And, as politically uncomfortable as it may make people, the example of the father appears to exert far more influence than that of the mother.
In 2000, a Swiss study was released that revealed, in part, the way parental faith is transmitted to children. I was reminded of it while reading “Dads Being Dads,” in the current issue of The Lutheran Witness.
A Touchstone article (linked below) analyzed the study. It compared the frequency of worship attendance by parents with the consequential involvement of their children as they matured.
If both father and mother attend regularly, 33 percent of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41 percent will end up attending irregularly. Only a quarter of their children will end up not practicing at all.
If the father is irregular and mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. Thirty-eight percent will be lost.
These numbers sound extreme, don’t they? Some of us will be doing calculations in our minds. In my own family, my mother was a faithful Christian. My father was agnostic. (Actually, he was a practicing atheist who would argue “I believe in God.”)
Of the three kids, I am a regular church attender. Not just because I’m a pastor; since I’m “retired” and have no external obligation to attend. My sister attends occasionally. My brother only for special, family events.
Hmmm, that is merely anecdotal, of course, but my observation of other family histories seems to bear out the findings of the demographic study.
While some readers may wish to challenge the applicability of a Swiss study to other nations, the simple fact that the burden to do so rests on them. The experience in Switzerland is almost certainly common to the rest of Europe and the other increasingly secularized countries of the West.
And, since it is about gender distinctions rather than culture variations per se, it may even correlate to less industrialized contexts.
Just how much more significant is a father’s example than a mother’s?
Even when the father is an irregular attender there are some extraordinary effects. An irregular father and a non-practicing mother will yield 25 percent of their children as regular attenders in their future life and a further 23 percent as irregulars. This is twelve times the yield where the roles are reversed.
Let’s consider that statistic a fluke, and cut it in half . . . no, into quarters. Even if is off by that great a magnitude, it would still mean that in this scenario, a father’s example is three times as significant as mother’s.
The study does not concern itself with the reasons for the disparity, but I have a theory. At the risk of sounding like a traditional dinosaur, as C.S. Lewis described himself, allow me to offer it.
- Women are inherently more receptive to Christian virtues such as compassion, gentleness, and mercy.
- Even if their mother discounts worship, the hearts of most girls are still attuned to its song.
- Christian virtues of forgiveness and meekness resonate less in boys (not just because of their upbringings).
- If a father goes to church without his wife, daughters will still be inclined to desire to accompany him.
- If a father stays home, it promotes a boy’s innate suspicion (reinforced by external forces) that “religion is women’s business.”
This doesn’t mean, of course, that single mothers should despair. God is the One who draws us to himself, and he can most definitely do so in the absence of any other positive influences.
This is my prayer of gratitude: God bless faithful mothers.
As a reward for those who read these thoughts to their end, I would like to share one of Lewis’ allusions to himself as a dinosaur. This passage comes from his essay, “De Descriptione Temporum.”
If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? What a chance to know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled and what noises it made!
And if the Neanderthaler could talk, then, though his lecturing technique might leave much to be desired, should we not almost certainly learn from him some things about him which the best modern anthropologist could never have told us? He would tell us without knowing he was telling.
One thing I know: I would give a great deal to hear any ancient Athenian, even a stupid one, talking about Greek tragedy. He would know in his bones so much that we seek in vain. At any moment some chance phrase might, unknown to him, show us where modern scholarship had been on the wrong track for years.
Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you somewhat as that Athenian might stand. I read as a native texts you must read as foreigners. You see why I said that the claim was not really arrogant; who can be proud of speaking fluently his mother tongue or knowing his way about his father’s house. . .
Where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.
You can read the cited article from Touchstone magazine here.