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Divorce – does faith make a difference?

If both partners believe, the answer is ‘Yes’

One great myth about the effect of religion on Western societies has been smashed. New research shows that the Christian believers divorce at a much lower rate than the general population.

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“Most recently, research conducted at Harvard’s School of Public Health reveals that regularly attending church services together reduces a couple’s risk of divorce by a remarkable 47 per cent,” Glenn Stanton reports in The Public Discourse, published by  the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank. “Many studies, they report, have similar results ranging from 30 to 50 per cent reduction in divorce risk. Happily, this holds largely true for white, black, Asian and Latino couples.”

“These findings have remained consistent over many decades and across socio-economic differences.” – Glenn Stanton

Stanton cites other research with similar results: “Professor Annette Mahoney of Bowling Green’s Spirituality and Psychology Research Team, reports from her decades-long research that a couple’s spiritual intimacy and church participation is ‘very, very important and undeniably a construct that matters’ greatly in boosting marital happiness and longevity. Additional research conducted by Mahoney and her team demonstrates that marriages are stronger and happier when the husband and wife understand the deeper spiritual significance of marriage. These findings have remained consistent over many decades and across socio-economic differences.”

So where did the idea that Christians divorce at roughly the same rate as everybody else come from? The answer is that idea WAS based on research. A Barna Research Group project conducted in 1999 – and, remember, Barna has a reputation for deftly researching religious people  – found that “born again” people divorced more often than non-Christians.

“The Barna Research Group’s national study showed that members of non-denominational churches divorce 34 per cent of the time in contrast to 25 per cent of the general population,” the Dallas Morning News reported at the time.

“Non-denominational churches would include large numbers of Bible churches and other conservative evangelicals. Baptists had the highest rate of the major denominations: 29 per cent. Born-again Christians’ rate was 27 per cent. To make matters even more distressing for believers, atheists/agnostics had the lowest rate of divorce [at] 21 per cent.”

This study gave rise to the persistent belief that conservative Christians divorced at the same or greater rate than the population at large. This study has been extensively quoted on atheist sites, which often point out that Barna is a Christian survey group.

The rate of divorce for couples that share faith, pray, and go to church together are lower.

A more recent survey found somewhat similar results, placing evangelicals in the middle of the pack, with the rates of divorce among other various religious group’s converging. Bradley Wright, the author of the survey (which was published by the Institute for Family Studies), drew the conclusion that religion was having less and less influence upon divorce.

“As people of different religious groups are influenced by the broader society’s view of divorce, they become more tolerant of divorce and between-religion differences lessen.”

But more granular surveys challenge that view. New research establishes that where husbands and wives have a common faith, and attend church regularly, the divorce rate lessens. Glenn Stanton in The Public Discourse reports: “Scholars from the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University found that how often a couple attends church together has a strong impact on marital stability. The more often they attend, the stronger their marriage. The researchers report, ‘When both spouses attend church regularly, the couple has the lowest risk of divorce.’”

Prayer is a key factor. “The University of Virginia’s W. Bradford Wilcox boldly explains in his book Soul Mates that ‘shared prayer completely accounts for the association between church attendance and a happy relationship.’ This means that prayer as a regular part of a couple’s relationship, according to this research, is the most important spiritual practice in relational success. This is equally true for Latino, Asian, black, and white couples. Prayer not only invites God into the relationship at times of unhappiness and struggle, but also helps the couple become more intimate and concerned with one another.”

The rate of divorce for couples that share faith, pray, and go to church together are lower. But, sadly, “unequally yoked couples — in which one spouse is a Christian while the other is not — are especially prone to divorce,” according to Stanton.

This may explain some of the discrepancy with studies such as Barna, which classify people according to belief but may not take into account whether faith is shared by both partners.

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