Sorting out the statistics about Christians and divorce

BeliefNet.com has a useful summary of a recent discussion that includes sociologists: do Christians divorce as frequently as other Americans?

1. Data from The Barna Group suggests that born-again Christians divorce at a similar rate as the general population. This seems to be tied to Barna’s particular definitions:

Barna’s statistics are tied to its highly specific — and controversial — definitions of born-again Christians and evangelicals.

For instance, Barna labels Christians “born-again” if they have made a personal commitment to Jesus and believe they will go to heaven because they have accepted him as their savior.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, are those who fit the born-again definition but also meet seven other conditions, including sharing their beliefs with non-Christians and agreeing that the Bible is completely accurate.

With these stricter definitions, Barna can claim that Christians and other divorce at similar rates.

2. Several sociologists, including Bradley Wright and Brad Wilcox, suggest there is a different story regarding Christians and divorce. Wright, for example, looked at General Social Survey data and found that higher rates of church attendance were related to lower rates of divorce:

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 percent. The rate among religiously unaffiliated Americans is 50 percent.

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 percent of weekly attendees.

Wilcox came to some similar conclusions based on another data source:

“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 percent less likely to divorce than those with no religious affiliation.

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

If Wright and Wilcox are correct, it is less about whether one calls themselves a Christian or meets a theological definition of being a Christian and more about the Christian actions that they undertake. If we take church attendance as some measure of spiritual commitment or beliefs, then it appears that going to church more is tied to getting divorced less.

Another part of this debate seems to be about how to define people as Evangelicals. Barna has a particular method as do others. One standard in the field of sociology of religion is to use RELTRAD, which accounts for both “doctrine and historical changes in religious groups.”

(I explained Wright’s argument in class recently and was asked if we could take Wright’s claims about church attendance as a causal argument: does going to church lead to less divorce? Or is it that people who divorce less feel more comfortable about going to church while those who are already divorced feel less comfortable in church and therefore go less? I’m guessing someone has answered this question.)

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