U.S. Study Finds Links Between Religious Participation and Involved Fathers

In recent years, researchers have frequently turned their attention to investigating the importance of fathers to the well-being of their children. Finding after finding suggests that the more engaged and involved a father is in his children’s lives, the greater the physical, emotional and mental benefits for his offspring.

But what are the factors that encourage fathers to take an active role with their children? Ohio State University researcher, Richard J. Petts, believes this question has not been fully explored and has addressed one aspect of it in a September 2007 study focusing on fatherhood. 

Petts notes that, “Scholars argue that the transition to fatherhood leads men to reexamine their priorities in life. Frequently, this process of self-reflection encourages men to become less focused on themselves and more concerned about other family members, especially a new child.” This kind of self-reflection is also a hallmark of religion, so perhaps it is no surprise that one of the overarching findings from Petts’ study was that men who participated regularly in religious activities were more likely to be engaged fathers than those who were not religiously active.

But there were other important findings from the study, as Petts explained in a recent Vision interview.

There were two things that jumped out at me,” Petts commented. “One was the fact that so many men increased their religious participation after having a kid. I expected some increase given what we know about why people attend church, but the fact that it was such a relatively large number of men struck me and spoke to the close tie between family and religion and how these two institutions are so intimately linked to one another. The other thing was the importance for first-time fathers: that religion may prepare fathers, in whatever way, to make them better able to become involved in their children’s lives right from the start.”

 But despite the fact that so many men became more religious after the birth of their first child, Petts says that the most pivotal factor affecting the level of engagement was whether or not they were already religiously active before the child’s birth. “In terms of the effect on engagement,” Petts told Vision, “I found that those who were already religious at the start were the ones who showed a higher level of engagement with their children. It was really the ones who attended [religious activities] all the time that were driving the findings. The ones who simply had an increase in religious involvement after having a child were not significantly more likely to be engaged with their children.”

On the other end of the spectrum, those men who actually decreased their religious involvement after having a child yielded another interesting finding: these were more likely to divorce the child’s mother and disengage from the family altogether.

While there were some limitations to this study, (for instance, all the men in the sample were biological fathers), Petts was able to improve on the limitations of previous studies because his data is based on a specific birth group—all fatherhood measures refer to a specific child. He was also able to control for variables such as a father’s race, educational attainment, age, work involvement and childhood relationship with his own father. 

In addition, Petts conducted further analyses to be sure the effect wasn’t actually the reverse of what it seemed: Did religious activity drive engagement, or were engaged fathers more likely to seek out religion because of their committed fathering attitudes? He concludes, “fathering attitudes are not a significant predictor of religious participation, which suggests that religion itself may be an important influence on paternal engagement.”

Taken together, Petts’ findings speak eloquently of the effect religion has on family stability. But they also offer some insight into the level of commitment required to achieve the full effect. Since men who only picked up their religious activity after the birth of their first child were not significantly more engaged a year later than men who didn’t participate in religion, some questions must be asked. Were these men only attending religious activities because they believe that’s what a good father does, or could it take more than the year covered by the study for the beliefs espoused by the religion to be absorbed into a father’s daily life practice? And what about those men who have identified with a particular religion but are not motivated to be active, even after the birth of a child?

Some insight is gained by the study’s finding that such men aren’t any more likely to be highly involved with their children than men who have no religious affiliation at all. “Simply identifying with a particular denomination may not yield any of the benefits associated with religion,” notes Petts. “Instead, actively participating in religious services provides fathers with a sense of community and social support, which may lead to greater family commitment.”