What percentage of US marriages are religious ceremonies?

A commenter on this post pointed me towards a USA today article claiming that rates of civil marriage in the US have increased significantly over the years. According to the article, there are no nation-wide statistics on this, but in the 18 states that keep track of these things, 40% of marriages are civil marriages.

This surprised me. Previously, the statistic I had heard was that 80% of marriages in the US are religious. Googling, I found this page which made that claim, but did not cite a source. Or rather, it said that 80% of weddings are performed in churches and synagogues, which isn’t strictly incompatible with the 40% civil marriages statistic, if there’s a sizable chunk of people getting civil marriages but also having a big church ceremony for the relatives. Though that seems unlikely.

My personal impressions are largely based on the weddings my parents dragged me to as a little kid, and the weddings I’ve seen in TV shows and movies. I’m honestly not sure I ever saw a non-religious wedding ceremony, live or on a screen, until my roommate’s wedding in grad school.

But the cultural stereotype I grew up with may no longer hold true. If 40% (or perhaps now, since it’s been a decade since when that statistic came from) of marriages are civil marriages, that’s actually a really encouraging sign. It shows that religion is losing its grip on US society, particularly the segment that’s of marrying age.

But I’m not totally confident about the 40% figure. Does anyone know where I can get better statistics on this?

  • jean-nicolasdenonne

    Can I ask a question? I am from Belgium and here 100% of mariages are civil mariages (it is the only form of mariage that has legal meaning.) After the ceremony and paperwork at the city hall you are free to go to a church, a synagogue, mosque or wathever.

    However (as relations between church and state are somewhat complicated and not exactly separated), ministries are forbidden to marry two people if they have not been civily married before (town hall delivers an attestation) (I think it is a remnant of Napoleon’s civil code, put in place to force people to have their marriage registered by the state.)

    Do religious mariages have legal standing in the US? Is it why religious authorities feel threatened? (here it has been long accepted that religious ceremonies are optional and do not really carry any meaning and the churches are free to refuse to marry homosexuals as it does not really matter.)

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Yup. Religious marriages have legal standing in the US.

      • anonymice

        Not sure what you mean. Religious leaders are permitted to perform a legal marriage, but if you just go to church and have a ceremony – religious only, with no state paperwork – it doesn’t mean anything to anyone except your church. No legal standing whatsoever.

    • mnb0

      Same in The Netherlands. Thanks to Napoleon indeed.
      Ha, even in Suriname religious marriages don’t have legal status anymore. The reason is that hindu’s and muslims were allowed this way to marry at 13 or 14. How’s that in the USA?

  • RW Ahrens

    I am glad that a major blogger here has broached this subject, although it is really a bigger question than just “how many marriages are christian”.

    What you are really asking is just how influential religion is in American life. I have been pushing this question for a while, because while researching a blog post a couple of years ago, I ran into some startling information. I ran into four sites which were hosting information that seemed to agree, or at least fit together to indicate that Gallup’s 80% christian figure over the last 60 years is full of shit.

    First, there was the US Census, which hosted a table that showed a decline in claimed church membership. I lost that url, so I’ve no source for that now.

    Secondly, there is another site, religioustolerance.org, which has a page called “How many North Americans attend religious services (and how many lie about going)?”:


    Another along those lines is from Trinity College, entitled, “Church, Lies, and Polling Data”:


    …and, finally, this one, “Twelve surprising Facts about the American Church”:


    I think this information will surprise you, from all of those sites.

    The information seems to all fit together into a picture of American religious life that is totally different from how the Conservatives would have you see it. Traditionally, Gallup has released its yearly poll showing that between 75 – 80% of Americans are christian. These numbers have been remarkably stable and consistent over the decades – too consistent. The above web sites tell a different story, one that you are beginning to get an idea about as you look at those wedding figures.

    This is an important issue, since the Conservatives just love to trot out that 80% figure at every possible opportunity, as if popularity determines truth. This is a self fulfilling thing, as it keeps many non-christians from “coming out”, since they still think they are alone.

    If the skeptical/humanist/atheist movement can begin to crack that edifice of lies by getting the word out that the truth is much, much different, we can hit that magic tipping point much faster.

  • jamessweet

    I suspect it depends very much on how you count it. The “religious wedding” number is almost surely going to get over-counted. For instance, my wife and I hired a non-denominational (female) reverend to marry us. Aside from the woman’s title and her vaguely vestment-like get-up, there was nothing even vaguely religious about the ceremony: no prayers, no blessings, and we certainly didn’t hold it in a church! And yet presumably that would have counted as a “religious” wedding.

    Our original plan (it changed because we decided to suddenly get married on ~24 hours notice; long story) had been to have our friend, who is a not-particularly-theistic Quaker and has an internet-order ordainment, do the officiating. Presumably, that would have counted as “religious” as well, even though that’s patently absurd.

    • acroyear

      yeah I’m inclined to agree – it matters how it is measured. If the statistic only counts those that get married in a judicial court (the only officially sanctioned secular way to get married), then the 40% might be high. If the statistic counts ‘wedding chapels’ that aren’t necessarily religious or denominational, or not, that makes a difference in quite a few states as well. If the statistic counts weddings that don’t take place in churches, or do, that makes a difference (my ‘religious’ wedding was still held at my house).

      So it really depends on which states are in the 18, and what their criteria is for deciding if a wedding is or isn’t religious, and who is doing the counting.

      Plus there is that long-standing issue where *only* a religious affiliate is able to sign a license outside of a court of law, that there is almost no true secular means to get married without appearing before a judge or a magistrate in a courthouse. This in and of itself is a form of establishment, but I don’t know the court history defending it at this time…

      • TaVe

        You can get an atheist minister nowadays.

