Do Christians have a higher divorce rate than atheists?

I’m traveling today, so I thought I would re-post this USA Today article from 2011 about that.


It’s been proclaimed from pulpits and blogs for years — Christians divorce as much as everyone else in America.

But some scholars and family activists are questioning the oft-cited statistics, saying Christians who attend church regularly are more likely to remain wed.

“It’s a useful myth,” said Bradley Wright, a University of Connecticut sociologist who recently wrote “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told.”

“Because if a pastor wants to preach about how Christians should take their marriages more seriously, he or she can trot out this statistic to get them to listen to him or her.”

The various findings on religion and divorce hinge on what kind of Christians are being discussed.

Wright combed through the General Social Survey, a vast demographic study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and found that Christians, like adherents of other religions, have a divorce rate of about 42%. The rate among religiously unaffiliated Americans is 50%.

When Wright examined the statistics on evangelicals, he found worship attendance has a big influence on the numbers. Six in 10 evangelicals who never attend had been divorced or separated, compared to just 38% of weekly attendees.

[…]Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, agrees there’s been some confusion.

“You do hear, both in Christian and non-Christian circles, that Christians are no different from anyone else when it comes to divorce and that is not true if you are focusing on Christians who are regular church attendees,” he said.

Wilcox’s analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households has found that Americans who attend religious services several times a month were about 35% less likely to divorce than those with no religious affiliation.

Nominal conservative Protestants, on the other hand, were 20% more likely to divorce than the religiously unaffiliated.

“There’s something about being a nominal ‘Christian’ that is linked to a lot of negative outcomes when it comes to family life,” Wilcox said.

Here’s a quote from an Oklahoma State University study that confirms the Wright and Wilcox conclusions:

History of Divorce and Religious Involvement

Those who say they are more religious are less likely, not more, to have already experienced divorce. Likewise, those who report more frequent attendance at religious services were significantly less likely to have been divorced. This pattern of findings held using various analytic techniques that test which variables differentiate persons who have been divorced from persons who have not been divorced, while controlling for other variables that might affect the interpretation of the data, such as age, age of first marriage, income, and gender. When both the global rating of religiousness and the item assessing frequency of attendance at religious services are entered into the same analysis, the attendance item remains significantly associated with divorce history but the global religiousness item does not. This suggests that a key aspect of how religious faith affects marital relationships may be through involvement with a community of faith.

So, please do bookmark this information for the next time you hear an atheist make this argument. Obviously, you can’t expect people who are not serious about their religion to be bound by the moral duties imposed by that religion. People who attend church regularly are probably more serious about their religion, and also probably more informed about what their holy book says. If their holy book is the Bible, then there are few options for divorce.

An article from Focus on the Family by Amy Tracy explains when divorce is allowed according to the Bible.

God is very clear, however, that He hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). He also says, “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6). According to the New Testament, there are two justifications for divorce: infidelity (Matthew 5:32) and desertion (1 Corinthians 7:15).

So divorce is not something a Bible believing Christian can do for frivolous reasons, unless he wants to be in rebellion against God.

The future of marriage in the church

In my own case, I learned about chastity and sobriety and courting outside the church, and in my case that means that I am still a virgin, that I don’t drink more than a beer a year, and that when I like a girl, I court her. I do think that people in the church are generally more moral than people outside the church, but that’s more because of convention rather than conviction. I don’t think it’s going to last, in other words – it’s more like a hangover. Church is not the place where reasons and evidence are given that help people to resist peer pressure when they enter hostile environments, like the university. And often, parents are too busy working to understand the issues and communicate them to their children.

I’ve never been in a church where they explained the hormones that are released during sex that cause you to bond to the person you’re having sex with. You would have to look in books or listen to lectures in order to understand the problem with having sex with someone you are not committed to – how it causes you to hold back your emotions for fear of a break-up. The church doesn’t have much to say about the social effects of single motherhood by choice or the effects of gay parenting on children. Nor do they have any positive vision to offer men about how they can serve God by marrying carefully.

