as religious outcomes in their children, most parents most likely will end up getting religiously of their children what they themselves are.

Those who said either parent had an outstanding or strong and open faith also appear more likely to be involved in church and have a more active faith, but those whose parents were less expressive of their faith seem to have experienced a more negative impact on their faith and church attendance.

The report is online

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