Divorce and the 'structure of family life' impact religious devotion, study finds

Posted September 27

Americans raised by divorced parents are less likely to be religiously affiliated later in life, according to a new survey from PRRI and Religion News Service.

The poll found that 35 percent of people raised in divorced homes were religiously unaffiliated later in life, compared to 23 percent of children who grew up in homes with married parents.

Divorce also had an impact on church attendance, with 21 percent of children who grew up with divorced parents reporting going to church at least once per week compared to 34 percent of people whose parents were married.

And the church attendance gap persisted even among Americans who stayed religiously affiliated as adults.

"Roughly three in 10 (31 percent) religious Americans who were brought up by divorced parents say they attend religious services at least once a week, compared to 43 percent of religious Americans who were raised by married parents," the study explains.

PRRI researcher Daniel Cox said there are many reasons behind the growth of religiously unaffiliated Americans, but stressed the "structure of family life" as a piece of the overarching puzzle.

"Americans raised by divorced parents or by parents in interfaith marriages are less likely than those brought up in two-parent or single-faith households to be religiously active as adults," Cox said.

Why family matters

As Deseret News previously reported, past research has also found that children of divorce are less likely to stay religiously affiliated.

Researcher and author Elizabeth Marquardt said in 2013 that she surveyed 1,500 young adults, finding that two-thirds of people from married families were fairly or very religious, while just over half of children of divorce said the same.

Additionally, church attendance was much higher among those who were in married families than those from divorced households.

And a Lifeway Research survey sponsored by Focus on the Family in 2015 found that 20 percent of churchgoers stopped going to church after a divorce. Their children also stop attending, with 35 percent of parents reporting that at least one of their kids who went before a divorce stopped after.

There are a variety of reasons why religious participation for teens could decrease, including scheduling issues as a result of visitation following a divorce, a feeling that religion doesn't answer questions that divorce raises — or churches that take sides after parents split, among other potential causes.

Two-thirds of people who went through a divorce also reported no one from their churches reached out during that time, as noted in a 2013 report titled, "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? Challenging the Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change." It's a study that Marquardt worked on in her role as director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Families.

In the end, churches need to be aware and engaged if they want to help stop these people from exiting the pews.

"The health and future of congregations depends upon understanding, reaching out to, and welcoming and nurturing as potential leaders those who have come of age in an era of dramatic family changes," read the report's executive summary. "The suffering felt by children of divorce may actually offer a pathway toward healing and growth, not only for themselves, but for the churches."

Unaffiliated ranks growing

Overall, the PRRI and RNS study found that 25 percent of Americans — and 39 percent of young adults — are now religious unaffiliated.

Religious affiliation — and the lack thereof — has been given increased attention since the Pew Research Center released a 2015 report finding that the share of religious unaffiliated Americans — also known as the "nones" — has increased substantially, growing from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014.

During that same time frame, the proportion of Americans calling themselves Christians decreased from 78 percent to 71 percent. It should be noted, however, that the "nones" are not necessarily nonbelievers, as they encompass a collective group of atheists, agnostics and people with no religious affiliation.

Pew found in the 2014 data that, while 3.1 percent said they were atheists and 4 percent said agnostic, a much larger percentage — 15.8 percent — selected "nothing in particular" to describe their affiliation at the time.

Still, the "nones" are on the rise. PRRI provided an overview of just how much the pool of religiously unaffiliated Americans has grown since the 1990s, noting that only 6 percent of Americans fell into the category back in 1991.

But that proportion grew to 14 percent by the end of 1999, and 20 percent by 2012; since, it has ballooned to the 25 percent now observed in the current study.

This growth means that the religiously unaffiliated are now greater in number than Catholics, white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants.

"Their growth has been a key factor in the transformation of the country over the last decade from a majority white Christian nation to a minority white Christian nation," PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones said in a statement.

Another element worth noting is that only 7 percent of unaffiliated Americans say they're actively looking for a religion to embrace, with 93 percent saying they're not on such a quest. Additionally, 53 percent of the nones say that they are neither spiritual nor religious, according to RNS.

The PRRI and RNS survey was conducted among 2,201 adult respondents via telephone interviews from July 27-Aug. 9, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

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