University of Southern California

Center for Religion & Civic Culture

Religion and Generations

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CRCC has developed a significant expertise in understanding religion in the context of social generations. CRCC’s expertise includes understanding how religious practice, expression, experience and association is influenced by the needs, demands and desires of different generations of adherents, and how religious belief and practice is maintained and transmitted—or not—across generations. Important areas of investigation include understanding how religion is reinterpreted by new generations, how it is, or is not transmitted across generations, and how religion and spirituality changes over the life course of both adherents and religious institutions.

CRCC’s first efforts in this area was a project that Donald Miller and Richard Flory developed, based on their observations of young and otherwise conservative evangelical Christians, who were sporting tattoos with significant religious and spiritual content. These “GenX’ers” had appropriated the popular cultural form of tattooing as a way to publicly announce their identity as Christians. The initial presentation of this research was at the 1998 SSSR meetings, and ultimately resulted in the edited volume GenX Religion (Routledge 2000).

Several other projects followed this initial effort to understand how religion may adapt, change, and be transmitted across generations. In 2001 Flory and Miller were funded by the Louisville Institute for a study titled, “The Recovery of Ritual: The Religious Quest of the Post-Boomer Generations,” in which they broadened their interests from so-called “Generation X” to what they called the “Post-Boomer Generations.” This project resulted in several presentations and publications, three art gallery installations, and the book, Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation (Rutgers University Press 2008). In 2004, Donald Miller and Fr. James Heft (Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies) received a grant from the Lilly Endowment for a project that investigated how religious identity was constructed across generations within four major religious traditions: Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. This resulted in the edited volume Passing on the Faith: Transforming Traditions for the Next Generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Fordham University Press 2006) that included a chapter by CRCC staff and research associates Tobin Belzer, Richard Flory, Brie Loskota, and Nadia Roumani titled, “Congregations that Get It: Understanding Religious Identities in the Next Generation.”

Most recently, the Transmission of Religion Across Generations project has analyzed the degree to which religious beliefs and practice are successfully transmitted across generations. This project was directed by Vern Bengston, and utilized a 35-year longitudinal study of southern Californians to examine patterns of religious experience and the consequences of these patterns for individual and family well-being among participants. The Transmission of Religion project has yielded several publications, and Vern Bengston has recently completed a draft of a book based on the data from this project.

Several other current projects include an element of generational analysis. The Los Angeles Dream Center project, while not formulated as an investigation into generational dynamics, raises questions about generations because of the large number of younger Pentecostal Christians who are involved in operating and volunteering at the Dream Center. In addition, Richard Flory has an ongoing involvement with the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), a nationally representative study of young people, housed at the University of Notre Dame and UNC-Chapel Hill, that to this point has completed three waves of data collection. This resulted in the 2010 book, Growing Up in America: The Power of Race in the Lives of Teens (Stanford University Press 2010), which Flory co-authored with CRCC Research Associate Brad Christerson, and Ohio State University sociologist Korie Edwards. Flory and co-authors are in the process of writing a second book using NSYR third-wave data, looking at these same young people as they enter the world of higher education and work.

CRCC’s continued interest in the area of generations and religion continues to focus on younger members of different religious traditions, but is also expanding to consider other questions, such as how religion matters and changes across the life course. For example, how do the needs and desires for religious and spiritual experience change over the course of an individual’s life, and how are these changes related to different life stages? Organizational and institutional questions remain important as well. For example, how religious congregations both adapt to demands from younger and older adherents, as well as how they maintain consistency with their traditional practices are important areas that will receive future investigation.

Related Initiatives

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Transmission of Religion Across Generations

Understanding the transmissions of religion across four generations of families

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