Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fathers' Influence on Children's Church Attendance: What Does this Study Actually Show?

This week I want to talk about a particular set of social science statistics published in 1994 by the Council of Europe called The demographic characteristics of linguistic and religious groups in Switzerland.  As I have dialogued on the Internet about gender roles in Christianity over the last several years, I have noticed that male-headship believing Christians, or complementarians, really love this study and bring it up over and over again.  Here is a detail of the results of the study, as set forth in Wikipedia's Article on Church Attendance:

Practice of religion according to practice of parents (%)
Practice of ParentsPractice of ParentsPractice of the childrenPractice of the childrenPractice of the childrenPractice of the children

The point, as I understand it, is that a father who attends church regularly is much more likely to have his children attend church regularly after they grow up, than a mother who attends church regularly; and if the father is not a practicing Christian, his children are very likely to grow up to be non-practicing themselves, even if the mother is a regular church attender.

There is also supposedly an American study showing that "If the mother is the first to become a Christian, there is a 17 percent probability everyone else in the household will follow. But if the father is first, there is a 93 percent probability everyone else in the household will follow."  According to this article in The Baptist Press, the study is cited in the book The Promise Keeper at Work by Bob Horner, but I have been unable to locate any reference online to the actual study which generated these statistics.

In any event, I have seen this Swiss study cited over and over again by male-headship proponents as a sort of definitive proof that male headship is God's blueprint for humanity. As one commenter on  this discussion of gender roles at the Wartburg Watch put it:
To briefly summarize, the mothers spiritual life has virtually no effect on her children. But the fathers is HUGE. What dad does is what the kids will do. 
This, in conclusion, is why I contend for comp theology. Can mothers and women be amazing teachers, Godly examples, skilled leaders, etc….Absolutely. Is there an internal wiring that is deeply dependent upon male leadership (in this case…fathers) that shapes us, and our communities, in a way that women, regardless of their “skills” do not have? I think it is obviously and observably true.
Touchstone Magazine wrote an article showcasing the Swiss demographic study in June of 2003, now available online as Touchstone Archives: The Truth About Men & Church.  Here is one of the main points Touchstone used the study to make:
The results are shocking, but they should not be surprising. They are about as politically incorrect as it is possible to be; but they simply confirm what psychologists, criminologists, educationalists, and traditional Christians know. You cannot buck the biology of the created order. Father’s influence, from the determination of a child’s sex by the implantation of his seed to the funerary rites surrounding his passing, is out of all proportion to his allotted, and severely diminished role, in Western liberal society. 
A mother’s role will always remain primary in terms of intimacy, care, and nurture. . . No father can replace that relationship. But it is equally true that when a child begins to move into that period of differentiation from home and engagement with the world “out there,” he (and she) looks increasingly to the father for his role model. . .  
Mothers’ choices have dramatically less effect upon children than their fathers’, and without him she has little effect on the primary lifestyle choices her offspring make in their religious observances.
[Emphasis added.]
Touchstone goes on to blame the advent of women priests for the decrease in church attendance in Switzerland-- and anywhere else where church attendance is declining.  According to them, men just can't stand going to churches that flout God's created order by letting women lead, and when men stop going to church, so do their children.  Touchstone goes on to blame feminism and the rise of women leaders for a plethora of society's ills:

The disintegration of the family follows hard upon the amorality and emotional anarchy that flow from the neutering, devaluing, or exclusion of the loving and protective authority of the father. . . In the absence of fatherhood, it is scarcely surprising that there is an alarming rise in the feral male. This is most noticeable in street communities, where co-operatives of criminality seek to establish brutally and directly that respect, ritual, and pack order so essential to male identity.
After going on to denounce the feminization of the church (which I have written a refutation of here), the article concludes:
A church that is conspiring against the blessings of patriarchy not only disfigures the icon of the First Person of the Trinity, effects disobedience to the example and teaching of the Second Person of the Trinity, and rejects the Pentecostal action of the Third Person of the Trinity but, more significantly for our society, flies in the face of the sociological evidence! 
No father—no family—no faith.
Never mind that the First Person of the Trinity is also described using mother images. Never mind that the Second Person of the Trinity never taught "male headship," and specifically spoke against the father-rule of His own earthly time and culture.   Never mind that the Third Person of the Trinity was poured out at Pentecost on "sons and daughters" alike. To challenge male headship is to challenge fatherhood itself, and to challenge fatherhood is to cause the demise of society.

