Do atheists have a lower divorce rate than Christians?

Map of marriage rate by state
Map of marriage rate by state

Here is an article from USA Today that comments on the notion that atheists have a lower divorce rate than Christians.


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 fiequency 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. 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.

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