The two themes we will address and illustrate in this section are: (1) Firmness and Flexibility in Religious Family Practices and (2) Firmness and Flexibility in Religious Beliefs. To facilitate links between the data and thematic concepts, we will italicize certain words or phrases in participant comments that capture the essence of the theme being illustrated. We will also present some data regarding parents’ concern (or lack of concern) involving religious transmission.
4.1. Theme 1: Firmness and Flexibility in Religious Family Practices
There was a wide range of responses from the 476 participants as they discussed their approach to religious practices and rituals at the family level. Some reported more firmness (perhaps even rigidity) in their practices and rituals, while others conveyed a more relaxed approach. A few explained, often in a confessional style, that they had been so flexible with family ritual that some rituals had ceased altogether. There were many, however, who had seemed to find a healthy balance, often referencing both firmness and flexibility in the same comment regarding daily or weekly family religious practices. In connection with Theme 1 (Religious Family Practices), we will respectively discuss (a) religious firmness, (b) religious flexibility, and (c) integrating firmness and flexibility.
Firmness in Family Religious Practices: “[He] never missed a night.”
For many families, their sacred rituals were not optional and had reportedly become an important part of their family life and who they were. Kira1
, a Lutheran mother, shared how some family rituals were important to her; “I can’t imagine not
going to church on Sundays. And as ritual as that is, I just can’t imagine not [going]
.” Claire, a Latter-day Saint mother, described how rituals have helped her family:
We [picked] a “family scripture” [verse]. ... We used it, and we read it together every Monday night, and it would kind of help the [kids], as they went into the teenage years, with all the challenges that were there, all the challenges that are out there for kids. [The family verse] had “watch” and “pray” in it, and it really helped strengthen our children and our family.
Faith, a Catholic mother, also shared how rituals have benefited her family:
We pray together as a family. Martin is so good about [praying] at bedtime. [He] has never missed a night, praying with the children, the boys in their room, because they’re in the same room, and then the girls. I think for them it’s routine. And for them, [those prayers mean] being a part of the family. I think that evens their day out. It’s something they’ve learned to expect, and that Daddy’s always going to be there, or Momma, to get that constancy, that consistency too.
Calvin, an African American, Baptist father, shared his stance on Sunday rituals when he said,
Yes, first of all, it’s just going to church on Sundays. I mean, I think that’s a practice that my family has and it’s important. I think it’s important for my kids. [Now] there are Sundays when they don’t want to go, [but still] I said, “We have to, you have to go to church.” I mean, that’s just a practice of this family.
Manuela, a Latina, Lutheran mother, shared her view on church attendance:
One thing we’ve tried to do, [we’ve taught our kids], “As long as you live under our roof, you will go to church with us.” If not every single week, then absolutely, as much as possible. [That is how] we grew up. There comes a time when you move out of the house or you’re away from home, where you are going to stray, more than likely. You’re not going to go to church, but our feeling is that if we have instilled it in them for 18 or 19 years, they may stray, but they’re going to go back. ... They’re going to [come] back ... [and when they do], it will be there. They’ll know that it’s important for their family, to do the same thing.
Charlotte, a Presbyterian mother, shared a similar story:
[One of the kids] made a comment a lot about, “How come we have to go to church? None of my other friends do. Why are we the only ones?” Which we’re not. What do I say? “Because that’s what we do. We’re going to church and you’ll be better off for it. So, get out of bed [and] get in the car.”
These accounts, especially the italicized portions, illustrate firmness in religious rituals and/or observance. Next we will discuss flexibility in connection with family-level religious practices.
Flexibility in Family Religious Practice: “It changes all the time.”
Many comments from participants emphasized the importance of flexibility in religiously-oriented family practices to them or their families. Some families were flexible with their religious practices and rituals because they (or at least one member of the family) valued other things more than religious observance. Martha, a Lutheran mother, said, “[My son], there’s probably a couple of times that we dragged him to church and he wanted to do other things, or sports related things. But mostly we let him do his sports instead of church.
” Abigail, a Reform Jewish mother, shared her family’s flexibility with rituals:
And because we’re tired on Friday night, we don’t get to synagogue as much as we want to. And, because of other time commitments, there’s just never enough time to do as much as maybe we should for the Jewish community.
