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10 key findings about the religious lives of U.S. teens and their parents

A family inside the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
(Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Parents have a lot of influence over their teenagers – including when it comes to religion. But while teens in the United States take after their parents religiously in many ways, they stand out in some others, according to a new Pew Research Center report.

The report looks at U.S. teens’ religious lives and the ways these reflect – or don’t reflect – the religious lives of their parents. It is based on a survey of 1,811 pairs of teens ages 13 to 17 and their parents, with one teen and one parent from each household. Each person answered questions not only about their own religious affiliation, beliefs and practices, but also about the role they think religion plays in the life of the other person taking the survey.

Here are 10 key findings from the report.

How we did this

Religion research often focuses on the religious lives of adults, and on the way people’s religious beliefs and practices evolve as they age. But there is less data about younger people’s religious views and habits, and the extent to which these are shaped by their upbringing. To better understand these dynamics, Pew Research Center surveyed 1,811 pairs of U.S. teens and their parents – one parent and one teen from each household. The survey was conducted online by Ipsos, from March 29 to April 14, 2019. Ipsos sampled households from its KnowledgePanel, a probability-based web panel recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses and telephone (landline and cellphone) numbers, designed to be nationally representative.

While many surveys are designed to measure the responses of individuals, this one also was designed to measure the responses of pairs. The goal was to measure the degree of religious alignment between teens and their parents by separately asking them similar questions about their religious affiliations, beliefs and practices.

Parents who qualified for the study – those who had a child ages 13 to 17 living with them – were asked to complete a web survey, with some questions referring specifically to their teenager (or the teen with the next upcoming birthday, if there was more than one in the household). Upon answering the last question, the responding parent was asked to pass the survey to the teen they had been asked about, so the teen could complete their portion; parents were encouraged to allow teens to answer the questions on their own.

While this survey is not meant to be representative of U.S. adults overall, it is weighted to be representative of two different populations: 1) parents with teens ages 13 to 17; and 2) teens ages 13 to 17. It is weighted to be representative by age and gender, race, ethnicity, education, and other categories.

Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Most teens share the religion 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. The vast majority of religiously unaffiliated parents have teens who also describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

Most parents and teens share a religious identity

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, 55% have a teen who identifies in the same way, while 24% have a teen who is religiously unaffiliated.

Overall, teens are somewhat less likely than their parents to identify as Christian (63% vs. 72%), and somewhat more likely to say they are religiously unaffiliated (32% vs. 24%).

Though the survey included parents and teens from many religious backgrounds, the sample did not include enough people from smaller groups – including historically Black Protestant denominations, Orthodox Christian churches and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as Jews, Muslims and other non-Christian faiths – to allow their views to be reported separately.

Approximately half of teens (48%) say they have “all the same” religious beliefs as their parent. Among the other half of teens – those who say they share “some of the same” beliefs or have “quite different” beliefs from their parent – about one-third (34%) say their parent doesn’t know that they differ religiously. And 17% say this difference causes at least some conflict in their household.

Overall, most parents and teens have a good read of how important religion is in the other’s life. 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 as their teen about how important religion is to their teen. When parents and teens do not give the same answer, it is generally because parents are overestimating the importance of religion in their teen’s life, rather than underestimating it.

Teens less religious than their parents by some measures, but not worship attendance

Teens are just as likely as their parents to say they regularly go to religious services, but when it comes to more personal forms of religious expression, teens appear less religious than their parents. Around four-in-ten teens and parents say they attend services at least once or twice a month. And perhaps because attendance at religious services tends to be a family activity, the vast majority (88%) of parents who say they regularly attend religious services also have a teen who reports attending that often. (The survey was conducted before the coronavirus outbreak, which has shifted many people’s attendance habits.)

However, teens are less likely than their parents to pray daily (27% vs. 48%), to believe in God with absolute certainty (40% vs. 63%) and to consider religion “very important” in their lives (24% vs. 43%).

Most teens attend religious services with at least one parent

Most teens report attending religious services with either both (40%) or one (25%) of their parents. Another 7% say they generally attend with other people, such as grandparents, other family members or friends. Just 1% say they attend worship services alone. Roughly one-quarter say they never attend religious services or declined to answer the question.

Many teens and their parents engage in religious practices as a family in other ways as well. About six-in-ten teens (59%) say they “often” or “sometimes” talk about religion with their family, while about half of teens (48%) report saying grace – a prayer or blessing before a meal – with their family at least sometimes. A smaller share of teens (25%) say they commonly read religious scripture as a family.

Teens are about as likely to say they go to religious services mainly because their parents want them to (38%) as to say they go mainly because they themselves want to go (35%).  When it comes to religious activities in general, about two-thirds of teens who do religious things with their family say they do so partly or mostly because their parents want them to. But even if teens are participating to please their parents, they seem to be getting something out of it: Around three-quarters of teens who engage in religious activities with their family say these pursuits bring them “a lot” of enjoyment (27%) or “some” enjoyment (51%). And many teens express both sentiments: Among teens who say they participate because their parents want them to, 79% also say they get at least some enjoyment from it.

Religious education is relatively common. Six-in-ten teens 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 31% who say they rarely participate or used to but no longer do so. And about half (51%) say they have been part of a religious youth group.  Most religiously unaffiliated teens say they have not participated in these activities, though 32% say that they have received religious education at some point and 27% say they have participated in a religious youth group, even if they no longer do so.

Teens with Republican parents are more religiously engaged by some measures

By some measures, teens whose parents identify with or lean toward the Republican Party seem to be more religiously engaged than those whose parents are Democratic or lean to the Democratic Party. For example, 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 a religious youth group at least sometimes. They also are more likely to talk to their family about religion, say grace and read scripture with their family at least sometimes. These patterns hold even when the analysis is limited to teens who are religiously affiliated.

Evangelical Protestant teens are more religious than other teens by traditional measures, and also are more likely to say they at least sometimes engage in religious education or religious youth groups. Religion appears to be more deeply embedded in their lives in other ways, too: Evangelical teens are more likely than teens in other religious groups to say they regularly feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being (at least once or twice a month). Seven-in-ten say this, compared with roughly half or fewer Catholic, mainline Protestant and unaffiliated teens. Evangelical teens also are more likely than these other groups to look to religious teachings and beliefs when making ethical decisions. As for evangelical parents, they are more likely than other parents 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.

Plurality of teens, parents say there may be truth in many religions

Teenagers tend to be open to the possibility that there may be truth in multiple faiths and that people can be moral without believing in God. A plurality of teens (45%) express the belief that many religions may be true, while 31% say that only one religion is true. Fewer teens say there is little or no truth in any religion.

A majority of teens (61%) say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values, while 38% say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. The pattern among parents on these questions is largely similar.

Many U.S. teens report having religious or spiritual experiences at least once or twice a month. Half feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least monthly, while 46% say they think about the meaning and purpose of life and 40% report feeling a deep sense of wonder about the universe. The most common experience is a strong feeling of gratitude or thankfulness, reported by 77% of teens in the survey.

While religiously unaffiliated teens are just as likely as others to say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe, they are much less likely than teens in other religious groups to report feeling spiritual peace at least once or twice a month.

Religious ‘nones’ as likely as other teens to report feeling a deep sense of wonder about the universe

Note: Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.