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The religiosity of mothers and their offspring as related to the offspring's sex and sexual orientation.

Many attitudes have been found to correlate positively across generations (Payne, Summers, & Stewart, 1973; Tolor, 1976; Newport, 1979), including attitudes surrounding religion (Barclay & Sharp, 1982). However, a study by Hodge and Treiman (1968) reported that intergenerational transmission of religious attitudes was significant only in the case of mothers and their daughters, not their sons (fathers were not sampled). The present study was an attempt to replicate the Hodge and Treiman (1968) finding. In addition, it sought to determine not only if the offspring's sex is related to the intergenerational transmission of religiosity, but to assess the relevance of the offspring's sexual orientation as well.


Respondents consisted of 285 mothers and their offspring who completed anonymous questionnaires. They were recruited from various sources, but most (58%) were students at Minot State University and their mothers. Other sampling sources included members and relatives of members of two national support organizations, one for persons with lupus erythematosus (16%) and the other for parents of gays (13%). The remaining 13% of the mother-offspring pairs were obtained by solicitations at various meetings and through a mailing to approximately 1,500 persons whose names were listed in telephone directories of large cities located on both coasts and in the southern United States (to diminish the proportion of the sample from northern midwestern regions).

Mothers ranged in age from 36 to 77 years, with a mean of 51.5 (SD = 8.6). Offspring ranged in age from 19 to 50 years, with a mean of 25.5 (SD = 6.5). Nearly all of the mother-offspring pairs (98%) were Caucasian, and 56% of the offspring listed northern midwestern states as their place of birth, with the remainder distributed fairly evenly throughout the remaining United States.

Sexual orientation of offspring was determined by responses to a separate three-page questionnaire in which offspring were asked: "When imagining sexual relationships, what percentage of the time is the individual with whom you are interacting a member of the opposite sex? a member of the same sex?" The percentage of time respondents reported fantasizing about the same sex was used as the measure of sexual orientation. As a way of validating reported sexual orientation, offspring were also asked how many intimate sexual experiences they had had with members of the same sex and opposite sex. The proportion of their responses involving members of the same sex correlated strongly with their fantasizing about sexual interactions with the same sex (r = .90, p |is less than~ .001), thus indicating a substantial degree of validity for our sexual orientation measure (Ellis, Burke, & Ames, 1987).

For the present analysis, five groups of offspring were designated: (1) The heterosexual male sample consisted of 68 offspring who reported never fantasizing about sexual interactions with members of the same sex. (2) The bisexual male sample consisted of 14 offspring who reported fantasizing about members of the same sex between 1% and 99% of the time. (This is obviously a small sample, and, like the lesbian group below, one that must be regarded as very heterogeneous in terms of the extent of bisexuality.) (3) The homosexual male sample consisted of 39 offspring who reported fantasizing about members of the same sex exclusively. (4) The heterosexual female sample consisted of 136 offspring who said they had never fantasized about sexually interacting with members of their own sex. (5) The lesbian sample consisted of 28 offspring who reported that 1% to 100% of their sexual fantasies involved members of the same sex.

On both the mother's and offspring's forms, importance of religion was measured by the following question: "On a scale from 1 to 100, how important has religion been to your daily life in the past few years? (1 = not at all important, 100 = all important)." Both mothers and offspring were also asked to estimate the total number of church services they had attended in the last twelve months.


Table 1 presents the average degree of religiosity of mothers and offspring for the five sex-sexual orientation groups. In all groups mothers were considerably more religious than their offspring, in terms of both the importance of religion and church services attended in the past year. This could partly reflect evidence that religiosity tends to increase, at least after around 30 years of age (Argyle, 1959, p. 59; Wingrove & Alston, 1974; however, see Markides, Levin, & Ray, 1987). It could also reflect a decline in various aspects of religiosity that seems to have taken place in the United States since the 1960s (Wuthnow, 1976; Newport, 1979; Easterlin & Crimmins, 1991, p. 525; for contrary views see Richardson & Stewart, 1977, p. 819; Newsweek, January 6, 1992, p. 41).

Among offspring, females were considerably more religious than males, regardless of sexual orientation. This finding is consistent with that of studies conducted throughout the world (Lenski, 1953; Putney & Middleton, 1961; Hyde, 1965; Back & Bourque, 1970, p. 493; Gannon, 1970, p. 502; Povall, 1971; Wilson & Lee, 1974; Argyle & Beit-Hallahmi, 1975, p. 71; Alzate, 1978; Francis, 1979; Shiels, 1981; Francis, Pearson, & Kay, 1982).

Among males, there seemed to be few overall differences in religiosity based upon sexual orientation (except for a slight tendency for homosexuals to be somewhat less religious than other males). However, among females, lesbians were substantially less religious than were heterosexuals in terms of the importance of religion to their lives and especially in terms of church attendance.

Table 2 allows comparison of mothers and offspring in terms of their denominational preferences, rather than the intensity of their religiosity. Religious preferences were compared according to three categories-Catholic, Protestant, and non-Christian (i.e., Jews, other, and no religion). All Protestant denominations and all non-Christian religions (along with "no preference") were grouped into two broad categories so that sample sizes would be large enough for meaningful comparison.

Table 2 shows that male offspring were less likely than female offspring to choose membership in their mother's religion (56% vs. 81%, respectively). Among males, homosexuals were especially prone to subscribe to a religious belief other than that of their mother (only 51% choosing the same denomination). Since the main direction of switching religious preference for male homosexuals was toward the non-Christian category, this could partly explain why most Christian denominations have had a long-standing objection to homosexuality (Greenberg & Bystryn, 1984, p. 33; also see Time, June 7, 1986, p. 88; Newsweek, September 14, 1992, p. 37).



Table 3 presents mother-offspring correlations for the two measures of religiosity according to sex and sexual orientation of the offspring. In interpreting these correlation coefficients, differences in sample sizes for the five groups should be kept in mind. Thus, a coefficient of .60 barely achieved significance at the .05 level for the 14 bisexual males, while a coefficient of .51 for the 136 female heterosexuals was TABULAR DATA OMITTED significant beyond the .001 level. Despite the limitations imposed by these disparate sample sizes, Table 3 supports Hodge and Treiman's finding that the mother's religiosity is considerably more likely to be adopted by her female offspring than by her male offspring. However, while maternal influence on the religiosity of male offspring was substantially weaker, Table 3 does not support the conclusion that mothers have no significant influence on their sons' religiosity.

Table 3 also suggests that, among males, sexual orientation made little difference (with the possibility of male bisexuals being slightly more prone to resemble their mothers in religiosity than were either male heterosexuals or homosexuals). Among females, however, mothers appeared to influence the degree of religiosity of heterosexuals much more than that of lesbians. In fact, while not significant, there was actually a slight negative relationship between church attendance of lesbians and the attendance of their mothers.

Overall, the findings fail to support Hodge and Treiman's (1968) conclusion that the religiosity of the mother has no significant association with the religiosity of her male offspring. Instead, the findings show that, while relationships between the mother's religiosity and that of female offspring were considerably stronger than in the case of male offspring, for males as a whole (i.e., without regard to sexual orientation), the relationships were still significant and positive.

In addition, this study indicates that religiosity is less likely to be transmitted by mothers to bisexual and homosexual offspring than to heterosexual offspring. However, the exact degree to which bisexuals and homosexuals deviated from their mother's religiosity could not be determined with confidence due to the small sample sizes.


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Reprint requests to Lee Ellis, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, Minot State University, Minot, North Dakota 58707.
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Author:Ellis, Lee; Wagemann, Bruce M.
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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