Jim, a Caucasian, Latter-day Saint father, had seen their weekly ritual of Family Home Evening ebb and flow over the years and noted specific difficulties keeping the ritual firmly in place when children hit the teen years (a recurring struggle across faiths). He said,
[E]specially when kids were younger ... we tried to hold (family home evening) once a week… [W]e would discuss Scriptures, principles, play a game or two, sing a few hymns, have a [treat]… I think we were pretty consistent when the kids were small, [but] we didn’t do as well as the kids got older ... [but] we were pretty consistent ... [but those were] not quite as rigidly structured as the Sunday worship service.
The hallmark of more flexible families was that rituals did not always have to be done weekly or daily, and the way in which the ritual was done reportedly changed over time. Brian, a Catholic father, shared his family’s experience with prayer when he said, “We have, as the family has grown, we’ve sort of changed.
... [The] prayer that we used to say at night prayer, we don’t say it as often
.” For Brian’s family, changes in style and frequency had both occurred. Jamie, a Jehovah’s Witness mother, described her experience with being flexible in the amount of time she spent on religious involvement outside the home. She explained,
I’m a strong believer in [being sensitive to] circumstances... [W]hen I was younger and I had ... our babies, the time I could spend in the ministry was nothing like what I can do now. And I feel that there are many families with different circumstances. So what we excel in now, maybe ten years ago I didn’t have that luxury to excel in.... So, it changes all the time.
Next, we will look at integrations of firmness and flexibility in religious family practices. Many participants’ families reportedly strived to find a balance between the two.
Integrated Firmness and Flexibility in Religious Practices: “We usually read our scriptures together [but] you don’t need to ... do a certain thing [every time].”
Many families expressed a balance between being firm in their approach to rituals, and also being flexible as changes arose. They emphasized the importance of religion and rituals, while adapting them to work with their family goals. Charlene, a Latter-day Saint mother, stated,
We usually [read our scriptures together] in the evening and we’re either around the table or in the family room or living room, wherever we happen to be, wherever most people happen to be at the moment. And partly, we do that on purpose because we want them to feel like anywhere you go, you can read scriptures. You don’t need to go and sit at the table or do a certain thing and when we read it, we have each person read however many verses we’re going to read. Right now, we went through reading a chapter at a time and I found that we weren’t really learning much, so what we do now is we [have each family member read] two scripture [verses] each.
This family was consistent in their family practice of studying scriptures, but they were also flexible as a family on how, when, and where the study was done.
Banafsha, an East Indian, Muslim mother, illustrated a similar point in connection with salat
(Islamic prayer five times daily):
We don’t want to delay the prayer of anybody. If they are studying, they can pray in their room and keep studying [and] not wait for the other ones because you see, we wash up before we pray. So, that was a reason, we didn`t want to make it hard for anybody. But I think that the good thing was when you go to anybody`s room, it`s time for prayer, they either have already prayed, or they are praying.
For Banafsha’s family, prayer is non-negotiable, but where and (with some latitude) when the prayer takes place is negotiable. Ariella, a Conservative Jewish mother, shared a similar experience about her children’s desire to perform their family sacred rituals. She said,
We do the same rituals for our holidays and all our Sabbath activities and you know, a lot of times we have to nag them and pull them into things, but if we DON’T do something or if something is missed or if we say, “We are not going to do Shabbat,” [then] they say, “What do you mean we’re not doing it!?” [with animation] ... They’ll get mad that we don’t do it. They’re upset because it’s not the way it usually is. They get upset if we don’t hallow [the Sabbath]. It’s very interesting. Sometimes they act like we are annoying them by dragging them through the ritual but if we don’t have it there for them they get upset by it.... The religion provides a lot of strength and comfort and structure.
As was the case in most of the Jewish families we interviewed (Marks et al. 2017
), children in Ariella’s family made it clear that some degree of consistency and predictability in religious rituals is important. Of course, when those children are older they may call on their parents to provide greater flexibility in timing and length of religious rituals if the rituals begin to compete with other valued activities in youth’s lives.
Having examined firmness and flexibility in connection with religious family practices in Theme 1, we now turn our attention to firmness and flexibility in connection with religious beliefs in Theme 2.
4.2. Theme 2: Firmness and Flexibility in Religious Beliefs
Many of the participants we interviewed expressed firmness in the area of religious beliefs. That is, they were quite orthodox in how they approached the religious beliefs of their respective Abrahamic faith (and/or denomination). Many participants held at least some of their religious beliefs to be rooted in doctrines or practices that were divinely revealed and thus non-negotiable and not subject to significant personal or family adaptation. This has been called a “vertical” (divine) sense of morality and religion, as opposed to a “horizontal” (or socially constructed) view (Burr et al. 2012
; Shichida et al. 2015
). We explore this firmness of religious belief next.
