Field of Science

Religious parents, atheist children, and family strife

Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas, has been looking into how family harmony is affected when children adopt religious beliefs different from their parents'. You might know the name already - he wrote a book a couple of years back: Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.

In his latest paper, he (along with grad student Charles Stokes) has analysed data from the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. What he was looking at was differences between the child's rating of the importance of religion and their parent's rating. He also looked at how often they went to church, compared with their parents.

Then he fed this into a model, along with a bunch of other demographic factors, to see how they related to the child's report of parent-child relations.

What he found was very specific. Family harmony is hurt if the child is less religious than their parent, but not if the child is more religious than their parent. What's more, church attendance doesn't factor - it doesn't really affect family harmony if the child doesn't go to church, what matters is whether they think their religion is important.

As Regnerus puts it:

Our findings strongly suggest that those parents who care about religion appear to be frustrated with their children who do not, creating an environment with both opportunities for conflict and for inscribing 'normal' conflict with religious meaning. And the greater the magnitude of the discord, the more intense is the negative sentiment from child to parent.

The worst problems occurred in families where parent and child differed by at least 2 points on a 5-point scale (so, for example the parent reports religion as 'very important' while the child reports it as 'fairly unimportant'). Eleven percent of American children fall into the category.

It's important not to get this out of proportion, however. Religious differences are one of many factors in the model, and all of them combined only explain about 10-15% of the variation in family strife. So most family strife is due to something else!

So what about in the reverse direction? It seems that children who are much more religious than their parents don't face the same barriers.

Regnerus doesn't really speculate on why this might be - except to suggest that religious teens may make more effort to live in harmony/be obedient to their parents.

I reckon that it's more likely to be due to differences between atheist parents and religious parents. For a start, most people are religious in the USA, but there are few atheists. So maybe atheist parents are less freaked out by their kids taking up religion because it doesn't seem so weird.

Then too, atheists are different to the religious. They are more likely to be college educated, and to have more liberal, freethinking views. Religion, especially in the USA, is more attractive to those who tend to see the world in terms of polar opposites, rather than shades of grey.

So here's a question to the readers of this blog. How would you feel if your kids (OK, you may have to use your imagination here) became fervently religious? Do you try to shield them from religion?

Would you send them to an atheist summer camp? Would you be more likely to if they failed to 'see the light'?

Stokes, C., & Regnerus, M. (2009). When faith divides family: Religious discord and adolescent reports of parent–child relations. Social Science Research, 38 (1), 155-167 DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2008.05.002

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


  1. The story of my life. My wife is religious (a little) and has been introducing our daughter to her beliefs (a little). Being only five, our daughter is quite taken by some of the ideas. I have, in response, started to explain to her why I believe what I do and started to talk to her about other religions. Just tonight I was reading to her about the Romans and how they believed in dozens of deities. We've made it clear to her that it is ultimately her decision and responsibility what beliefs she comes to accept and that we'll both love her every bit as much as if she decided to believe something else.

  2. How would you feel if your kids (OK, you may have to use your imagination here) became fervently religious?

    i'd send them to bangladesh to live with fervently religious people :-) live & let live i am, but not under my own roof.

  3. Difficult question. I have two sons (5 and 2), and while neither my wife nor I are religious, they do hear some things already about Christianity in their pre-school. I trust that a little 'amen' before lunch isn't going to make them religious, and I do think it is a very healthy thing to learn about religions, so I am comfortable with things as they are at the moment. Like Konrad, I think telling your children about other religions is the best thing to do (in either case).

    However, I must admit that if they turn out to be religious, I would probably be fairly disappointed. It would be an endless source of strife, I'm sure, and that's not a great thing. I think I would never rest trying to make them "see the light," but as I say that I can already see that it could drive us apart, and that' I would very much like to avoid.

    Rather than sending them to an atheist camp, I think I would subject them to other religions. There's no better dose of reality than comparing different religions, in my opinion.

  4. My kids are 7 & 9. Blaringly atheists now. But I have told them that if they ever decide to be religious that it is totally fine with me. I have Christian friends I enjoy. I'd rather have Christian kids who love me because I love them than bitter Atheist kids. We will see what happens.

  5. My wife and are are both atheist and raised our kids that way. Our youngest daughter, now 16, is being 'recruited' by a number of her very religious Christian friends.

    It freaks me out a bit, but I talk with her and tell her that it is her decision to make. I really don't believe a man with a Horses head will appear at judgement day and kill me because I am atheist.

