Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Prevailing beliefs about Christian divorce rates

(Post two of a series on Christian divorce rates)

For several years now I have heard from various sources that Christians divorce at the same rates as non-Christians, and based on a non-scientific sample of several pastors & various websites, I think that is the prevailing, albeit saddening, wisdom.
This belief traces most directly to the work of George Barna--a researcher with a background in marketing and polling who collects data on various facets of Christianity. In what I think is his latest report on the topic, in 2004, Barna writes:

Although many Christian churches attempt to dissuade congregants from getting a divorce, the research confirmed a finding identified by Barna a decade ago (and further confirmed through tracking studies conducted each year since): born again Christians have the same likelihood of divorce as do non-Christians. Among married born again Christians, 35% have experienced a divorce. That figure is identical to the outcome among married adults who are not born again: 35%.

These and similar statistics produced by Barna have reverberated throughout Christianity, with commentators writing that they send "Christian leaders scrambling for answers" and leave believers "disturbed." Perhaps most prominently, Ron Sider, well-known Christian author, used these statistics for his "stinging jeremiad" (a great phrase, no?) against the Evangelical church in America for living "just like the rest of the world."

When I first heard of these statistics, I had trouble believing them because I was aware of how much emphasis the Christian church put on marriage. Surely this teaching and training had to have some effect? At a personal level, I count the instruction and support received from Christian friends as a major reason that I'm still married, and I've seen the same with others.

So, a few months ago I started looking at data on this issue. First, however, I had to figure out what type of comparisons should be made. That will be the topic of tomorrow's post, and then on Thursday I will start presenting data.


Benjamin said...

Thanks Brad for doing this series. Often I think stats get quoted and thrown around without much grounding. I'm looking forward to what you discover and then thinking through the implications pastorally and from a church/ministry perspective.

Knumb said...


I'd think 35% would be low the U.S. adult population as a whole.

I would also think that 35% would be high for born-again Christians.

I look forward to your findings.

Markus Watson said...

Sounds like it'll be an interesting series! I'm looking forward to it! I suspect that the place we really need to help people (in terms of avoiding divorce) is before they get married. But I'm looking forward to what you find!

Corey said...

I've always wondered how robust the measure "born again" is as predictor. If I recall, the Barna group simply asks respondents if they're born again or if they've accepted Christ as their personal savior (along with some supplemental questions investigating theological beliefs). For a study that seeks to isolate the effect of being born-again on some outcome measure, I think that a behavioral scale is a more valid indicator of "born-again-ness". E.g., belief in the inerrant word of God, combined with traditional religiosity measures (frequency of church attendance, prayer, and so forth). This strategy seperates out the cultural free-riders from the committed.

Does anyone know if Barna releases microdata?

Anonymous said...

Incidentally - Barna and folks like him are what drove me into grad school in sociology. i got so tired of statistics left to stand on their own with no description of how they arrived at them, and was so full of quesitons i wanted to learn how to do it better. Seriously. It's virtually impossible to critically examine some of the things presented in "pop-religion" books. They could be right. They could be wrong. The problem i always had was how difficult it was to figure that out...you just had to accept or reject it based on reputation, and that wasn't good enough for me.

Along those lines, no, Barna does not release their data. At least not in response to several of my requests.

brewright said...

Interesting questions about Barna's data. I'll be posting about his findings next week, but I agree with the last two comments that there might be better (or at least different) of measuring Christian faith than Barna uses.

As far as data release, I understand why he wouldn't want to. He's running a soft-money sho the relies on his data to pay the bills, so he has strong disincentive for sharing them

Thanks for posting,


Corey said...

Brad wrote:

He's running a soft-money so he relies on his data to pay the bills, so he has strong disincentive for sharing them.

This is undoubtedly true. But, what's the monetary advantage to not releasing (or selling) polling microdata 1 year after the release of his last report?

Whatever its limitations, Barna's polling data go back many years and is the best source for scholars to study change over time. Allowing broader access to the microdata would pay dividends to Barna... (Of course, I spent 4 years working at ICPSR and am biased toward data sharing.

I just poked around at the ARDA website (an archive of religion data at Penn State) and the pickings are slim.

brewright said...

Hello Corey,

Yes, I too like shared data, and I benefit from it greatly.

I didn't know that you were at ICPSR. How cool!