Christians who participate in a church community will adopt some of these values, especially if they stay clear of popular culture, the university, etc. Especially if they don’t work in a very secular environment, like a high-tech company or in Hollywood. But unless Christian communities get serious about grounding their values in evidence, I wouldn’t expect this situation to go on, and you can already see young people falling away from church in record numbers when they get to university as a result of this refusal to engage. We’re doing well now, but we should move to secure our gains.

24 thoughts on “Do Christians have a higher divorce rate than atheists?”

  1. In my experience with working with Christian singles those who are active in their church and divorce because of adultery on the part of their spouse often continue to be an active part of that church. Those who are not active or divorce for reasons outside of adultery often move to a different church to start over or stop going altogether.


  2. Okay what about abuse? Wouldn’t that be a cause for divorce? I normal see this topic come up but no christian ever gives me an answer


    1. Separation is the answer most committed Christians give. Also keep in mind that “abuse” is often used in a very specious way; it has gotten to the point that a husband fulfilling his responsibilities (such as controlling finances) is considered “abuse.”


        1. Physical and mental abuse shows a lack of love, self-control and maturity on the part of the abuser. The ideal in a biblical marriage that involves abuse is to end the abuse but not the marriage.

          The social structure in the church is supposed to include discipleship and accountability. Unfortunately both are often missing in many churches. Discipleship teaches spouses how to love each other in a way that abuse would be blatantly out of place. If both the husband and wife are in groups that support and hold their members accountable to each other the abuse can be recognized and addressed in a way that may save the marriage. For instance if a husband is physically abusing his wife she should have the freedom to share this with other women in her group. At least some of the women should have the wisdom to recognize it as abuse and help her to find a way to safely confront him (possibly involving other men in the church) and decide if she should separate and for how long. He would have to go through a process that may involve him being more accountable to other men in the church or even legal action. Divorce on the other hand often doesn’t change the attitude of the abuser or even give them any reason to change.

          Adultery (and many other sexual sins) is often easier to hide even if the church is functioning with discipleship and accountability. The faithful spouse can be doing everything right and adultery can continue without them (or anyone else in the church) knowing.


    2. It depends on whether you’re talking about whether someone should be able to get a legal divorce or whether it’s okay for a Christian to divorce under those circumstances.

      Before no-fault divorce, there were divorces, but there had to be evidence of adultery, abuse, abandonment, or the spouses had to agree to divorce. I think that’s a decent way to do it if you’re speaking of legal requirements. What people ought to do, morally speaking, and what the law should require them to do are two different things.

      A few legal allowances for divorce would allow people to leave bad situations without destroying marriage as an institution and destabilizing society. Unfortunately, that’s not the way we do it now. Now, one party can simply leave for no reason, even if the other person wants to stay married. Think about it this way. A marriage today isn’t even as binding as a pre-nuptial agreement. It’s not as binding as the contract you make when you turn on cable tv.

      Legally speaking, marriage today is not a contract, but a completely voluntary association that can be terminated by either party at any time and for any reason. Is there any wonder that they’re terminated all the time? A relationship that tenuous is not likely to remain unless the people involved have a lot of character and determination and are willing to work to stay together.


  3. These surveys are bogus. The more active you are in religion, the more you will believe that divorce is forbidden. This has nothing to do with happiness or satisfaction where if you are not religious divorce happens because they are not happy or satisfied. In other words, that the devout divorce less is about dogma not happiness or success.


    1. Greetings myatheistlife!

      You said: “In other words, that the devout divorce less is about dogma not happiness or success.”

      I’ve been a Christian for ten years of my adult life (converted in my early thirties) and I must admit that last sentence came as a surprise to me :)

      No offense, but as an atheist, you have no idea how my daily walk with Christ has impacted my life, especially in my relationship to my precious wife. Words on a mere webpage will never adequately express it.

      Have a safe week!



