One-in-Five U.S. Adults Were Raised in Interfaith Homes
A closer look at religious mixing in American families
Roughly one-in-five U.S. adults were raised with a mixed religious background, according to a new Pew Research Center study. This includes about one-in-ten who say they were raised by two people, both of whom were religiously affiliated but with different religions, such as a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, or a Jewish mother and a Protestant stepfather. An additional 12% say they were raised by one person who was religiously affiliated (e.g., with Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism or another religion) and another person who was religiously unaffiliated (atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”).
To be sure, religiously mixed backgrounds remain the exception in America. Eight-in-ten U.S. adults say they were raised within a single religion, including two-thirds who say they were raised by two people who shared the same religion (or both of whom were religiously unaffiliated) and an additional 14% who say they were raised by a single parent.
But the number of Americans raised in interfaith homes appears to be growing. Fully one-quarter of young adults in the Millennial generation (27%) say they were raised in a religiously mixed family. Fewer Generation Xers (20%), Baby Boomers (19%) and adults from the Silent and Greatest generations (13%) say they were raised in such a household.
The religious backgrounds of young adults also stand out in other ways. For example, nearly one-quarter of Millennials (24%) say they were raised by at least one parent who was a religious “none,” including 15% who were raised by one religiously affiliated person and one unaffiliated person; 6% who say they were raised by two parents, both of whom were unaffiliated; and 3% who were raised by a single parent who was unaffiliated with any religion. By contrast, only 11% of adults in the Silent and Greatest generations say they had one or more religiously unaffiliated parents.
In addition, only a quarter of Millennials (24%) say they were raised by two Protestant parents, once the archetype of an American family. Twice as many adults in the Silent and Greatest generations (48%) say they were raised by two Protestants.
What is the impact of coming from a religiously mixed or matched background? Here, the survey reveals several patterns:
- Religious “nones”: Americans are most likely to identify in adulthood as religiously unaffiliated if they were raised exclusively by a parent or parents who were unaffiliated themselves. Indeed, among adults who say they were raised either by a single parent who had no religion or by two people who were both religious “nones,” a solid majority (62%) identify as “nones” today.
But there also are many “nones” who come from religiously mixed backgrounds. Nearly four-in-ten of those who say they had one parent who identified with a religion and another parent who was religiously unaffiliated describe themselves as “nones” today (38%). And one-quarter of those raised by a Protestant and a Catholic are now religiously unaffiliated (26%). One-in-five people who were raised exclusively by Catholics are religious “nones” today, as are 14% of those who say they were raised solely by Protestants.
- Catholics: Most people raised solely by Catholics (62%) continue to identify as Catholics in adulthood, which is on par with the share of those raised solely by “nones” who remain religiously unaffiliated today. But those raised by one Catholic parent and one non-Catholic parent have less than a 50-50 chance of identifying with Catholicism as adults. Among U.S. adults from a mixed Protestant/Catholic background, for example, just 29% identify as Catholics today, while 38% are Protestants and 26% are “nones.” And among those with a joint Catholic/religiously unaffiliated upbringing, 32% identify with Catholicism today, while 42% are religious “nones” and 20% are Protestants.
- Protestants: Eight-in-ten people raised exclusively within Protestantism continue to identify as Protestants today. And 56% of those raised by a Protestant parent and a religiously unaffiliated parent now identify as Protestants.
But many Americans who were raised by at least one Protestant have left the specific denomination of their Protestant parent or parents. For example, just 24% of all people raised by one Protestant and one religious “none” still identify with their Protestant parent’s denominational family – e.g., as a Baptist if the parent was a Baptist.
(For more detail on how this study defines and analyzes religious mixing, including with respect to Protestant denominational families, see this sidebar.)
- Mother knows best: Most Americans who were raised by a biological or adoptive mother and father say their parents played an equal role in their religious upbringing. But among the roughly four-in-ten adults who say one of their parents (either biological or adoptive) was “more” responsible for their religious upbringing, far more name their mother than their father.
