William (Beau) Weston is the John M. and Louise Van Winkle Professor of Sociology, Chair of Anthropology/Sociology Program at Centre College. Click here to follow his blog, “Gruntles Society: Exploring Happy Society.”
Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith? is a fine and rich compendium of research on how divorce tends to disrupt the religious faith of children. As a sociologist, the report led me to connect this disruption to wider and wider circles of social connections, the whole web of group affiliations that children grow in and are shaped by.
The study by Uecker and Ellison starts from the previous finding that while children of divorce most commonly become less religious, some become more religious. The researchers rightly argue that the dynamics that make for each process are different, and should be studied differently. In a broad sense, though, I can see a point of similarity.
Children from intact families tend to reproduce their parents’ faith and reproduce the network of institutional connections their parents raised them in – including their religious institution. Divorce disrupts that network of connections. Children are likely to lose their taken-for-granted ideas of faith, their emotional associations of faith, and their social networks of faith. This is the existential effect that Andrew Root is talking about in another book cited in this report. It makes sense to me that children’s most common response to all this disruption is to simply give up on the whole institution of religion, even if the spiritual yearning remains. But some divorced kids, by extra effort (and probably by other people reaching out to them) make their own religious ties. These new ties may even be stronger than the faith they might have inherited had their parents stayed together.
The disruption to the “domestic church” that divorce produces points to a larger social loss. Researchers have long noted that many divorced kids not only lose all connection with their fathers, but also with their father’s whole side of the family. The keenest loss is of their paternal grandparents, who are usually a huge part of a child’s support network. In the same way, if children lose their religious community in the divorce, they lose one of the richest sources of general support that our society offers. They not only lose the small number of people in the church they might have had close personal ties to; divorced kids often lose the much larger network of weak ties that a congregation gives them, the adults who take some interest in their lives and connect them to many other networks of information and support.
Finally, I can see an even larger coherent network that divorce might disrupt in divorced kids’ lives and worldviews: their civil religion. It is natural, I think, for children to accept that the faith and practice of their family, their congregation, their community, and their nation all fit together and support one another. If, as this report shows, divorce is likely to pull up the roots of a child’s “domestic church” and their “church church,” it seems likely that divorce similarly uproots their taken-for-granted faith in their “national church.” A study of the effects of divorce on children’s civil religion is beyond what this study set out to explore. That is a project for another day.
Still, the upshot of “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?” seems to be that divorce dis-embeds children from their coherent network of faith in their family, their coherent network of faith in their congregation, and, I expect, their coherent network of faith in the other institutions of their society.