A survey taken back in 1999 found that Christians were more likely to be divorced than atheists. According to this survey, 27% of born-again Christians have been divorced, compared to only 21% of atheists.
Atheists were very excited by these results. A Google search easily turned up a long list of web sites by atheists or secularists quoting these statistics and commenting on their implications. Just for example:
Typical is this comment from atheism.about.com:
[Christians don't] take the further step of acknowledging that perhaps conservative Christianity and conservative religion in general are unable to provide a sound basis for marriage — that perhaps there are other, more secular foundations for marriage that conservative Christians are missing. What might they be? Well, an obvious possibility is treating women like fully autonomous equals in the relationship, something which conservative Christianity frequently denies.
The difference in divorce rates is particularly interesting given the fact that the Christians getting divorced in the highest numbers are among the same Christians who are most likely to raise an alarm about the state of marriage in society. They also tend to be the same Christians who want to deny gays the right to marry on the assumption that gay marriage is a "threat" to the institution of marriage. If marriage is in any danger in America, perhaps the threat comes from the unstable marriages of conservative Christians, not the relationships of gays or the marriages of godless atheists.
But amidst all this self-congratulation, the atheists skim over one important point: The statistics don't prove what they seem to think they prove.
The 27% / 21% is not the percentage of Christian marriages that ended in divorce versus atheist marriages that ended in divorce. It is the percentage of people in each group who have ever been divorced. But in order to be divorced, someone must first be married. Surely the question here is what percentage of marriages end in divorce.
I couldn't find the raw data for this study to see if they could answer that question. But I did find another study that gave rates on marriage by religion: The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey. They use a different system of classification so the numbers are not entirely comparable. They don't have a category for "atheists", but they do list "No religion", which is probably a fairly large overlap. They also list several specific denominations separately from "Evangelical / Born again". For example, they list Baptists separately. It is likely that many Baptists would call themselves born-again.
So here's an excerpt from their chart:
So according to ARIS, 58 + 12 + 8% of Baptists have ever been married, or 78%. So for every 100 Baptists, 78 have been married, and 12 of those are divorced. 12 out of 78 = 15% are divorced.
Of those identified as evangelicals, 74 + 7 + 3 have ever been married, or 84%. So for every 100 evangelicals, 84 have ever been married, and 7 of those are divorced. 7 out of 84 = 8% are divorced.
Of those with no religion, 19 + 9 + 6 have ever been married, or 34%. Sor for every 100 non-believers, 34 have been married, and 9 of those are divorced. 9 out of 34 = 26% are divorced.
That is, atheists are almost twice as likely to end a marriage with divorce as are Baptists and over 3 times as likely as generic evangelicals.
Atheists have a lower divorce rate because they don't get married to begin with. The ARIS numbers indicate that atheists are far more likely to just live together without getting married. Quite a few also remain single. Whether that means that they engage in a series of one-night stands, or that they live in celibacy, I have no way to know. We could debate whether living together or having casual sex is a good or bad thing. But clearly to boast that your group rarely get divorced is not much of a boast when the reason is because you rarely get married to begin with.
A possible objection to my analysis above is that someone could be "divorced at least once" and "currently married" at the same time. Namely, if they remarried after a divorce. The ARIS survey did not identify who was divorced in the past in cases where the person remarried. It's tricky to combine numbers from two different surveys. Especially in a case like this, where they are clearly not using the same classification. But for what it's worth, let's try. Let's pair up the ARIS marriage rates with the Barna divorce rates. Then we'd say that of the 84% of Baptists who married at least once, 27% have been divorced at least once. 27 out of 84 = 32%. Of the 34% of atheists who have been married at least once, 21% have been divorced at least once. 21 out of 34 = 62%. That is, the atheists are about twice as likely to have at least one divorce as the Christians. That's consistent with what I concluded above.
Let me emphasize that I'm not saying that a 32% divorce rate is anything to be proud of.
Disclaimers: I am a born-again Christian, and I am divorced. And I think divorce sucks big time. I believe it was G. K. Chesterton who said that there are bad marriages, but there are no good divorces.
May 22, 2011.