Moms seem to have been especially influential in the religious upbringing of people from interfaith families. Nearly half (46%) of those raised by parents affiliated with two different religions say their mother was primarily responsible for their religious upbringing, while just 7% say their father took primary responsibility; the rest say both parents played equally important roles in their religious upbringing (41%) or give some other answer, such as that they were not raised in any religion (3%). Among Americans who were raised by one religiously affiliated parent and one “none,” nearly two-thirds (63%) say their mother was mainly responsible for their religious upbringing as a child.
Perhaps as a result of the leading role mothers often play in the religious upbringing of their children, adults from religiously mixed backgrounds are more likely to adopt their mother’s faith than to follow in their father’s religious footsteps. Fully 48% of those whose parents had different religious identities now identify with their mother’s religion, while 28% identify with their father’s religion and 24% identify with neither. Among those from mixed religious backgrounds who say their mother was mainly responsible for their religious upbringing, roughly six-in-ten (59%) now identify with their mother’s faith.
These are among the latest findings from the Pew Research Center’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study. The study and this report – the fifth in a series – were made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which received support for the project from Lilly Endowment Inc.
The first report on the Landscape Study, based on a telephone survey of more than 35,000 adults, examined the changing religious composition of the U.S. public and documented the fluidity of religion in the U.S., where roughly one-third of adults now have a religious identity different from the one in which they say they were raised and where more than a quarter of those who are married or living with a romantic partner are in religiously mixed relationships. The second report described the religious beliefs, practices and experiences of Americans. A third report, which focused on the degree to which religiously observant people live their day-to-day lives in a distinctive manner, drew on the national telephone survey but was based primarily on a supplemental survey among participants in Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative group of randomly selected U.S. adults surveyed online and by mail. The fourth report, which drew on the national telephone survey but relied primarily on questions asked in a follow-up (“recontact”) survey of 5,000 respondents who originally completed the national telephone poll, continued to explore the fluidity and churn within American religion by assessing how people choose new congregations.
A note on terminology
The survey included a few simple questions that asked respondents about who raised them. The questions were designed to obtain basic information as to whether the respondent had been raised by a single person or by multiple people and, in the case of those raised by multiple people, to ascertain who those people were (for example, biological parents, adoptive parents, a biological parent and a stepparent, grandparents or other relatives). Throughout this report, the terms “parent” and “parents” are used as shorthand to refer to the person or people who raised the respondent, regardless of their biological relationship to the respondent. A few of the analyses reported here are based only on those raised by two biological or adoptive parents, and they are clearly labeled as such.
The study does not include detailed questions about how respondents’ parents were related to each other. It did not ask, for instance, whether they were ever married. It did not ask if they divorced. It also did not ask about the atmosphere and environment of the respondent’s childhood home life. Of course, all of these factors, and many more, may be important determinants of religious outcomes. In short, the study was limited in scope, designed to obtain baseline information about the prevalence of mixing religions and basic information about the religious dynamics of religiously mixed households. It is not meant to be a definitive guide as to what sorts of factors and child-rearing practices produce particular kinds of religious outcomes in adulthood.
This report, like the fourth, relies in part on results from the original telephone survey but is based primarily on results from the recontact survey. It examines the mixing of religious faiths in U.S. families as well as how the dynamics of religion and family life in America are different in religiously mixed environments than in religiously homogeneous situations.
Religion most salient in religiously matched families, but not necessarily a source of discord in religiously mixed families
Today, one-quarter of married adults say their spouse does not share their religion. Nearly one-in-ten married adults (9%) are religiously affiliated and say their spouse identifies with a different religion, while 15% are in marriages pairing one religiously affiliated spouse with another who is religiously unaffiliated.1
Adults who are currently in religiously mixed marriages are far less religious compared with religiously affiliated adults married to a spouse of the same faith. Indeed, more than three-quarters of religiously affiliated people who are married to spouses of the same religion (77%) are highly religious, according to an index incorporating four common measures of religious observance (frequency of worship attendance, frequency of prayer, belief in God and the self-described importance of religion in one’s life).2 Meanwhile, only about half of religiously affiliated people in mixed marriages exhibit high levels of religious commitment (including 54% of those married to a spouse who has a different religion and 51% of those married to a religious “none”).3
Religious conversations also are more common among religiously affiliated spouses who share the same faith than among those in religiously mixed marriages.
