Term Paper from “Biocultural Evolution of Religion”

May 5th, 2007

Yes, it isn’t anything groundbreaking but I thought the results were still interesting.

The tables didn’t work, but you can view a Google version of it with partially formatted tables   HERE.

Relative Permanence of Religious Beliefs Acquired in Childhood:

A Comparison of Conservative and Liberal Denominations




Congregations of conservative churches have been growing at a faster rate than those of liberal denominations for some time now [1]. While there have been many reasons suggested for this uneven growth rate, this paper will only focus on one possible aspect- the children. It is most common for children to be taught the religion of their parents along with many other beliefs the parents may hold (such as political beliefs). However, these beliefs are not always permanent. It is sensible to predict that the beliefs of some religions are more permanent than others. For the purposes of this paper, “permanence of religious belief” is defined as how long or how often the beliefs are held by those brought up in the religion. This paper is an attempt to examine which factors most affect the permanence of religious beliefs and identify which denominations are most affected by these factors (liberal or conservative). The main source of data for this paper is the United States General Social Survey of 2004.

When the analysis is complete, predictions can be made about the relative permanence of belief for various religions and denominations and comparisons can be made- especially between conservative and liberal denominations. It is predicted that conservative denominations are better at passing their beliefs onto their children, and that this accounts for part of the faster growth rate of those churches. In this way the factors contributing to the transmission of beliefs can be identified as memes that either contribute to the survival of the religion (increase permanency) or are detrimental to its survival. Other sources of new adherents would also have to be accounted for (those not inculcated with the beliefs as children) because not all new adherents are children. The other main difference between conservative and liberal denominations when accounting for the difference in growth is probably evangelization, but that is beyond the scope of this paper.


One of the first factors that must be looked at when comparing denominations is the religious beliefs of the parents. If parents are not very religious, they will tend not to strongly inculcate their children with religious beliefs. It is important that both parents are members of the same religion. Ariana Need and Nan Dirk De Graaf examined data from the 1992-1993 Dutch Family Survey, specifically focusing their analysis on those that leave the faith of their childhood (those that become “unchurched”) [2]. They found that 46% of those surveyed who had one religious and one non-religious parent left the church. When there were two parents of different religious faiths a smaller amount of those surveyed left the church (33%). An even smaller amount (27%) left the church when both parents were of the same religion. This clearly indicates that religious faiths that discourage marrying outside the faith will tend to have more permanent religious beliefs. The reason for this correlation may have to do with exposure to different choices- if the parents are in agreement on religious beliefs they are more likely to be taught as a fact rather than as different opinions. It is predicted that such inter-faith marriages are more common among those with more liberal theological beliefs because different denominations or religions are more likely to be seen as equals.

The religious commitment of parents is also important to how their children will be introduced to the beliefs. One way to measure the religious commitment of parents is by looking at church attendance. In the same Dutch Family Survey, De Graaf and Need found that 37% of those whose parents attended church services less than once a week left the church compared to 25% of those that attended more than once a week. Jonathan Kelley and Nan Dirk De Graaf analyzed a survey of over 16,000 people in 15 nations in order to determine how religious beliefs are affected by parent and national religiosity [3]. They found that more frequent church attendance correlates strongly with more orthodox beliefs (a belief in a personal god that concerns himself with human beings personally). More orthodox beliefs also correlate strongly with more frequent parental church attendance and a more religious environment in the nation as a whole. It is predicted that members of conservative denominations attend church more frequently and thus would be positively affected by this.

The study also concluded that citizens of religious countries are affected more by the national religiosity than those of secular countries, and that family religiosity played a much more important role for citizens in secular countries. A secular country in this case is not one in which the government is secular, but rather is one in which most of the citizens are not religious or do not hold orthodox beliefs. Because of this relationship we can conclude that religions whose adherents tend to be highly devout will prosper in more secular countries, but the effect will not be as pronounced in countries that are very religious. The effect of this relationship is that more devout (orthodox, conservative) denominations will prosper even more when there is less religious influence in society.

This is consistent with the previous findings of Paul Perl and Daniel Olson- the market share of a particular religion and the commitment of its members are inversely proportional [4]. This means that religious groups in mostly secular countries will tend to show more commitment and will probably pass on their beliefs with more permanence- leaving the faith would mean leaving the close-knit community. An earlier study examined this relationship and found that the same principle was true for Catholics (a more liberal denomination) – commitment was higher where the relative population was lower [5].

