Making Marriage Last – Do Atheists Do It Better?

Old couple cartoonConservative Christians think of themselves as the last line of defense for a time honored and holy tradition, marriage. In the conservative Christian view, marriage is a sacred union ordained by God. It binds one man and woman together so that the “two become one flesh” until they are parted by death.

This view of marriage is unbiblical, to be sure. See Captive Virgins, Polygamy, Sex Slaves: What Marriage Would Look Like If We Actually Followed The Bible. But hey, who actually reads the Bible? Surely, what God meant to say, is that marriage should take the form that is most familiar and traditional to us: One male plus one female who is given to the male by her father–that part is biblical–for life.

In this worldview, Christian marriage is under assault by an anti-trinity of powerful and dark forces: feminism, homosexuality, and godlessness. Faith, on the other hand, saves both souls and marriages. When I was young, a slogan made its way around my church, The family that prays together stays together. Dr. Tom Ellis, former chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council on the Family boldly claimed that “…born-again Christian couples who marry…in the church after having received premarital counseling…and attend church regularly and pray daily together… experience only 1 divorce out of nearly 39,000 marriages.”

But then came data. According to Barna research over a decade ago, American divorce rates were highest among Baptists and nondenominational “Bible-believing” Christians and lower among more theologically liberal Christians like Methodists, with atheists at the bottom of the divorce pack. When the findings were made public, George Barna took some heat, and Ellis suggested that maybe he had sampled badly. Perhaps some people who called themselves born again had never really devoted their lives to Christ. But Barna held his ground, saying, “We rarely find substantial differences” [in the moral behavior of Christians and non-Christians].

Fancy that.

In 2008, Barna again sampled Americans about divorce rates. The numbers fluctuated a bit, but once again atheists came out painfully good from a prays-together-stays-together perspective. Thirty percent reported being ever divorced, roughly equivalent to thirty-two percent of born-again Christians. Slicing the U.S. by region, the Bible belt has the highest divorce rate, and this has been the case for over a decade, with the institution of marriage faring better in those dens of blue-state iniquity to the north and west.

What is going on? Even some secularists are puzzled. Churches provide strong communities for families. Many offer marital counseling and parenting classes. Love, they say, is a commitment, not a feeling. God hates divorce. They leverage moral emotions in the service of matrimony: a righteous sense of purity rewards premarital abstinence and post-marital monogamy—replaced by guilt and shame when nonmarital sex is unveiled or a marriage dissolves. Couples who split may find themselves removed from leadership positions or even ostracized. On the face of it, even if there were no God, one might expect this combination to produce lower divorce rates.

The reality, however, appears complex. Churches do honor and support marriage. They also may inadvertently promote divorce, especially—ironically—those churches which most bill themselves as shining lights in a dark world.

To prevent that greatest-of-all-evils, abortion, such communities teach even high school students to embrace surprise pregnancies as gifts from God. They encourage members to marry young so they won’t be tempted to fornicate. But women who give birth or marry young tend to end up less educated and less financially secure, both of which are correlated with higher divorce rates.

After marriage, some congregations, like those in the “quiver-full movement” encourage couples to leave family planning in God’s hands. Leaders echo the chauvinistic beliefs of Church fathers like St. Augustine and Martin Luther or the Bible writers: Women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (1 Timothy 2:15). Such teachings grow congregations, literally, from the nursery up, but the very same attitudes that help to fill church pews can erode marital bliss. Ample research shows that for couples under age 30 marital satisfaction declines with the birth of each child. (Parenting tends to make couples happier only after age 40, when kids become more independent, and only in countries with comparatively weak social supports for aging adults.)

Secular couples increasingly see both marriage and divorce as personal choices. Overall, a lower percent get married, which means that those who do may be particularly committed or well-suited to partnership. They are likely to be older if/when they do formally tie the knot. They have fewer babies, and their babies are more likely to be planned. Parenting, like other household responsibilities, is more likely to be egalitarian rather than based on the traditional model of “male headship.” Each of these factors could play a role in the divorce rate.

But a bigger factor may be economics, pure and simple. In the words of some analysts, marriage is becoming a luxury good, with each partner, consciously or subconsciously looking for someone who will pull their weight financially and declining to support one who won’t. “The doctor used to marry the nurse,” says Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “Today the doctor marries the doctor.” Sixty percent of college educated women get married, as compared to fifty percent of women who hold only high school degrees or lower. Couples who stay married also tend to be wealthier than those who divorce. In Barna’s 2008 sample, couples with an income of less than $20,000 a year broke up almost twice as often as those earning $75,000 or more (39 percent vs 22 percent). Advocates who want to promote traditional marriage might do well to foster broad prosperity.

Even if they did, though, they might be swimming upstream. In 1960, almost three quarters of American adults were married; by 2008 that number had fallen to a half. The difference came from a combination of two factors—more divorce and more people who had never married. The concept of family isn’t becoming less important, but Americans are more and more flexible in how we define  the term. Over 80 percent say that a single parent living with a child or an unmarried couple with a child is a family. Over 60 percent say that a gay couple with a child is a family. A growing number say that marriage is obsolete.

