U.S. Teens Take After Their Parents Religiously, Attend Services Together and Enjoy Family Rituals
But American adolescents often participate at parents’ behest, and tend to be less religious in more personal, private ways
When it comes to religion, American teenagers and their parents tend to have a lot in common – though not quite as much as the parents may think, according to a new analysis of Pew Research Center survey data.
To begin with, most U.S. teens (ages 13 to 17) share the religious affiliation of their parents or legal guardians. Protestant parents are likely to have teens who identify as Protestants, while Catholic parents mostly have teens who consider themselves Catholics, and the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated parents have teens who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”
Within the broad Protestant category, however, there are stark differences. Eight-in-ten parents who affiliate with an evangelical Protestant denomination have a teen who also identifies as an evangelical Protestant. But among parents who belong to mainline Protestant denominations such as the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 55% have a teen who identifies in the same way – and 24% have a teen who is unaffiliated.
On the whole, U.S. teens attend religious services about as often as their parents do: 44% of U.S. teens say they go to religious services at least once a month, almost exactly the same as the share of their parents who say they attend monthly (43%).
When there are religious differences between adults and their 13- to 17-year-old children, however, it’s usually the teens who are less religious than the parents. For instance, far fewer teens (24%) than parents (43%) say that religion is very important in their lives.
The survey also asked parents and teens about how important they think religion is in the other person’s life, and found that, overall, most are on the same page. For instance, 73% of teens give the same answer as their parent about how important religion is to the parent, and 68% of parents give the same answer about how important religion is to their teen.
But among those who do not agree, parents are far more likely to overestimate the importance of religion to their teen than to underestimate it. For example, among all parents who give a different answer than their teen does regarding the importance of religion to the teen, 69% think religion is more important in the life of their teen than their teen does, and 29% believe it is less important to their teen than their teens says. Meanwhile, among all teens who give a different answer than their parent on the importance of religion in their parents’ lives, 43% overestimate how important religion is to their parent, while 55% underestimate it.
And of approximately 1,800 teenagers who were surveyed alongside one of their parents, about half the teens (48%) say they have “all the same” religious beliefs as their parent. But among the other half of all teens – those who say they share “some of the same” beliefs or hold “quite different” beliefs from their parent – about one-third (34%) say their parent doesn’t know that they differ religiously. And one-in-six (17%) say this difference causes at least some conflict in their household.
When asked how many of their religious beliefs they hold in common, most teens and parents give the same answer, including 40% of teen-parent pairs who say they hold “all the same” beliefs and 30% who agree that they hold “some of the same” beliefs. But in roughly a quarter of cases (27%), their responses do not align – and most of those are situations in which the parent assumes a higher level of agreement. For example, 12% of the pairs consist of a parent who says they share all the same religious beliefs as their teen, but a teen who disagrees. And another 4% consist of a parent who says they share some beliefs with their teen, while the teen says their beliefs are quite different.
Of course, differences can run in both directions: There are nonreligious parents who have highly religious teens, as well as the other way around. But the survey data suggests that, by some traditional measures of religious observance – religious importance and prayer – highly religious parents are less likely to have teenagers who share their beliefs than nonreligious parents are to have teenagers without strong religious beliefs.1
For example, 80% of parents who say that religion is either “not too important” or “not at all important” in their life have a teen who feels the same way, while 45% of parents who say religion is “very important” have a teen who takes the same view.
These are among the key findings of a Pew Research Center survey of 1,811 teenagers, each of whom was interviewed along with one parent or legal guardian. To obtain parental consent and put families at ease about the content of the survey, the parent was asked to complete the survey first. Then the parent was encouraged to allow the teenager to take it independently, without coaching or other interference.
The survey was conducted March 29 to April 14, 2019, long before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted attendance at many churches and other houses of worship. The questions were administered online, using the Ipsos KnowledgePanel. For more information on how this survey was conducted, including margins of sampling error, see the Methodology.
A previous Pew Research Center report, based on the same survey, examined teenagers’ experiences with religion in public schools. This report focuses on the religious lives of teens and the family dynamics of religion, including the degree to which parents and teenagers share religious identities, beliefs and practices; how often they talk about religion, pray before meals and read scripture together; the reasons teenagers participate in religious activities; and the relative level of importance that parents ascribe to raising their children in their religion.
The survey included parents and teens from many religious backgrounds, but the sample did not include enough people in many U.S. religious groups to allow their views to be analyzed and reported separately. Among these groups are historically Black Protestant denominations, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Orthodox Christian churches, as well as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christian faiths.
