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Does religion help couples stay together?

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I’m often asked if Christians have lower divorce rates than anyone else. Although I point out that I don’t know of any UK studies on this, evidence from the US is fairly mixed that religion – or ‘religiosity’ as it’s usually called in the academic papers – is linked to higher rates of stability.

In any case, if you were going to make a social science hypothesis based on what you read in the Bible, there’s a much better candidate than simply whether one subscribes to a certain religion or not. Jesus is reported in the gospels as saying ‘What God has joined together, let man not separate’. Therefore anyone who includes God in their marriage ought to do better.

And so it seems. US studies show very nicely that people who apply their faith into their marriage – those who see their marriage as ‘God-inspired’ or ‘sacred’ – tend to do better.

Anyway, I thought it was about time we had a look at the link between religion and stability. So I asked my long-time colleague, and world class stats expert, Professor Steve McKay at the University of Lincoln if we could do a study on this.

Using data from the Millennium Cohort study, we looked at the religious and ethnic groupings of 10,000 or so new mothers who had babies in the years 2000 or 2001, and then followed them through to when their children were 11 years old to see who was still together and who wasn’t.

You can read our full report here, published today and reported in the Daily Telegraph

Our initial finding was that Christian and Muslim mothers overall were more likely to stay together than non-religious mothers. The same was true for Christian fathers, though not Muslim fathers.

However we also looked at a whole load of other background factors and their independent influence on stability. As we had already found in some of our other research, being married, being older, being better educated, planning your pregnancy, and being happy in your relationship all have their own effect on a couple’s odds of staying together.

But when we added these factors into the mix and compared like-with-like, the apparent advantage in stability to Christian mothers and fathers disappeared. The reason they tended to do better was down to their greater likelihood of being better educated and also being married.

So it’s being married that is partly responsible for making Christian parents more likely to stay together, even if the fact that they are Christians makes them more likely to get married in the first place.

Yet even after taking all these background factors into account, and comparing people of similar age, education, marital status and relationship happiness, two groups stood out in terms of their religion or ethnicity.

Muslim mothers did especially well. Because we included relationship happiness in the mix, we can rule out any suspicion that they are somehow repressed as a group.

Black fathers did especially badly. Even if they were married and happy, they were still more likely to split up compared to other fathers.

Both of these findings suggest there is an important influence of culture – rather than religion – in play here. One effect is positive and one is negative. It leaves us asking questions about what they are doing differently, whether they think differently about marriage and relationships, and whether they have different levels of social support

What is it that makes Muslim mothers especially stable in their relationships, yet Muslim fathers are no different to anyone else?

What is it that makes black fathers especially unstable in their relationships, whereas this is not the case for black mothers?