The important thing to ask, though, is whether this one Swiss demographic study from 20 years ago really supports all the claims that have been pinned upon it.

We have to take into account, for one thing, the religious climate in Switzerland, especially from around the time of this study.  This Swissworld article on the religious landscape in Switzerland looks at the state of the nation six years later:
In a wide ranging poll of Swiss attitudes taken in 2000, only 16% of Swiss people said religion was "very important" to them, far below their families, their jobs, sport or culture. Another survey published the same year showed the number of regular church goers had dropped by 10% in 10 years. Among Catholics, 38.5% said they did not go to church, while among Protestants the figure was 50.7%.
Given that the same article shows that in the year 2000, roughly 42% of the Swiss population was Roman Catholic and 35% was Protestant (with another 2% in Eastern Orthodox and other forms of Christianity), this means Switzerland was 79% Christian in 2000.  And yet only 16% considered religion "very important."  Does the relative lack of priority given to religion in Switzerland, compared to the United States, have any bearing on possible causes of the study's results?

I think that if we're going to look at this in terms of sociology, we ought in fairness to consider another documented sociological factor: gender contamination.  In short, "boys and men. . . are more tightly constrained by the prevailing views of masculinity that associate being masculine with avoiding anything feminine.”  In a country like Switzerland, where very few people consider religion a high priority, what happens to a family's view of churchgoing if only the mother does it? Touchstone's article itself gives the answer:
When children see that church is a “women and children” thing, they will respond accordingly—by not going to church, or going much less.
Is this really the same thing as there being some intrinsic, God-given authority built into men and not women, so that children naturally follow their father's example and not their mother's?  Even assuming that the study's results are accurate (and corroborating studies seem pretty hard to find)-- and even if the same dynamic is going to repeat itself in every culture everywhere (which is not proven), there are three even bigger assumptions being made, none of which are proved by the study: first, that this father-influence is innate to humanity; second, that it is from God; and third, that it comes from or is part of what Christians call "male headship": that is, the essential spiritual authority of manhood over womanhood.

First of all, it cannot be definitively shown that fathers have an innate influence over their children that supersedes the influence of the mother.  After all, what the study's numbers seem to show is that a mother who wants her children to be regular churchgoers would do better (if the father is a regular churchgoer) to stay in bed eating bonbons and watching soap operas than to go to church with the family.  The numbers show that if the father and mother are both regular churchgoers, their children are 32.8% likely to be regular churchgoers-- but if the father is regular and the mother is non-practicing, this percentage jumps to 44.2!  This actually would mean that the mother actually has a big influence in pushing the children to follow their father even more closely.  But does this even make sense?  Is it logical to think children would react against their non-churchgoing mother to that extent?  Couldn't it be more sensibly accounted for by other factors?

For instance, what may be going on is that in Western culture as it stands right now, it takes a certain kind of man-- one with a great deal of energy, devotion and sense of responsibility-- to get his kids ready week after week to go to church with no help from their mother.

Comparatively speaking, a mother who is devoted to church attendance when the father is not, is a different story. We still have a culture (and this is apparently true in Switzerland too) where the mother does most of the day-to-day dressing, nose-wiping, and gathering-together-and-herding-into-the-car-ing. In short, mothers are used to it. But for a father to get his kids up in the morning, dress and wipe noses and herd them into the car while the mother watches TV or lies in bed, he's got to really want to go to church.

