Statistical Stereotypes: When the Church looks into a Carnival Mirror

Statistical Stereotypes: When the Church looks into a Carnival Mirror

We hear statistics all the time. Did you know that 43% of Pilots report falling asleep during flight, and 33% of them report waking up to find their co-pilot had fallen asleep as well. Statistics can be entertaining as well as helpful. They give us a “bigger picture” that permits us to see things from a “bird’s eye view.” Yet not all statistics are equally derived and some are easy skewed. This is because, among other things, the representative quality of those sampled and the revealing quality of the sample questions vary greatly among researchers. Further, even when samples and questions are good, the results can often be “massaged” in several ways, usually due to taking items out of context. This does not mean we avoid statistics, but it does mean we need to be careful in their use. They can just as easily distort our vision as inform our understanding. One current example of this is this often quoted statistic: “Christians have roughly the same divorce rate as people in the world.”   I heard this repeated just weeks ago in a public (non-church) setting. What is more, I have always thought it is true. I never actually checked out the statistical study and took others’ word for it.

What opened my mind on this? Reading a little book by professional sociologist Bradley Wright, entitled, Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . and Other Lies You’ve Been Told (2010). Professor Wright teaches at the University of Connecticut.   In the course of discussion, Wright analyses the data on divorce in America and reveals that much depends on how one defines who Christians are. If we look at those who identify as Christians but seldom to never attend church, the divorce rate is 60%, significantly higher than “the world.”   That is news to some, and has been heralded under the titles like, “Atheist divorce rate is lower than Christian.” Yet this is only in terms of a very massaged meaning for “Christian.” If one considers Christians who attend church regularly (something easy to report and measure), the divorce rate does down to 38%.   This would be significantly less than the world at around 50%. (But 38% is nothing to brag about either.)

Glen Stanton of Focus on the Family likewise researches on marriage. I will quote a large part of his discussion. He cites Wright and adds, “Additional data from other sociologists of family and religion suggest a significant marital stability divide between those who take their faith seriously and those who do not.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a leading sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, finds from his own analysis that ‘active conservative Protestants’ who regularly attend church are 35 per cent less likely to divorce than those who have no affiliation. By contrast, nominally attending conservative Protestants are 20 per cent more likely to divorce than secular Americans.

A Statistics Canada report found that while religious affiliation had little impact on marital dissolution (separation and/or divorce), religious service attendance had a pronounced effect. Among Canadians 25 and older who had ever been married, those who attended religious services occasionally were 10 per cent less likely to have their first marriage dissolve than those who never attended religious services. The risk of dissolution was 31 per cent less for those who attended religious services at least once a month.

Scott Stanley from the University of Denver, working with a veritable “all-star team” of leading sociologists on the Oklahoma Marriage Study, explains that couples with a vibrant religious faith had more and higher levels of the qualities couples need to avoid divorce:


‘Whether young or old, male or female, low-income or not, those who said that they were more religious reported higher average levels of commitment to their partners, higher levels of marital satisfaction, less thinking and talking about divorce and lower levels of negative interaction. These patterns held true when controlling for such important variables as income, education, and age at first marriage.’

These positive factors translated into actual lowered risk of divorce among active believers:

‘Those who say they are more religious are less likely, not more, to have already experienced divorce. Likewise, those who report more frequent attendance at religious services were significantly less likely to have been divorced.’

The divorce rates of Christian believers are not identical to the general population – they’re not even close. Being a committed, faithful believer makes a measurable difference in marriage.”

Remember not all mirrors on society are the same. Not all statistics are created equal.  Discernment is necessary, for a look in a carnival mirror will give us the wrong idea. LH



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