In an era when many fathers have little or nothing to do with their children, it is important to discover what motivates good fathers. Religion is one obvious answer, but exactly how does faith make a difference? American family scholars Loren Marks and David Dollahite took a scientific look at this question, studying more than 130 Christian, Jewish, Mormon and Muslim families across the USA. The results of their research are published as a chapter in a new book, Why Fathers Count: The Importance of Fathers and Their Involvement with Children. In this Q&A with MercatorNet, Professor Marks outlines the faith contribution to good fathering.
MercatorNet: Is religion a good influence on fathers? What is the key to this influence?
Loren Marks: Research, ours and that of the past, indicates that religious involvement tends to have a positive influence on father-child relationships. There appear to be several factors at work, here are three among many: Firstly, married couples who are actively involved in the same faith tend to have stronger, happier marriages and this impacts father-child relationships in a positive way. Secondly, religious fathers are far less likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs than non-religious fathers and an estimated 80% of child abuse is alcohol related. Thirdly, many faith communities teach that fathers will be personally accountable to God for their good (or bad) fathering. This can create a sacred motivation to be a better father.
MercatorNet: What practical help do faith communities give fathers?
Marks: Religious involvement tends to connect men with a broader faith community that “expects” good fathering and this creates positive social pressure to be a good dad. Faith communities also provide fathers (and mothers and children) with something rare in contemporary society-close associations and positive models from across the life course that can encourage, give counsel, direct, and “be there.” Many of the religious fathers we interviewed described their faith community as their “church family.”
MercatorNet: Besides any spiritual benefits they have, your study shows that religious practices such as prayer and sacred family traditions have practical benefits for the family. Could you comment on this?
Marks: The pace of our world is accelerating and this can have dangerous implications for families because speed is not usually conducive to deep meaning, connection, or reflection on the sacred nature of family and God. Families who have structured, sacred family rituals are sending their children the message that there is a dimension of life that matters enough that “the world” can wait. They are showing that faith and family matter enough to push the stop button. In fact, many families we interviewed commented that the more crazy and frenetic the pace of life gets, the more important their sacred family time becomes.
MercatorNet: Are there any secular institutions that do these things for fathers?
Marks: Strong faith communities involve at least two core characteristics that are difficult for secular institutions to mirror: In the first place, a focus on the sacred and, in some cases, the creation of a sense of relationship with God strong enough to impact behaviour; secondly, the life-course nature of religious communities that promotes consistent, meaningful interaction across generations. Even fine secular organizations have difficulty reproducing these two benefits, although they can offer many other perks and supports.
MercatorNet: Your study focused on what seems common to different religious communities. Were there any significant differences?
Marks: Yes, there were some, but the core similarities were more striking. The differences tended to relate to doctrine, or to the mode or expression of practice. However, the central, sacred motivations and meanings behind the practices were very similar among highly religious families across the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These are families that value their faith and family above all else and are trying to weave both together.
MercatorNet: What can religious communities do for children with absent or uninvolved fathers?
Marks: They can provide social fathers to the fatherless. A young man or young woman who lacks a responsible biological father needs to see and feel that there is a different, better, and more generative way to live. This is perhaps best done, not through preaching, but through the establishment of positive personal relationships with responsible, concerned men who will be there across time. Incidentally, even many of the youth we interviewed that do have involved fathers reportedly benefited from supplemental social fathering and mentorship.
Loren Marks is an assistant professor in the School of Human Ecology at Louisiana State University. His primary research interest is how faith involvement influences family life.