The dynamic, then, wouldn't be so much that the children's tendency to stick with church attendance rises with the mother's slackness at all. The dynamic would be that children whose father puts himself to extra effort to get his kids to church while the mom stays home, is the kind of man who is more than usually devoted to church attendance-- and that superlative devotion is what rubs off on the kids.

I suspect that many dads who want to go to church, but mom doesn't, simply say to themselves, "This is too much trouble," and don't go at all, thus moving the family into one of the different statistical groups.  In short, this influence of the fathers is probably not innate, but a result of social factors. Raw numbers in a sociological study simply don't give us the whole story-- and because they don't, they  certainly don't prove that the fatherly influence they show is innate.

Second, it simply cannot be shown that this father-influence is from God, even if it were innate. Not everything that is innate to humanity is from God; orthodox Christian doctrine states that humanity is deeply affected by sin.  Often, indeed, society's role is to civilize humans so that we can live peacefully together, through the imposition of laws and social rules.  But then again, not every law or social rule is from God either.  As Christians, we can look to the Bible, of course-- but does the Bible ever advise children to pay more attention to their fathers than to their mothers?

Well, in fact it doesn't.  The Bible tells us to "Honor your father and mother." Exodus 6:2.  Proverbs 6:20 says, "My son, keep your father’s command, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching."  Even Ephesians 6:1, which continues from the Ephesians 5 passage so often used to support male headship, says, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord."  Although the Bible often assumes a male power dynamic, it seems to be more in terms of accommodation than in any explicit teaching that says, "men, you are to take charge."

It's just as likely that this extra influence of fathers, if it truly exists, is a factor of sinful human power structures that enhance the influence of one group while marginalizing another.  Children pay more attention to their fathers because the world around them pays more attention to their fathers-- and so, sadly, does the church.  In a culture which still puts spiritual women on a pedestal (a place where we can be admired and yet be prevented from having any real power or influence), is it that surprising that there would be an attitude of “My mother was a saint, but she was just my mother”?  It certainly doesn't mean women should despair that no matter how devoted to God they are, it will do their children no good unless the father is also devoted.  It means we should work to counteract this marginalizing influence, not glorify it.

Third, even if fathers have a greater influence over their children than mothers do, and even if this influence expands beyond this churchgoing study to other areas of life, we can't actually move directly from that to "thus, male headship."

If the Swiss study tells us anything good, anything worth noting, what is it?  Only that children having a relationship with an involved and spiritually committed father is a good thing; something we already knew. Only that fathers have an important role in their children's lives-- that they should appreciate their powerful influence on their kids and act responsibly.

What the study certainly does not tell us is anything about mothers being subordinate to fathers. The study says nothing whatsoever about husband-wife relationships or that men belong in leadership over their wives. Neither does it imply that mothers cannot be leaders in their homes and churches, or that mom must be "first mate" and not "co-captain" with dad.

Finally, the study does not actually give any reasons as to why any of the study group went to church, or didn't go to church, or stopped going to church.  It doesn't address whether or not Swiss culture encourages grown children to do their own thing, like American culture does, or to stay more in line with parents' practices.  It doesn't address the individual dynamics of each relationship between a child and his or her mother, or in what ways it differs from that child's relationship with his or her father.  It's a sociological study; it's not a judge of internal motives, or a cookie-cutter shaper of every home into its own image.

The fact is that many complementarians are taking this one 1994 Swiss study and using it to support a large number of things they already believe, whether or not the study actually justifies or even addresses what they conclude from it.  Wouldn't it be better to recognize the study's limitations and keep our responses more in line with those limitations?

I would suggest that the best way to use this study is for dad to use any extra influence he may have, to make sure the children pay more attention to mom.

That would certainly be the Christlike thing to do.


believer333 said...

As you point out, there are too many factors about this study that are left out. Why is a father or mother irregular or non-practicing. Are they absent, ill, disabled, divorced, etc.

