A friend emailed a copy of a January 17, 2010 article in The Sun News, a paper out of Myrtle Beach, SC, that trumpeted a Barna survey allegedly showing that "born again" Christians suffer the highest rates of divorce and atheists/agnostics the lowest. At first I thought this must simply be agitprop. A few minutes on the internet, however, produced several websites corroborating the sources, surveys and statistics (See for example here). However, at least one purported Christian website (here) stated that evangelicals had a lower rate of divorce than the national average and lower than atheists and agnostics. Before this, I was unaware of the Barna distinction between "born again" Christians and evangelicals, and with exceedingly few exceptions, was unaware of people calling themselves "born again" outside evangelical circles. My curiosity piqued and smelling mischief in the gloating newspaper article, I did a little research. What I found demonstrated that biblical Christianity makes a difference in peoples' lives and that newspapers generally cannot be trusted in matters regarding Christianity. In other words, nothing new.
This South Carolina paper and these websites weren't telling the entire truth, not even close. Digging further revealed that Barna himself reports that evangelicals have among the lowest divorce rates (26%) and people of non-Christian denominations have the highest rates (38%). Agnostics and atheists are within the statistical margin of error of the national average of approximately 33% divorce rate. However, far fewer agnostics and atheists (65%) marry than the national average (74%). "Born again" Christians average a 78% marriage rate, the highest in that poll.
The Barna surveys appear odd when it comes to "born again" Christians. As stated, evangelicals had about the lowest divorce rates in the survey. What the skeptics and mockers seem to be fixating on is a class Barna identified as "born again" non-evangelicals, whose divorce rate was 33%, statistically indistinguishable from the national average and above the atheist/agnostic rate of 30% (of those that married). Some skeptics proclaim that this proves Christianity makes little difference in lives. One site even went so far as to list this survey as evidence that God doesn't exist.
So, who are these non-evangelical, born again Christians that give the mockers such joy and comfort? This is where it gets interesting and where the mockers engage in gross intellectual dishonesty. In the Barna surveys, to qualify as "born again," a person must have made a personal "commitment to Jesus Christ and believe that they will go to heaven because they confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. The respondents are not asked whether they consider themselves "born again." So who or what is "evangelical" according to Barna? Evangelicals are a subset of the "born again" respondents. To qualify as evangelicals for Barna, the respondents (in addition to the foregoing "born again" faith in Christ) stated that they believe that salvation is through grace alone, Jesus led a sinless life, the Bible is inerrant, they have a duty to share their faith, Satan is real, and God is omnipotent and perfect and created the universe. In other words, "evangelicals" are Christians that believe what the Bible says. Apparently, "born-again" non-evangelicals in Barna's surveys do not believe the same biblical truths. Barna also reports that "[e]vangelicals were twice as likely as non-evangelical born again adults (47% vs. 21%), and almost five times more likely than notional Christians (47% vs. 10%) to place faith at the top of the list [of their priorities in life]."
No surprise that a newspaper would report as "fact" misleading statements about Christians and that several websites would engage in the same disparagement. The surveys clearly show that those who read the Bible seriously and without compromise put their faith as a much higher priority in their lives. As a result, they lead very different lives, to include some of the lowest divorce rates in the country, well below the atheists, agnostics and general public. Interestingly, those who profess faith in Jesus Christ but not in what the Bible teaches appear little different than the rest of the world.
When one looks at the data, you almost have to marvel at the chutzpah of the mockers. Not only does an honest look at the surveys vindicate biblical Christianity, it reveals the depressing picture of atheists and agnostics. According to Barna:
Atheists and agnostics represent about one out of every ten adults. They stood out as the faith segment least likely to find living near family and relatives to be highly desirable (43%, compared to 63% national average). The religious skeptics were also much less likely to be driven to have a clear sense of purpose in life (55%, compared to 77% of all adults) or to want just one marriage partner for life (58% versus an 80% U.S. average). They were also less interested in making a difference in the world (45%, versus 56% nationally) and in having close friendships.
"Skeptics have replaced faith with a passion for healthy longevity and personal pleasure gained through world travel, sexual experiences, and obtaining knowledge," Barna commented. "They are substantially less focused on relationships and legacy than are other groups. They tend to be less concerned about finding or pursuing a purpose in life because a majority of them believe life has no purpose beyond comfort and pleasure.
Atheism provides little long-term incentive for a meaningful life (what meaning?), and not surprisingly, it is associated with higher rates of suicide. We were made to love and worship God, and we suffer and fade away when we deny him.
Back to the divorce issue, while comparatively low, that 26% of evangelicals divorce still surprises me. I wonder how many of that group were saved after their divorce and how many of those divorces were the result of a non-believing spouse walking out. The data doesn't say from what I can tell. Certainly, if those two factors were taken into account, the evangelical rate would be even lower. I have heard the claim more than once that Christian couples that pray together each day and study scripture together have divorces rates of around 2%. Makes sense - divorce is anathema to a life of selfless love and service to others, and couples prayer and bible study require and develop the deepest intimacies. I have not, however, seen a survey or data supporting this statistic.
In researching this topic, it appears some states have apparently experimented or at least studied the concept of "covenant marriages," which are much more difficult to dissolve through a divorce proceeding. Oklahoma also managed to substantially reduce its divorce rate. Would like to do some research on both of these.
Adapted from Anthony Biller's weblog at sapphiresky.org. Title taken from Around the World with Ken Ham, the weblog of the president/CEO and founder of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.