What do findings about teens mean for the future of religion in America?
The adult population in the United States has been growing less religious in recent decades – a trend driven in large part by young adults, who are much less likely than their elders to identify with a religious group or partake in traditional religious practices. But Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. teens finds that, religiously, those who are even younger – ages 13 to 17 – resemble their parents in some ways, particularly when it comes to rates of attendance at religious services. In addition, most U.S. teens are affiliated with a religion, and many engage in other family religious practices. This raises the question: Are America’s youths set to halt or reverse the country’s trend toward secularization?
Not necessarily. While it is possible that these adolescents will ultimately be equally or more religious than current young adults, this survey neither supports nor contradicts such a hypothesis. In fact, previous research has suggested that much of the movement away from religion among young adults occurs after they come of age, move out of their childhood homes or otherwise gain a measure of independence from their parents.2 This pattern fits a psychological model of religious and spiritual development that points to a post-adolescence trend toward autonomy.3 In early adulthood, there seems to be a particularly large decline in the public aspects of religion – such as religious service participation – whereas more private aspects of religion, such as prayer and the personal importance of religion, decline more moderately.4
Some findings from the new survey are consistent with this pattern. For one, many teens say their participation in religious activities occurs mainly because of their parents’ desires, not their own. And even though teens may attend religious worship services as often as their parents, they are less likely to say religion is very important in their lives. Moreover, consistent with previous research, the survey shows that religious attendance declines in the final two years of high school.5
Teens also look much less religious than their parents by more individual and private measures, such as how often they say they pray and the degree of importance they ascribe to religion in their lives. While private aspects of religion may be expected to decline more moderately than public aspects during young adulthood, it is possible that there may still be additional movement away from these individualized elements of religion ahead, after adolescents reach adulthood.6
In short, religion varies across the life course, often declining in late adolescence and early adulthood, and then increasing as people age, form new relationships, start their own families and mature into later adulthood.7 Thus, the findings from Pew Research Center’s survey of teenagers tell us a lot about the religion of contemporary U.S. adolescents, but should be cautiously applied to evaluations of the future of American religion.
Many teens engage in religious practices with their family
Teens may not always align with their parents – and vice versa – but, overall, many do engage with religion as a family practice. About six-in-ten teens (59%) say they often or sometimes talk about religion with their family, and roughly half of teens (48%) say they at least sometimes say grace or a blessing before family meals. A smaller share (25%) say they commonly read religious scripture as a family.
The survey followed up on these practices by asking teens two separate questions. First, how much do they enjoy doing religious things with their family? And, second, to what extent do they participate in religious activities because their parents want them to? About three-quarters of teens who do religious things with their family say that these activities bring them “a lot” of enjoyment (27%) or “some” enjoyment (51%), while two-thirds say they participate partly or mostly at their parents’ behest. Many teens express both sentiments; among teens who say they participate in family practices because their parents want them to, 79% also say that they get at least some enjoyment from it.8
Perhaps because attendance at religious services also tends to be a family activity, it’s an area in which parents and teens are largely in sync. Among parents who say they attend religious services on a regular basis (at least once or twice a month), 88% have a teen who also reports attending that often. An almost identical share (89%) of parents who attend services infrequently (a few times a year, seldom or never) have a teen who does the same.
While this may be an example of teens taking religious cues from their parents, it may also be the result of the limited autonomy of teens who, in most cases, reside with at least one parent or guardian. The vast majority of teens who attend religious services – even just on rare occasions – say they do so with one or both of their parents, and they are about evenly split between saying they do so mainly because they want to (35% of all teens) and mainly because their parents want them to (38%).
Teens are more likely to stand out from their parents on measures of individual identity, belief and practice – areas in which they can more easily act independently. Despite similar rates of attendance at religious services, teens are far less likely than their parents to pray daily (27% of teens vs. 48% of parents), to say that religion is very important in their lives (24% vs. 43%) and to believe in God with absolute certainty (40% vs. 63%).
Parents more likely than teens to be highly religious on religious commitment index
When taken together, these four measures – religious service attendance, prayer, importance of religion and belief in God – constitute an index of traditional religious commitment.9 Among the parents in this study, 48% score high on the religious commitment scale, 28% in the middle and 24% on the low end. By comparison, 34% of teens score high on the scale, 30% are in the middle and 36% are on the low end.