  6. In raising my two sons (4 years difference in age), I never told them that religion was wrong. I told them that many people believe many different things but that I didn't share any of those beliefs. What I did spend a great deal of effort on was teaching my kids to find out things for them selves. If fact, my sons, now grown, tell me that my one stock answer to any of their questions was: 'I don't know, let's find out.' I did teach them to look at statements people make and to analyze them critically.

    So, one day my older boy, he was about 12, was asked by a girl to come to her church. He asked me to drive him there so I made sure he was dressed appropriately and transported him to the church. I was a bit worried: pubescent hormones can be a powerful religious motivator. After the service I picked him up and asked what he thought about the service. He had a lot of questions about what they said and did. I answered him the best I could, without trying to call the church goers silly. He went back to that church a few times more but finally one day he came to the conclusion that church was just an excuse for a bunch of people to get together for a while - that what they said in the church just didn't make any sense and was "way stupid".

    I think that no matter which way he had decided, I would have been proud of him (and to be honest, of myself) because he approached the whole issue with an open but critical mindset.

    (BTW, my other son went to one church service with a friend and declared it boring and never expressed interest in religion again, except when he became interested in cosmology - then he looked into it for historical context.)

    If either one, had decided to become religious, I think that there would not have been any conflict, assuming that the decision was made somewhat rationally. I think that there probably would have been some conflict if they had become brainwashed in some cult.

  7. Throughout my "religious curiosity" phase, around 14ish, my dad was a little freaked out. It caused some discord, but overall I believe it affected our relationship no more or less than anything else we were dealing with at the time.


  8. Well I've got kids aged 4 and 6. The older one has had quite a lot of Christianity, mostly from a particularly zealous teacher at school. She seems quite attracted to the idea.

    My plan is just to make sure they learn about all the different religions out there, and let them figure it out for themselves.

    It does strike me, however, that it would be rather easy for her to be sucked into a closed religious mindset. The local evangelical church does Saturday morning club where they hand out prizes (bribes) of sweets and CD players etc to attract the kids. If she knew about it, I'm sure she would be there every weekend!

  9. In your question you have left an important dimension,i.e if the child is becoming fervently religious in parent's religion or another religion.
    This would have a big impact in strife at home.
    When I was a child my dad was an atheist and mom was a christian.My dad wanted us to be 'scientific' in our upbringing,so he shielded us off religious practices,but both my parents taught us about different world religions and mythologies in Hindu tradition so as to not let us be left out in such knowledge in comparison to our peers.I grew up like an atheist till I was 17.After joining a medical school,I decided to become a Christian.I am not yet married but I feel if my child were to be a more fervent Christian,I would not mind it,so long as he is not neglecting what is 'right'.If he is getting religious in some other direction,I might reason with him regarding why 'we' are Christian.If he desires to follow some other religion,I might hurt within me and pray about it,but would not hurt him or deny him anything because of his faith.I will continue to be a loving father.

  10. I want to say I'd be understanding, but my total inability to imagine my (hypothetical) kids taking up the cross makes me doubt I would be. That, and that the idea of kids recruiting kids makes me want to home-school.

  11. It all reminds me of that Lou Reed song "The beginning of a great adventure".

  12. "Regnerus doesn't really speculate on why this might be - except to suggest that religions teens may make more effort to live in harmony/be obedient to their parents."

    It could, just as easily be that the atheist parents are the ones making more effort to live in harmony.

  13. I have recently become an atheist and my christian parents have become hostile towards me....I might have well have been burning babies. I do not know how to go about this at home. I specifically avoided the topic with them but they brought it up and then I explained what I believed and my reasons for why while TRYING as hard as I could not to sound demeaning or disrespectful. It did not work, not only can they not see anything other then their point of view they think I'm stupid and "rejecting God" and all of the above. It is really terrible and I'm wondering if there are any people out there that know how to deal with this. My parents seem to be so closed minded. I have even been told that I am going to hell to my face. How does that make me feel?

  14. Benjamin, that sounds like an awful situation to be in. I'm not really qualified to help, given that my parents and their parents were atheist. In fact, I don't know many religious people.

    You should maybe try something like Folks there would be glad to help.

  15. I'm pretty open minded about religion, and I want my child to have exposure to all the religious traditions. I want him to be open-minded but critical; ethical but not dogmatic.

