Two striking statistics on today’s young adults: One in four has experienced a parental divorce, and one in four does not affiliate with a religion.
According to sociologist Charles E. Stokes, co-author of Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?, a timely new report that examines the spiritual and religious lives of young adults of divorced families:
“Over the latter half of the 20th century two of the most monumental societal transformations in the United States are the significant increase in the number children growing up with divorced parents and the decline in religious participation among adults.”
Some scholars suggest that the decline in marriage correlates with the decline in religious involvement. Nonetheless, a significant gap exists in our empirical knowledge of the subject. Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?, authored by Elizabeth Marquardt, Amy Ziettlow, and Charles Stokes begins to fill that gap.
A key finding emerges from the new research: family structure matters, and it matters a lot. The experience of growing up with parents who are married, divorced, cohabiting, or never-married is significantly associated with religiosity and spirituality in young adulthood. Such a finding is consistent with decades of social science research that shows a strong correlation between family structure and children’s well-being, ranging from physical and emotion health to problem and risk behaviors, to educational achievement and economic security. For some outcomes, the association is enduring, extending into adulthood. As the report notes, because divorce has been prevalent for decades, researchers are finally able to examine its longer-term impact on the broader population.
Several specific findings from the report are worth reemphasizing:
- Family transition is linked to religious change in children. On the whole, compared to young adults from intact families, whose parents who remain married, those of divorced parents are less likely to feel religious and practice their faith regularly. Although the impact is not always adverse (some turn to and grow in faith), the general tendency is toward religious decline. Interestingly, studies that show adult children of divorce are more likely to consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious” are consistent with research that suggests parental breakups are commonly associated with religious disaffiliation or switching. Somehow, family disruptions loosen the structure and environment in which faith is taught, nurtured, and, importantly, practiced.
- Parents matter. Parents play a key role in their children’s spiritual formation and religious involvement, be it church attendance, prayer, or respect for parents’ religious beliefs. Indeed, parental religious practices, perhaps even more so than even family structure, is a strong predictor of children’s religious involvement in young adulthood. However, the intact family tends to provide a more stable environment for cultivating religious behavior in children. Not surprisingly, when that stability is broken, both parents’ and children’s spiritual and religious lives are significantly impacted as well, resulting in what some scholars call the “disruption of the ‘domestic church’ of their home’” as well as their ties to outside religious institutions, such as their local congregations.
- Fathers matter in particular. While both parents influence their children’s religiosity and spirituality, fathers may play a particularly crucial role. In one study, for example, the decline in religious attendance of children of divorce is explained by lower levels of paternal involvement in their religious lives. Moms are instrumental in molding their children, so are dads. Both are needed.
- No such thing as a good divorce. The emerging research also casts doubt on the notion of a good divorce. “While a ‘good divorce’ is better than a bad divorce, it is still not good [emphasis original],” concludes the report. One study, for example, finds, somewhat counterintuitively, that young women who experienced a bad parental divorce are more likely to report having good quality and lasting marriages than peers whose parents had an amicable divorce. Another study concludes that young adult children of divorce are no less likely to seek meaning, truth, or a divine connection, but they are more wary of religious institutions’ ability to help them in that regard, underscoring the “spiritual, but not religious” sentiment.
- Divorce impacts society. Marriage, as the report note, is at once inherently private and public. Social commentators have argued that a “divorce culture,” or a type of cultural trauma, now marks America. In this culture, “self-experience triumphed over other, older virtues that celebrated the obligated self”; even “bystanders” can fall prey to it.
- Cohabitation, not divorce, now drives family instability. While divorce used to be the primary cause of single-parent families, increasingly, cohabitation and unwed childbearing have become the new normal. According to the Institute Report, “[b]y the time they turn 15, 40 percent of children in the United States will confront the dissolution of a parent’s marriage or cohabiting relations, and more than eight percent will experience three or more maternal co-residential relationships.” Indeed, according to another new report, cohabitation has overtaken divorce as the primary driver of family instability. Its lead author writes:
“In a striking turn of events, the divorce rate for married couples with children returned almost to the levels we saw before the divorce revolution kicked in during the 1970s. Nevertheless, family instability is on the rise for American children as a whole, in part because more couples are having children in cohabiting unions, which are very unstable.”
By age 12, about one in four children born to married parents will experience a parental divorce or separation; however, four in ten children will have lived in a cohabiting household. This underscores the need for researchers, people of faith, society at large, and even “bystanders” to understand not just how divorce impacts children, but also children’s outcomes are shaped when they do not live with two married parents.
- Inward spirituality and religiosity are impacted as well. Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? also insightfully discusses young adults’ inner spirituality and religiosity as they respond to the trauma of divorce, e.g., how they imagine God and grapple with fundamental conceptions of their own identity and being.
While the home is where children first form their religious identity, beliefs, and practices, and parents are their first religious teachers, other spheres and individuals matter, too. Extended family, friends, local religious congregations, and even the broader culture can all influence the spiritual and religious lives of children of divorce. The local congregations, for example, can become a place of refuge, nurture, and healing. Children affected by family instability are not adverse to faith, but they may be skeptical of institutional religion; some have even left it altogether, but not necessarily God. So, the challenge and call is for people of faith to understand how family breakups affect children’s spiritual and religious lives and use that knowledge to help restore broken bonds, not just within the family but also with God and communities of faith. In the second half of Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?, Rev. Amy Ziettlow recommends four broad and practical principles—life story matters, adult role model matters, being genuine matters, and holy space matters—for working with youth ministry and children of divorce. Her advice and insights are well worth heeding.