Among parents who score on the high end, roughly six-in-ten (59%) have a teen who also is highly religious, and about a third (32%) have a teen who falls in the medium category. Meanwhile, the vast majority of parents who score low on the commitment index (83%) have a teen who also exhibits low levels of religious commitment; far fewer have teens who fall in the middle (12%) or on the high (5%) end of the scale.
While this analysis focuses primarily on the transmission of religion between one parent and their teen, it also is the case that the parent who took the survey may not be the only source of religion – or nonreligion – in a teen’s household. Among parents who have a spouse or partner who shares their religious affiliation, nine-in-ten have a teen who also shares that same religious identity.10 And among single parents (those not married or living with a partner), 76% have a teen who shares their religion. But interfaith households are less straightforward: Among parents whose spouse or partner does not share their religious identity, 56% have a teen who shares their religion, although in these cases it is possible that the teen shares the religion of the spouse or partner instead (see Chapter 5).
Few differences in parent-teen alignment between mothers, fathers who took survey
Among the parents who took the survey, 57% were mothers and 43% were fathers.11 Previous research shows that when one parent is more involved in the religious upbringing of children, it tends to be the mother. As a result, one might expect teens to align more closely, religiously, with their parent if it was their mother who took the survey. But that does not seem to be the case: 47% of teens whose mother took the survey say they share all of her religious beliefs, and 50% of teens whose father took the survey say the same about him.
Two-thirds of teens are affiliated with a religion – and evangelicals are more religious than others by traditional measures
In addition to being able to explore how teens and their parents experience religion together, this survey also allows for comparisons between different groups of teens. There is a plethora of research on religion among adults – including their affiliations, beliefs, practices and what religion they were raised in, if any – and how those religious ties shape social and political views and influence life decisions. There is less data in this field on younger generations, particularly on adolescents who are still forming their identities and gaining agency in their life choices.12
If the major Christian traditions are disaggregated and counted separately, “nones” (that is, those who say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”) make up the single largest religious category among teens (32%). But two-thirds of adolescents are affiliated with a religion. About a quarter self-identify as Catholic, and 21% belong to the evangelical Protestant tradition. The rest are spread across a variety of other traditions – including mainline Protestantism, historically Black Protestantism, Judaism, Islam and others. (See Chapter 1 for more details.)
On each of the traditional religious commitment measures in this survey – religious importance, belief in God, religious service attendance and prayer – evangelical Protestant teens stand out from other adolescents.13 About half of evangelical teens (48%) say that religion is very important in their lives, far higher than the share of Catholics (27%), mainline Protestants (25%) and religious “nones” (2%) who say the same. Evangelical teens are similar to those in other Christian traditions in the overall share who believe in God, but they are far more likely to express absolute certainty about God’s existence (71%) than are mainline (49%) or Catholic teens (45%).
Furthermore, at least half of evangelical Protestant teens say they attend church weekly or more often (64%) and pray at least daily (51%), while smaller shares of mainline Protestants, Catholics and religiously unaffiliated teens say the same.
Evangelical Protestant teens also stand out from the other groups analyzed in this survey on how they engage in religious practices with their family. Eight-in-ten or more report that they often or sometimes say grace before meals with their family and talk with their family about religion. About half say they at least sometimes read religious scriptures with their family, and about nine-in-ten say they enjoy doing religious things with their family a lot (34%) or some (54%). (See Chapter 4.)
U.S. teens tend toward an inclusive view of religion
Teens broadly show an openness to the possibility that there is truth in multiple faiths and that people can be moral without believing in God. Like American adults, most U.S. adolescents say that it is not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values. Majorities of teenage Catholics, mainline Protestants and religious “nones” take this position. By contrast, evangelical Protestant teens tilt in the opposite direction: 60% say that believing in God is necessary for morality.
There is a similar pattern on the question of whether truth can be found in just one religion or in many. Two-thirds of evangelical teens in the U.S. hold the view that only one religion is true, while far fewer Catholics (31%), mainline Protestants (28%) and “nones” (6%) share that position. In fact, many teenage “nones” say there is little truth (27%) or no truth (21%) in any religion (see Chapter 2).
Teens’ engagement with big questions about the world
In addition to measuring traditional religious practices, the survey also sought to explore other possible ways teens may engage with spirituality or big questions about the world – including feeling a strong sense of gratitude, feeling a deep sense of spiritual peace or well-being, thinking about the meaning and purpose of life, and feeling a deep sense of wonder about the universe.
About eight-in-ten teens say they feel a strong sense of gratitude at least once or twice a month. Fewer feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being (50%) and say they think about the meaning and purpose of life with the same frequency (46%), while four-in-ten report feeling a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least monthly. (See Chapter 3 for full responses.)
