FamilyScholars Featured Symposium Piece: “Losing the Coherent Network of Faith” by William (Beau) Weston

01.17.2013, 8:00 PM

William J. "Beau" WestonWilliam (Beau) Weston is the John M. and Louise Van Winkle Professor of Sociology, Chair of Anthropology/Sociology Program at Centre College. Click here to follow his blog, “Gruntles Society: Exploring Happy Society.”

 

Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? is a fine and rich compendium of research on how divorce tends to disrupt the religious faith of children. As a sociologist, the report led me to connect this disruption to wider and wider circles of social connections, the whole web of group affiliations that children grow in and are shaped by.

The study by Uecker and Ellison starts from the previous finding that while children of divorce most commonly become less religious, some become more religious. The researchers rightly argue that the dynamics that make for each process are different, and should be studied differently. In a broad sense, though, I can see a point of similarity.

Children from intact families tend to reproduce their parents’ faith and reproduce the network of institutional connections their parents raised them in – including their religious institution. Divorce disrupts that network of connections. Children are likely to lose their taken-for-granted ideas of faith, their emotional associations of faith, and their social networks of faith. This is the existential effect that Andrew Root is talking about in another book cited in this report. It makes sense to me that children’s most common response to all this disruption is to simply give up on the whole institution of religion, even if the spiritual yearning remains. But some divorced kids, by extra effort (and probably by other people reaching out to them) make their own religious ties. These new ties may even be stronger than the faith they might have inherited had their parents stayed together.

The disruption to the “domestic church” that divorce produces points to a larger social loss. Researchers have long noted that many divorced kids not only lose all connection with their fathers, but also with their father’s whole side of the family. The keenest loss is of their paternal grandparents, who are usually a huge part of a child’s support network. In the same way, if children lose their religious community in the divorce, they lose one of the richest sources of general support that our society offers. They not only lose the small number of people in the church they might have had close personal ties to; divorced kids often lose the much larger network of weak ties that a congregation gives them, the adults who take some interest in their lives and connect them to many other networks of information and support.

Finally, I can see an even larger coherent network that divorce might disrupt in divorced kids’ lives and worldviews: their civil religion. It is natural, I think, for children to accept that the faith and practice of their family, their congregation, their community, and their nation all fit together and support one another. If, as this report shows, divorce is likely to pull up the roots of a child’s “domestic church” and their “church church,” it seems likely that divorce similarly uproots their taken-for-granted faith in their “national church.” A study of the effects of divorce on children’s civil religion is beyond what this study set out to explore. That is a project for another day.

Still, the upshot of “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?” seems to be that divorce dis-embeds children from their coherent network of faith in their family, their coherent network of faith in their congregation, and, I expect, their coherent network of faith in the other institutions of their society.


15 Responses to “FamilyScholars Featured Symposium Piece: “Losing the Coherent Network of Faith” by William (Beau) Weston”

  1. Hi Beau! What a pleasure to see your reactions here. Your thoughts on civil religion remind me of a thought I jotted down one time and then saw other smart people explore in more depth elsewhere: that the Boomers had their Watergate, when they lost trust in the institution of government, and we Xers had our (parental) divorce revolution, when we lost trust in the institution of marriage.

    What a great project for another time…

  2. Diane M says:

    @Beau Weston – “In the same way, if children lose their religious community in the divorce, they lose one of the richest sources of general support that our society offers. They not only lose the small number of people in the church they might have had close personal ties to; divorced kids often lose the much larger network of weak ties that a congregation gives them, the adults who take some interest in their lives and connect them to many other networks of information and support.”

    This is one of the secular reasons to be concerned if children of divorce become less attached to religious communities.

  3. Phil says:

    It’s a little unclear what the provenance of the post here is: is Amy Ziettlow posting something that Beau Weston wrote, on behalf of him? Or is Ziettlow herself writing about Beau Weston’s writing?

    As an atheist, I question some of the assumptions in the post here. Consider this passage:

    Children are likely to lose their taken-for-granted ideas of faith, their emotional associations of faith, and their social networks of faith.

    I’m willing to accept that it is a negative thing for children to lose social networks, and I am also willing to take it as a given that children of divorce will lose some social networks. Because we are a religious nation, it follow that children of divorce will lose social networks of faith in addition to the other social networks that children lose.

    That’s uncontroversial, I suppose.

    But the statement that children will “lose their taken-for-granted ideas about faith” strikes me as overwhelmingly positive. I’m not saying, for a moment, that divorce is a good thing, nor that the positive effects of divorce outweigh the negative.

    But when individual human beings actually think about their religious faith, instead of taking its ideas for granted, that strikes me as an unquestionably good thing.

    As a matter of social policy, our society ought to discourage divorce, but ought to encourage people to question their religious ideas, and to not take religious ideas for granted.

    Does anyone disagree with that?