    2. I think the slice of people who refrain from divorce solely because it’s “forbidden” is very tiny. However you look at the numbers, there does not seem to be a lot of that going on. The forbidden lobby would be old-school mass every day Catholics. There is more going on here than adherence to legalism.
      There are a larger number of people who have found that their Christian beliefs inform them toward behaving differently within the marriage with the result that divorce is not resorted to or wanted. If you look at marriage as a contract wherein I put in my share as long as you put in yours, and weigh that scale constantly to see that it stays “50/50” balanced, you are likely to end up unhappy and divorced. You are still looking out for yourself, guarding your own turf, rather than making a real commitment where oneness happens, where you are each putting the other before self. If you see the marriage as a RELATIONSHIP (rather than a contract) consisting of you, your spouse, and a Third Party in the marriage (God), you are likely to look at your marriage as a sacred trust to be honored, and to look at your spouse as a true gift. It goes a long way toward keeping marriages not only intact but truly loving.


        1. Yes, except that your comments don’t respond to mine at all. As long as we’re quoting the Bible, try this quote, from God:

          “Here is something else you do:
          you cover Adonai’s altar with tears,
          with weeping and with sighing,
          because he no longer looks at the offering
          or receives your gift with favor.

          Nevertheless, you ask, “Why is this?”
          Because Adonai is witness
          between you and the wife of your youth
          that you have broken faith with her,
          though she is your companion, your wife by covenant.

          And hasn’t he made [them] one [flesh]
          in order to have spiritual blood-relatives?
          For what the one [flesh] seeks
          is a seed from God.
          Therefore, take heed to your spirit,
          and don’t break faith with the wife of your youth.

          “For I hate divorce,”
          says Adonai the God of Isra’el,
          “and him who covers his clothing with violence,”
          says Adonai-Tzva’ot.
          Therefore take heed to your spirit,
          and don’t break faith with the wife of your youth.
          ‘For I hate divorce,’
          says Adonai the God of Israel.”

          Malachi 2: 13-16, Complete Jewish Bible

          All your Bible scholarship goes to the fact that Christian teachings do discourage divorce, that’s true. But I’m not sure what you’re expecting that we draw from your Bible commentary.
          Here are my comments on the above passage:


      1. Well majority of people viee marriage as a contract because for awhile that what it was.

        Historically, in most cultures, married women had very few rights of their own, being considered, along with the family’s children, the property of the husband; as such, they could not own or inherit property, or represent themselves legally

        In Europe, the United States, and other places in the developed world, beginning in the late 19th century and lasting through the 21st century, marriage has undergone gradual legal changes, aimed at improving the rights of the wife. These changes included giving wives legal identities of their own, abolishing the right of husbands to physically discipline their wives, giving wives property rights, liberalizing divorce laws, providing wives with reproductive rights of their own, and requiring a wife’s consent when sexual relations occur. These changes have occurred primarily in Western countries.

        And of course there are still some issues such as controversies regarding the legal status of married women, legal acceptance or leniency towards violence within marriage (especially sexual violence), traditional marriage customs such as dowry and bride price, forced marriage, marriageable age, and criminalization of consensual behaviors such as premarital and extramarital sex.


        1. Not sure your point. Historically, Christianity has been far more liberalizing and equalizing than other influences. In the first-century church women were given higher value and status than anywhere previously.
          And whether liberalizing divorce laws has been beneficial for women is a very debatable question…


      1. I think he is expecting us to act as if there is no objective moral law, but we don’t believe that. We don’t do what feels good – we do what IS good. We’re Christians. Duty comes before feelings.


        1. It’s sadly the default mindset in modernity. For the longest time, I held it myself. Ironically, I find myself feeling more content and fulfilled by performing duties than by going with what I feel at the moment.


          1. Me too. I find it is less frustrating to fulfill my obligations if I pick someone safe who really appreciates it. It can actually be fun to serve then.


      2. Utah state? I can just imagine that they have totally honest answers about marriage. I don’t ‘know’ that they are dishonest but the good people of Utah spent many millions of dollars trying to stop same sex marriage in other states. Their views on marriage are slightly suspect in exactly the way that I’ve been trying to indicate.


    3. That is far too simplistic. It can also mean the devout are more likely to work out their issues and move forward than they are to abandon marriage because they are too immature to resolve problems like an adult should. It further means that the devout are more likely to value the other person’s wholeness and joy enough to sacrifice for it, and when that happens mutually you get not just a lasting marriage but a beautiful partnership that can withstand all things.