Evangelical teens are considerably more likely than others to say they regularly feel a deep sense of spiritual peace; 70% say they do, compared with 54% of both Catholics and mainline Protestants and 31% of unaffiliated teens who say this. On other measures, differences across religious traditions are smaller. Religious “nones” are not substantially more likely than other teens to report any of these experiences
Other key findings from the survey include:
- Most U.S. teens (60%) say they have participated in a religious education program, such as Sunday school or Hebrew school, including 29% who say they continue to participate often or sometimes. And about half (51%) say they have been part of a religious youth group. Evangelical Protestant teens are more likely than teens in other religious groups to say they still participate in a religious education program (57%) or religious youth group (64%) at least sometimes. While most religiously unaffiliated teens say they have not participated in these activities, 32% say that they have received religious education at some point, and 27% say that they have participated in a religious youth group, even if they no longer do so (see Chapter 3).
- Among adults, women tend to be more religious than men, but this gap isn’t nearly as pronounced among teens. Adolescent boys and girls are equally likely to be religiously affiliated, say religion is very important in their lives, pray daily and say they regularly attend religious services. Furthermore, roughly six-in-ten teenage boys (58%) and girls (61%) say they have ever been in a religious education program. Girls do stand out, however, on religious youth group participation: 57% say they have participated in a religious youth group, compared with 44% of boys who say the same.
- Teens are split on their primary reason for attending religious services: 38% say they attend mainly because their parents want them to, while 35% say they attend mainly because they want to. Roughly a quarter (26%) say they never attend worship services. Unlike Catholics and mainline Protestants, most evangelical Protestant teens (64%) say they attend services mainly because they want to.
- When making decisions about what is right and wrong, religious “nones” are less likely than religiously affiliated teens to say they rely a lot not only on religious leaders but also on parents and other family members. Evangelical Protestant teens are more likely than other religiously affiliated teens to look to religious leaders or religious teachings and beliefs when making ethical decisions (see Chapter 2).
- Evangelical parents are more likely than other parents of teens to say it is very important that their teen is raised in their religion (71%) and that their teen marries someone in their religion (53%). Overall, 55% of parents with a religious affiliation say it is very important to raise their teen in their religion, while about a third (36%) say it is important that their child eventually marries within their faith. Parents are more likely to prize several other qualities or outcomes – such as financial success – for their children (see Chapter 6).
- On most standard measures of religious commitment, there is no clear pattern of teens becoming less religious as they advance through school. But it does appear that teens in higher grades are somewhat less likely to say they regularly attend religious services. Among teens in 11th or 12th grade, 38% attend services at least once or twice a month; by comparison, fully half of teens in 8th grade or lower attend with the same frequency.
- Teens whose parents identify with or lean toward the Republican Party seem to be more religiously engaged by some measures than those whose parent is a Democrat or Democratic-leaner. Teens with Republican parents are more likely to say they attend religious services weekly or more often, participate in religious education programs often or sometimes, and go to religious youth group at least sometimes. They also are more likely to pray daily, say religion is very important in their lives, and to talk to their family about religion, say grace and read scripture with their family at least sometimes. And these patterns hold even when the analysis is limited to teens who are religiously affiliated.
The rest of this report explores these findings in more detail. Chapter 1 looks at teenagers’ and their parents’ religious affiliations. Chapter 2 takes a closer look at religious beliefs, while Chapter 3 discusses religious practices. Chapter 4 explores how teens practice religion with their family, and Chapter 5 examines how teens and their parents perceive their beliefs as being similar or different. Finally, Chapter 6 looks at what parents want for their teens – in terms of personal qualities, career success and religion.
