Religion and Divorce

It is common knowledge that divorce rates in the U.S. have skyrocketed over the past 50 years, with many attributing the shift in marital stability to the legalization of no fault divorce beginning in 1969. U.S. Census Bureau data ( - table 78) confirms that divorce rates peaked in 1979 and 1981 when 5.3 per 1,000 persons were divorced. Compare that to 2.2 persons per 1,000 in 1960. Numbers have dropped fairly consistently since 1981, though divorce rates in recent times are still much higher than in 1960, with 3.5 persons per 1,000 getting divorced in 2008 (confirm statistics). However, as Kennedy and Ruggles show, “breaking up is hard to count” ( “ They conclude that “Divorce rates have doubled over the past two decades among persons over age 35. Among the youngest couples, however, divorce rates are stable or declining.” More couples are delaying marriage and instead cohabiting.
Many factors contribute to marital stability. Religiosity is often cited as a key factory, as many religions, especially Mormonism, Catholicism, and fundamental christianity, emphasize marital fidelity, and discourage cohabitation and premarital sex, two things that have been linked to higher divorce rates.11Wolfinger, N. H. (2016), Counterintuitive Trends in the Link between Premarital Sex and Marital Stability. Institute for Family Studies research brief., retrieved April 4, 2017.
*This is an article for fewer sexual partners being linked to marital stability However, as Brad Wilcox points out in an article on the children of divorce, religious institutions were not immune from the no-fault divorce epidemic ( “The anti­-institutional tenor of the age also meant that churches lost much of their moral authority to reinforce the marital vow. It didn’t help that many mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders were caught up in the zeitgeist, and lent explicit or implicit support to the divorce revolution sweeping across American society.”
Are there significant distinctions in marital stability between religious affiliations?
Religion does not make one immune from divorce. Pew Research Center reports that of those in the U.S. who have been divorced or separated, 74 percent were Christian. Of these, 28 percent were Evangelical Protestant, 14 percent Mainline Protestant, 9 percent Historically Black Protestant, 19 percent Catholic, and 1 percent Mormon.
Nonetheless, we see some trends in marital stability across different religious affiliations. A report by Bradley Wright [11], using GSS data, found that Catholic, Jews, and mainline Protestants have lower divorce rates than Americans of other religious affiliations.Black Protestants and “Nones” were the most likely to divorce; Catholics, the least likely.Though every religious affiliation studied saw an increase in divorce rates since the 1970s. Brad Wilcox used GSS data (update of 2006 article - confirm) [18] to break down divorce rates by religious tradition. Black Protestants were the most likely to divorce, with about 56 percent being divorced. The lowest was Catholics @ 38 percent.
A 2016 research report published by IFS ( breaks down relationship disruption (cohabitating as well as married couples) by religion and country: they found that “ In Austria, France, Lithuania, and the USA, the first unions of Catholic individuals (cohabiting and married) are less likely to break up than other individuals, but in Russia and Spain, they are more likely to break up. In Norway, only Protestants have a lower disruption risk than those without any religious affiliation. In Hungary, only the Eastern Orthodox do. Adherence to Islam increases disruption risk in France, but lowers it in Bulgaria, Germany, and Russia. The only conclusion from this table is that there is no inherent protection against disruption risk in any religious affiliation” (pg. 8).
A 2014 article [12] studied why US states with larger proportions of religious conservatives have higher divorce rates than states with lower proportions. Studying county level data, they found that much of the difference was due solely to an earlier transition to adulthood and the lower incomes of conservative Protestants. “ The earlier family formation and lower levels of educational attainment and income in counties with a higher proportion of conservative Protestants can explain a substantial portion of this association.”
Does religiosity predict divorce vs. staying together?
Religious affiliation alone does not predict religiosity. A better predictor than religious affiliation for marital stability may be religiosity indications such as church attendance and religious beliefs. [20] is a National Review article arguing that Conservative Protestants still get divorced at high rates and that many of them don’t attend church. Argues that church attendance matters more for divorce rates than does church affiliation. “Vaughn Call and Tim Heaton of Brigham Young University reported that, compared to other religious elements such as affiliation or strength of beliefs, ”attendance has the greatest impact on marital stability.” Couples who attend church together weekly have a lower risk of divorce than those who worship less frequently.”11Vaughn R. A. Call and Tim B. Heaton, ”Religious Influence on Marital Stability,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 36 (1997): 382-392. “John Wilson and Marc Musick of Duke University also found that ”the higher the level of involvement in the social life of the church, the more [a couple’s] marriage is valued.”22John Wilson and Marc Musick, ”Religion and Marital Dependency,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 35 (1996): 30-40.
A Pew Research Study [10] found that of those who had been divorced or separated in the US [confirm], 69 percent are absolutely certain they believe in God and another 18 percent are fairly certain. 57 percent said religion is “Very Important” while 24 percent said it was “Somewhat Important.” Among those who were divorced or separated, 32 percent attend religious services at least once a week, and 61 percent pray at least daily.
“Matthew Bramlett and William Mosher of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that ”women whose religion is somewhat or very important are…less likely to experience a breakup of their first marriage than those whose religion is not important””33Matthew D. Bramlett and William D. Mosher, ”Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States,” Vital and Health Statistics, series 22 (2002): 1-32.
A study of 15,714 (British?) adults found that “Frequent Christian attendees were 1.5 times less likely to suffer marital breakdown than nonaffiliates, but there was no difference between nonattending Christian affiliates and those of no religion. Infrequent Christian attendees were 1.3 times less likely to suffer marital breakdown compared to nonaffiliates, suggesting that even infrequent church attendance might have some significance for predicting the persistence of marital solidarity” [9].
Religious participation can promote marital stability - [6] studied the association between church service attendance and divorce and separation among a large cohort of female nurses in the US. Frequent service attendance was associated with a 50% lower risk of divorce.
A 2014 study [17] examines religion’s affect on marital quality by focusing on the influence of religion on the marriage decision rather than religion’s influence within marriage. The influence of spouse’s religiosity on marital quality. Positive association!
[26 - check out conclusion] studies the parallel positive affects of religion and marriage separately, and considers the intersection between marriage and religion.
[27] found four specific themes related to how religion, spirituality, and belief in God influence the divorce decision-making process:
  1. “Staying married is the right thing to do.”
  2. The dilemma of religious beliefs.
  3. Religious social network.
  4. Religious practice.
Religiosity may not predict greater marital stability across all races: a Brad Wilcox book [24] found that regular church attendance substantially reduced divorce rates for whites, but not for African Americans or Latinos. Many factors contribute to this, including emphasis placed by pastors, frequency of church attendance, etc.
[22] looked at the timing of religious attendance and divorce to account for the fact that those who are contemplating divorce may be more likely to attend services less. Controlling for this possibility, they still found that those who attended religious services were 47 percent less likely to subsequently divorce.
Some claim that religiosity is not a good indicator of marital stability: Some [8], in a longitudinal study from 1971 to 2005, have found that religion is not a good predictor of divorce (but that education and finances might be better predictors).