Furthermore, the data show that adults in religiously mixed marriages who are currently raising minor children are far less likely to participate in religious activities with their children, compared with those married to spouses of the same religion. For example, more than three-quarters of parents married to spouses of the same faith say they pray or read scripture with their children, and seven-in-ten say they send their children to religious education programs, such as Sunday school. Those in religiously mixed marriages are much less likely to do these things.
Similarly, when asked about the religious dynamics of their childhood, adults who were raised in interfaith households say religion was a less prominent feature in their lives when they were growing up, compared with those in religiously matched families. For example, among those raised by religiously affiliated parents who shared the same faith, half (52%) say religion was very important to their family when they were growing up; 43% say religion was very important to them, personally, during their childhood; and 36% say their parents talked about religion “a lot” when they were children. People raised in religiously mixed households – or exclusively by religious “nones” – are considerably less likely to say religion was a salient feature of their childhood in these ways.
But while religion is a more salient feature of life in religiously matched families, the survey finds few signs of widespread religious discord in mixed-faith families. Nearly three-quarters of those raised by parents from different religious backgrounds say their parents disagreed little, if at all, about religion. And most people who are in religiously mixed marriages today say it is uncommon for them to have religious disagreements with their spouse.
Religiously mixed marriages and contemporary child rearing
How are parents who are currently in religiously mixed marriages raising their children? While this is an enticing question, it is not an easy one to answer. The answers given by survey respondents on this topic often depend on which member of the family you ask. For example, in religiously mixed marriages that combine one religiously affiliated spouse and another who is a religious “none,” the religiously affiliated half of such pairings overwhelmingly say their child is being raised in a religion (82%), while just 16% say their child is being raised with no religion. By contrast, among the religiously unaffiliated spouses in such relationships, nearly four-in-ten say their child is being raised with no religion.
This is not the only example in which perceptions about religion and family life depend on the eye of the beholder. The survey also shows, for example, that wives are much more likely than husbands to say they (wives) are primarily responsible for the religious upbringing of their children. Indeed, when asked who is more responsible for their children’s religious upbringing, wives are more likely to say they are by a 15-to-1 margin (29% vs. 2%). Husbands are much more evenly divided on this question; 15% acknowledge that their wives take the lead in this regard, but 9% say they themselves are most responsible for their children’s religious upbringing.4
While this study would ideally delve more deeply into the religious upbringing of current minor children (and not just how current adults say they were raised as children), these differing perspectives make that a challenge.
Religion is not the only area where men and women have different perspectives about a variety of family dynamics. For example, a previous Pew Research Center analysis shows that mothers in two-parent households are more likely to say they do more at home and for their families (e.g., handling household chores, managing children’s schedules, etc.) than fathers are to say their spouse or partner does more.
Religion seen as less important for successful marriage than shared interests, satisfying sex, fair division of household labor
Among those surveyed (including those who are married and those who are not), 44% say having shared religious beliefs is “very important” for a successful marriage, which is about the same share that says having an adequate income is key to a successful marriage. Considerably larger shares say shared interests, a satisfying sexual relationship and an equitable division of household chores are crucial for a successful marriage.
The data also show that religion appears to be a fairly minor factor in the way Americans choose their spouses. Among those who are currently married, 27% say their spouse’s religion was a “very important” factor in deciding whether to marry them. An additional one-in-five (21%) say their spouse’s religion was a “somewhat important” factor, while half (51%) say their spouse’s religion was “not too” or “not at all” important in deciding whether to get married. Among those who are not currently married, one-third say a potential spouse’s religion would be a “very important” factor in deciding whether to marry that person, if they were considering marriage.
There are, however, certain groups in the population who attach a lot of importance to the role of religion in marriage. Among those who are highly religious themselves, for example, nearly two-thirds say shared religious beliefs are very important for a successful marriage. And half of highly religious unmarried adults say a potential spouse’s religion would be a very important factor in deciding whether to marry that person.
For more detail on the study’s findings about religion in marriages and family life, see Chapter 2.
