Which Religions are the Most Likely to Get Divorced?

If you’re a regular reader of the Maselli Warren legal blog, you may have already noticed our ongoing series about marriage risk factors.  So far, we’ve examined the pros and cons of variables like age, education, income, and health; but what about faith?  Are members of certain religions more likely to get divorced?


Divorce Rates per Identified Religion

Before we open the lid on this potentially controversial can of worms, we’d like to preface the matter by emphasizing that no single belief system is better or worse than any other. Nonetheless, you can’t argue with factual data — and that data has some trends to point out.

Atheists and Catholics Tied for Lowest Divorce Rates, Protestants at Highest Risk

People tend to throw around the “fact” that “50% of all marriages end in divorce.”  This popular myth has hooked its claws deep into the American mind, yet its claims are simply untrue.  While statistics do vary by state, age, and other factors, the baseline average rate is between 30% and 40%.

With that in mind, how do some of America’s more widely-practiced religions stack up?

The answers uncovered by the Barna Group may surprise you.  While you may doubt unbiased reporting due to the source of the information — an evangelical polling firm — Barna actually found that atheists are tied with Catholics as the two groups least likely to end their marriages, with a 21% rate. 

“We would love to be able to report that Christians are living very distinct lives and impacting the community, but… in the area of divorce rates,” admits founder George Barna, “they continue to be the same.”

Catholics and atheists tie for “first place” in terms of being low-risk groups.  More specifically, self-labeled active Catholics are 31% less likely to split up than the average rate, while nominal Catholics “in name only” are just 5% less likely.

Moving up the ladder, Barna’s averages by group totaled to:

  • Born-Again Christian: 27%
  • Jewish: 30%
  • Muslim: 31%
  • Protestant: 34%

Hands tear picture with wedding rings isolated on white background

Divorce in the Bible Belt

Like any other aspect of culture, religion is tightly interwoven with geography.  This means that divorce-by-religion can also be looked at from the angle of divorce-by-location.

As Barna’s statistics would logically dictate, the states with the highest rates also happen to be contained within the “Bible Belt” (i.e. contain the highest numbers of Protestant practitioners).  American Journal of Sociology study “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates” points to Arkansas and Alabama as especially low-scoring areas. Other states with exceptionally high rates include Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Kentucky.

(By contrast, New Jersey — a majority Catholic state, with over 3 million adherents — has one of the very lowest rates in the nation.)

According to National Marriage Project director W. Bradford Wilcox, “It’s surprising.  In some contexts in America today, religion is a buffer against divorce.  But in the conservative Protestant context, this paper is showing us that it’s not.”

But why not?  Why are members of certain groups more likely to end their marriages than others?

Family Couple Relationships Crisis Difficulties

Church Failures, Social Pressures, or a Flawed Study?

W. Bradford Wilcox chose to use the word “surprising” for a reason: many Americans associate religious faith with family cohesion and spousal devotion.  Yet the actual numbers — which place devout Catholics evenly alongside atheists and agnostics, with other groups yet further behind — would seem to suggest otherwise.  So what could be driving these relationships?

George Barna thinks that America’s Christian church is letting its constituents down as a social institution.  “The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband and wife,” he concedes, “but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages.”  Barna also says his own data brings up “questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families.”

Perhaps Barna is correct; but other theories have also been posed by experts. According to “Red States, Blue States” study author Jennifer Glass, “Starting families earlier tends to stop young adults from pursuing more education and depresses their wages, putting more strain on marriages.”  Conservative religious states also foster young (and perhaps unprepared) families in other ways.  Says Glass, “Pharmacies might not give out emergency contraception. Schools might only teach abstinence education.”

Glass’ theory does tie neatly into the fact that low-divorcing, heavily Catholic New Jersey has one of the nation’s oldest average marriage ages — and one of the country’s highest average income levels.

Of course, some people choose to simply reject the data rather than analyze its causes. Barna deserves praise for acting with integrity and standing by his findings regardless of the outcome, but others insist his facts and figures cannot be accurate.  According to David Popenoe, National Marriage Project founder, “It just stands to reason that the bond of religion is protective of marriage, and I believe it is.”

Tom Ellis of the Southern Baptist Convention doubts the sincerity of Barna’s subjects, particularly those of the born-again variety. Ellis states, “We believe that there is something more to being a Christian…  Just saying you are [born-again] Christian is not going to guarantee that your marriage is going to stay together.”

In closing, Barna has this much to say:

“Faith has had a limited affect on people’s behavior, whether related to moral convictions and practices, relational activities, lifestyle choices or economic practices.”

At the end of the day, we are all human — and anyone can leave a marriage.

If you’re thinking about filing for divorce in New Jersey, the family law firm of Maselli Warren can aid you in matters of child custody, alimony, property division, and more. To schedule a free and confidential legal consultation with an experienced divorce lawyer, call our law offices at (800) 891-2657.  You can also contact us online.