How Divorce Impacts the Faith of Children

44560442_sA new study of religious trends in America has found that children of divorced parents are significantly more likely to grow up to be nonbelievers than those whose parents’ marriage remained intact.

The Washington Post is reporting on the findings published in a new study  by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) entitled, “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion – and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back.”

The study found a correlation between rising divorce rates in the U.S. and the gradual decline in religious belief.

“Previous research has shown that family stability—or instability—can impact the transmission of religious identity. Consistent with this research, the survey finds Americans who were raised by divorced parents are more likely than children whose parents were married during most of their formative years to be religiously unaffiliated (35% vs. 23% respectively),” the study states.

Researchers also found that rates of religious attendance were also impacted by divorce.

“Americans who were raised by divorced parents are less likely than children whose parents were married during most of their childhood to report attending religious services at least once per week (21% vs. 34%, respectively). This childhood divorce gap is also evident even among Americans who continue to be religiously affiliated. Roughly three in ten (31%) religious Americans who were brought up by divorced parents say they attend religious services at least once a week, compared to 43% of religious Americans who were raised by married parents.”

According to Daniel Cox, one of the researchers on the new study, most of the narrative around the rise of the “nones” – or the non-affiliated person – has focused on changing cultural preferences as to why people are choosing to move away from religion.

But he believes there is a structural part of the story that is not getting enough attention.

“We wanted to focus on the way millennials were raised, which is different from any previous generation. And part of that is they’re more likely to have grown up with parents who are divorced.”

The Post interviewed Andrew Root, a professor at Luther Seminary who authored a book about the spiritual consequences of divorce for children and who was not at all surprised by the study’s findings.

“Everything in a divorce gets divided. Literally everything. Parents’ friends get divided. Relatives get divided. Everyone takes sides,” Root said. “Even religion takes sides. The church gets divided. Dad leaves Mom’s faith, or vice versa. Negotiating those worlds becomes difficult.”

Churches need to do more to address the concerns of children in these situations, he said. They must break away from a pattern that developed in the 1980’s as the divorce rate climbed and caused many members of the clergy to remain silent about the issue in order to avoid alienating struggling congregants. By doing so, they offered little comfort to the children, Root said.

As a result, these children grew up thinking the Church does not respond to their adult problems.

“They’re now thinking, ‘I’m dealing with depression.’ Or, ‘I’m dealing with my own marital troubles.’ The church must not have anything to say to me, because when I was 8 and dealing with divorce, my Sunday-school teacher didn’t even say, ‘Man, Amanda, that must be really complicated for you’,” Root said.

Even though the efforts of Pope Francis to encourage more ministry to the divorced has been mired in confusion over the reception of the Eucharist, he has consistently called for reform in the Church’s approach to persons in irregular marriage situations.

“Pastors are called to help them experience the charity of Christ and the maternal closeness of the Church, receiving them with love, exhorting them to trust in God’s mercy and suggesting, with prudence and respect, concrete ways of conversion and sharing in the life of the community of the Church.”

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