The relationship between divorce and religion has always been complicated. Based on recent research, we now know that the presence of one often leads to the erosion of the other.
As a country, the United States is growing less religious. Since 1972, the percentage of Americans saying they do not follow any religion skyrocketed from 5 percent to 25 percent. During that same time period, the divorce rate peaked in the 1980s at close to 50 percent.
A new study from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates those two trends are related.
The study discovered that people whose parents divorced when they were children are significantly more likely to turn away from religion as adults. Thirty-five percent of the children of divorced parents identified as nonreligious compared to 23 percent whose parents stayed married while they were growing up.
35% of the children of divorced parents identified as nonreligious …
Daniel Cox, one of the researchers on the new study, told the Washington Post that this study went a step further than a lot of other studies concerning the decline of religion in the U.S. by focusing on more than just the changing preferences of younger generations.
“A lot of the narrative around the rise of the nones, or the rise of the non-affiliated, has focused on how there’s changing cultural preferences, that people are choosing to move away from religion,” he said. “I think there’s also a structural part of the story that has not gotten as much attention. We wanted to focus on the way millennials were raised, which is different from any previous generation. And part of that is they’re more likely to have grown up with parents who are divorced.”
Historically, the church has not necessarily been supportive of divorcing families as the subject has long been considered taboo. In many cases, families are even excommunicated or ostracized after divorce.
Pope Francis acknowledged as much last year when he criticized the Catholic Church for not doing enough for children of divorce.
“How can we recommend to parents to do everything they can to educate their children in Christian life, giving them an example of a convinced and practiced faith, if we keep them at arm’s length from the community as if they were excommunicated,” he asked during a gathering outside the Vatican.
He later encouraged support for divorced families in his proclamation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).
Of course, many people live perfectly fulfilling lives without having any religious affiliation, but this decline should sound some alarms.
“The fact that both family and faith – the glues that hold together our culture and civic life, the safety nets of our most vulnerable citizens and the source of so much meaning and stability in our children’s lives – are each contributing to the weakening of the other is downright alarming,” wrote New York Post columnist Naomi Schaefer Riley.
Regardless of your personal beliefs, research shows the deinstitutionalization of religion is having a negative economic effect for many people. In a study titled, “No Money, No Honey, No Church,” Brad Wilcox of the National Marriage Project and other researchers found that the decline of church attendance of the working class could be contributing to their economic marginalization.
Other research has shown that Americans who attend church are more likely to be married, more likely to stay married once, and to have higher levels of satisfaction in their marriage and family. Children who regularly attend church are less likely to divorce later in life, have better coping skills, and perform better in college than those who did not attend.
These findings illustrate just how deeply divorce can affect children. Many of the effects linger well into adulthood.
Although it’s not a good idea to remain in an unhappy marriage solely for the sake of your children, it is incumbent on parents to put their children’s interests first during divorce and work together to get them the resources they need to help with the transition.