Evangelical Marriages Fail At Much Higher Rates Than Atheist’s Marriages

Surprise! Atheist marriages last longer than Christian ones. Yet conservative Christians see themselves as the last defenders of traditional marriage. Yet many don’t quite live up to the ideal. To understand why evangelical marriages fail read my latest book — And God Said, “Billy!exploring the roots of American religious delusion and also this…

Conservative Christians think of themselves as the last line of defense for a time-honored and holy tradition, marriage. In the conservative Christian view, marriage is a sacred union ordained by God. It binds one man and woman together so that the “two become one flesh” until they are parted by death.

This view of marriage is unbiblical, to be sure. See Captive Virgins, Polygamy, Sex Slaves: What Marriage Would Look Like If We Actually Followed The Bible. But hey, who actually reads the Bible? Surely, what God meant to say is that marriage should take the form that is most familiar and traditional to us: One male plus one female who is given to the male by her father–that part is biblical–for life.

In this worldview, Christian marriage is under assault by an anti-trinity of powerful and dark forces: feminism, homosexuality and godlessness. Faith, on the other hand, saves both souls and marriages. When I was young, a slogan made its way around my church: The family that prays together stays together. Tom Ellis, former chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council on the Family boldly claimed that “born-again Christian couples who marry…in the church after having received premarital counseling…and attend church regularly and pray daily together… experience only 1 divorce out of nearly 39,000 marriages.”

But then came data. According to research by the Barna Research Group over a decade ago, American divorce rates were highest among Baptists and nondenominational “Bible-believing” Christians and lower among more theologically liberal Christians like Methodists, with atheists at the bottom of the divorce pack. When the findings were made public, George Barna took some heat because Christians expected the difference to be more dramatic and to favor believers. Ellis suggested that maybe Barna had sampled badly. Perhaps some people who called themselves born again had never really devoted their lives to Christ. But Barna held his ground, saying, “We rarely find substantial differences” [in the moral behavior of Christians and non-Christians].

Fancy that…


Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book — And God Said, “Billy!exploring the roots of American religious delusion, and offering another way to approach true spirituality, is on Kindle, iBook and NOOK for $3.99, and in paperback.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.



About Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer is an American author, film director, screenwriter and public speaker. He is the son of the late theologian and author Francis Schaeffer. He became a Hollywood film director and author, writing several internationally acclaimed novels including And God Said, "Billy!" as well as the Calvin Becker Trilogy depicting life in a fundamentalist mission home-- Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma.

  • GreenEyedLilo

    There’s something about beams and splinters in the Bible, in red I think….but it’s more fun to bash same-sex couples than look it up, huh?

  • http://www.churchformen.com/ David Murrow

    It would be interesting to know whether Christians marry at a higher rate than atheists. I suspect this to be true. You can’t get divorced if you’re not married in the first place.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      At least superficially, the GSS data seems to support that the unaffiliated and/or unbelieving are less likely to have ever been married. It’s difficult to disentangle the effects of younger generational cohorts tendency to marry later from the effects of younger generational cohorts tendency to irreligion, along with other cross-correlated variables like final level of education. Contrariwise, it’s pretty clear that the less religious at the least tend to be more likely to marry later, or not at all.

      Nohow, it’s not clear whether the direction of causation is straightforward. Many divorces are associated with a social stigma among coreligionists; in turn, such failure of the social support that a person expects from their religious community is one of the common triggers for reflective rexamination leading to deconversion. Someone who was a devout Christian before their husband degenerated into an utterly abusive jerk may not remain one after her parish priest and the head of the welcoming committee call her a fallen Jezebel for divorcing him. The untimely death of a spouse seeming tends to present similarly traumatic challenge to faith; and among those under 50 who ever married (and controlling for age), widows or widowers tend to be irreligious at rates approximately comparable to those who are divorced.

      Or at least, I hope irreligion isn’t the straightforward cause for both those correlations….

  • Jakeithus

    This is one of those topics that seems to keep coming up over and over whenever someone wants to marginalize conservative Christianity’s ability to speak about marriage and the family. Unfortunately, as is all too common when dealing with statistics, it’s easy to see only what one wants to see.

    It doesn’t surprise me that just identifying with a particular religious tradition has no positive influence on lowering divorce rates. What is not as surprising, and what studies have shown is that conservative Christians who are “serious” about their faith (attend church regularly, pray together regularly, etc) have markedly lower divorce rates than the general population. Those who are only nominally religious actually have a higher chance at getting divorced.

    It doesn’t matter so much what type of Christian you are, as much as it does how seriously you take your faith and how active you are in your faith community.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com/ SC

    The point you want to make is an old worn out line based on faulty data gathering. Many people find the Church and turn to God during or after their divorce. You can’t just go into Churches and start counting. Did the divorce occur before, during, or after being part of the Church? Answering this question would avoid the misleading implications you’re giving people.

    • jondrake

      Assuming the atheists even get married in the first place.

      Frank’s gleeful reporting of people’s suffering is nauseating.

  • Shaun G. Lynch

    I started writing a response noting the frequent logical fallacy of extrapolating causation from a correlation. Then I read the original article from Alternet and got angry. The article on this page is a blatantly manipulative mischaraterization of the original piece!

    The original article in Alternet notes the statistics, but goes on to provide a well-reasoned and balanced analysis that points no fingers, but attempts to understand why the statistics appear as they do. Consider this explanatory paragraph that didn’t get quoted above:

    “Secular couples tend to see both marriage and divorce as personal choices. Overall, a lower percent get
    married, which means that those who do may be particularly committed or
    well-suited to partnership. They are likely to be older if/when they do
    formally tie the knot. They have fewer babies, and their babies are
    more likely to be planned. Parenting, like other household
    responsibilities, is more likely to be egalitarian rather than based on
    the traditional model of “male headship.” Each of these factors could
    play a role in the divorce rate.”

    Basically, it is reasonable to expect that higher divorce rates are going to occur among people who are more likely to get married in the first place, and tend to do so at a younger age. It doesn’t suggest a hypocritical attitude towards the family.

    Here’s the final paragraph of the original article, which is much clearer with regard to the conclusions one can (or rather CAN’T) draw from these statistics:

    “Do atheists do it better? That is unlikely. Divorce rate differences
    between theists and nontheists tend to depend on how you slice the
    demographic pie, and for both groups, the shape of marriage itself is
    changing. As culture evolves, we’re all in uncharted territory together.”

  • Ash Pagan

    Deliberately/Purposefully/Intentionally Judgemental: My Evangelical [c]ristian parents chose divorce and I am forever emotionally and dysfunctionally scarred (YES! IT IS ABOUT ME!). I hate them both for what they did to me. There is no god. Love as you would love to be loved!

  • http://www.awaypoint.wordpress.com Valerie Tarico

    Hi Frank –
    I am honored that you chose to repost this article and expand the dialogue. Thank you. (And thank you more broadly for your work to complicate the conversation about Christianity and spirituality.) The Alternet title on this article suggests that atheist marriages last longer, which the early Barna research found, but in the 2008 study the difference was statistically insignificant. The percent of born-again Christians and atheists who said they had been divorced was roughly equal. That in and of itself is a stark contrast to what Christians believe should be and what many in the past have claimed to be the case.

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