All of this data seems to indicate that religions with less than average church attendance will have adherents with less orthodox beliefs that are less effective at transmitting religious beliefs to their children. This was confirmed in another study that examined the average time and money commitment for various denominations [6]. More orthodox denominations demanded more of a commitment and were more likely to have strict rules. The relationship is still unclear- it may be that orthodox beliefs cause more church attendance or more church attendance causes more orthodox beliefs- but the result is still the same- those with more orthodox beliefs and those that attend church more frequently (often the same group) will be more likely to pass their beliefs to their children with more permanence.

Family structure also seems to play a role in the transmission of religious beliefs [7]. Conservative denominations (and less often their liberal counterparts) often espouse a “traditional family” of which the most important aspect is a stay-at-home mother. This allows much more time to be spent transmitting beliefs directly and less time being exposed to people outside of the faith (in daycares, for example). It has been shown that religion is passed on better when the parents are less educated (especially the mother), when the father works more and the mother works less, and when the father is the decision-maker of the household [7]. All of these are hallmarks of a “traditional” family. It is predicted that these aspects will be more correlated with members of conservative denominations than with members of liberal denominations. This means that family structure is yet another factor that contributes to better transmission for conservative denominations than for liberal denominations.

Finally, education may play a role in the transmission of religious beliefs. In the analysis of the 1992-1993 Dutch Family Survey, Need and De Graaf found that in every case parents with a higher-level education were less successful at passing on their religious beliefs [2]. For instance, 15% of those whose parents had less than primary education left the church while 69% of those whose parents completed higher-level secondary education left the church. One possible explanation for this is that educated parents will encourage their children to pursue education. Higher education may then directly affect the religious beliefs of the offspring- when children (by then young adults) go to college they often are exposed to more viewpoints on religion and more liberal views in general. Less educated mothers are probably more likely to be stay-at-home parents, thus tying education levels into the traditional family structure.

To summarize, some of the main factors that affect the permanence of religious beliefs that are passed on the children are:

1) Inter-faith Marriages– Parents who both share the same beliefs are best at passing on those beliefs. Parents who belong to different denominations and cases where one parent is non-religious are much less successful. It is predicted that liberal denominations will have more of these mixed marriages.

2) Church Attendance– Parents who attend services more often (and thus parents whose children attend services more often) are better at passing on their beliefs. Those who attend services more often tend to have more orthodox beliefs (whether or not the attendance is the cause or the effect of those beliefs) and thus it is predicted that members of conservative denominations will attend services more frequently.

3) Strictness and Time Commitment – churches that have strict rules demand more time commitment have higher than average church attendance. They also happen to be mostly conservative (again benefitting more conservative denominations than liberal denominations).

4) Family Structure– almost all aspects of a “traditional family” contribute to better transmission of beliefs. It is predicted that this type of family is more common among conservative denominations.

5) Education– in general, less education (especially for the mother) contributes positively to the transmission of religious beliefs. It is predicted that members of conservative denominations will have less education, especially for the mothers.

All of these factors are expected to result in more permanent beliefs being passed to the children of members of conservative denominations. This enhanced transmission of beliefs would partly explain the growing membership of conservative denominations and declining membership of liberal denominations.


The results of the 2004 General Social Survey were analyzed so that conclusions could be made about how much these factors differ between liberal and conservative denominations [8]. The survey was performed by personal interview of over 2800 individuals with over 1100 different variables collected. The most important variable analyzed was “Fundamentalism/ Liberalism of respondent’s religion” (FUND)- it made it easy to compare conservative and liberal denominations without having to know what the denominations are and also helped to account for those that do not belong to a specific denomination.

Inter-faith Marriages

The first factor examined was the amount of inter-faith marriages for conservative denominations compared to the amount for liberal denominations. The variables that were examined are “Fundamentalism/Liberalism of respondent’s religion” and “Fundamentalism/Liberalism of religion of spouse”.



According to the table, those in a fundamentalist religion were 81.2% likely to be married to someone with a similar level of fundamentalism, while moderates were 79.8% likely and liberals were 70.7% likely. The correlations were statistically significant (X2=847.178 with 9 degrees of freedom for a P-value of less than 0.001). This confirms the prediction that members of conservative (fundamentalist) denominations are less likely to be married to someone of different religious beliefs and according to previous studies would then pass on their religious beliefs with more permanence.

