Book Review | Families and Faith

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Data. The Internet has made data collection easier and the quantification of data simpler. For a while, access to data was a novelty and just presenting a one sided account of some data was exciting. But now, data is so prevalent that understanding and contextualizing data is more interesting. Several websites purporting to analyze data as opposed to pontificate subjectively on topics have cropped up recently.

Perhaps the shift could be simplified by saying we’ve moved from Malcolm Gladwell and blogging pundits to Nate Silver and Vox.com.

But Orthodox Jewish commentary is basically in the pre-Gladwell era. We don’t even have any data. And if we did have data, we don’t even have anyone to analyze it properly. I’ve lamented this before, and note that there has been some headway in our data collection aspirations. In the meantime, we still pontificate and argue from subjective and anecdotal perspectives. There is still value in such discussion, but it’s all very theoretical and hardly scientific.

Which is why I was so intrigued by this book I noticed (I can’t remember where) and was eager to devour its data. The book is titled Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations and it was worth every penny it cost and every minute I spent reading it.

The concept of the book is enough to make me swoon. Imagine talking to 5 generations of American families about their religious identity (or lack thereof) several times over the course of 30 years and tracking their responses along numerous data points. Then taking time to quantify the data and interpret the numbers to produce evidence based opinions on the factors that influence the effectiveness of passing religious traditions from one generation to the next. That’s Families and Faith. Every major religion is represented in the data. Non-belief and atheism is also analyzed in the same way belief is analyzed.RNS-FAMILIES-FAITH

In terms of sheer value, the data in this book is incredibly useful. The numbers in the book are meaningful and the analysis is excellent. People discussed in the book span 125 years. It was an ambitious study when it was conceived over 30 years ago, and the results of the study reflect this ambition. I don’t think I have ever seen more relevant data on this particular issue. But it’s not just charts and tables of numbers. The numbers are accompanied by snippets and quotes from thousands of conversations that illuminate the numbers. This was not a survey with questions and answers. The survey is numbers and personal testimony. It tells a very complex and nuanced story of religious tradition. For this reason alone, I think a copy of this belongs in every rabbi’s library, every Jewish school’s library, and the library of anyone who cares about the future of Orthodox Judaism.

You should read the book to see all the numbers and commentary. But in the interest of providing some food for thought, I present some of the most interesting conclusions reached in the study and discussed in the book.

1. The most important factor in transmitting tradition is the relationship between parents and children. This is not to say that parents are to blame if a child deviates. This is only to say that children who enjoy a warm, positive relationship with their parents have a much higher rate of keeping the traditions of the parents. Numbers only demonstrate trends and tendencies. When the book identifies this as an important factor, it only means that this is a data point that is more common among those who stay. Of course many who stay dislike their parents and many who leave love their parents. But the numbers are significant enough that this is considered an important factor.

2. Grandparents matter a lot. Previous studies failed to identify the influence of grandparents. Families and Faith demonstrates the huge impact that grandparents can have on their grandchildren. Nostalgia and a connection to the old world make a difference in children. This makes it somewhat more difficult for children of Baalei Teshuva who have grandparents antagonistic to the choices of their parents. Support from grandparents makes a big difference. Losing it, makes a big difference too.

3. God and religion mean different things to different generations. It’s predictable, but important to note that the way religious people talk about God and the meaning of their religious experience is different across generations. This is not a factor in whether people stay, but it is important for parents and educators to be aware that the way that they perceive spirituality is likely different than the way their children and students perceive spirituality. Thus, in the interest of good communication, we need know that the language of religious people changes. Reading through the Jewish tradition, this is fairly obvious. Where one generation related to God through piyut, another generation related to God through pilpul. These things change and I think that they tend to change faster now than they changed in the past.

4. Allowing religious choice encourages children who struggle with religion to return. To some, this is counter-intuitive. But I think we’ve all seen this one in action. The more a community tries to clamp down on rebellious teens, the less likely they are to return. I wonder if there is even a single example of actively suppressing rebelliousness that worked out well for the parents. I can’t think of one. Sometimes there is a brief respite, but the result is usually predictable. But the interesting thing is that when given a choice and an opportunity to explore, there are a significant number of children who return to the religion of their parents over time.

5. Parents who become more religious while raising their children. Often, parents will get more involved in religious life or introduce more religious practices into the family life as their grow older. This has a negative effect on children according to the data. Parents experiencing personal growth within their religious lives is part of religious life. But the consequences can be harmful if the parents impose their newfound fervor on their children. I think this is an area that is relevant to Orthodox Jews in particular.

6. Finally, I think this is the hidden message of the entire book. Parents have as much influence over their children as they have always had. In other words, it’s too common and too easy to say that it’s harder to raise religious children in 2014 than it was in 1974 or 1914. But the numbers actually say that parents have the same influence they had in the past. The defeatism of throwing up our hands and saying we can’t win is not admitted defeat. It’s a false confession.

There is so much more data, discussion, and conclusions in this book of great importance and I think everyone should read it. I really do.

I don’t think that we can artificially generate the right circumstances to pass faith on to our children. But we can teach the values and practices that make it easier so that over time we have organically cultivated the right environment for transmission of faith. Jewish families were part of the survey, but underrepresented. We need to do our own research and learn what works for us and what isn’t working. I hope to pursue this path sometime in the future, in the meantime we have  Families and Faith.

Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from sales of the Families and Faith generated by the Amazon.com links on this blog.

  • Michael J Salamon

    Vern Bengston is a serious researcher. I have been on professional panels with him and truly respect his work.
    Couple of points – In Jewish families Mothers matter more. The data on Jewish family is as you note limited by the smaller number of Jewish participants – but the book is definitely worthwhile and should be on every Rabbis, educators and even parents desks.
    Now if we can only be allowed, encouraged to do our own research in the open, not surreptitiously!

  • Shades of Gray

    “Which is why I was so intrigued by this book I noticed (I can’t remember where)”

    I read about it in a NYT article in January(“Book Explores Ways Faith Is Kept, or Lost, Over Generations”):

    The article mentioned Judaism and the mother as Dr. Salamon mentioned:

    “… for religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s father matters even more than a close relationship with one’s mother.”There are some interesting exceptions. Transmission of Judaism, for example, depends more on a close bond with one’s mother than with one’s father — perhaps because Judaism has traditionally held that the faith is inherited from the mother. Among Jews with a close maternal bond, 90 percent considered themselves Jewish, versus only 60 percent of those who weren’t close to their mothers.”

  • Shades of Gray

    “note that there has been some headway in our data collection aspirations.”

    There was an article in the 4/22/14 Mishpacha about the research of the ARCC Institute( Applied Research & Community Collaboration) and Dr. Yitzchak Schechter of Monsey’s Bikur Cholim’s Center for Applied Psychology. This is a link to their areas of research, eg, “Differences between chassidim and non-chassidim regarding ADHD & other disorders”

    https://arccinstitute.org/headlines-findings/

    (In February, Dr. Schechter also ran in Monsey a groundbreaking “Talking to your children about development, maturity, and the responsibility that goes with it” with the participation of R. Shmuel Kamenetsky, reported in Hamodia; see ARCC blog article)

    • Yerachmiel Lopin

      There is an important limitation to their data: it seems to come from their patients and not from representatives samples of the entire community. So for example, in their practice, they see more anxiety disorders and fwer depressive orders compared to findings about the secular public. However, because they limit themselves to those coming to the clinic they may be wrong about the orthodox community as a whole. Perhaps the depressives in the community are just less likely to seek clinical help.