Study questions divorce's impact on faith

A new study says adults whose parents were divorced are more likely to disassociate themselves from institutional religions, but a step parent can help fill the void.

By Bob Allen

A Baylor sociology professor says research linking parental divorce to rising numbers of young adults identified as “spiritual but not religious” or the “nones” may be overstated.

jeremy ueckerJeremy Uecker, an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor, and co-researcher Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas in San Antonio say that factors like parents’ religiosity and post-divorce family structure account for much of the data showing that children of divorce are statistically more likely to be religiously unaffiliated as adults.

In a paper titled “Parental Divorce, Parental Religious Characteristics, and Religious Outcomes in Adulthood” published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the two professors say previous studies failed to account for factors like whether the parents hold different faiths or are simply not religious. Because those kinds of couples are more likely to divorce, they say it should come as no surprise that offspring of those unions are more likely to switch religions or disaffiliate.

They also note that while adults who live with a single parent during their formative years are more likely to disaffiliate than those who live with continuously married parents, the same does not hold true if a step parent enters the picture. That, they say, suggests that the eventual loss of religiosity has less to do with divorce than the lack of religious socialization that occurs with a single parent.

The professors find modest evidence that the religious effects of living in a single-parent family are greatest when both parents are religiously active, suggesting anger at God or loss of respect for the parents’ religion.

The researchers say the main reason parental divorce affects religious outcomes is that parents are usually considered the primary source of religious training for children. If one of those parents is absent, it can create problems for a single parent – usually the mother – like the logistics of getting her kids to church.

The stigma of divorce may also be uncomfortable for single moms trying to fit in at church no longer as part of a couple. A parent’s bitterness about divorce can be projected onto children, who, particularly in religious homes, probably grew up believing their parents’ marriage was ordained by God.

The study says that entering a step family can compensate for most of those factors, especially if religion is important to the step parent. A step child is more likely to switch faiths, primarily because adults bring their own religious traditions into the relationship.

While growing up in a single-parent home influences church attendance, the researchers say they found no significant effect of divorce on private spiritual life, such as prayer. In fact, respondents who grew up with one Protestant and one Catholic parent are more likely to pray daily than those with two parents adhering to the same religious tradition.

Uecker and Ellison say their findings have two major implications for understanding the effects of parental divorce on the religious outcomes of adults.

“First, they suggest that the previously documented effect of being raised in a single-parent family on religious outcomes in adulthood is overstated,” they write. “At least some of this relationship instead appears to be the effect of parental religious characteristics.”

Second, the professors say, the “loss of religious socialization” appears to be the main mechanism that drives children of divorce toward losing their faith, but that void can largely be filled by a step parent.

The professors say their findings do not speak to the short-term consequences of parental divorce.

“The emotional effects or feelings of sacred loss may well be felt and consequential during childhood and adolescence,” they write. “In the long run, however, these emotional responses are less consequential.”

Uecker, a graduate of Furman University with a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, joined Baylor’s sociology department in 2012. His research and teaching interests include religion, family, sexual behavior and the transition to adulthood. In 2011, he co-authored the book Premarital Sex in America: How Young Adults Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying with University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus.