Bryan Caplan  

Why Does Nurture Affect Religion?

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I just finished re-reading The Nurture Assumption by Judith Harris. It holds up like few other books do. But perhaps the weakest part is her discussion of counter-examples - Traits where parenting does seem to make a big difference. The most obvious is the particular religion you practice. It really does seem like parenting has a big effect here, and Harris doesn't deny it. But how is this possible? Here's her explanation:

Some things just don't come up in the context of the peer group. This is true nowadays of religion. Unless they attend a religious school, practicing a religion is something children don't do with their peers: they do it with their parents. That is why parents still have some power to give their kids their religion.
But this story suggests a simple test: Go to religious schools, and see whether kids who don't initially belong to that religion tend to convert. My guess is that this almost never happens. And my wife, a non-Catholic who went to Catholic school, confirms it. In fact, whenever students went to services, the non-Catholics were clearly identifiable because they didn't take communion. Every week, non-Catholics had to be that horrible thing that all kids fear: different. And yet, different was what they remained.

Bottom line: Religion may be the exception that proves Harris' rule, but her effort to integrate it into her general theory doesn't work. What's really going on?

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COMMENTS (32 to date)
shecky writes:

I wonder if that experience holds true for evangelical schools, too. Catholicism, in the US at least, tends to not proselytize, and Catholic schools typically respect and accommodate non-Catholic students.

razib writes:

conversion depends upon the cultural background within the school exists. in africa for example i think you'd see a lot of converts. bobby jindal became a catholic after his catholic school experience. you probably need a strong counter-meme to resist infection ;-)

FC writes:

To rephrase the question, how does Harris account for all the Darwin relations who became scientists and scholars?

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The particular language you speak is clearly acquired behavior.

I'll give you good odds that religion that acquired in a fashion very similar to language.

Dan Weber writes:

I find it hard to imagine that kids would convert just to stop being different.

Like Seinfeld said. "It's not like changing toothpastes."

Bill Nelson writes:

If you are of Religion "X" in Religious School "Y", then the "Y" kids will not treat you as a peer. They might get along with you, but you will remain in the out-group, and hence will not have the incentive to convert.

efalken writes:

I think the funny thing about religion is that I think kids are most tolerant of other religions, because we all knew we were dragged to services by our parents. I was one of a handful of goyim in a Jewish fraternity and hot Catholics were always welcome at our parties--there was true indifference to religion. Then a funny thing happened. Almost all these guys married nice Jewish girls. The tribal pull grew over time, as almost everyone was a practicing atheist.

Steve Miller writes:

Isn't your wife Eastern Orthodox? Dude, that's Catholic. There's no reason to convert; it's pretty much the same.

Phil writes:

Maybe it's as simple as: parents emphasize religion more than almost any other cultural characteristic. And that's why the kids don't stray.

Most cultural issues are fairly minor, and there are so many that parents can't teach them all to children explicitly and repeatedly. So there isn't much pressure to keep them from straying to the mores of their peer group.

But religion is an exception. Parents instill a religion in their children, make them go to services, imply that other religions are wrong, and get lots of reinforcement from their clergy. And all that pressure is enough to keep their kids in that religion.

In addition, kids don't care about religion enough to want to join any other one. As other commenters have said, church is something kids just tolerate. So there's no advantage to bucking the parental line. Unlike the case of, say, sex.

Pedant writes:

To rephrase the question, how does Harris account for all the Darwin relations who became scientists and scholars?
Galton was discussing just that long before. You know Judith Harris wrote "The Nurture Assumption", right?

KapKool writes:

This seems incredibly simple to me. Being religious is about going to church, and kids can't go to church without their parents. I doubt school mass is the same thing; it's probably more like study hall.

Jason Malloy writes:

It doesn't fit into her theory, because her theory is wrong. Adoption studies, etc, show parents have strong influence on a number of behaviors. Drinking and smoking for one. Also affiliations like religion and political party.

What parents don't have strong influence on are largely biological traits, like personality, beauty, and intelligence, which are affected mostly by genes and more random environmental factors. So peers don't have much influence on these same kinds of traits for the same reasons.

