Divorce, the church, and the world

By Glenn T. Stanton | March 24, 2011

“Christians divorce at roughly the same rate as people in the world.”

It’s one of the most quoted statistics by Christian leaders, and perhaps one of the most inaccurate.

In reality, based on the best available data, the divorce rate among Christians is significantly lower than the general population.

Here’s the truth:

  • People who are seriously committed to a traditional religious faith, Christian or otherwise, have a divorce rate markedly lower than the general population.
  • In other words, it appears that the most significant factor affecting divorce rate is religious commitment and practice.

For Christians, the implication is clear: Couples who regularly practice any combination of consistent religious behaviours and attitudes – attending church most weeks; reading the Bible and other spiritual materials regularly; praying privately and together; generally taking their faith seriously, living not as perfect disciples, but committed disciples – enjoy significantly lower divorce rates than nominal church members, the general public and unbelievers.

According to an analysis by Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, 60 per cent of people who identify as Christian but rarely attend church have been divorced. In comparison, 38 per cent of those who attend church regularly have been divorced.1

Additional data from other sociologists of family and religion suggest a significant marital stability divide between those who take their faith seriously and those who do not.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a leading sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, finds from his own analysis that “active conservative Protestants” who regularly attend church are 35 per cent less likely to divorce than those who have no affiliation. By contrast, nominally attending conservative Protestants are 20 per cent more likely to divorce than secular Americans.2

A Statistics Canada report found that while religious affiliation had little impact on marital dissolution (separation and/or divorce), religious service attendance had a pronounced effect.  Among Canadians 25 and older who had ever been married, those who attended religious services occasionally were 10 per cent less likely to have their first marriage dissolve than those who never attended religious services.  The risk of dissolution was 31 per cent less for those who attended religious services at least once a month.3

Scott Stanley from the University of Denver, working with a veritable “all-star team” of leading sociologists on the Oklahoma Marriage Study, explains that couples with a vibrant religious faith had more and higher levels of the qualities couples need to avoid divorce:

“Whether young or old, male or female, low-income or not, those who said that they were more religious reported higher average levels of commitment to their partners, higher levels of marital satisfaction, less thinking and talking about divorce and lower levels of negative interaction. These patterns held true when controlling for such important variables as income, education, and age at first marriage.”

These positive factors translated into actual lowered risk of divorce among active believers:

“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.”4

Conclusion

The divorce rates of Christian believers are not identical to the general population – they’re not even close. Being a committed, faithful believer makes a measurable difference in marriage.

Naturally, claiming to believe something or merely belonging to a church does little for marriage. However, the deeper and more consistent the practice of faith – submitting to a body of committed believers; learning regularly from Scripture; being in communion with God though prayer individually as well as with spouse and children; and having friends and family who encourage deeper marital commitment – the greater difference this makes in strengthening the quality and longevity of marriage.

Faith does matter, and leading sociologists of family and religion confirm this. 

  • 1. Bradley R.E. Wright, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), p. 133.
  • 2. W. Bradford Wilcox and Elizabeth Williamson, “The Cultural Contradictions of Mainline Family Ideology and Practice,” in American Religions and the Family, edited by Don S. Browning and David A. Clairmont, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 50.
  • 3. Warren Clark and Susan Crompton, “Till death do us part? The risk of first and second marriage dissolution,” Canadian Social Trends 81 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, summer 2006), p. 25, 26.
  • 4. C.A. Johnson, S.M. Stanley, N.D. Glenn, P.A. Amato, S.L. Nock, H.J. Markman, and M.R. Dion, Marriage in Oklahoma: 2001 Baseline Statewide Survey on Marriage and Divorce, (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Department of Human Services, 2002), p. 25, 26.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director of global family formation studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs.


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