Firmness in Religious Beliefs: “There is no discussion.” Many participants, couples, and families were quite firm when it came to certain beliefs of their religion. They viewed following divinely revealed commandments as vital and departing from them was not an option. These families tended to look to their religion for guidance instead of secular texts or ideas.
Sabir, an East Indian Muslim father said, “If it is something that has already been prescribed religiously, then there is no discussion. Things like this, at least in our family, we tend to go back to the religion.”
Mei, a Chinese Christian mother shared her beliefs on marriage that stem from the Bible when she said, “This is the principle; we could not change the order.”
Jerome, an African Methodist father, also shared a Bible-based belief:
And the law we follow, as the Bible says, is “Honor thy father and thy Mother.” And I truly believe that. If you have sassy kids, don’t bring them around me because I’m not going to play.... You will treat my household as such. We are not going to change.... You are going to abide by the rules or you are not going to come in here.
Some families also expressed that every aspect of their life goes back to their religion and revolves around their religious beliefs. Elsu, a Native American, Christian father reported,
Our religious beliefs—everything we chose; who our kids were allowed to play with ... where they were allowed to go, what they were allowed to partake of, what churches they could go to, who they could affiliate with. Every aspect of life was guided by our faith.
Even though certain religious beliefs or practices may be difficult to follow, some individuals expressed their desire to follow them and honor God. Noor, a Muslim mother, said she was told by one man in her city,
“You know, for your own security, you probably should remove your Hijab, and the girls should remove their Hijab [veil, covering].” And I think that, gaining strength from my religious beliefs, I said, “No, I’m not going to.” People have to realize I am Muslim.
Deshi and Jing, a Chinese Christian couple also shared their desire to honor God through action,
Deshi: One tenth offering is not a problem in our church. We should do according to God’s words. Our faith is in God.
Jing: It is God’s grace for me to find this job. The one-tenth money is the most meaningful because it is used for God’s work.
Having outlined firmness in personal and familial religious beliefs, we now explore flexibility.
Flexibility in Religious Beliefs: “I don’t agree ... so I ignore them.” Although many participants, like those whose reports were featured in the previous section, focused on firmly grounded, even unalterable, beliefs, other participants described what they believed personally in relation to the official beliefs of their religious institutions. These individuals interpreted doctrine and teachings in varied and adaptive ways that reportedly fit better or made more sense to them and their families. Some spontaneously expressed, without any related questioning, that they did not have the same views as their religion and/or religious leaders on a few (or several) things. A number of participants and families were open to varying, less orthodox interpretations of their religion, and were flexible when it came to believing, partially believing, or thoroughly rejecting some doctrinal or theological or pragmatic elements of their faith. Some of these families seemed to select what they truly believed from their religion and then developed their own beliefs regarding certain issues.
Miriam, a Jewish mother, shared her view about certain Jewish perspectives on gender in worship:
I have a problem with gender roles [in] religion in general, so I ignore them. I don’t abide by them or whatever. Like in Orthodox [Judaism], I’m often, not offended, but it’s just that I don’t agree with the idea of having women and men separated during ceremonies. Women are not allowed on the bemah [podium from which Torah is read] and you can’t listen to a woman’s solo voice and I just don’t believe in that part of it.
Li-Fen, a Chinese Christian mother, shared her opinion on the doctrine of tithing:
We offer money at church. We all know how we should do, everyone should tithe. But this proportion should be flexible rather than fixed because the condition[s] of families are different. Those families which are in difficulties should adjust.
Li-Fens’s argument for circumstantial flexibility resonates with Hareven and Trepagnier
) scholarly position that allowances should be made for the life course.
Erin, an Episcopalian mother, shared a view and approach to God images that presents a flexible non-orthodoxy that includes a “live and let live” approach to beliefs. Erin reported,
I certainly grew up saying God the Father [but now] there are lots of people at Grace [cathedral] who say “She” instead of “He,” and to me those words don’t mean enough that I care. I could see, I can see imagery of God as, you know, Father, Protector, Mother, Nurturer, Wind, Life. I don’t need an attachment, but I don’t object to it. So when somebody says [about] God, “He,” that doesn’t bother me.
