Do atheists have a lower divorce rate than Christians?

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

I’ve been having discussions with atheists lately, and finding out that in the atheist community, a lot of false beliefs persist because they (as a group) insulate themselves from rational inquiry. Basically, one of them says something that makes Christians look bad, and the rest of them believe it without ever looking into it, or even listening to a critical point of view. Anything that makes Christians look stupid and/or evil is believed without question.

It’s not just the big lies like “the universe is eternal”, “Jesus never existed”, “unborn babies aren’t human beings”, “the multiverse explains away the cosmic fine-tuning”, “the origin of life is a solved problem: aliens seeded the Earth with life”, “the Cambrian explosion occurred over tens of millions of years”, “moral realism is perfectly rational in an accidental universe where humans evolved randomly”, etc.. Sometimes, it’s just ordinary stuff like divorce rates between Christians and atheists. Stuff you can check pretty easily, as long as you’re not lazy and ignorant.

I thought I would re-post this USA Today article from 2011 about that.

Excerpt:

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 at their jobs (to make money they don’t even need) to understand the issues and communicate them to their children.

We’re probably not going to keep our low divorce rate unless we start to get serious about learning how to discuss moral issues practically, using evidence. Take premarital sex as an example. 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. Now is probably a good time to start thinking deeply about how to have a good relationship, how to have a good marriage, how to raise children who will make a difference.

16 thoughts on “Do atheists have a lower divorce rate than Christians?”

  1. Well at least at first read through the information was a little bit better than I expected. Of course, nobody defined any of the terms involved.
    1. The “divorce rate” is a VERY complicated calculation. I’ll come back with a link to an article I found that describes how the pinheads calculate it.
    2. It looks like the USA Today article TRYS to define what a “Christian” is. For the sake of “our” side I hope they include Mormons in “our” numbers because I’m guessing they have a MUCH lower “divorce rate” than atheists. And I’m sure they didn’t exclude all the “Catholics” who are simply “Catholic” by birth. I’m not passing judgment anyone, Christian or atheist, I’m passing judgment on the statistics.
    3. I didn’t read carefully enough to see if “atheists” was actually defined, or if they really meant “secular” people. I’m guessing that “secular” people, both “Christian” and “atheist” have about the same divorce rate.
    4. Did the USA Today article talk about people who are religious (any other religion such as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, etc.) or those who say “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual”? While separately they make up small minorities in the USA, but collectively I’m guessing they make up enough of the population to matter to the discussion.
    I’ll be back after I do some reading and research. These are my “top of mind” thoughts since the “50% divorce rate” is a pet peeve.
    PS – The Focus on the Family link might be broken.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Here’s how pinheads calculate the divorce rate:
    http://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/27/weekinreview/l-how-to-calculate-the-us-divorce-rate-correctly-707290.html?pagewanted=print
    How to Calculate the U.S. Divorce Rate, Correctly
    To the Editor:
    In his attempt to debunk the commonly accepted 50 percent U.S. divorce rate, William Manchester (letter, March 20) falls victim to a misunderstanding of how demographers calculate this statistic. Although his logic is seductive, he is incorrect when he suggests that demographers simply divide the 1.2 million divorces by the 2.4 million marriages that took place in 1988. Instead, we use what is called a life table approach, which, in its most basic form, essentially follows a group of couples married at a given time for a number of years and calculates the proportion of marriages that remain intact after, let’s say, 20 years.
    To obtain his 13 percent divorce rate, Mr. Manchester divides the percentage of Americans who are currently divorced (9.3) by the percentage who have ever been married among those age 18 or over (71.8). However, if one is interested in the proportion of marriages that ultimately end in divorce, then we must add two more groups of people to the numerator: currently married Americans who either (1) have not yet divorced but will do so eventually or (2) have already divorced and have since remarried. When one accounts for these additional groups, it is easy to see that substantially more than 13 percent of all marriages break up.
    Last, by modifying the life table technique, demographers are able to project the eventual divorce rate of recently married couples, for whom we do not have 20 years’ worth of information. It is this group to whom the 50 percent figure, even 60 percent by some estimates, applies.
    NEIL G. BENNETT
    Associate Professor of Sociology
    Yale University
    New Haven, May 20, 1990

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  3. I would be curious as to the incidence of divorce for weekly attenders after their confession of Christ and baptism. I suspect the number will drop significantly. In other words, how many of the 38% of weekly attenders who were divorced were divorced before they came to Christ and how many were divorced after?

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    1. “how many of the 38% of weekly attenders who were divorced were divorced before they came to Christ and how many were divorced after?”

      From the link that bluecat57 posted above Donald Hughes states that “90% of divorces among born-again couples occur after they have been “saved.”” This is at least plausible as divorces tend to happen relatively later in life (after being married a while), while many “get saved” younger in life. That said, I don’t have any supporting statistics.