      • Christie

        Uh, no. There is a variety of people who can perform marriages. It varies from state to state. Among those who may perform a marriage in one or more states are mayors, judges (of various kinds), magistrates, justices of the peace, marriage commissioners, friends or families “deputized” for the day, the couple themselves, notaries public, governors, officials of the Department of Health, clerks of the circuit court, clerks or clerk-treasurers of a town, county clerks, members of the Board of Supervisors, city clerks, and marriage officers. In some states, religious officials must be registered with or licensed by the state to perform marriage ceremonies, in some others they must have proof of ordination and/or demonstrate they have an actual congregation. Rhode Island, BTW, has a particularly long list of approved officials who may perform a wedding.

    • plutosdad

      we are about to have the same thing. My friend is an “internet reverend” and he’s going to marry us. We are going to just exchange vows and he will say “done!” or something, while we are at brunch with a few friends.

      But the worst thing is the parents. I’m getting married in a week, and I have barely been able to keep any food down for the past 2 weeks. My parents are driving me crazy because they are so against the wedding. Not against her, or us getting married eventually, but we need to have a “Big Fat Italian Wedding” like all my cousins did. Yeah I am 40 already I don’t need to go into debt to have a party that only other people want.

      • Zugswang

        I feel your frustration. I just had my wedding this past weekend in New York. We were just going to have a quick ceremony with two witnesses and do the wedding later when we could afford it (we just closed on a new house, as well), but my wife and I ended up spending two months fighting my mother (my dad and her parents were more laid back about the whole thing) tooth and nail.

        I finally got her to back off after reminding her how much she hated when her dad controlled her wedding, and told her it’s “our day”, not “her party”.

  • acroyear

    Actually, my wife and I did exactly that – a paper marriage officiated by a Universal Life Church member (translation: a secularist/spirtualist) with just the two of us, the ‘reverend’, and our parents, then later the formal wedding ceremony using the Methodist text officiated by my Aunt (a reverend in Florida) for the larger family and friends.

    I personally think that the more we push the idea that you have to get a state marriage certificate *separate* from a religious ceremony (the way the Europeans do it) the better this country would be.

  • robb

    i got married on a pirate ship in Vegas. filed for divorce 7 years later on valentine’s day. it was a very civil divorce.

  • Skip White

    My wife and I were married before a district justice in the winter. The following June, we had a non-religious ceremony (more like a reception) where we said our vows with our friends and family there.

  • Zugswang

    My grandmother is a devout Catholic, and when she divorced by biological grandfather, the church would not annul her marriage, so she couldn’t get remarried by the church even if she wanted to (which she really did). She ended up having a civil ceremony, rather than a religious one, for that reason.

    I wonder if differences in religious beliefs (or difficulties with their particular denomination) contributes significantly to many religious (or partly religious) couples opting for civil ceremonies, instead?

  • drdale

    I personally think 100% of marriages in the US are civil marriages. This is from my experiences in a few states where you have to get a license from the state first. The 60% of marriages being religious would be that the officiant is a minister/priest/rabbi/…. In my understanding you cannot be married directly by a religious official. State first then religion.

    • Christie

      You have to get a license first from the state in every state, no exceptions.

  • pipenta

    Religious weddings happen for all kinds of reasons, but the participants often aren’t religious.

    A wedding is a big deal. Churches are often the biggest splashiest public halls in many communities. Churches are theaters that are well designed for weddings and funerals. And if you want to use the space, you often have to put up with the claptrap. The catholic church in particular takes advantage of this by compelling the participants to take a class to indoctrinate them into proper catholic married life.

    And while non-Americans often shudder about how religious and anti-intellectual our culture is, let me offer some comfort. Yes, many people show up and take those classes, but little if anything sinks in and is retained, let alone respected and practiced. For we are skilled, as a people, at sitting in classrooms and spacing out, fantasizing about the green-eyed cutie in the seat in front of us, at making snarky remarks about our instructors. We ignore our lessons in math and science, in literature and civics, and we are perfectly capable, nay, SKILLED at ignoring whatever religious teachings are offered up for us. How else could so many people sit through religious services every Sunday, services that are either boring or insulting?

    Where better to text than in church, eh?

    And for all that we are not a country that prizes critical thinking about matters political or academic, we are often skilled consumers and know a con when we see one. And getting marital advice from a priest, well…

    But dang, those churches are pretty inside and plenty of people will give lip service to religion so as to use them as venues for the ceremony.

    And religions are going to chalk those people up as members/participants.

    Way to inflate the numbers, to jiggle the books.

    By the by, does anyone know of a group to debaptize Americans who want to officially cleave their relationship with the Catholic Church?

    • Matthew

      I will be married in six days at a Catholic Church. My fiancee and I went through marriage preparation with a couple from the parish. You are correct, mariage is a big deal, and it would have been easy to nod and get nothing out of it, but why? You already pointed out how easy it is to avoid this “indoctrination.” Why not listen and ask a few questions? It might be a load of hooey, or you might learn something that will help you later on.

      The government only recognizes legal marriages, but it alows religious ministers to preside over them. It also allows any citizen who becomes a notary public or justice of the peace. But, some, like me, would claim that the real marriage is the religious one, and the legal one is just something I need to get my wife on my insurance. Even if the government didn’t recognize it, we would still be married.

      Oh, and once you are baptized you cannot be “debaptized.” But, if you would like to c;eave your relationship with the Catholic Church, here is a link to a list of things you shouldn’t follow:


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