Friday, December 08, 2006

An evaluation of Barna's divorce statistics II

(Post ten of a series on Christian divorce rates)
In the previous post, I put forth that Barna's well-publicized finding of "no-difference" for Christian divorce rates results from his using a narrow definition of Christianity. Here I replicate his type of analysis with another data set, to show the impact of this definition.

As I understand it, Barna does not give others access to his data, so I analyze data from the Midlife in the United States Study (MIDUS), from which I have previously posted data.

This study contains the following question: "Have you been "born again," that is, had a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Jesus Christ?" While not identical to Barna's criteria, it's reasonably close. It was asked of Christian respondents, and 45% of them responded "yes".

We find the following divorce rates by religious group:
1) Christians reporting a born-again experience: 36%
2) Christians not reporting a born-again experience: 34%
3) Members of other religions: 37%
4) Individuals with no religious beliefs: 52%

If we compare Group 1 versus Groups 2, 3, and 4, we would find that "born again" Christians have divorce rates of 36% and all others have 38%, and we would conclude, like Barna, that born-again Christians have similar divorce rates as others.

If, however, we compare Groups 1 & 2 to Groups 3 & 4, we would find that Christians have divorce rates of 35% and non-Christians have divorce rates of 45%--a very different finding that Barna.

This analysis supports the contention that Barna's null-findings result from his use of a "born-again" measure of Christianity, one that excludes a large group of people who define themselves as Christian. This raises the question of what type of Christians define themselves using Evangelical, "born-again" language, and I will address this in the next post.


Ryan said...

While I realize you're presenting this evidence to contrast with Barna, isn't the most reasonable division of this data groups 1-3 versus group 4? Yes, I realize it's post-hoc, but clearly somebody must hypothesize that religion generally supresses divorce -- certainly, many other religions are also anti-divorce. Eh?

Jay Livingston said...

I agree with Ryan in the above comment. What's the logic of grouping non-Christian believers with nonbelievers? If you group the Christians with the nonbelievers (especially if you had a lot of nonbelievers) and compare that group to the non-Christian believers, you could show that non-Christianity made for lower divorce rates.

The divorce rates of believers, regardless of what it is they believe in or how strongly, are similar, and they are different from the rates of nonbelievers.

brewright said...

I agree with both of you.

Comparing groups 1 vs. 2 vs. 3 vs. 4 is a logical starting point, but the data are clear that groups 1,2,3 are different from 4, and so that becomes the social fact to explain.

You comments put it very clearly.

Benjamin said...

Let me add a perspective from a specifically Christian perspective...

As a Christian (and pastor) I think that Christianity makes some unique truth claims that are not true of other religous systems and philosophies. I also believe that these differences should lead to significant--not minor--differences in behavior, etc.

I think this is where people like Barna, Sider, etc are speaking from.

If Christianity is true--and if true that would include the enormous claim that the Holy Spirit indwells, empowers, and transforms believers so that as we grow in faith and maturity our character begins to reflect more and more the character of Christ (theologically, sanctification)-- then there should be radical differences between Christians and non-Christians.

A couple of other random observations as they relate to this whoel series (not specifically this post):

1. One of the issues being raised is "what is a Christian"? How do we define the term. Is it merely a self-identification? is it defined by "showing up in thew pews" or being born into a specific cultural/ethnic context?

Defining a Christian is more complicated, for example, than defining a Jewish person. In Judaism, your are Jewish if your mother was Jewish (or went through a formal conversion, etc)--but it is pretty simple.

Christianity, on the other hand, is not can cannot be "inherited". From a Biblical perspective (I know that doesn't enter into most sociological discussions, but since I am a pastor I'll go for it) a Christian is a "follower of Jesus Christ" (aka "a disciple"). Also pretty simple. If you aren't following, you aren't a Christian. In other words, you cannot be a nominal Christian ("in name only")--because to be so is precisely to "not be a Christian at all".

So perhaps some more precise definitions of the terms from Barna, Sider, etc, would be helpful.

As a side, this is not to say that you must use evangelical language (i.e. "born again") to be a Christian; it simply implies that a Christian (of any stripe) "is known by his/her fruit".

So as we look at these issues (divorce, etc) we are really trying to empirically test "fruit".

To that end, I would be fascinated to look at empirical data in a number of areas: serving the under-resourced, financial giving as a % of income, cheating on tax returns, etc etc etc.

It would also be interesting to look at how behaviors (and thought patterns) change as one is a follower of Christ (Christian) longer. In other words, one would expect that someone who has been following Christ for 30 years would be more mature, evidencing more "fruit", etc than someone who had been a follower of Christ for 3 months.

Anyway... some random thoughts on a Sturday morning while I procrastinate finishing my sermon...

Gary said...

Benjamin said: "it simply implies that a Christian (of any stripe) 'is known by his/her fruit.'"

This is a good biblical point and it speaks to measurement issues in the sociological study of Christianity. Using the biblical dichotomy of faith vs. works, we can come up with two types of "Christianity" measurement: faith-based and works-based.

A faith-based measure would rely exclusively on individual self-report of being a "Christian" and a works-based measure would ask about being Christian and then go into the fruits of the spirit to determine how "Christian" the person really is.

The problem is, if you want to look at the effect of being Christian on something 'fruity' (such as having a healthy marriage), you can't use a fruit-based measure of Christianity. It would be a tautological measure and would guarantee the outcome of your results.

Three more observations:
1) To what extent is church attendance a fruit-based measure of Christianity? (it would seem to be highly correlated with patience and faithfulness)

2) It's neat that the bible explicitly lays out the elements that would make up a fruit-based measure of christianity.

3) I think it's pretty cool that one of the leading theories in criminology suggests that one of the fruits of the spirit (self-control) is primarily responsible for between-individual differences in delinquency and crime.