Other key findings from the survey include:
- The vast majority of people raised by one religiously affiliated parent and one religious “none” say their mother identified with a religion while their father was religiously unaffiliated. Indeed, of all adults raised by one religious “none” and one religiously affiliated parent, just 17% say their father was religiously affiliated and their mother was religiously unaffiliated. These findings are consistent with other research showing that women are generally more religious than men.
- Two-thirds of Americans raised by one religiously affiliated parent and one religious “none” say their religiously affiliated parent was most responsible for their religious upbringing, while very few – just 3% – say their religiously unaffiliated parent took the lead. This is partly because when one parent or another takes the lead role in the religious upbringing of children, the mother is named as the lead parent far more often than the father. (For more detail, see the discussion above.)
- Just as U.S. adults are far more likely to say mothers rather than fathers took primary responsibility for their religious upbringing, wives are seen as somewhat more religious than husbands. While most married people say they and their spouse are about equally religious, those who say one partner is more religious than the other mostly say it is the wife – not the husband – who is most religious in their marriage.
- Among adults who were raised in a single-religion household, those for whom religion was a salient feature of their childhood (i.e., those who say their parents talked about religion and that religion was important to them personally and to their families when growing up) are most likely to identify with the religion of their parent or parents today.
A note on how the study defines religious mixing
There are many possible ways to define religiously mixed families. In this report, a religiously mixed couple consists of either two people who have different religious identities (e.g., one identifies religiously as Jewish and the other as Catholic) or one person who identifies with a religion (e.g., Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism or any other faith) and another person who identifies as religiously unaffiliated (i.e., as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”). For married respondents, this report uses the term intermarried as a synonym for religiously mixed couples. Two people who have the same religious identity are referred to as a religiously matched couple.
Pairings that combine people from different Protestant denominational families (e.g., a Methodist and a Lutheran, or a Baptist and a nondenominational Protestant) are not treated as religiously mixed couples in this report. This analytical decision has important consequences for the figures reported here. If couples pairing Protestants from different denominational families were treated as religiously mixed, then the study’s estimate of the share of adults with a religiously mixed upbringing would be significantly higher, since 6% of adults were raised by Protestants from different denominational families.
The report uses this conservative approach to estimating religious mixing because the substantive importance of intra-Protestant combinations is not always clear. Some may involve individuals from denominations with deep historical, theological and cultural differences. In other cases, individuals from nominally distinct Protestant denominations may have much in common, religiously.
If complete information about the exact denominational affiliation of respondents (and their parents and spouses) always were available, it might be possible, theoretically, to classify some intra-Protestant pairings as highly or “truly” mixed and others as not. But many Protestants are unable or unwilling to identify with a specific denomination. For example, they may describe themselves as “just a Lutheran” rather than saying they belong to a specific Lutheran denomination, such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (an evangelical Protestant denomination) or the Evangelical Lutheran Church In America (a mainline Protestant denomination). Indeed, in the Religious Landscape Study’s national telephone survey, more than one-third of Protestants offered this kind of vague religious affiliation.
For all these reasons, in the absence of complete information about the denominational affiliation of all respondents, this report errs on the side of adopting a conservative approach to estimating religious mixing by treating Protestantism as a single religious category.
Respondents are defined as having been raised in a single religious background if they say they were raised either by a single parent or by two people who had the same religious identity as each other, as described above. Respondents raised in a mixed religious background are those who say they were raised by two people who did not have the same religion as each other.
- For a more comprehensive discussion of religious mixing in marriage and domestic partnerships, see Chapter 2 of “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Note, however, that the analysis there employs a different definition of religious mixing and is based on both those who are married and those who are currently living with a romantic partner. This report focuses only on those who are married. ↩
- For full details on how the index is constructed, see “How religious is your state?” ↩
- The data cannot prove which direction the causal arrow points. Religious intermarriage may lead to decreased religiosity. Alternatively, people who are not particularly religious to begin with may be more likely to marry a spouse with a different religion. ↩
- “The survey did not ask married people whether their spouse is a man or a woman; this analysis assumes that male respondents are married to female spouses and vice versa. While it is possible that some respondents are in same-sex marriages, these marriages are estimated to make up a small percentage of all U.S. marriages and thus would likely have minimal effect on these figures.” ↩