January 21, 2013

Divorce and the “Nones”

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By Kristin Rudolph

The “nones,” those generally between ages 18 and 30 who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” have been a frequent topic of discussion and speculation recently. From questioning what has caused a drop in religious affiliation, to examining if the trend is growing, the “nones” have been poked, prodded, and dissected over the past few months and years. Further, it is not uncommon to hear that the politicization of Christianity in the form of the “religious right” is to blame, at least in part, for young believers’ disillusionment with church.

But according to a recent Pew Forum study, “when religiously unaffiliated Americans who were raised with a religious identity are asked why they left the religion of their childhood, politicized religion seems to barely register.” And according to research reported in Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, only 14% of evangelicals report hearing politics discussed from the pulpit once a month or more.

Although we may want to isolate one cause, and it is fashionable to blame the “religious right” for American Christianity’s problems, it is not that simple. When actually interacting with and hearing the stories of those who have left the Church, it is much more common to hear that a complex mix of personal beliefs, experiences, and relationships caused a young person to question the faith of his or her childhood. Politics may play a role for some young Christians, but more often, deeply complex decisions of faith are motivated by much more personal factors.

In fact, just this week, a report from the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values titled “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith: Challenging Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change,” suggests that in examining the “nones” trend, we should look closer to home. According to the report, “when children of divorce reach adulthood, compared to those raised in intact families, they feel less religious on the whole and are less likely to be involved in the regular practice of a faith.” The report points out a striking disparity between people from “intact families,” two-thirds of whom say they are “currently a member at a house of worship,” compared with just under half of “children of divorce,” who are.

The influence of divorce on a person’s religious life in the future is more complicated than it initially appears though. The authors point out that “Some individuals from divorced families eventually become much more religious in the wake of their parents’ divorce, while others become much less.” Although there are these exceptions to the trend, and many theories about why those whose parents divorced are likely to be less religious than their peers, among sociologists studying the family, “little doubt exists about the correlation or connection.”

The religious practices and involvement of parents – particularly fathers – is a key factor affecting whether someone will remain faithful into adult life or not. Researchers speculate this is the case because grown children of divorce may be “less likely to recall finding sources of religious and spiritual guidance within their families.” According to the report, “one-third of grown children of divorce [say] their fathers encouraged them to practice a religious faith compared to about two-thirds of those from intact families.”

Overall, those who come from divorced families are “much more likely” to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” For a number of reasons, “children of divorce appear to have a more difficult time practicing their faith within the sanctuary of traditional religious institutions.”

Aside from the religious influence of parents, church clergy and congregations also play a significant role. Sadly, among those who regularly attended church or synagogue when their parents divorced, “two-thirds say that no one – neither from the clergy nor the congregation – reached out to them during their lives.”

It seems quite plausible that the Millennial generation’s distrust of religious, political, and other institutions is connected in a significant way to the prevalence of divorce and family fragmentation – especially if those in the church don’t stay involved in the lives of children whose parents divorce. Millennials tend to distance themselves from institutions in general, as they hesitate to align with a particular political party and don’t join service organizations as older generations did. They also seem to distrust the institution of marriage, and are delaying marriage, or not marrying at all.

Of course none of these trends and statistics make for a simple diagnosis of the “nones,” but the high correlation between lack of religious affiliation and divorce demands attention from the Church.


  • Mark

    Another excellent article here from Kristin.

    One important thing to remember is that the media/entertainment/academic complex is much more prone to criticize extemists on the right than those on the left. Ergo, the belief that those on the religious right have damaged Christianity is much more perception than fact. If you could approach the matter objectively I think it could be proven that just the opposite is the case.

    Liberals, whether they claim religious affilitation or not, are much more likely to avoid press scrutiny than are conservatives. Witness the media treatment of folks like Jerry Falwell vs folks like Jim Wallis (just within the recent past Wallis lied about receiving funding from George Soros–did you see that on the cover of any major newspaper?).

    What’s so ironic about this is that the political and religious left have been de facto apologists for family dysfunction for years (e.g., fatherhood is expendable, traditional marriage is outdated, etc.). And they have facilitated ever more social carnage with the policies that they endorse. No one seems to be holding them accountable.

  • Rev. Linda A. Richard

    I think you are confusing 2 different groups and trends. One is those who have left the church because of disillusionment. That group is different from those who have never been part of a church and have no interest in “religion.” We frequently come in contact with young adults whose parents never were part of the church and whose grandparents may not have been there except for weddings, funerals and an occasional Christmas Program or VBS program. The first group is not really a none. They have some background in the faith and at least a starting point for reconnecting. The latter group has no concept of what it would be like to be part of a worshiping congregation and no interest in finding out. The starting point for a true “none” of this latter group would need to include “Why?” An identified need on a personal or social level can be the opening for such a person. However- I believe your main point that we have to address the changing family is valid. I am deeply troubled by a trend whereby more and more young couples are becoming parents and maintaining some relationship with one another and the child or children but not marrying. In a recent funeral for a young child- the parents weren’t married. Both sets of grandparents had divorced and remarried. Great-grandparents were divorced. One set of Uncle-Aunt were unmarried parents of a child. While perhaps more extreme than some as a Pastor I see similar fractured families all to often. We truly need to learn to minister to a whole different kind of family. We also need to find a way to reclaim a positive model of marriage and commitment within the family.