      Surely you didn’t mean to imply that the majority of the married religious are still married even though they don’t actually love their spouses? That is an incredibly short-sighted and malicious statement if you did mean that, and incredibly thoughtless to post if you did not. Certainly, there are marriages that survive entirely because of their belief system. The far greater part of those that have survived the test of time amongst those I have met (including myself – I have been married 20 years now) actually do love their spouses and really did mean it when they made their vows.


      1. Here you go, from wikipedia. The notion that divorce is poorly viewed by many churches/religions is a reality. My own mother had to hide the fact that she was divorced to avoid being fired from her job (a religious institution – evangelical).

        Despite the stories of vast life changes with religion, religion does not make you a good person it just fits with your good nature.

        The many facets that factor into why people divorce or not include religion, race, income and so on. What I was saying is that the devout have reason to not divorce. If their church does not look down on divorce then often enough their religious family do. When there are signs of a break up, religious communities offer support and encouragement to work it out.

        Most Christian churches treat divorce negatively; however, different Christian denominations vary in their toleration of it. The Roman Catholic Church treats all consummated sacramental marriages as permanent during the life of the spouses, and therefore does not allow remarriage after a divorce if the other spouse still lives and the marriage has not been annulled. However, divorced Catholics are still welcome to participate fully in the life of the church so long as they have not remarried against church law, and the Catholic Church generally requires civil divorce or annulment procedures to have been completed before it will consider annulment cases. Other Christian denominations, including the Eastern Orthodox Church and many Protestant churches, will allow both divorce and remarriage even with a surviving former spouse, at least under certain conditions. In societies that practiced Puritanism, divorce was allowed if one partner in the marriage was not completely satisfied with the other, and remarriage was also allowed.

        Bible commentary on divorce comes primarily from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the epistles of Paul. Jesus taught on the subject of divorce in three of the Gospels, and Paul gives a rather extensive treatment of the subject in his First Epistle to the Corinthians chapter 7: “Let not the wife depart from her husband…let not the husband put away his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11), but he also includes the Pauline privilege. He again alludes to his position on divorce in his Epistle to the Romans, albeit an allegory, when he states “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth. . . . So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress” (Romans 7:2-3).

        In Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:1-10 and Mark 10:1-5, Jesus came into conflict with the Pharisees over divorce concerning their well-known controversy between Hillel and Shammai about Deuteronomy 24:1-4–as evidenced in Nashim Gittin 9:10 of the Mishnah. Do Jesus’ answers to the Pharisees also pertain to Christians? Are Christians who adopt these teachings Judaizers? The differences in opinions about these questions usually arise over whether Jesus opposed the Law of Moses or just some of the viewpoints of the Pharisees, and whether Jesus just addressed a Jewish audience or expanded his audience to include Christians, for example “all nations” as in the Great Commission. Since Deuteronomy 24:1-4 did not give Jewish women the right to directly initiate a divorce (See Agunah), did Jesus’ answers “in the house” to his disciples expand the rights of women or did they merely acknowledge that some Jewish women, such as Herodias who divorced Herod Boethus, were wrongfully taking rights because Jewish women were being assimilated by other cultures? (See Matthew 14:3-4, Mark 10:10-12.) In other words, did Jesus confine his remarks to the Pharisaical questions, and did he appeal to his own authority by refuting the oral authority of the Pharisees with the formula “You have heard…But I say to you” in Matthew 5:20-48? Expressions used by Jesus such as “you have heard”, “it hath been said”, “it is written”, “have you never read”, “keep the commandments”, “why do you break the commandments with your traditions?” and “what did Moses Command you?” seem to indicate that Jesus generally respected the Hebrew Bible and sometimes opposed Pharisaical Opinions. He was critical of the Pharisees.


    4. An atheist who thinks it’s all about them and their happiness? Wow, never saw that coming…


  4. I would like to thank all who responded to my question. It is nice to actually be given an answer than being told to just go read the bible. So again thank you again Kilrud,Lindsay Harold,& John Peters


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