THIS book is an important study of what it takes to pass on religious commitment to the next generation.
It is American research, and we should perhaps be wary of assuming that it can be applied straightforwardly to Britain, particularly because religious socialisation has never involved the federal or state authorities in the United States, whereas in Britain it has been a concern of the British State with its Established Church and policy of providing universal religious education in state-funded schools ever since their foundation under the 1870 Education Act. Today, the object may have become to ensure a multicultural rather than a non-denominational Christian formation, but that is far from the US’s voluntary religious pluralism, which keeps the State out of religious education and formation. The two systems have had a very different dynamic.
Nevertheless, it may be salutary to begin from the assessment by Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk about the present cultural context, and to consider whether their observations ring bells here. They argue that the religious field today is constituted as a “personal identity accessory” rather than as a “community solidarity project”. The communal “solidarity processes” were always intimately structured by America’s foundation as a network of immigrant communities. That has not been true of Britain in modern centuries. Yet the difference has narrowed since the Second World War with the appearance of settled ethnic minorities in Britain: a startling recent government statistic showed that one third of all contemporary British schoolchildren have an ethnic-minority background.
Smith and Adamczyk argue that the American family has changed from being embedded in community to being modelled on home-centred companionship and then becoming a set of individual lifestyle choices. These mutations mean that American parents are now in a weaker position to socialise their children and, at the same time, carry heavier responsibilities to inculcate them with the skills of “reflexivity” necessary today for negotiating between lifestyles and values.
Further, while the flight from organised religion has gone considerably further in Britain, many fewer American parents are invested in religion or in reproducing it in their children than was the case in the 1970s.
The large and careful study reported in this valuable book was confined to religiously committed parents, and its findings should concern everyone who cares about the future of British Christianity
Of all the variables affecting religious socialisation — including churches and schools’ programmes — by far the most important is the parents’ involvement. Religious institutions still matter, because they provide settings where children and parents can mix and make friends among people like themselves. Yet, even here, the theological education that the religious organisations provide is less important than shared moral standards that can counteract the aspects of secular culture which encourage sexual or drug experimentation, excessive alcohol, or irresponsible hedonism.
Parenting styles are even more crucial than the religious intentions of parents. The most effective style of parenting is “authoritative” — that is, firm, confident, but affectionate — rather than “laissez-faire” — that is, leaving children to make up their own minds without much parental involvement. Parents must have regular, friendly, and engaged conversations about religious practices and beliefs and attend church, chapel, synagogue, temple, or mosque themselves rather than simply send children there.
The same pattern is reproduced among non-Christian American minorities as in the whole range of Christian denominations, as shown in the chapter contributed by Nicolette D. Manglos-Weber reporting a separate research study.
The research in this book shows how to pass on religious attachment to children. The dilemma of how to create a culture to make that possible is altogether more problematic, with no easy solution either in multicultural Britain with its new myriad of voluntary “identities”, or in pluralistic and increasingly secular America with its normative separation of Church and State.
Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Handing Down the Faith: How parents pass their religion on to the next generation
Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk
Church Times Bookshop £18