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How Religion Shapes Our Attitudes Toward Divorce

Does religion shape our attitudes about divorce? The obvious answer to this question would be, "of course." But what is it about religion that influences divorce?
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Beginning around 1970, most states passed "no-fault" laws for couples who wanted to get divorced. This meant that husbands and wives no longer had to prove that their spouse did something wrong such as adultery in order to get divorced. Since that time, social scientists have regularly surveyed Americans about their attitude in regards to these divorce laws. The findings have been quite consistent over the past 40 years. About half of Americans want more strict laws about divorce, about 25 percent would keep them the same and another 25 percent think that getting a divorce should be even easier.

What influences people's attitudes towards divorce?

Scientists have been exploring the factors that shape people's attitudes towards divorce. In general, we know that people who have conservative attitudes in general, married individuals, older adults (60 years and older), Whites and rural residents are more likely to believe that divorce laws should be more strict.

But what about the role of religion? Does religion shape our attitudes about divorce? The obvious answer to this question would be, "of course." But what is it about religion that influences divorce?

Two sociologists at the University of Texas at Austin recently published their findings about the way in which religion shapes attitudes towards divorce in the Journal of Family Issues. Their study was based on more than 5,000 American adults in 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006. This sample included many different ethnic, religious and educational groups. About 45 percent of the sample was married and never divorced, 29 percent were divorced and 25 percent were never married.

The study addressed three questions, and the answers are somewhat surprising.

Does religious affiliation in general matter?

First, Charles Stokes and Christopher Ellison asked the question, are people who profess to have a religious affiliation more likely to think divorce laws are too lax compared to people who are atheist or express no religious activities? They found that those with any religious affiliation, especially those who identify themselves as conservative Protestants were more likely to think that divorce laws needed to be stricter.

Do a person's views about the Bible matter?

Next, they asked if their view of the Bible matters. They were particularly interested in whether Americans who viewed the Bible as the "literal word of God" had different views than those who viewed the Bible as "inspired, but not literal" book. They hypothesized that people who viewed the Bible literally would be more likely to have more conservative views. The results indicated otherwise. Stokes and Ellison found that both groups were similar in their view that divorce laws were too lax. In short, it appears that the general belief that the Bible as an important book, either inspired or literal, did not make a difference in attitudes towards divorce.

Does church attendance matter?

Lastly, they asked if church attendance itself matters. Here they wanted to find out whether it was beliefs about religion in general or church attendance that was a better predictor of divorce beliefs. Their results indicated that church attendance was the strongest predictor of what a person thought about divorce law. Those who regularly attended church regardless of the religion were more likely to think that divorce laws should be stricter. In short, church attendance itself, not the profession of religious beliefs, was the strongest predictor of attitudes towards divorce.

So what should we make of these findings? First, it is interesting that over the last 40 years American attitudes towards divorce haven't changed. There is neither overwhelming support to make the laws stricter or more lenient. Like so many other cultural issues, we are divided. Some of the findings of this study seem obvious. Yes, those who profess any religious belief are more likely to want stricter laws about divorce. Most religions view marriage as important to the fabric of society and to the faithful. On the other hand, one might expect that those who hold a literal belief in the Bible might have had even more conservative views about divorce. This was not the case. And finally, it seems that the practice of religion through church attendance may be the critical feature in shaping these stricter views of divorce. Americans who regularly practice their faith, regardless of the type of faith, are more likely to think that divorce laws should be stricter.

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