By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, JUNE 18, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The fortunes of family life and religion may well be linked, say experts in recent studies. W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is the author of a research brief published in May by the Institute for American Values’ Center for Marriage and Families.
“Churches are bulwarks of marriage in urban America,” he affirmed in the brief “Religion, Race, and Relationships in Urban America.” Wilcox started by observing that in spite of widespread concern over the breakdown of marriage and family life in contemporary society, so far little attention has been paid on religion’s influence for the family.
His attempt to remedy this omission is based on a reading of data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (FFCW), sponsored by Columbia and Princeton Universities.
The dramatic changes in family structures are graphically illustrated by Wilcox.
— From 1960 to 2000, the percentage of children born out of wedlock rose from 5% to 33%.
— The divorce rate more than doubled to almost 50%.
— The percentage of children living in single-parent families rose
from 9% to 27%.
Poor and minority families have suffered even more. In 1996, for example, 35% of African American children and 64% of Latino children were living in married households, compared to 77% of white children.
Wilcox argued that religion can influence family life in four ways.
— Religious institutions promote norms strengthening marriage, for example, the idea that sex and childbearing ought to be reserved for marriage, and broader moral norms that support happier, more stable marriages.
— Religious faith endows the marital relationship with a sense of transcendence.
— In many religious groups there are family-oriented social networks that offer emotional and social support, plus a measure of social control that reinforces commitment to the marital bond.
— Religious belief and practice provides support to cope with stresses such as unemployment or the death of a loved one. A greater psychological resilience, in turn, is linked to higher quality marriages.
Wilcox does, however, admit that religious participation is by no means an automatic guarantee of a happy family life. In fact, what he termed “one of the paradoxes of American religious life,” is the contradiction between the high level of religious practice among African Americans — the highest of any racial group — and the reality that they have the lowest rate of marriage of any racial or ethnic group.
Turning to an analysis of the data from the FFCW survey, Wilcox argued that it shows how religious attendance — particularly by fathers — is associated with higher rates of marriage among urban parents.
Moreover, churchgoing boosts the odds of marriage for African American parents in urban America in much the same way it boosts the odds of marriage for urban parents from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Paternal church attendance is particularly important for urban relationships, Wilcox maintains. If a father goes to church regularly, then he is more likely to enter into marriage and also to have a relationship of higher quality.
Benefits of belief
The arguments raised by Wilcox are similar to those put forward by Patrick Fagan in a paper published by the Heritage Foundation last December. In “Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability,” Fagan argued that “religious practice promotes the well-being of individuals, families and the community.”
“Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages and well-behaved children,” he pointed out.
Numerous sociological studies, Fagan continued, show that valuing religion and regularly practicing it are associated with greater marital stability, higher levels of marital satisfaction and an increased likelihood that an individual will be inclined to marry.
Among other points, these studies reveal that:
— Women who are more religious are less likely to experience divorce or separation than their less religious peers.
— Marriages in which both spouses attend religious services frequently are 2.4 times less likely to end in divorce than marriages in which neither spouse worships.
— Religious attendance is the most important predictor of marital stability, confirming studies conducted as far back as 50 years ago.
— Couples who share the same faith are more likely to reunite if they separate than are couples who do not share the same religious affiliation.
Moreover, Fagan pointed out, religious practice is also related to a reduction in such negative behaviors as domestic abuse, crime, substance abuse and addiction.
Mary Eberstadt looked at the other side of the coin in the relationship between family and religion in an article published in the June-July issue of the magazine Policy Review. In the article “How the West Really Lost God,” she reflected on the causes of secularization, a phenomenon particularly notable in Western Europe.
The thesis often put forward, Eberstadt observed, is that secularism came first and that this had a negative impact on family life in Western Europe. She argued, however: “At least some of the time, the record suggests, they also became secular because they stopped having children and families.”
In support of her case Eberstadt pointed out that European fertility in general dropped well before the dramatic demise of religious practice observed in recent decades. Within Europe she cited the example of France, which saw fertility decline much sooner than in many other European countries, and is also a nation where secularism is stronger.
Ireland, by contrast, withstood the winds of secularism until a short time ago, and it was also a country with strong families. The recent erosion of religion in Ireland was preceded by a collapse in Irish fertility, Eberstadt added.
Turning to the United States she commented that the higher level of religious practice could be due to the greater number of children.
Evangelicals and Mormons, who unlike Catholics are not prohibited from using contraceptives, also have larger families. Maybe, Eberstadt posited, there is something about the family that inclines people toward religiosity.
She then examined the dynamic that exists between family life and religion. The experience of birth leads parents to a moment of transcendence. As well, the practice of sacrificing oneself for the good of the family and children may lead people to go beyond selfish pleasure-seeking. In addition, the fear of death, in terms of losing a spouse or child is a powerful spur to faith.
As for the well-known fact that women tend to be more religious than men, maybe Eberstadt argued, this is due to their more intimate participation in the birth of their children compared to a man’s role.
While fertility rates in Europe and many other countries are now very low, this could change as the disadvantages of single motherhood and the social and economic consequences of shrinking populations weigh more heavily.
“There is nothing inevitable about the decline of the natural family and thus, by implication, religion too,” Eberstadt contended. While quick to admit that, “merely having families and children is no guarantee of religious belief,” a resurgence in family life could well strengthen religion.
The authors of the studies cited here would probably be the first to admit that the interaction between religion and the family is complicated and that many other factors play a part in the strengthening or weakening of both. No doubt more research is needed, but these initial efforts point to some interesting relationships.
The natural family, Ebserstadt concludes, “as a whole has been the human symphony through which God has historically been heard by many people.” A symphony unfortunately marred by many discordant notes today, but whose return to harmony would be of immense benefit.