  • J S Lang

    Mark, good points. Books by Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Shane Claiborne, and other “emergents” are truly painful to read because of the nasty way they portray evangelicals as being “too political,” which should win the Pot Calls Kettle Black award. (Btw, thanks for mentioning the Soros-Wallis connection – I learned about that from Glenn Beck.)

    The media have a knack for projecting their own left-wing prejudices onto others. The “nones” are dropping out of church? Hmm, must be those nasty overpoliticized evangelicals that are to blame. I’ve long believed this isn’t the case at all, and I’m glad there is now some solid research on this subject.

  • http://contextintn.wordpress.com/ dover1952

    One of Kristin’s key points is correct. This issue is much more complex than it might appear to be on the surface, and sorting it all out might be a job just as complex. However, with that said, I do have one simplistic notion to offer that might account for at least some of it.

    I have been married to one person for 33 years, and I come from a long line of ancestral couples who were married. In other words, to the best of my genealogical knowledge, no divorce exists on either side in the direct past generational family levels that lead down to me. As long as they are not insane, alcoholic, drugged, psychopathic, abusive, or otherwise severly troubled, a nuclear family with two at-home parents is a very stabilizing influence on children. I suspect that the extended families who lived in one huge home in the 19th century were even more stabilizing.

    As my two children were growing up, the one thing that they most feared (and they told me this) was that they would become like their hundreds of friends at school who had divorced parents. They voluntarily described these kids as feeling constantly sad, disturbed, betrayed, and emotionally tortured by their parents who had called it quits. Please let me emphasize again: sad, disturbed, betrayed, and emotionally tortured. I suspect that it was not just the fact that mom and dad had split. They were first shell-shocked from the divisive in-home warfare that led to the final split, and then the split itself was added to this problem.

    I am a student of World War II and know quite a lot about the subject. This war had a profound and life-changing impact on the people of Europe who lived through it on both sides (Western Europe and Eastern Europe). As you all know, Christianity and church attendance are very low in Europe. I suspect that the reasons for this are more complex than what I am about to state, but I have been struck over many of my six decades by one thing that people who live in Europe say over and over and over again. It is this:

    “I am no longer a Christian because of World War II. I lived through the blitz, and I later saw the devastation in other parts of Europe and the concentration camps. I cannot possibly ever believe again in a God who claims to be loving—yet would allow such horrors to befall his children.”

    You do not have to agree with that statement, and I am not asking you to do so. All I know is what I hear from these people who could no longer go to church after the war and who never took their surviving children to church. The children of divorced parents in our local schools (as my children have described them to me) sound like survivors from 10,000 homebound World War II events, and they have been forever so traumatized by the experience that they too can no longer trust in a loving God who would allow such an awful thing to happen to them within the context of what was—at one time—a loving family with two parents.

    • ? Annabella

      Dear Dover, I am much interested in what you have to say. Your
      argument is well reasoned. I, too, am a student of WWll – but I am
      older than you. I have been married 48 years. I am out of a trad-
      itional, intact – but not a Christian – home. I have been a ‘serious’
      Christian for 40 some years. My parents later became Christians.
      Let me say that I believe that if in Europe [as well as this country]
      a serious and interesting study of The Bible and it’s benefits had
      been regularly taught in the churches – instead of the cold ritual -
      and bland ‘milk’ bible that was doled out to most – people would
      have stayed with their faith and raised their children in it. Luke
      warm teaching, and the behavior it spawns, won’t get a person through
      a war much less through the trials and problems of modern life.
      I will enjoy reading your thoughts in the future.

  • http://contextintn.wordpress.com/ dover1952

    Here is just one other thought on this that I have noticed from living here in the American South for 60 years. It is my understanding that broken families and divorce among evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists here in the south are as bad or worse (frequency-wise) than they are in the population at large—or so a Southern Baptist preacher friend of mine tells me.

    The moralism and intolerance that you IRD people harp on so much here (rather than love and working through an issue with good sense and understanding) has a down side—down south. What is that? Well, I have noticed over the years that this same moralism, intolerance, and absolutism, when applied rigorously within the context of a marriage, destroys those marriages and does it quickly. Two young Christian kids get married. One starts noticing some unacceptable sin—usually begins with a tea-total husband having an occasional beer (not drunkenness)—and little tea-total wife Cindy panics in horror and streaks out the door to get a divorce lawyer before you can blink an eye—all because—”this is just not how I was raised.”

    This is what happens with normal human failure under a regime governed by strict absolutism. There is no gray area where you sit down and work through a problem. The world is either black or white. The switch is either on or off. There is either a perfectly moral marriage or a nasty divorce where you kick the sinner out of the house forever—often on the shallowest of grounds.

    • Mark

      I think you are correct in saying that the divorce rate among evangelicals is comparable to others.

      But part of the reason for that is there is more pressure among evangelicals to get married at younger ages rather than “live in sin.” People who are ill-suited to each other end up tying the knot. I don’t know how much “strict absolutism” has to do with the resultant divorces. When these (usually) kids get divorced it is very much a tragedy based on the same Christian tenets which encouraged them to marry in the first place.

      At the very least there is a moral argument being made for marriage. If you only “shack up,” which the modern Left has endorsed (except for gays, of course, who must be given the right of marriage), you are not counted among the divorce statistics when you break up (short of common law). And the kids of such unions are even more rootless, contributing more to psycho-social and economic dysfunction.

      What’s more sad is that the lower socio-economic classes are eschewing marriage at higher rates, thus sentencing their fatherless children to further economic and psychological hardship.