Even though the headlines normally report only on negative news about religion’s impact on marriage and family, don’t believe it! According to experts, quality studies have found that couples and families who pray together really do stay together longer than their non-religious peers.
Writing for Principles, W. Bradford Wilcox, Ph.D., an internationally known expert on marriage and family who heads the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia,cites a recent example of how the media hypes questionable studies in order to further their goal of casting religion in American life in the most negative way possible.
His example involves a recent University of Chicago study which purports to show how children raised by religious parents are less altruistic than children raised by secular parents. The study’s author, psychologist Jean Decety, claimed that his research showed that religion negatively influenced children’s altruism and pro-social behavior and went so far as to question whether or not religion is vital for moral development.
However, as Dr. Wilcox reports, “The study had numerous methodological problems and limitations—it was based upon a non-random and non-representative sample of children watching cartoons and sharing stickers in a few cities around the globe . . .”
Despite these flaws, the study received glowing, credulous coverage from numerous media outlets. The headlines he cited included a Daily Beast article entitled “Religious Kids are Jerks,” and a Guardian report entitled, “Religious Children Are Meaner than Their Secular Counterparts.” The Slate claimed that “religious children are more selfish.”
As long as it panned religion, the media was more than happy to trumpet the story.
Sadly, “there is only one problem with this new, negative view of religion and family life: it misses the mark,” Dr. Wilcox writes.
“In the United States, at least, religion is generally a positive force in the family. My own research, which has focused extensively on the connection between faith and family life, indicates that religion generally fosters more happiness, greater stability, and a deeper sense of meaning in American family life, provided that family members—especially spouses—share a common faith. In simple terms, the old slogan—‘the family that prays together, stays together’—still holds in 2017.”
As he outlines in his book, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos, which he co-authored with Nicholas Wolfinger, couples are substantially more likely to report being happy in their relationship when both partners attend church regularly than when neither partner does. This result holds equally for whites, blacks, and Latinos.
“Clearly, white, black, and Latino spouses who attend church together are about 9 percentage points more likely to say they are ‘very happy’ or ‘extremely happy’ than husbands and wives who do not,” he writes. “This may not seem like a huge boost to marital happiness, but in practical terms it means that almost everyone in a jointly religious marriage is at least ‘very happy,’ which is striking given the ups and downs of contemporary married life. In other words, religious couples are significantly more likely to enjoy wedded bliss than are their secular peers.”
Why does shared religious practice lead to happiness?
Dr. Wilcox believes part of the reason is that it fosters commitment to marital permanence and fidelity.
Another reason is that socially, couples who attend services together are likely to form the majority of their friendships with fellow parishioners.
“Attending religious services with friends accounts for more than half of the association between church attendance and relationship quality, which means that couples who have many shared friends at their church are happier than other couples,” Dr. Wilcox found.
“Attending church with one’s friends appears to provide many role models of happy, healthy relationships. These friends can also offer support when an intimate relationship hits the inevitable speed bump, and such friends may encourage each other, by example or the threat of stigma, to resist the temptation of an affair.”
He also found that couples who attend church together often pray together as well and this shared prayer helps them to deal with stress, to focus on shared beliefs and hopes for the future, and to deal constructively with problems in the relationship and their lives in general.
“In fact, we find that shared prayer is the most powerful religious predictor of relationship quality among black, Latino, and white couples, more powerful than denomination, religious attendance, or shared religious friendships,” Dr. Wilcox writes.
New research from Harvard professor Tyler VanderWeele backs up Dr. Wilcox’s conclusions.
In VanderWeele’s research, he tracked a sample of thousands of middle-aged women across the U.S. and found that women who regularly attended church were 47 percent less likely to divorce than women who not regularly attend church. VanderWeele’s research cited other studies that came to a similar conclusion, finding that regular church attendance is associated with a reduction in divorce of more than 30 percent.
VanderWeele believes the reason for these numbers could be due to the fact that: 1) religious teachings view marriage as sacred and attending services together reinforces that message; 2) religious teachings discourage divorce and disapprove of adultery which is one of the strongest predictors of divorce; 3) religious teachings emphasize love and putting other’s needs ahead of one’s own; 4) religious institutions often provide support for families offering everything from children’s programs and marital and pre-marital counseling to workshops and retreats that focus on strengthening family bonds.
The bottom line is that religion fosters more stable marriages and this new research from Harvard suggests that couples who worship together, really do stay together.
“So the next time you come across an academic study or media story contending that faith plays a pernicious role in family life, be skeptical,” Dr. Wilcox advises.
“So long as family life, and marriage in particular, are based on a common commitment to religious faith, it looks like religious faith lifts the fortunes of American families. And that’s good news in a nation where the fortunes of the family too often seem to be flagging.”
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