Studies of the past decade’s religiosity “can be boiled into good news and bad news,” said Annette Mahoney of Bowling Green State University at a recent Heritage Foundation conference, Religious Practice and the Family: What the Research Says. “The bad news is that almost no research has been done on how religion operates when problems are not prevented,” she said, adding that “the good news is that religion does matter for families.”
Mahoney explained that religion tends to help people in “maintaining any family relationship, traditional or not, such as being a good single mother.” However, she noted, studies over the past century have focused largely on the effects of spirituality on the individual, rather than the effects of spirituality on the family. Science has “focused on a spirituality of ‘me’ instead of a spirituality of ‘us,’” Mahoney declared.
Mahoney discussed the many links between family and religion that science has been able to establish, all the while pointing out when studies were inconclusive or inadequate for the topic. For example, Mahoney pointed out the established link between religion and motherhood: “religion increases women’s desire for children,” she said, noting that strong religious beliefs “seem to make motherhood happen in marriage more often.” She also discussed the link between religion and marriage generally, explaining that religious men and women are far more likely to get married, and to get married younger, than men and women who are not religious. However, in areas such as gender role stability or division of household tasks, research is inconclusive when it comes to religion’s impact on actual behavior.
One interesting study Mahoney examined was one that showed that conservative Christian parents are more likely to subject their children to “mild spankings”—but also to exhibit more “warmth” toward their children, and give their children more supervision than parents from other parts of the religious spectrum. Likewise, Mahoney said, people even from non-traditional family settings are better parents with stronger familial ties as a result of religion. One example Mahoney cited was that of single mothers; religious involvement results in “more positive parenting by low income, single mothers,” she asserted.
Mahoney also explained the unpredicted similarity between same-sex and heterosexual couples: majorities of both groups believe that their unions have “divine significance and meaning.”
Mahoney concluded by pointing out that much more research needs to be done before America can draw concrete assumptions about religiosity and its effects on individuals, families, and society at large. She noted that more research must be done on how religion impacts families going through serious and unavoidable crises, and on the issues of homosexuality and religiosity. “We know that religion matters to Dick Cheney and his family, but we need to know more about how religion matters to Dick Cheney’s daughter and her family,” she said.
Mahoney works in the clinical area of the Bowling Green State University Department of Psychology.