- This comports with findings from recent research that points to intergenerational growth in the likelihood that nonreligious parents raise nonreligious children. See Bengtson, Vern L., R. David Hayward, Phil Zuckerman, and Merril Silverstein. 2018. “Bringing Up Nones: Intergenerational Influences and Cohort Trends.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. ↩
- Chan, Melissa, Kim M. Tsai, and Andrew J. Fuligni. 2015. “Changes in Religiosity Across the Transition to Young Adulthood.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Also see Lee, Bo Hyeong Jane, Lisa D. Pearce, and Kristen M. Schorpp. 2017. “Religious Pathways from Adolescence to Adulthood.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Also see Bengtson, Vern L., Norella M. Putney, Merril Silverstein, and Susan C. Harris. 2015. “Does Religiousness Increase with Age? Age Changes and Generational Differences Over 35 Years.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. ↩
- Rydz, Elżbieta. 2014. “Development of Religiousness in Young Adults.” In Adamczyk, Katarzyna, and Monika Wysota, eds. “Functioning of Young Adults in a Changing World.” Also see Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen and Lene Arnett Jensen. 2002. “A Congregation of One: Individualized Religious Beliefs among Emerging Adults.” Journal of Adolescent Research. ↩
- Uecker, Jeremy E., Mark D. Regnerus, and Margaret L. Vaaler. “Losing My Religion: The Social Sources of Religion Decline in Early Adulthood.” Social Forces. Also see Barry, Carolyn McNamara, Larry Nelson, Sahar Davarya, and Shirene Urry. 2010. “Religiosity and spirituality during the transition to adulthood.” International Journal of Behavioral Development. ↩
- Regnerus, Mark D., and Jeremy E. Uecker. 2006. “Finding Faith, Losing Faith: The Prevalence and Context of Religious Transformations during Adolescence.” Review of Religious Research. ↩
- Chan, Melissa, Kim M. Tsai, and Andrew J. Fuligni. 2015. “Changes in Religiosity Across the Transition to Young Adulthood.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence. ↩
- Chan, Melissa, Kim M. Tsai, and Andrew J. Fuligni. 2015. “Changes in Religiosity Across the Transition to Young Adulthood.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Also see Wink, Paul, and Michele Dillon. 2002. “Spiritual Development Across the Adult Life Course: Findings From a Longitudinal Study.” Journal of Adult Development. ↩
- Teens who do religious things include those who say grace or read scriptures with their family, or those who say yes to a broader question: “Aside from saying grace and reading scriptures, do you ever do any other religious things with your family?” See topline for more details. ↩
- The index is created by combining four individual measures of religious observance: the self-assessed importance of religion in one’s life, religious attendance, prayer and belief in God. Respondents are assigned a score of 1 on each of the four measures on which they exhibit a high level of religious observance, a score of 0 on each of the measures on which they exhibit a medium level of religious observance, and a score of -1 on each measure on which they exhibit a low level of religious observance. High religious observance is defined as saying religion is very important in one’s life, attending religious services at least once a week, praying at least once a day, and believing in God with absolute certainty. Medium religious observance is defined as saying religion is somewhat important in one’s life, attending religious services once or twice a month or a few times a year, praying between a few times a week and a few times a month, and believing in God with less than absolute certainty. Respondents also are assigned a medium score on any questions they decline to answer. Low religious observance is defined as saying that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important in one’s life, seldom or never attending religious services, seldom or never praying, and saying that one does not believe in God. The scores for each of these four individual items are then summed; respondents who score a 2 or higher are categorized as “high” on the scale (that is, they are “highly religious”), those who score between -1 and 1 are categorized as “medium” on the scale, and those scoring -2 and below are categorized as “low” on the scale. Cronbach’s alpha for the religious commitment scale for parents is 0.862 and is 0.85 for teens and neither scale is improved if any variable is removed. ↩
- This aligns with international research on the intergenerational transmission of religion. Across nations, people tend to be more religious when they were raised by parents with similar religious beliefs, affiliations and levels of participation. See McPhail, Brian L. 2019. “Religious Heterogamy and the Intergenerational Transmission of Religion: A Cross-National Analysis.” Religions. ↩
- The majority in each of these groups are biological, adoptive, step or foster mothers and fathers. Just 1% indicated that they were the partner of a biological or adopted parent, a grandparent or other legal guardian. ↩
- Sociological data on religion among American teenagers has come primarily from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), which fielded a national telephone survey of adolescents in 2002 and 2003, as well as three subsequent rounds of follow-up interviews with participants. Pew Research Center’s survey explores several different aspects of adolescent religiosity, including many new questions about the role of religion in the family and teenagers’ experiences with religion in public schools. In addition, there have been considerable changes in the U.S. religious landscape since the original NSYR survey nearly two decades ago. Most notably, contemporary teens are maturing in a context in which religiously unaffiliated Americans are far more numerous. ↩
- This aligns with social scientific research by Christian Smith. His work shows that evangelical Protestant adults tend to be more religious than other Americans on most standard measures of Christian religiosity. See Smith, Christian. 1998. “American Evangelicalism Embattled and Thriving.” Smith also found similar patterns among American adolescents using a survey fielded in 2002 and 2003. See Smith, Christian, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. 2005. “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.” ↩