Religious affiliation passes strongly from parent to unrelated child, but religosity (highly heritable trait) does not.

Troy Camplin writes:

Does she address the fact that most of the elements of nurture which do stick are those that occur before the child is 7? It is pretty well established that however you raise a child up to the age of 7 affects the person the child grows up to become. Also, the "seven year itch" occurs in men because the father's influence is most important in those first 7 years. This is why the Jesuits used to say "Give me a boy to the age of seven, and I will answer for the man."

Alex J. writes:

1) If take your kids to church every Sunday, they have a peer group there too, not just at school.

2) Religions provide a way of dealing with death. Dealing with the death of your parents is more important than dealing with the death of your peers.

3) You don't have to "defy" your peers to have a different religion. Lots of people have different religions. You do have to defy your parents if you change your religious affiliation.

4) Religion only "works" psychologically if it's table d'hote rather than a la carte.

mk writes:

Here's my theory:

Religion is a pretty unique thing. The believer's relationship with god represents (to a significant degree) their relationship with their parents. People who grew up with loving parents imagine a loving god, people who grew up worried about angering their parents will imagine an angry god, etc.

God satisfies people's desire to subject themselves to an all-powerful authority. It tickles the same itch as being a kid and having seemingly all-powerful and omniscient parents.

Because of this, religious conversion is rare because many/most want to retain a meaningful connection with their youth, even if their substantive religious beliefs differ from those of their parents. The rituals of the religion you grow up with serve as a connection to your youth and to your parents.

So, religion is unique and uniquely associated to one's parents.

dearieme writes:

"So, religion is unique and uniquely associated to one's parents." My parents had different religions: what then?

David Friedman writes:

"Does she address the fact that most of the elements of nurture which do stick are those that occur before the child is 7? It is pretty well established that however you raise a child up to the age of 7 affects the person the child grows up to become."

Read the book. Harris argues persuasively that your fact is false, that how a child is reared usually has little affect on the adult personality.

In her view, much of the basis for the opposite opinion is the failure to control for the genetic relation between parents and their children. She argues that the main environmental influence is the peer group, not the family.

Like Bryan, I very much liked the book.

John B. Chilton writes:

I'd be interested in what Bryan, David or other commenters think of the recent Pew Survey which showed that switching of denominations is way up.

For example, is there a comparative static that can be teased out that fits Harris' theory?

e.g. on the Pew survey,
Americans have less and less brand loyalty when it comes to God. More than one in four adults (28%) have swapped the religious tradition in which they were raised for another (eg, Catholicism to Protestantism or Judaism to “no religion”). Add changes within religious traditions to the mix (eg, from one type of Protestantism to another) and 44% of Americans belong to a religious tradition other than the one in which they were raised. People seem to accept religious diversity at home as much as in public: nearly four in ten (37%) of married Americans have a spouse with a different religious affiliation.

fundamentalist writes:

Chilton, Thanks for posting the Pew Research. I was just about to do that. Amazing, isn't it, how a little bit of the right knowledge can clear up a lot of speculative nonsense?

fundamentalist writes:

Other research I have read indicates that kids follow the religion of their parents until their late teens, early twenties. At that point, they need to have their own reasons for their religion and that's when conversions take place most frequently. With adults, crises usually spark a conversion. Atheist Jews who marry other Jews are conforming to social/family pressure, not choosing a religion.

Steve Sailer writes:

A decade ago, I gave "The Nurture Assumption" a positive review in National Review, but I noted some exceptions:

"To show that peers outweigh parents, she repeatedly cites Darwinian linguist Pinker's work on how young immigrant kids automatically develop the accents of their playmates, not their parents. True, but there's more to life than language. Not until p. 191 does she admit -- in a footnote -- that immigrant parents do pass down home-based aspects of their culture like cuisine, since kids don't learn to cook from their friends. (How about attitudes toward housekeeping, charity, courtesy, wife-beating, and child-rearing itself?) Not until p. 330 does she recall something else where peers don't much matter: religion! Worse, she never notices what Thomas Sowell has voluminously documented in his accounts of ethnic economic specialization. It's parents and relatives who pass on both specific occupations (e.g., Italians and marble-cutting or Cambodians and donut-making) and general attitudes toward hard work, thrift, and entrepreneurship.

