Friday, December 08, 2006

An evaluation of Barna's divorce statistics I

(Post nine of a series on Christian divorce rates)

Do Christians have lower divorce rates than non-Christians? The answer to this question depends on who is defined to be Christian.

There are four relevant religious categories here:
1) Self-identified Christians who describe their faith in terms of “personal commitment” “accept as savior” and other evangelical, born-again language.
2) Self-identified Christians who do not describe their faith with these terms.
3) Members of other, non-Christian religions.
4) People of no religious beliefs.

George Barna compares group 1 (whom he terms “born-again” Christians) versus groups 2, 3, and 4 (whom he terms “non-born again Christian” and “non-Christian”), and he finds no difference.

In a 2004 study, Barna used these two criteria to define respondents as “born again" Christians:

“people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.”

Approximately 41% (1,468 of 3,615) of his sample fit the “born-again” criteria, and they had divorce rates of 35%. The remaining 59% had divorce rates of 35% leading part to summarize: “Christians Have Same Incidence of Divorce.”

In contrast, my analyses compared groups 1 and 2 versus groups 3 and 4, and I found a consistent difference (though it’s due almost entirely to the high divorce rates of group 4).

This offers a simple explanation of Barna's findings: He is comparing Christians against Christians.

Here’s what I mean. Members of group 2 presumably include many Catholics and mainline Protestants who, though devoted followers of Christ, do not describe themselves with the Evangelical language of Barna’s criteria.

Data from the General Social Survey (2000-2004) indicate that about 70% of Americans affiliate with a Christian denomination. This suggests that about half of Barna’s comparison group (i.e., (70%-41%)/59) think of themselves as Christian. Barna lumps them with people of other religions and people of no religion. These group 2 members, especially Catholics, have low rates of divorce, so putting them in the “non-Christian” comparison group substantially changes the comparison.

Next: An evaluation of Barna's divorce statistics II


Knumb said...

I did not know of Barna before this series of yours and from what I have read, my fingers aren't motivated as far as typing "goog," much less the "le" and all that follows, to look him up.

I do have a question about his definition. Does anyone know when "Repenting of your sins and asking Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior" became the Only Way to Become a Christian©™®¾ (in the minds of many Christians)?

Corey said...

Knumb asked:

"Does anyone know when "Repenting of your sins and asking Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior" bacame the Only Way to Become a Christian (in the minds of many Christians)".

My hunch (at one time hypothesis):

Through the Billy Graham Crusades. Billy Graham's style of evangelism was institutionalized through the broadcasting and print media. His framework of personal salvation by a personal God through the sinners prayer was qualitatively unique compared to the evangelists that came before him (e.g., Billy Sunday, where the focus was more on salvation to prevent damnation).

I was working on a research project focused on this question about a decade ago and spent some time in the Graham Center at Wheaton College. Beyond some initial reading though this hypothesis is still in need of thorough revision and testing. Someday I hope to have tenure so I can get back to it.

Gary said...

So essentially this is a measurement issue. How does one measure being "christian?" Barna's method is consistent with a "born-again" evangelical perspective. According to this perspective, there are two kinds of people in the world: those "born-again" and headed to heaven, and those not "born-again" and headed to hell. From this perspective, it makes perfect sense to compare those "born-again" to all others, and Barna seemed to show (I haven't read the original) that self-identifying as "born-again" has no effect on divorce. I'd say Barna's result is still valid, it's just been widely misrepresented.

brewright said...

John & Corey, intresting ideas about the history of this conversion concept. I read a biography from the late 1800s where the defining conversion moment was "thanking God" for his son's death.

brewright said...

Gary, I like how you phrase it... it get's at issues of operationalization. The misrepresented aspect of his findings, though, are partially Barna's responsibility with his varying labels for the comparison group.

Also, I love the baby-name link on your site and have put it on mine. Very good!

Gary said...

The baby name site I got from the Freakonomics blog. Very cool site indeed!

Gary said...

Here's a way to blow your mind on the baby name voyager. Enter and delete the vowels to see trends in names starting in A, E, I, O, and U.

Knumb said...

whoa! freakonomics has a blog?

I love that book.

As far as baby names go, there are some lulus out there. err. Not Lulus, lulus.

brewright said...

Your comments, John, Corey, and especially Gary, made me rethink how I was framing my evaluation of Barna's work, so I rewrote the post to bring in your feedback. I changed it enough that I just reposted it & will add another post or two about Barna.

Thank you for the feedback!

Ron said...

I don't know if this thread is still active, but it made me wonder about other factors like socioeconomic status and education, because the "black" population comparatively had such high divorce rates. Were such factors controlled for? The evangelical churches in America might have some interesting demographics these days?

Brad Wright said...

Hello Ron,

Good question..

I'm just presenting mean levels for groups, but some of the analysis control for race somewhat by analyzing black protestants separately.