    I worry more about my child being snatched up by the religious fundamentalism which is prevalent throughout my part of the country. It roams about like a lion seeking whom it may devour. :-)

    I just found your blog and started reading and I must say I'm hooked. This is good stuff.

  16. Well I'm months late to the party, but to echo what others said: If my son joined a fairly liberal religion, I admit I would be somewhat disappointed, but I would try hard to be respectful and not make a big deal out of it. It is, of course, his decision. If he fell in with fundamentalists, though, that would be another matter entirely. The best I could hope for in that situation would be that we just agree not to discuss it.

  17. I'm way late too. Just found this blog when looking for ways of dealing with my uber religious parents, and I'm a grown adult and live far away.

    They belonged to a really out-there (even for Christians) Christian sect when I was growing up and I had it shoved on me my whole life & began to not believe it in my teens (& began to be offended by the sexism, authoritarianism and silly answers when I asked about things that didn't make sense.)

    When the group my parents belonged to imploded, they drifted away and we had many years of relative peace.

    Now, they have found a new group that espouses similar and just as weird, if not weirder (to me) beliefs and my dad is starting to try to push it on me again and has violated my requests not to talk about it.

    I can say that if you have super-religious parents and agnostic/atheist kids, there probably will always be trouble or tension and yes, the best you can hope for is not to discuss it.

    I would argue that in the case of the families studied, it probably is the atheist parents being open-minded that reduces family strife. The huge difference that's being overlooked is that some Christian parents (especially the super religious like mine) truly believe their child will not go to heaven, will burn in hell or something like that if they do not do/believe certain things, so are likely to be a lot more invested in forcing the child to believe a certain way.

    For atheist parents, they might have concerns too, but they are probably not going to be terrified that their child's eternal future is at stake and therefore probably more likely to just step back and let the child do/believe as he/she will.

    I don't have kids, but if I did and they became religious, it would annoy me, but I don't think I'd feel compelled to try to convert them to my way of thinking. If they were young enough, I'd want to expose to them to lots of different beliefs in the hopes that they would at least be an open-minded member of their chosen faith rather than someone who feels compelled to convert others.

  18. Speaking as someone with a very religious family, who was a Christian until the age of 17 or 18, I would hazard a guess that the reason religious parents react more strongly is because they really believe their child is going to hell or that they suddenly lack morals.

    It's funny how an individual can be a closet atheist for years, and get along perfectly well with family. There are always those awkward inadvertent insults and complaints of, "you should go to church more often" but for the most part my family didn't notice anything awry. But tell them that I'm an atheist, and suddenly I'll be an amoral heathen!

    Christianity teaches that no one who does not belief in Jesus as savior can go to heaven. Non-believeres, on the other hand, don't have a fear of "heaven or hell" after death, so if a child makes a choice to be religious, it's seen as more of a personal choice - closer to the difference between Republicans and Democrats within a family.

  19. Like Stella B. I also found this blog when searching for a way to deal with my super religious Catholic parents. My step-father was in the seminary (school for would be priests) and Catholicism is a very important part of his life. My husband and I were married in my parent's Catholic church two years ago because I didn't want to upset my parents. Still, about 18 months ago I had a huge fight with my parents when my step-father insinuated I a "devil worshipper" (his words) because I don't go to church and have verbalized an agnostic attitude at times.

    In answer to Epiphenom's question, I see the community and social support my parent's church provides for them. I am glad they have that since I live far away from them. If I had a child who was interested in religion I imagine they would be attracted to it in part for social reasons as well. Like several of the other comments I would let them experiment and come to their own conclusions. I would model in my actions tolerance for thier beliefs and expect the same in return. In the way that I am closeted around my authentic spirituality, which is athesist/agnostic/humanist, I would hate for my child to be closeted around whatever spiritual beliefs they had.

  20. My wife and I will be attending our first marriage counseling session this evening. Our difficulties center around my atheism and her progressively literal view of Christianity...and the prospect of raising our 2 year old son who is beginning to absorb things at fantastic rate.

    We'll see how it goes. I'm not quite sure what a marriage counselor can add to the discussion which will alleviate the stress. I am okay with learning about religions, but I want to show my child how those concepts have gone through cultural evolution especially the Bronze Age ANE influences on Judaism which set the foundation for Christianity.

    My wife on the other hand wants to misquote 2 Timothy and declare that all scripture is gods word and literally true...I just will not sign on to that.


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