"Nor can peers account for social change among young children, such as the current switch from football to soccer, since preteen peer groups are intensely conservative. (Some playground games have been passed down since Roman times). Even more so, the trend toward having little girls play soccer and other cootie-infested boys sports did not, rest assured, originate among peer groups of little girls. That was primarily their dads' idea, especially sports-crazed dads without sons."

Rimfax writes:

I still need to RTFB, so apologies if I step in it badly.

I think that where her arguments fall apart is in the core sense of self. Parents may not affect eventual IQ beyond genetics and they may fall behind peers on cultural values and manners of communication, but when it comes to the core sense of self, my conjecture is that parenting rules. And nothing is more integral to the sense of self than personal cosmology.

Take Dr. Spock for example. He was apparently very positive towards his peers and had a very solid intellectual grasp on constructive methods of child-rearing, but when his own sense of self came into play with his own children, he devolved to the parenting methods employed by his parents. His behavior and world view and rational ethics were shaped by his peers, but his irrational emotional mind that ruled his most intimate relationships was shaped by his parents.

I could assert myself as a similar example. I have nothing in common with my parents in terms of values or perspectives. (In counterexample, I am an atheist, in contrast to both my parents and my formative peers.) Yet, when I evaluate myself or am pressed to low rational resources by difficult circumstances, my irrational emotional responses are entirely identical to what I recall experiencing from my parents when I was a child. It is only with great difficulty and limited success that I am able to apply my rational ethics (presumably instilled by my peers) in those situations.

Troy Camplin writes:

One problem I can see right away with the argument against parental influence in the early years at least is the fact that many children don't have many "peers" until they are 5 and go to school, but are primarily with their parents. Also, I wonder what she would make of the fact that my 15 month old daughter loves being read to. WHen she was a year, I started reading the same Dr. Seuss book to her every day. Within a few days she was sitting on my lap to listen. Now she makes me read her 4-5 Dr. Seuss books in a row. Can you really tell me that when she grows up to be a reader (and there's little doubt she will), that it was either genetic (how could there be a gene for wanting to read, an artificial activity only developed among the general population a century or two ago) or based on her peers? I don't trust any claim about human behavior that is so absolutist as to say that there is no influence from parents -- it's as ridiculous as the claims that still go around that we are 100% determined by our genes or that we're 100% determined by our environment. Further, any inherited behavior is so complex that I don't know how anyone can reasonably determine what amount is genetic and what amount is (or is not) nurture. Those two would appear to be so deeply intertwined as to be difficult at best to prove the absence of nurture. Certainly peers have an influence. A large influence. But parents are of no consequence? That I have to doubt. If nothing else, aren't parents a kind of peer?

LemmusLemmus writes:


a few points.

1. Do you have a source for the following statement:

"Does she address the fact that most of the elements of nurture which do stick are those that occur before the child is 7? It is pretty well established that however you raise a child up to the age of 7 affects the person the child grows up to become."

2. Parents aren't peers.

3. I strongly recommend you read the book. Many of the points you raise are already addressed there, it's very well-written, engaging, and in fact one of the three best non-fiction books I've ever read.

LemmusLemmus writes:

It's true that children practice religion with their peers, but "with" mainly in the sense that they're in the same room, no? I mean, isn't it being practiced more top-down? Isn't it more like adults telling children what to believe?

More generally, the central problem with the book is that she starts out by saying that it's about peronality (which she never defines) but then goes on to use examples that have nothing to do with personality by any common definition, such as language, to bolster her case. In other words, one wonders what her dependent variable really is.

