Quaker Universalist Conversations

Intergenerational Transfer of Spirituality

Vern BengtsonThe sociologist of religious transmission from University of Southern California, Vern Bengston, makes an unfamiliar argument about the role of grandparents in the inter-generational transmission of spirituality and religion.

Bengtson is the founder of the Longitudinal Study of Generations, the largest and longest multidisciplinary investigation of family, aging and social change.

Regarding families, Bengtson concludes that the highest generational transmission of spirituality is in families with a high degree of warmth, particularly by fathers. Warmth trumps role modeling, church attendance and church involvement, or home devotions in long-term influence on youth spirituality.

Regarding parents more specifically, he concludes that fathers are more important factors than mothers in spirituality transmission. Fathers trump mothers. Father warmth trumps mother nurture, teaching prayer, bedtime closeness in long-term influence on youth spirituality.

Regarding grandparents, he concludes that grandparenting, particularly grandfather warmth, is the highest predictor of spirituality transmission across generations. Grandparents become particularly central to spirituality transmission in divorce or dysfunctional parenting situations, but the same powerful influence is present for intact families.

Regarding the big family picture, he concludes that reinforcing teams of grandparents and parents is the most powerful influence in the transmission of spirituality.

In this, he showcases Mormon, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Orthodox Jewish and Evangelical Christian families as models of generally successful inter-generational spirituality transfer. These models have stronger degrees of institutional support and reinforcement outside the family in passing on religious traditions.

By contrast, Quakers and other mainline Christian and Reform Jewish traditions generally have embraced the idea that religious shopping by youth is a sign of an active spiritual life and have rejected religious conformity as a sign of an inactive spiritual life.

Bengtson concludes that religious intensity is the driving force that is more important than specific belief for the transmission of spirituality. Creeds are not relevant. Denominational affiliation is not significant compared to self-rated religious intensity.

Intergenerational transmission of religious intensity is the key.


  • Is this analysis of intergenerational transmission of spirituality restricted to the religious culture of the United States or is it a universal characteristic of all current cultures?
  • Is this analysis true to your experience within the Quaker tradition?
  • If an essentially true analysis, should Quakers continue to affirm the present approach or change in some way?


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