Study: Children of Divorce Less Likely to Practice Religion

New Report Reveals Impact on Faith

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The negative social consequences of divorce are well-known but a new report shows that it also leads to a decline in religious practice.

On Wednesday the Institute for American Values published the findings of a group of scholars in a report titled “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?: Challenging the Churches to Confront the Impact of Family Change.”

Every year about a million children in the United States experience the divorce of their parents, the report pointed out, and overall one-quarter of young adults come from divorced families.

The authors’ research revealed that the children of divorce are less religious when they reach adulthood than those who grew up in intact families.

One study found that while two-thirds of people from married families said they were very or fairly religious, only half of those whose parents had divorced said the same.

In terms of church attendance more than a third of young adults from intact families attend a religious service almost every week compared to a quarter of those from divorced families.

According to the report the most important influence on young people in terms of their faith is the practice of religion by their parents.

“Parents play a vital role in influencing children’s religious lives after divorce, particularly in a culture in which congregational engagement and other forms of civic involvement are no longer as normative as they once were,” the report commented.

Lack of support

One of the reasons why a significant number of children from divorced parents practice less is because, according to one study, at the time of their parent’s separation, two-thirds of them said that no one in their church offered them support.

Another cause is that divorce causes a decline in church attendance for children. Adults from divorced families said that they were only about half as likely to regularly attend church as children compared to children from intact families.

Those who experienced a divorce also say that they are less likely to find religious or spiritual guidance in their family life. One study found that only one-third of divorced fathers encouraged them to practice their faith compared to two-thirds of those from intact families.

Children can also feel that divorce has a direct impact on their faith. One study of university students found that some interpreted their parent’s divorce as damaging their core spiritual values. They are also more likely to identify themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Another study concluded that those from divorced families are no less interested in finding meaning, truth or a connection with God, but that they are less likely to think that religious institutions can help them do this.

Another aspect studied by the researchers was whether a so-called good divorce, that is a situation of low conflict and an amicable separation, made a difference for the religious lives of the children.

This study found that young people brought up in happy, intact marriages were more than twice as likely to attend religious services, compared to those raised in “good divorces.”

Thus, the report pointed out, “While a good divorce is better than a bad divorce, it is still not good.”

Nice people

In fact, children of a divorce where there were low levels of conflict and an amicable separation may suffer more than those from a family that had high levels of conflict, surmising that if nice people cannot make a marriage work then maybe it is the institution that is at fault and not the destructive behavior of the parents.

Churches need to involve themselves more with divorced parents and their children, the report urged. In one chapter a Protestant pastor offered some suggestion on how this can be done.

Pastors and youth leaders should work harder on providing faith role models, he said, as divorce complicates this role that the parents would normally provide. It is also important to listen to those affected by divorce and to provide an environment where they can question and search as they come to terms with what has happened.

The church itself, or a room set aside for youth, can also provide an important sanctuary and an hospitable space for children and youth who are divided between “mum’s house” and “dad’s house.”

“For a child of divorce, the church can be a stable place to find welcome and sanctuary in the form of worship, sacraments, music, study, meals, and fun,” he said.

It’s not just divorce ,one of the report’s chapters noted. We know little as yet what the consequences for faith will be for children of couples who cohabitate and those born through artificial reproduction, or brought up by same-sex couples.

The report provides yet another reminder of just how important for society is the family based on a stable marriage of a man and a woman.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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