The XX Factor

Don’t Stay Married Just So Your Kids Can Have Jesus

Nothing bad happens if you skip this part of childhood.

Photo by MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

Conservative family life researchers Elizabeth Marquardt, Amy Ziettlow and Charles E. Stokes, backed by the religiously-minded Lilly Endowment and Center for Marriage and Families, have recently put together a compendium of research papers on faith and family called “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?” The big finding of paper is that there’s a strong correlation between being non-religious and being a child of divorce. 

We have learned that when children of divorce reach adulthood, compared to those who grew up in intact families they feel less religious on the whole and are less likely to be involved in the regular practice of a faith. In one national study, two-thirds of people from married parent families, compared to just over half of children of divorce, say they are very or fairly religious, and more than a third of people from married parent families currently attend religious services almost every week compared to just a quarter of people from divorced families.

The research doesn’t suggest that divorce causes children to lose their faith in a bout of bitterness over having two Christmases. The researchers say that the “greatest predictor of the religious lives of youth remains the religious lives of their parents,” suggesting that the drop-off in faith has more to do with divorced parents being less likely to take their kids to church every week. As Amy Ziettlow goes on to explain at Family Scholars

In my observation, many divorcing parents who are emotionally absent, in shock, or spend hours working to support their family, may not have the physical energy to take their children to church. If they take them to church they may not have the spiritual stamina to disciple their children in the home.

I find it simultaneously amusing and disturbing how assured the researchers are that people like myself—I’m both a “child of divorce” and an outright atheist—are a problem to be fixed. To read this paper, you’d think non-believing children of divorce are the walking wounded, barely able to make it through the day. Words like “schism,” “rupture,” and “alienated” abound, and the study’s authors warn that even having an amicable divorce leaves your child in danger of blowing off church, which we are meant to believe is a very dire fate indeed.

I’d like to offer an alternative perspective. While no one enjoys a divorce and the process often leaves children feeling sad and confused for a time, of all the possible ill effects, losing interest in religion is by far the least worrisome. For some of us, that’s an unexpected bonus! As Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman noted in the Washington Post, the non-religious are a pretty great group of people: 

A growing body of social science research reveals that atheists, and non-religious people in general, are far from the unsavory beings many assume them to be. On basic questions of morality and human decency—issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights—the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious.

This leads to the obvious question: Should you get divorced in order to make your children better people? What a good parent you are for asking, but, no, of course not: There are easier ways to get the benefits of being non-religious to your children than going through a divorce. You could, for instance, simply not bother taking your kids to church in the first place and give them coloring books about evolution to play with on the weekends instead. But if you do find yourself in a bad marriage and are worried about the negative effects of ending it, don’t hold off because you believe your kids need religion. The unchurched are doing just fine, thank you very much.