In one of those peculiar twists of fate, conservative Christian obsessions with abortion and sexual purity may be accelerating this trend. Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, authors of Red State, Blue State, propose that Bible-belt opposition to abortion has increased the non-marital birthrate and acceptance of single parent families:

The working class had long dealt with the inconvenient fact of an accidental pregnancy through the shotgun marriage. As blue-collar jobs paying a family wage have disappeared, however, so has early marriage. Women are then left with two choices: They can delay childbearing (which might entail getting an abortion at some point) until the right man comes along or get more comfortable with the idea of becoming single mothers. College-educated elites have endorsed the first option, but everyone else is drifting toward the second.

Conservative Christians thought they could have it all by promoting abstinence until marriage. But virginity pledges and abstinence only education have failed. If anything, they have once again accelerated the trend, leaving Christian leaders fumbling for answers. Some hope that more flexible, egalitarian roles for Christian wives and husbands may be the answer. Others think that doubling down on traditional gender roles is where it’s at. Either way, gone is the bravado that once proclaimed marital salvation by faith alone. “Marriages and families within faith communities are no healthier than in the rest of society,” concedes Christian author Jonathan Merritt. “Faith communities must provide support systems to salvage damaged marriages.” Whether the institution of marriage itself can or should be salvaged is, perhaps, a question none of us are prepared to answer.

Do atheists do it better? That is unlikely. Divorce rate differences between theists and nontheists tend to depend on how you slice the demographic pie, and for both groups, the shape of marriage itself is changing. As culture evolves, we’re all in uncharted territory together.   ——————–

Losing Your Religion – Keeping Your Spouse  (Youtube)
15 Bible Texts Reveal Why “God’s Own Party” is at War with Women
Captive Virgins, Polygamy, Sex Slaves: What Marriage Would Look Like if We Actually Followed the Bible
What Christianity and Kink Have in Common

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Subscribe at

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Musings & Rants: Christianity and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Making Marriage Last – Do Atheists Do It Better?

  1. syrbal-labrys says:

    I’ve known women of faith who realized, somewhat suddenly, that the didn’t like the image of conservative religious marriage. When finding themselves told that their education was “really only to provide hunting ground for a GOOD man” they were insulted. Some married anyway, not sure what to do instead; but they didn’t stay married unless they were too economically down to get out.


  2. Great article, Valerie! Nice to get some solid stats put together with sensible analysis as to what’s going on, both in “secular” and in Christian family life. As a former marriage and family counselor and still a close observer/student of American Christianity, I find it all to make sense, fit with what I’d learned and experienced in the counseling field, as well as in church ministry.

    Perhaps one of the key things for Evangelicals to face up to is that merely holding Christian faith (as generally defined by them) even combined with being involved in a church community does not automatically help one better negotiate the challenges of married and family life. However, if and when a given church or denomination provides quality training, support, etc., perhaps through established non-theological programs like Marriage Encounter, it CAN be a substantial help for marriages in that community.

    And churches definitely need to loosen up and “wise up” on the concept of what God “ordained” as to marriage if they hope to be of practical help beyond the dwindling percentage of couples in the “biblical” mode. Oh… and as a subset, I’d include the need for the “complementarians” to listen better to the “egalitarians” in their midst… accept that the idea of “hierarchy” or God’s “chain of command” is just as much Persian/Greek/Roman as it is Christian (i.e., per ancient “household codes”).


  3. Reblogged this on Natural Spirituality – Loving Forum for Spiritual Harmony & Growth and commented:
    If you have any interest in the relation between Christian faith (or religion in general) and getting/staying married this article is a must read. There are many misconceptions afloat about this area. My experience as a marriage and family counselor years ago, while I was in the Evangelical fold, tells me everything here, from cited statistics to Valerie’s analysis, is correct and important information. Enjoy reading!


  4. Published at AlterNet:

    I have to reprint this comment from one of the Alternet readers:

    Dcordell: One of my best friends met her husband through their church, and although they were from wildly divergent cultures, the sexual heat between them was palpable. But because they were religious, god forbid that they should have sex without being married. So they did.

    The result: 10 years of a tumultuous marriage,including physical abuse. 3 kids – one after each “reconciliation”. All of the equity in their home spent on attorneys’ fees during their divorce. Over 50 court appearances. Bitter disputes, accusations and fighting over their 3 (smart & beautiful) kids. Involvement of children’s services. They were so toxic to one another that I was the “buffer” for when the kids saw their dad – she’d drop them off, leave, he’d pick them up, then reverse the process at the end of the day.

    The judge’s decision after one of the endless child custody hearings started out with the statement: “This is the kind of case that blows the fuses of the family law system. Suffice it to say that it either parent had died 5 years ago these children would be perfectly fine.”

    30 years later my friend admitted to me what all of the rest of us had known from day one: “Instead of getting married, we should have gotten a room and fucked our brains out for 6 months.”

    No shit. Thank religion.


