Both parenthood and parental care motivation are linked to higher levels of religiosity, according to new research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The study provides evidence that parents are drawn to religion because it fosters social norms that are beneficial to their offspring.
“Becoming a parent is one of the most important events in many people’s lives and changes people’s priorities and lifestyles, but very little work has examined the relationship between parenthood and people’s beliefs. So, for the last couple of years, I’ve been interested in whether parenthood — and the motivational drives associated with it — could influence moral and religious attitudes,” said study author Nicholas Kerry (@NicholasTKerry1), a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania
“The idea behind this set of studies is that many religions encourage exactly the kind of societal norms that might be appealing to people raising children: most major religions discourage promiscuity, encourage family closeness, and promote protective moral norms relating to crime, violence, alcohol and other drugs. Consistent with this rationale, we found that parents in many countries across the world were more religious than non-parents, even when accounting for age and other demographics.”
The findings from the new study are based on responses from 2,161 participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform and 402 undergraduate students.
In line with previous research, Kerry and his colleagues found that parents tended to have stronger religious beliefs and higher religious attendance. Religiosity was also positively associated with parental care motivation. In other words, more religious participants were more likely to agree with statements such as “When I see infants, I want to hold them” and “I would sooner go to bed hungry than let a child go without food.”
Parenthood and heightened parental care motivation were also associated with a reduced interest in short-term relationships and a heightened belief in a dangerous world, which in turn was associated with increased religiosity.
The researchers also found some evidence that an experimental parenting manipulation increased religiosity. Participants who were asked to imagine being the parent of a child or to think about the last time they had a positive interaction with a child tended to score higher on a measure of religiosity compared to those who were asked to imagine enjoyable activities or to think about the last time they had a positive interaction with a work colleague. However, this effect was only found among participants who had relatively strong emotional response to the imagination task. Participants who were 25 to 35 years old tended to show stronger experimental effects than other age groups.
“These findings suggest that becoming a parent could have important effects on how people see the world, including even moral and supernatural beliefs. They also suggest that religious beliefs can be influenced by where you are at in life and what your goals and priorities are,” Kerry told PsyPost.
The findings held even after controlling for age, ethnicity, gender, marital status, political affiliation, and current household income. The relationship between parental care motivation and religiosity also existed independently of childhood religious experiences.
Importantly, supernatural beliefs were not related to parental care motivation, which “suggests that there is something particular about the characteristics of large-scale, organized religions that are functionally related to parenting,” the researcher said.
In addition, an examination of data from 89,565 individuals in 60 countries who participated in the World Values Survey indicated that the relationship between parenthood and religiosity was not specific to certain religions. The association was found among Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. (There were no majority Jewish or Sikh countries included in the survey.)
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“We cannot say for sure that parenthood causes changes in religiosity, as we cannot randomly assign people to become parents,” Kerry explained. “And, of course, different people may respond to parenthood in very different ways, so it’s important to remember that not everyone will follow the same trajectory. However, the experimental and correlational evidence in this paper (and others) does suggest that, on average, parenthood and the motivation to care for children increase the appeal of religious belief.”
The study, “The Holy Father (and Mother)? Multiple Tests of the Hypothesis That Parenthood and Parental Care Motivation Lead to Greater Religiosity“, was authored by Nicholas Kerry, Marjorie L. Prokosch, and Damian R. Murray.