Anonymous said... if I'm understanding correctly the complementarians that you quoted, their view is that dads are more important for their children's faith development, BUT, somehow this study also proves that moms are more important nurterers when their kids are little? How does that make sense?? Moms are the ones who have to do all the dirty work when the kids are little, and the dads are the cool ones who are wired to introduce the kids to the outside world as they get older (do moms live in the outside world too)?

I would laugh if I weren't so busy sobbing.

How can someone look at this study, draw some kind of "Super Dad Influence" conclusion, but continue to actively believe that dads AREN'T that important to nurturing and small-child development? Do these people lie awake at night inventing illogical double-standards just to make everyone mad?

Kristen said...

Believer333 - good point!

Anonymous, I don't think logic has anything to do with their position. I think what it comes down to is, "The traditional power structures that keep everyone in their places (and us on top) are good and right-- and you'd better agree with us because Bible."

Unknown said...

Brilliant article, Kristen. Didn't even notice that it's "better," in terms of raw numbers, for the mom to just plain stay home than to join the family in church. If more complementarians mentioned that, I might think they were taking the study seriously, but... sadly, as you say, they're likely just indulging in a bit of confirmation bias.

Of course, part of me is also just... aggravated at the blindness of it. By any meaningful standard, the church is in decline, both in terms of importance of the lives of even the 'faithful' and in terms of attendance. Yet there's still such a focus on pet theologies! Ugh, it gets so frustrating, sometimes!

Anonymous said...

We don't need endless studies, often from ungodly men who are not subject to the clear, unmistakable, and unchangeable word of God.
God, in His wisdom, made man the head of the union between man and his wife. He has created a desire in the woman to be loved, and in the man to be respected, and there is no amount of social re-engineering that can change that. God's Laws are not suggestions, or pieces of advice; they are Laws--more valid than gravity and all other laws of science. Why don't modern women spare themselves some grief, and receive the engrafted which is able to bring them boundless joy.

Kristen said...

Benjamin - Thank you! And thanks for continuing to read & comment here!

2nd Anonymous - there's really no point in trying to discuss this with anyone as certain and completely sure as you. All I will say is that having all the answers and therefore rejecting the rest of the questions, is a very good way to never learn anything new or grow any further.

Unknown said...

I thought I'd wait to see how you wanted to handle the anonymous before I said anything. Good idea- I'll follow your lead on that one.

(Which makes me SUCH a horrible guy and a horrific failure, letting a woman lead me. Alas~! ;) )

Kristen said...

Benjamin, thanks for that-- you made me laugh. I tend to think it's only common courtesy to let a blog writer run his or her own blog. If a man can't even let a woman lead on her own ground, then it seems to me that either he's very insecure, or someone is telling him lies about what masculinity is. Or both.

Retha said...

1) Regular church attendance and irregular church attendance are relative terms. It is possible that those whose mothers went to church more often than their fathers got influenced by their mothers to see going to church every Sunday, but not praying often and reading the Bible daily as “irregular” practice of religion. Meanwhile, those whose fathers went to church more often could have gotten influenced by their mothers to see attending church two Sundays a month as “regular” religious practice. (Evidence suggest that we learn our original word usage mostly from mothers. Hence the term “mother tongue.”) If mothers influence how children see the idea of “regular” religious observance, then ideas above is comparing apples to oranges.
2) If the above data actually was correct, and the will of God, it would support a world where dad, not mom, stay home and look after the children.

silvereyes1945 said...

Hi, Kristen, I enjoyed reading your article about the influence of fathers on a child's churchgoing. Personally, I think, as you already pointed out, that mother's usually are the primary caregivers. This usually translates into less leisure time for mothers than it does for fathers. A non-practicing, primary caregiver mother may be happy to get the kids ready for church with dad, because this may be the only time she may have time to herself especially if she does not object to dad teaching them about his religion. She may also want to promote more bonding time with dad because this is something she has just by virtue of being the primary caregiver. A non-practicing father is less likely to help get the kids off to church even if he does not object to the mother teaching the kids about her religion because he has more leisure time. Just my opinion.