    • B- says:

      That parallels my marriage and now pending divorce (not quite as extreme, but pretty rough). I was just telling my therapist recently that I don’t know if we would have gotten married without the religious guilt element about sex. I’m grateful for two wonderful children. But, I find myself wishing there actually were going to be some cosmic judgment that would rectify what I’ve suffered due to christian fundamentalism.


      • I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I understand that desire for cosmic justice. Since we can’t get it, I just keep working to undermine the power of bibliolatry to do harm.


  5. P Smith says:

    What a load of codswallop, or should I say, godswallop. It’s not about what atheists do better, it’s about what atheists don’t do. Atheists don’t have the absolute certainty that religions claim from “gods”. Atheists can’t do the self-rationalization that the religious do.

    Dr. Volkan Topalli’s (Georgia State University) study on crime and religious rationalization applies as much to power struggles within a marriage. It’s about getting what one wants at the expense of others, about justifying one’s own desires by the use of religion. The high rates of domestic abuse and philandering amongst the most conservative christians (e.g. “promise keepers”, “quiverfull” types, other fundamentalists) are indicative of that.

    When one has to think about what others want as much as ones own desires, when one accepts that each person is responsible for his or her own actions, it creates less friction. A person may not get what he or she wants, but a show of cooperation will usually be reciprocated. A demand for capitulation will always be rejected…unless the one demanding capitulation is willing to be violent, which is what happened in the example of a failed marriage that you gave.

    And that’s without mention of the fact that people will have different religious views. Barna failed to investigate or differentiate the rates of divorce where religious views were the same (e.g. baptist and baptist) or where they were different (e.g. catholic and protestant). Even when two have the same religion, there are going to be differences in dogma and inevitable arguments.


  6. Geek Goddess says:

    When I was going to church as a young-ish wife and mother (late 20s, early 30s), our conservative Lutheran pastor would publicly berate working mothers as being too lazy to care for their children (as if you got out of child care when you also had a full time job), or just wanting an expensive car or clothes instead of being satisfied with what the husband could provide. I have an engineering degree, a full time career, and always made 2 to 3 times what my ex did. When my ex left after 25 years of marriage, for his younger, high school educated wife, I was well able to fully support myself and our teenage sons. Unlike some women, I didn’t have to sell our house or really downgrade much about our life other than spending money. I had people express surprise that I stayed in my home.

    Those pastors do a disservice to women who might be faced with a divorce and then are left with low-income or no job skills. I’ve known women who went from single-family homes into apartments or mobile houses. Teaching a woman to be dependent on anyone but herself is a recipe for failure.


  7. April Rose says:

    Dear Valerie, I’ve been following you for several months now, inspired by your clear voice and your POV on the relationship between religion, secularism and the state.

    This is a particularly poignant topic for me as I was raised Lutheran [kinda] as a very closeted young male-to-female transexual. Disenfranchised by the Lutheran Church, and then all other religions who make no mention or space for people like me I became an atheist/heretic/infidel/agent provocateur of all belief systems.

    In 1970, mostly just for a distraction I married a Catholic girl [pre-transistion]. When I confessed my gendered histoy of pain and confusion, she thought it appropriate to verbally condemn and abuse me for the next six years as I turned away from the Lutheran Church to focus on alcohol for pain relief. Then she made it a priority to poison the mind of my two children now age forty and forty-one who refuse to communicate with me in anyway. Apparently I am evil and possessed by demons or something?

    Then in 1980 at the end of my rope, I was sitting in a bar in Ft. Lauderdale when my angel walked in the door. Her family was Pentacostal-the Tongue-speaking kind. They didn’t seem to mind me as a scraggly,bearded, smokin’ and drinkin’ , biker type. There were at least a couple of us associated with that family. But in 1992, when I could no longer keep the pain of life as a closeted transexual to myself, and in an effort not to get killed by other Christian Haters in Florida, my soulmate and I moved to New Mexico, where men are men and the sheep are nervous.

    At first her family thought, and suggested that I had abducted her into a cult. Hell…I didn’t even know there was a cult of Trans-Demons in New Mexico. Then in the following years, due in part to her families religious judgment, over a period of years, my wife turned to rationalism and atheism as a relief from decades of dogmatic indoctrination.

    We’ve been happily married and faithful now for more than thirty-three years-technically made possible by the difficulties of changing my birth sex on my Ohio birth certificate. All of this and other gender related articles can be found on my blog here at WordPress.

    Religion? Bah, Humbug!


  8. What an incredible and inspiring story. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience broadly. You made it through the valley of the shadow of death! Just last night I was talking with a sweet friend who is heading back into the closet to spend the holidays with her Mormon family. So glad you have been able to emerge into the light.


    • April Rose says:

      Mormons? ARGGGHHHH! They’re the worst! No, wait that would be, um nevermind. We need a poll: World’s Worst Religions…talk about competition. BTW, didja hear about my new business? I’m offering to take care of people’s stuff-cats, dogs, fish, sick or dying relatives-after they’re taken up in the Rapture! Watch for it on Ebay!
      Thanks again, Valerie


  9. Pingback: Learning from NonChristians - Page 5 - Christian Forums

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s