Church Attendance

For this analysis, the variables analyzed were “Fundamentalism/Liberalism of respondent’s religion” and “How often do you attend religious services?”

Table 2

The results of this analysis are very clear. The fundamentalists are the most likely to attend most often (17%) while the liberal members were least likely (2%). The liberals were most likely to never attend (35%) while the fundamentalist were the least likely to never attend (7%). The correlations are significant (X2=648.557 with 27 degrees of freedom for a P-value of less than 0.001). This confirms the prediction that members of conservative denominations are more likely to attend religious services frequently and thus likely to pass on their beliefs with more permanence than those who attend less often (members of liberal denominations).

Strictness and Time Commitment

In this analysis the level of fundamentalism of the respondent’s religion was compared to their involvement in a religious organization- from belonging and being actively involved to never having belonged. There were no variables that could be specifically analyzed for the strictness level of the denominations.


The results of this analysis are also very clear. The fundamentalists are most likely to actively participate in a religious group or church (51%) and least likely to have never belonged to such a group (11%). The liberals are least likely to actively participate in a religious group (24%) and most likely to have never belonged to such a group (28%). The correlations are again significant (X2=155.201 with 12 degrees of freedom for a P-value of less than 0.001). This confirms the prediction that more time commitment (active involvement) in a church or religious group is correlated with more fundamentalist denominations. This commitment serves to increase the sense of community and religious commitment and thus increase the permanence of the beliefs passed onto the children in the same way that increased church attendance does.

Family Structure

This analysis is different from the others because there is obviously no variable for having a traditional family. The variables that were chosen are “AGREE OR DISAGREE?: A working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work. (FECHLD)” and “AGREE OR DISAGREE?: It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family. (FEFAM).” The prediction is that those who disagree with the first question and agree with the second are more likely to have a traditional family.




Both of these tables indicate that members of more fundamentalist denominations are more likely to favorably view a traditional family structure and therefore it is logical to conclude that they are more likely to have a traditional family structure. Fundamentalists are the most likely to strongly disagree with the first question (10%) and least likely to strongly agree with it (20%). They are also the most likely to strongly agree with the second question (12%) and least likely to strongly disagree with it (12%). The opposite is true for liberals in every case- 27% strongly agree and 5% strongly disagree for the first question with 6.4% and 26% for the second question. As predicted, the traditional family structure is more closely associated with members of conservative denominations. It has been shown that various aspects of such a family structure benefit the permanence of religious beliefs passed to children [7] and thus this is another factor that contributes to increased permanence in the transmission of religious beliefs for members of more conservative denominations.


The final factor that was analyzed is education. It appears that less education (especially for the mother) enhances the transmission of beliefs. For this analysis a comparison was made between the highest educational degree of the respondent and the highest education degree of their spouse. The results were analyzed first for members of conservative denominations and then for members of liberal denominations. Only results from male respondents who were currently married were analyzed so that the comparison made was between husbands and wives.





In this case chi-square analysis could not be used because there were not enough cases to sample from. Instead, frequency tables were created. In all cases the husband was more likely than the wife to have a graduate degree. One interesting note is that husbands are more likely than wives to not have a high school degree, with the percent difference being higher for members of fundamentalist denominations (4.9% compared to 0.5%). This is probably because men may drop out of high school to work more often than women. The gap in higher education was comparable for members of fundamentalist denominations (37.4% of husbands had junior college, a B.A. or a graduate degree compared to 33% for the wives) than it was for members of liberal denominations (55.1% compared to 50.1%) with the main differences occurring in graduate education. The difference in education between husbands and wives does not appear to be significant aside from graduate education- roughly husbands belonging to fundamentalist denominations were about 75% more likely than their wives to have a graduate degree while liberal husbands were only about 50% more likely that their wives to have a graduate degree.

The biggest difference between conservative and liberal denominations is overall education (52.6% of members of liberal denominations had one of the higher degrees compared to 35.2% for members of conservative denominations). This confirms the prediction that more education is associated with members of liberal denominations and will hurt the transmission of their beliefs more because it is more prevalent.