Troy Camplin writes:

If the book does what you say it does, I don't know why anyone is taking it seriously. For one, language learning is a completely different mechanism from personality traits and other behaviors. Also, the language thing still doesn't really hold up either, if we were to take her claims to their logical conclusion. My wife is teaching our child to speak Spanish. If we were to move to a place where all the children spoke English and no Spanish at all, our daughter will still be fluent in Spanish if my wife continues to speak to her in it. The original point of this posting hold up under this, and makes for a counterexample. Specifically, what we see with religion is what we will see with many other aspects of behavior: we learn to fine-tune our instincts. Religion is an instinct. The specific religion we practice is strongly influenced by our parents. Some of us become self-aware enough to question that upbringing, but most do not. We can take something like cooking as another example. Cooking seems to be a human instinct. I learned how to cook from my mother. I have since learned different things from different people and from cooking shows and cook books. But there are a few things that have stuck with me. I use Lawry's Seasoned Salt, for example. I also make my fried chicken exactly the same way as my mother did. Other things, like using olive oil, I have picked up elsewhere. But I don't think you can make a coherent argument that my using celery seed in my fried chicken flour was either genetic or learned from anyone other than my parent.

LemmusLemmus writes:


again, I suggest you read the book.

Harris specifically uses the cooking example as something children learn from their parents.

I'm also pretty sure that she wouldn't deny that one's parents can teach one a language; whether it's the first or the second one - that would be ridiculous. She explicitly makes the point that, of course, you learn a language from your parents (under normal circumstances), and if your peers speak the same language, there's no need to relearn it.

The point she makes about language is that the specific accent one speaks will be influenced by peers rather than parents - so, for example, the children of immigrant parents will speak the local language better than their parents pretty quickly after entering school and hispanic kids in an otherwise all-black neighborhood will end up speaking like African-Americans rather than Hispanics.

If you're interested, but don't want to get the book, the article in which she first outlined the theory is available online as a low-quality pdf. It's called "Where Is the Child's Environment", published in Psychological Review. You'll have to do the googling yourself.

Troy Camplin writes:

I do plan to read the book. To me something as superficial as accent is a lot like me cooking with olive oil. Also, one can change one's accent at almost any time. I've had friends who spoke with a strong southern accent as a child who purposefully tried to get rid of it because they went to college and wanted to sound educated. That was happening very late in life. Basically, it sounds to me like you agree with me that in fact a large percentage is learned from parents, but only the "accents" are learned from peers. To me, that not much of a big deal. Still, a lot of people are going on and on about this book, so I'm going to read it. If nothing else, I need specific examples from the book to cover why it's not just wrong, but wrong-minded. I'm putting in my order on Amazon right now.

LemmusLemmus writes:

Troy, I'd be interested to hear what you think about the book. Will you post a review on your blog?

Troy Camplin writes:

I can do that. I'm currently reading Common Genius with a view to reviewing the book on my blog. I'll plan to read The Nurture Assumption with the view to reviewing it.

What's really going on is, Harris' general argument is hitting a brick wall.

If parents can influence their children regarding religion, surely one of the deepest most fundamental human characteristics, the idea that they don't have much influence is pretty well undermined. Not many traits are as important as this one.

Steve Roth writes:

First, *thank you* for mentioning this book. Every parent, at least, should read it, and certainly every child psych who wants to claim any expertise. You've inspired me to go back and re-read it some more, yet again. It's definitely not perfect, but...

Have you noticed that in the endless racks of how-to parenting books in bookstores, you *never* see this book?

Mr. Econotarian: "The particular language you speak is clearly acquired behavior. I'll give you good odds that religion that acquired in a fashion very similar to language."

Ditto that. Given how widespread/universal religion is, it seems likely that we have a "religion instinct" much like Pinker's "language instinct"--a set of mental subroutines that are designed for the task, but that are structurally flexible enough to manage many "languages."

This "instinct" could help explain religion's (and any particular religion's) tenacious hold.

Another likely explanation, though only my surmise: for religion, parents institute a systematic program of indoctrination for their children from infancy through the teen years, fully supported by a well-funded, well-staffed, tightly organized institution that's specifically devoted to that indoctrination.

This is much less true of other cultural norms, like political affiliation or tastes in books and movies.


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