      On the other hand, the 38% statistic may be too high. This post (http://brewright.blogspot.ca/2006/11/divorce-rates-by-religious-affiliation.html) argues for a lower figure. I didn’t double check the source data on this one, so I’m just putting it out there.

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      1. Yes, I am aware of the Barna statistics (which is what bluecat57’s link is quoting). It’s a favorite trope of pastors when sermonizing on the topic. As per the OP, when you only query Christians who are weekly attenders, the rate drops dramatically. But the question in the OP was weekly attenders who were divorced without specifying when. Just as weekly attendance is important to the question, showing a dedication to the faith rather than just claiming it as cultural signaling, divorce after baptism is more significant than divorce before. There will still be divorces after baptism even for those who are weekly attenders; they may be unequally yoked for example.

        So the question remains, would the 38% statistic be even lower if they asked about order of events (confession and divorce)? I assert that it would though I would not venture to guess by how much.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. There were two pertinent studies performed: a 1999 Barna study and the 2014 Glass/Levchak study. These are frequently cited by atheists. However, I actually looked at the data for both of these studies (they found very similar results). Both studies did find a correlation between higher divorce rates and conservative Christian belief, but failed to show causation. Here is why:

    Divorce rates are highest among those with low education, low marriage age, and geographical situation in the Bible Belt irrespective of religion. Divorce rates among Christians are disproportionately skewed by the geographical influence. (You also see a similar geographic distribution for domestic violence and domestic homicide). At most this correlates with the SBC specifically and not Christianity in general.

    Also, the studies incorrectly group some conservative evangelical churches as “mainline protestants”, including a number of Anabaptist churches (e.g. Mennonites). This skews the results.

    Combine the results of these studies, the one mentioned in this post, the Brookings Institute guidelines, and a few other studies and you get the following guidelines to lower your divorce odds:
    (1) Don’t have sex before age 18.
    (2) Don’t have sex before marriage; Don’t get pregnant before marriage; Don’t have multiple sexual partners
    (3) Don’t cohabitate.
    (4) Get married in the 20s.
    (5) Graduate from high school. If possible get a Bachelor’s degree or learn a skilled trade, but don’t drop out.
    (6) Find stable full-time work and learn how to manage money.
    (7) The man should have the higher income.
    (8) Don’t have divorced parents.
    (9) Be a devout Christian. Attend church regularly.
    (10) Don’t live in the Bible Belt

    The vast majority of things on this list are conservative Christian teachings that when actually followed yield extremely low divorce rates. I’ve attended churches that do these things and have virtually no divorce at all among its active members.

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  5. It would also help if pastors at the pulpit explained what marriage is and its intent. There’s too much influence from media (tv, movies, internet) telling people love is a feeling. Love is that butterflies in your stomach excitement. You deserve to be happy (all the time). The reason I married my wife, and she’ll say the same thing, we made sense. We both looked at our relationship and said we work together, we can make this work, and if we start to see problems, we’ll work them out. Love is work, and it’s a choice. I choose to love my wife everyday, not because of the way she looks, not because the way she makes me feel, not even because everything is hunky-dory all the time; but because the purpose of our being together is our future.

    Ryan T. Anderson from the heritage foundation is a great source for the definition of marriage and a staunch proponent of the right definition of marriage.

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  6. What is the rate of atheists marriages, versus atheists cohabitation!
    And if atheists do not have a reference for morality, what kind of marriage and child rearing does it follow???
    Open marriage, polyamory etc. Maybe that’s a few reasons they have a lessor divorce rate!!!!!

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  7. I live in a blue state. i see a lot of couples living together. Mostly all of them came from Catholic church going families. A few where protestant. I have in the past seen them in church myself.
    I have also made it a point to ask the men, the ones I had some
    acquaintance with, why they they did not marry. Not that I blame them.
    Their argument was , Government intervention in marriage, divorce laws, and a good many of them were from single parent(women)
    homes. They did not have a good opinion of “traditional marriage”.
    They attended church, because their partner wanted to.
    One went as far to say that, as much as the church is supposedly against divorce, They don’t do much to prevent it. God forbid they say something against so called “Christian women” aka Feminists!!!!!

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    1. Yes. 70% of divorces are initiated by women, and the bulk of those are for unhappiness. If women who attend church regularlty marry expecting it to be a bed of roses, then churches are not doing a good job of explaining what marriage is about.

      In his book “Sacred Search”, Gary Thomas makes the point that women who have a proven pattern of taking the Bible seriously when it goes against their self-interest are the ones who are more likely to not divorce and not withhold sex, for that matter.

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  8. With all due respect, I have known many women through my life. And I know quite a few now. Friends, family etc. I would say that 90 percent of them never really looked at or opened a Bible. And 50 percent or better don’t even own one. This applies to the the church going ones as well, which most of them were!!!

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