JOENSUU, Finland — The passing down of religion from one generation to the next is a complicated topic. While new mothers and fathers usually have a set idea in their heads of how their kids will turn out, that vision rarely works out exactly as planned. Now, a fascinating new study examines the progression of religious beliefs in young people as they mature and reveals one factor that indicates whether an individual is likely to maintain their faith into adulthood.
Children who receive a religious upbringing from both parents have stronger faith throughout adolescence and are less likely to move away from religion as they grow up, according to researchers from the University of Eastern Finland. In summation, the study’s authors concluded that children receiving religious instruction from both mom and dad are flat out different, from a religious perspective, than their peers.
Participants were followed for 10 years; 14- and 15-year-olds confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland were tracked until the age of 25. Researchers also focused heavily on participants who weren’t given a particularly religious upbringing at home. How would these children differ from their peers with more devout parents? Could their faith improve over time?
“In roughly half of the young people studied, their faith remained fairly stable from the age of 15 to the age of 25. However, one in three became more distant from faith, both according to their own assessment and a longitudinal analysis. One in seven felt they had become closer to God or that their faith had become stronger,” says co-author Kati Tervo-Niemelä, a professor of practical theology, in a release.
Akin to a domino effect, researchers noticed that children brought up in a religious environment at home tended to gravitate towards other religious elements (like-minded friends, church young groups). Meanwhile, this rarely occurred among children brought up in more secular homes.
“Many of the young people studied said that they were surrounded by a non-religious atmosphere everywhere, including among friends and family,” Professor Tervo-Niemelä adds.
Kids who grew up without a strong religious presence in the home were also more likely to lose their faith fairly early in life.
“It is noteworthy that the developmental path of young people who were given a religious upbringing by one parent only is closer to that of young people who were not given a religious upbringing by neither of the parents, than to that of young people who have been given a religious upbringing by both parents,” Professor Tervo-Niemelä says.
That’s not to say, however, that children with one or no religious parents are destined for a life devoid of faith. Some participants developed stronger faith than ever before after drifting away from religion for a period of time.
“However, young people who have not been given a religious upbringing at home aren’t necessarily destined to become distant or estranged from faith: other factors outside the home environment can contribute to the growth of their faith,” Professor Tervo-Niemelä notes.
Besides mom and dad, other important factors listed by the study when it comes to faith included grandparents, the time period surrounding one’s confirmation, parish workers, and educational environments.
“Overall, the findings strongly indicate that a young person’s faith isn’t born and doesn’t grow in a vacuum: it needs supporting experiences and people who give an example of what it is like to have faith. The influence of just one person can be course-altering,” the research team concludes.
The study is published in the British Journal of Religious Education.