Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

How Early Life Religious Exposure Relates to the Timing of First Birth

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

How Early Life Religious Exposure Relates to the Timing of First Birth

Article excerpt

In the past few decades, research on religion's relationship to childbearing has become more sophisticated in its conceptualization of religious factors relating to fertility.Whereas earlier studies restricted their examination of religion to broad denominational differences in family size (Ryder & Westoff, 1971; Whelpton, Campbell, & Patterson, 1966), more recent studies have shown differences across Protestant denominations and considered factors such as the frequency of people's service attendance and the declared importance of religion in people's lives (Hayford & Morgan, 2008; Mosher, Williams, & Johnson, 1992; Zhang, 2008). Their findings suggest that religious traditions may influence adherents' fertility in numerous ways. For instance, belonging to a more pronatalist religious tradition that emphasizes family and parenthood and sanctions contraception or abortion is associated with having more children (Goldscheider, 1971; McQuillan, 2004), and women who attend religious services more frequently are likely to desire and have more children (Hayford & Morgan, 2008; McQuillan, 2004; Zhang, 2008). Nevertheless, contemporary studies of religion and fertility continue to have important limitations in their theoretical bases, outcomes of interest, and measurement of religion and its mechanisms.

In their theoretical models, studies of religion and fertility have been largely motivated by what Goldscheider (1971, p. 293) calls the "superficial" and "inadequate" assumption that it is primarily pronatalist religious values that encourage pronatalist behavior. Goldscheider (1971, 1999) and McQuillan (2004) have called for more encompassing theoretical models attending to the wide variety of values that religious institutions promulgate and the means through which institutions promote and reinforce these values.

In addition, studies of religion and fertility have focused almost exclusively on completed family size as the outcome of interest. The timing of first birth has been relatively neglected, although it carries significant consequences for women's socioeconomic attainment and longterm health and well-being, along with the health and well-being of their children (Augustine, Prickett, Kendig, & Crosnoe, 2015; Loughran & Zissimopoulos, 2009; Royer, 2004;Williams, Sassler, Addo, & Frech, 2015). As women who have earlier first births are likely to have more births overall (Mills, Rindfuss, McDonald & te Velde, 2011; Rindfuss, Morgan, & Swicegood, 1988), studying the relationships between religion and the timing of first birth may additionally help us anticipate how macro-level religious change might affect population growth or decline.

Two analytical limitations also characterize earlier studies of religion and fertility. First, they usually rely on measures of religious characteristics that were gathered after women completed their fertility. As a result, it is unclear whether findings are evidence of religious involvement's influence on fertility or if having children increases religious affiliation and practice (Stolzenberg, Blair-Loy, & Waite, 1995), although results are often interpreted as the former. To better understand and estimate religion's effects on fertility, we need more studies that measure religious affiliation and involvement earlier in the life course, before women have begun having children. A second methodological issue with studies of religion and fertility is that they rarely conceptualize or test a comprehensive set of mechanisms for religion's influence. Existing studies tend to control for as many spurious factors as possible, such as education or income, and then attribute residual religious differences in family size to particularized, pronatalist theologies (Goldscheider, 1971). Rarely have studies incorporated measures of ideology to directly test for mediation, or empirically evaluated other mechanisms for religion's influence such as educational attainment or enrollment, employment, or union formation. …

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