A few participants, however, were not only less than fully reconciled to their faith’s “institutional” beliefs, they were diametrically opposed to some beliefs and practices. One Orthodox Jewish father reported that, despite his connection to much of Jewish tradition, some aspects that he perceived as unnecessarily rigid were “anathema” to him. Elijah, another Jewish father, explained that in spite of his high level of both personal and synagogue-level involvement, “I profoundly disagree with institutional Judaism.”
Additionally, many Muslim participants (both women and men, wives and husbands) expressed widely varying interpretations of hijab
(the Islamic practice of covering) that reflected different levels of flexibility in both belief and practice. Indeed, the variations in our data were substantial enough to allow a recent article on the topic (Alghafli et al. 2017
In connection with the theme of flexibility in religious beliefs, participants’ views often differed from the traditional views held by their faith. As illustrated, these divergent patterns were evident in connection with gender roles, attitudes towards financial contribution, God images (including, but not limited to, gender), the degree of flexibility that should be permitted in ritual and practice, and how certain beliefs should be translated into practice (e.g., hijab). While these illustrations are a small sample of the 59 total reports related to “flexibility in beliefs,” the preceding data indicate that even devotedly religious persons selected as “exemplars” by their own clergy often wrestle with at least some beliefs espoused by their traditions and actively incorporate some level of flexibility in their lived religious experience.
In summary, many of the exemplar (clergy-referred) families we interviewed were quite orthodox in belief and were devoted in their religious practices (i.e., orthopraxy). Many other families, however, were quite flexible in their beliefs, practices, and interpretations of their religion, and introduced moderate to major adaptations. Other families seemed to seek a balance between their beliefs and their faith’s viewpoint—a type of negotiated hybrid. We now turn to reports from the data (N = 32) on families that strived to integrate religious firmness and religious flexibility.
Integrated Firmness and Flexibility in Beliefs: “[I] look to the religion and I look into the secular things.”
A body of empirical data indicates that sacred beliefs can be a beneficial (even profoundly meaningful) coping resource—particularly when these sacred beliefs are shared in couples and families (Marks and Dollahite 2017
). For many highly religious families across the Abrahamic faiths, one frequently navigated issue is the extent to which non-religious materials and ideas should be integrated into how the family thinks about various matters, including family relationships themselves.
Yuusif, an East Indian, Muslim father, referenced this choice point when he said,
I do primarily look to the religion; however, I look into the secular things to the extent that if it’s going to help me understand the situation we are up against [then I’ll use it].... I look at [secular materials] to see how people think.
Tara, a Latter-day Saint mother, shared a similar view. Asked whether she would personally turn to sacred or secular sources in confronting a problem, she reported,
I would read both. I would give more weight to what was said in the religious publication but I would read a lot everywhere, hoping to find [useful information]. With the kids, for example, if there’s a problem, I certainly will read the church [sources], but I’ll read other things as well.
When individual participants and families were willing to look at different sources outside of religion to help them solve problems, they suggested it was beneficial to them as a whole. This integrated approach, however, raises the question of which source is primary versus secondary.
Iffah, an Arab American Muslim mother, discussed primacy when she explained,
Sometimes we even, we have tradeoffs between whether we want to have a religious view of something or have a cultural view of something. [However], for our family, the religious view is the view that we consider first. I would say it is the priority.
Vickie, an Episcopalian mother, shared her views on the Bible as a resource when she said,
Teaching Sunday school to the older kids, you don’t have to take the Bible literally. The Bible ... guides us and we need to use it as such, but [we do] not [have] to live literally by it only, because with translations, things can get translated differently.
Wes, a Seventh-day Adventist father, also discussed interpretation and application of scripture:
In some places [in the Bible] it says, “Above all things you should do this.” And I think some people would interpret that [as meaning ‘Do this,] even at the cost of your family.’ Like, ‘You have to go here, even if your family will not go with you,’ or ‘[Even] if this will cause major problems in your family [do it anyway].’ I wouldn’t think that God would want that to happen, but to a certain extent, depending upon your family, I would think [you need to be more flexible than that].
In this theme, we have seen some participants and their families exemplify both religious firmness (i.e., referencing sacred religious texts as their primary resource) while also demonstrating religious flexibility in being willing to move beyond sacred resources to also access potentially valuable secular resources.