All of that being said, it’s difficult to know why, exactly, mothers tend to have this kind of influence on their kids, especially given the wide variety of religious traditions and experiences that were covered in the report.
Women’s religiosity can have tangible consequences on the lives of families. According to Pew, nearly half of people who grew up in interfaith households now practice their mom’s faith, compared to less than a third who practice their dad’s. And religiosity factors much more into women’s perceptions of their marriage prospects and happiness: 68 percent of unmarried women said a potential spouse’s religion is “very” or “somewhat” important to them, compared to 55 percent of men.
Gender imbalance has long been a part of religious communities. Women often keep churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship functioning—the Christian polling firm, Barna, even calls women the backbone of U.S. churches. But some religious communities, and particularly those that are conservative, worry about the lack of men among their ranks. Books have been written about “why men hate going to church” and the “feminization” of Christianity. At some congregations, leaders have created special ministries to make the congregations more attractive to men—Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine, called it the “masculinity movement.”
One possible reason for this worry is that religion seems to be good for everybody, and particularly men who are struggling. The sociologists Brad Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger, for example, found that young black men who are involved in religious communities are less likely to have committed crimes, been incarcerated, or be unengaged in work or schooling. In general, men across ethnic and racial groups are more likely than women to stay away from religious activities. If men are uninvolved in these communities, it’s not only the religious groups that are losing out—the men are potentially losing something as well.
The Pew findings offer a slightly different perspective on how people might think about the gender imbalance in their communities, though. For one thing, the survey suggests that women might bear more of the burden of religious education—whether that’s hauling kids to Sunday School, talking with them about their faith, or teaching them the traditions of their inheritance. The takeaway may be that women need extra support from their religious communities. But it might also be an argument for a more equitable sharing of duties—as this report suggests, parents’ involvement in their kids’ religious lives can have long-term consequences.
In a lot of families, these patterns aren’t true. Some kids grow up in households with two dads, two moms, or some other array of relatives. Roughly 14 percent of people in this survey said they were raised by a single parent. Overall, a lot of people grew up in households in which religious duties were shared: 58 percent of all respondents said their parents played an equal role in their religious upbringing. Among couples who are currently raising kids, 68 percent of women and 75 percent of men said they and their spouse are sharing in their children’s religious education.
This might suggest a generational shift ahead—kids who are growing up now may be less likely to credit their faith to their mom in the future. Still, the numbers aren’t even—women’s special role in their kids’ religious lives will likely always be there.