  4. Amy Ziettlow says:

    Hi Phil-this is Weston’s piece that is listed in the full symposium. We are trying something new this symposium where we highlight pieces throughout the two days. In order to shedule them
    They have to be posted by someone so as editor that’s what’s happening. It’s Beau Weston’s piece

  5. Beau Weston says:

    Phil:

    I think most people would disagree with your position. There is no special virtue in causing people to question their religious ideas, any more than there would be a special virtue in causing them to question their marital ideas or their civic ideas.

    Moreover, my point was not that divorce causes children to question ideas, but that they lose their existential confidence in their social relations in family, congregation, and the nation. Shaking that confidence seems to me to be a bad thing.

  6. La Lubu says:

    Beau, it seems as if you are implying that children who were not raised in or with any faith tradition have less existential upheaval from divorce.

  7. Beau Weston says:

    Well, they wouldn’t be losing a congregation. However, the fact that they didn’t have a congregation to begin with would likely mean that they had even less help or support in the divorce.

  8. Phil says:

    There is no special virtue in causing people to question their religious ideas, any more than there would be a special virtue in causing them to question their marital ideas or their civic ideas.

    Beau, that statement only makes sense if one holds that it does not matter whether one’s religious ideas are false or not. (I’m not really clear what you mean by “marital ideas.”)

    Questioning does not equal rejecting, although questioning an idea could certainly lead to rejecting an idea.

    I submit that it is preferable for human beings to question all of the beliefs that they hold, to try to determine whether those beliefs are true or false. Do you honestly, personally, believe that such questioning is a bad thing?

  9. ki sarita says:

    I think the fact that many people here consider the church the only or even primary source of community, is a sorry statement about the decline of the neighborhood or the kin network

  10. diane m says:

    Phil – I would say that questioning your religion is a good thing and part of growing up, just as it is good to question your patrent’s politics and values in general. It is not so fun for parents, but it is one of the main sources of social progress.

    What I am concerned about is not a kid thinking for themselves, it’s little kids becoming disillusioned and thinking the world is a bad place and they can’t rely on anyone. I don’t think a little kid losing faith is a good thing. I also think that for an older child or adult losing faith is different from questioning and may be a loss rather than a positive thing.

    Ki sarita – I agree about the loss of community life in America. It is a bad thing.

  11. diane m says:

    Beau Weston – I don’t think it’s good if kids start wondering about democracy being a good idea, but it is good if they question how our civil society actually works. And as a supporter of same sex marriage I am glad young people are willing to question ideas about marriage. I don’t want people to feel lasting marriage is impossible or their parent’s marriage was a sham, but some questioning is healthy.

  12. kisarita says:

    Let them question democracy. im confident in its convincing power

  13. R.K. says:

    Phil:

    But when individual human beings actually think about their religious faith, instead of taking its ideas for granted, that strikes me as an unquestionably good thing.

    As a matter of social policy, our society ought to discourage divorce, but ought to encourage people to question their religious ideas, and to not take religious ideas for granted.

    and later, in response to Beau Weston:

    I submit that it is preferable for human beings to question all of the beliefs that they hold, to try to determine whether those beliefs are true or false. Do you honestly, personally, believe that such questioning is a bad thing?

    For each individual, certainly not, but to what extent it should be “a matter of social policy” to encourage this is certainly debatable. Keep in mind that many religious beliefs are of the type that are not objectively provable or disprovable, and the same is true with many secular values. It’s one thing when the belief is scientifically disprovable, but when it’s not, it’s just a matter of trying to change a person’s belief system.

    I am all for questioning….and requestioning…but if encouraging people to question their religious (or other) beliefs is really only about getting them to replace them with the beliefs of the person encouraging the questioning, when the latter beliefs are no more subject to proof or falsification than the former are, then it’s not about critical thinking, it’s about conversion.

    Is it a matter of social policy that we should convert the religious to another way of thinking, based on secular values no more provable or falsifiable?

    Now, should it not then also be a matter of social policy that we encourage people to also question that new way of thinking just as much as they questioned their old religion? If not, why not?

    If people should be encouraged to question all of the beliefs that they hold, should they also be encouraged to question all the beliefs which you hold, Phil? Including those which you think should be now out of the realm of serious debate? Should they be encouraged to ask you what the ultimate source for certainty in your beliefs is?

    Ask for clarification if you must, Phil, but please, don’t respond as if you have no idea what I’m getting at, and let’s keep this on the general question (of questioning belief), not about any specific issues, those can be saved for other threads.

  14. ki sarita says:

    This wasn’t a symposium of social policy. Social policy must be neutral regarding religion.
    This was about church policy.

  15. R.K. says:

    Social policy must be neutral regarding religion.

    I agree, but it appears others don’t, and I was questioning to what extent they would apply their argument for it not being neutral, and their argument that what Beau describes is a good thing.