Literal Interpretations of the Bible Increase People’s Risk of Divorce

Jan 24, 2014 • Research

the Bible increases divorce

Divorce has been systematically frowned upon by people of various faiths, so it comes as a shock to many that states in the U.S. known for the faith-based conservative beliefs of their denizens — what we call “red” states — have a higher rate of divorce than more liberal “blue” states. Alabama and Arkansas, two states with populations of strong religious beliefs, have the second and third highest rates of divorce in the United States — 13 people per every 1,000 are divorced. The more liberal New Jersey and Massachusetts have roughly half that.

Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas and Philip Levchak at the University of Iowa pored over maps of the country, going county by county and taking notes of divorces in 2000 to answer why this is the case. Their findings, which will be published in February’s American Journal of Sociology suggest that one of the strongest factors predicting divorce is the number of conservative or evangelical Protestants in a relationship’s county. (By “conservative or evangelical Protestants,” they mean people who believe the Bible is a literal account.)

Other people examining this question have suggested that the primary driving force of divorce is poverty — religion has a strong force in rural areas, but these areas also suffer from lower wages and higher rates of poverty compared to national averages. As we know, economic factors do have impact on relationships, and this could explain the higher incidence of divorce. Except it didn’t. When Glass and Levchak controlled for income and region, divorce rates continued to be very high in places where conservative religious groups were established.

There have been other possible explanations for this, but what Glass and Levchak found is that the high divorce rate is best explained by earlier age of marriage, lower education, and lower income of conservative Protestants.

“Restricting sexual activity to marriage and encouraging large families seem to make young people start families earlier in life, even though that may not be best for the long-term survival of those marriages,” explains Glass.

Five years ago, Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, reported that the probability of divorce decreases steadily as people age. She writes:

Most researchers agree that marriages contracted at very young ages are likely to be unstable due to a “maturity effect.” (Oppenheimer 1988) Young people often have inadequate self-knowledge and are uncertain about their own future prospects and potential. They are also prone to misjudge the characteristics and likely trajectories of their partners. In addition, many of their adult attributes have not yet even emerged, making it difficult for them to select a mate who will be compatible as both partners mature. A very young age at marriage is one of the best predictors of divorce.

People who marry at later ages, on the other hand, being more mature in all these respects, are less likely to make mistakes in the choice of spouse. In addition, people who marry late tend to do so when they have completed more schooling, which is another stabilizing factor.

But what’s weird about the Glass and Levchak report isn’t that religious people are marrying earlier and suffering divorce as a result of this and other related destabilizing factors. The weird thing is that these destabilizing appear to be somewhat contagious. Apparently, just living near prominent religious conservatives makes one more likely to divorce than people elsewhere. For every percentage point increase in the number of conservative Protestants, the divorce rate went up 0.02 percent.

What Glass and Levchak theorize is that the high number of religious people in a county impact the cultural climate of that place. People don’t only grow up surrounded by others who marry young, but the institutions around them don’t encourage postponement of marriage and children in favor of education. In fact, in many such areas, places of higher education are distrusted as liberal creations erected to brainwash the faithful into parroting its agenda.

Abstinence-only sexual education — which isn’t much of a sexual education at all, as it focuses on not having sex instead of explaining how to do it safely, sanely, and consensually — and the difficulty in getting contraceptives in these conservative areas, turn marriage into an option when one faces unwanted pregnancy. It’s these marriages which start as unplanned pregnancies that have the higher risk of divorce.

Header image by girl_onthe_les.