When conservative evangelical Christians complain about the decline of morals in America, the growth of divorce over the decades is often cited as evidence or pulled out as the consequence. There's just one problem with this: divorce rates are generally higher among Christians than they are among atheists. In fact, divorce rates for atheists are lower than the national average, so if divorce is a sign or symptom of immorality, then atheists should qualify as being more moral than average and perhaps more moral than the average Christian.
So why do evangelical Christians also regularly accuse atheists of lacking a solid foundation for morality? This contradiction points to a clear problem in the position which these Christians are defending, but it's a contradiction that's been known for a long time now and so far none seem to have cared enough to try to resolve it.
Divorce Rates in America
The Barna Research Group, an evangelical Christian organization that does surveys and research to better understand what Christians believe and how they behave, studied divorce rates in America in 2007-2008 and learned that divorce rates weren't quite what they expected. With a margin of error of ±1.6%, they came up with the following divorce rates for various demographic groups:
All born again Christians: 32%
All non born again Christians: 33%
Evangelical Christians: 26%
Non-evangelical born again Christians: 33%
Notional Christians: 33%
Non-Christian Faith: 38%
Atheist or agnostic: 30%
George Barna commented on the study:
"There no longer seems to be much of a stigma attached to divorce; it is now seen as an unavoidable rite of passage. Interviews with young adults suggest that they want their initial marriage to last, but are not particularly optimistic about that possibility. There is also evidence that many young people are moving toward embracing the idea of serial marriage, in which a person gets married two or three times, seeking a different partner for each phase of their adult life."
Most of the differences in the study above are either within or close to the margin of error, which means that there may not be as much of a difference as there initially appears to be. Earlier studies conducted by Barna showed greater differences, with evangelical Christians reporting higher rates of divorce and atheists reporting lower rates of divorce.
In that earlier study, the highest divorce rates were in the Bible Belt: "Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma round out the Top Five in frequency of divorce...the divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average" of 4.2/1000 people. This is the region most commonly associated with higher rates of religiosity in genreal and of Christianity in particular. Nine states in the Northeast (Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Maryland) reported the lowest divorce rates, averaging just 3.5/1000 people. This is the region associated with with lower rates of religiosity and higher rates of secularism.
Divorce and Morality
The obvious question is whether higher divorce rates really are symptom or sign of immorality in the first place. For a long time, divorce was impossible or very difficult to obtain in America. Most religious groups opposed divorce in all but the most extreme circumstances — even if a woman was beaten regularly by her husband, clergy would counsel her to learn how to better submit in order to avoid the abuse.
Conservative Christians argued that divorce laws should be tightened, not relaxed; that marriage was a religious rather than a legal issue; that the law should be used to defend religious tradition as they defined it; that divorced people should be treated like criminals; and they argued for greater social censure and ostracism for those who get divorced anyway.
Divorce rates started increasing in America when divorce was made easier to obtain — largely because because women were finally able to escape unhappy marriages, at least at first. Today both men and women seem to avail themselves of the option fairly equally.
Conservative Christians no longer express quite so much concern with divorce — certainly not as they do with issues like abortion and homosexuality, even though the Bible has a lot more to say about divorce than the other two. Regardless, the underlying problem with all three seems to be the same: restricting women to particular familial, social, and cultural roles which are subordinated to the authority and control of men.
Divorce, Secularism, and Religion
As with earlier studies, this one reveals that atheists get divorced at lower rates than the national average and at lower rates than most Christian groups. At the same time, atheists also express less interest in having a single marriage partner in their lives. This may only make atheists more careful before getting married rather than more likely to get divorced, but it is a potential contradiction.
The question is raised, though, as to why atheists and agnostics would have lower divorce rates than most other groups. Is there something about American Christianity which makes it harder to stay in a marriage? Could it be that a marriage where one or both people are less religious is easier to maintain in the modern world?