In conclusion, several factors affect the permanence of religious beliefs passed on to children. These factors can be seen as memes that either help or harm the health of the religion. All of the factors examined could be correlated to either conservative denominations or liberal denominations by analyzing results from the 2004 general social survey. All of these factors helped spread the beliefs of conservative denominations to their children and hindered the transmission to children of members of liberal denominations. This difference in passing beliefs on to children may partly account for the different growth rates seen today- conservative denominations are growing faster while liberal denominations are shrinking. However, this does not spell the end of liberal denominations- according to some studies a lower market share increases commitment to the religion which would then increase transmission of beliefs to children and thus increase market share [4] [5].

Future studies would benefit greatly from more targeted studies that draw from an international pool of subjects. Data was lacking for some factors (such as the strictness of the denomination) and could be improved for others (such as the data on belonging to a religious group). A larger study would also allow better analysis of education differences between husbands and wives. Data could also be collected from the children of respondents after several years have passed in order to confirm the differences in the permanence of religious beliefs and to examine whether “unchurching” is a permanent change or whether it is only temporary. Data should also be collected on other sources of converts, such as those who join a different faith than they were born into. Conservative denominations probably have higher rates of evangelism and thus more of these converts, which would further explain the gap in the growth of denominations.



[1] Perrin, Robin, Paul Kennedy, and Donald Miller. “Examining the Sources of Conservative Church Growth: Where Are the New Evangelical Movements Getting Their Numbers?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36(1997): 71-80.

[2] Need, Ariana, and Nan Dirk De Graaf. “‘Losing My Religion’: A Dynamic Analysis of Leaving the Church in the Netherlands.” European Sociological Review 12(1996): 87-99.

[3] Kelley, Jonathan, and Nan Dirk De Graaf. “National Context, Parental Socialization, and Religious Belief: Results from 15 Nations.” American Sociological Review 62(1997): 639-659.

[4] Olson, Daniel, and Paul Perl. “Religious Market Share and Intensity of Church Involvement in Five Denominations.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 39(2000): 12-31.

[5] Stark, Rodney, and James McCann. “Market Forces and Catholic Commitment: Exploring the New Paradigm.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 32(1993): 111-124.

[6] Olson, Daniel, and Paul Perl. “Variations in Strictness and Religious Commitment Within and Among Five Denominations.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40(2001): 757-764.

[7] Myers, Scott. “An Interactive Model of Religiosity Inheritance: The Importance of Family Context.” American Sociological Review 61(1996): 858-866.

[8] “General Social Survey, 2004.” The Association of Religion Data Archives. Pennsylvania State University. 4 May 2007 <http://www.thearda.com/archive/files/descriptions/GSS2004.asp>.

Update… Maybe

April 29th, 2007

In the next few days I will post portions of a paper that I am writing on the effectiveness of religious indoctrination among various religions (or “Relative Permanence of Religious Beliefs” if you want to be nice about it).

It will be organized as following:

1) Identify what factors lead to people leaving their childhood religion

2) Identify which religions have these factors or are most affected by them

3) Predict which religions have the most people leaving based on the factors

4) Present actual statistics about which religions have the most people leaving

If I cannot find solid statistics it will be more of a proposal for research into the topic.
After this series of posts I will try to keep up the blog, but no promises.


October 23rd, 2006

This is originally from an older blog that I neglected. I will try and get the concept off of the ground here.


I have grown tired of trolling various Christian and atheist forums (mostly Myspace boards) and refuting the weak apologetics that are constantly offered. I have decided to make this blog “community oriented”. Aside from the occasional post that I come up with all on my own, I will have at least weekly (if I get enough of a response) features where I will post an e-mail that I recieve and my own response. Most of these discussions will probably last for two or three articles.

Getting started:

Do you think there is good evidence that Jesus was an historical person? Do you think evolution is false? Do you think that your religion is the one, true faith? Do you think that a god can be logically proven? Do you think that a non-supernatural origin of the universe and life is impossible? Do you think that non-religion leads to immorality? Do you have any “unconventional” ideas that you think you can convince me of (ghosts, UFOs, 9-11 government conspiracies)?

If you do- and if you are at all capable of having an intelligent discussion- you can feel free to send me an e-mail . There will definitely be few e-mails at first, at least until the blog grows in readership. You can send me your apologetics and I will attempt to both classify and dissect your argument piece by piece. After a thorough refutation (unless the evidence is so profound that I agree with you) you can respond back to me in an e-mail. This will go on for as long as I see fit, when I will start a new e-mail chain/ discussion.