The old adage “the family that prays together stays together” is statistically sound, according to a new study by a Harvard University professor.
Couples who attend religious services are 47 percent less likely to subsequently divorce than other couples, according to a study on religious service attendance, marriage and health by Tyler J. VanderWeele, an epidemiology professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
While a number of previous studies have shown that those who attend religious services are about 30 to 50 percent less likely to divorce than those who do not, critics say it is possible the numbers are skewed because people contemplating divorce may be more likely to stop attending church.
VanderWeele said the Harvard study was able to control for that possibility by looking at the timing of changes in religious service attendance.
In addition to greater marital stability, the study found a correlation between church attendance and better health outcomes including longer life, lower incidence of depression and less suicide.
VanderWeele speculated that attending religious services reinforces the idea that marriage is something sacred. Religious teachings also censure divorce and discourage adultery, one of the strongest predictors of divorce.
Religious institutions offer various types of family support, and studies find that people who attend church are generally happier and have a greater sense of meaning in life, factors generally associated with greater marital satisfaction and lower divorce.
“Religion is, of course, not principally about promoting physical health or decreasing the likelihood of divorce but about communion with God,” VanderWeele said. “However, it turns out that the pursuit of this goal also has profound implications for numerous other aspects of life, including health and marriage.”
VanderWeele said religion might be understood “as the pursuit of complete human well-being: physical, mental, social and spiritual.”
“Religion is about both communion with God and the restoration of all people to their intended state of complete wholeness and well-being,” he said. “The evidence suggests that it can indeed accomplish both.”
“The family that prays together stays together” phrase is attributed to Patrick Peyton, a Roman Catholic priest who used it as a slogan for his Family Theater of the air radio program that ran 22 years and at one point reached 5 million weekly listeners.