Bryan Caplan  

Found: A False Stereotype About Fundamentalists

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Larry Iannaccone notwithstanding, the main stereotypes about fundamentalist Christians check out. But yesterday at lunch I heard a startling alleged counter-example from Alex Tabarrok, and I've confirmed it with the GSS: Contrary to stereotypes, fundamentalists are as likely to get divorced as the rest of the population.

What I did: I constructed a dummy variable indicating whether a person is now, or ever was, divorced. I then regressed this on the GSS's 3-point Biblical literalism scale. With no control variables, there is no visible connection between the two. Controlling for church attendance, Biblical literalists actually look more likely to divorce. (Church attendance works as expected - more church, less divorce). Controlling for education (and any other demographics you might care to use), the effect of Biblical literalism is statistically insignificant, but still has the wrong sign (i.e., Biblical literalists are a tiny bit more likely to divorce).

I confess that I'm surprised. I would have guessed that fundamentalists would take their vows more seriously, and that their traditionalism would eliminate at least some marital conflict.

There I go again, overestimating the social benefits of blind faith in the Good Book!

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The author at Outside The Beltway | OTB in a related article titled Divorce and Fundamentalists writes:
    GMU economist Bryan Caplan, on a whim following a luncheon conversation with his colleague Alex Tabarrok, decided to run a little statistical analysis. I constructed a dummy variable indicating whether a person is now, or ever was, divorced. I then reg... [Tracked on November 1, 2006 2:09 PM]
The author at In Lehmann's Terms in a related article titled Whose Stereo Are You Typing? writes:
    Bryan Caplan reports surprise upon learning, based on analysis of data from the General Social Survey, that fundamentalists are no less likely to get divorced than the population at large. This, he says, contradicts the general stereotype that fundamen... [Tracked on November 2, 2006 3:24 PM]
COMMENTS (17 to date)
John Thacker writes:

I constructed a dummy variable indicating whether a person is now, or ever was, divorced.

So not the percentage of people who get married who later divorce, then? Surely people who never marry don't divorce. Couldn't that be a problem. Are fundamentalists as likely to get married as the rest of the population?

You also don't control for age of marriage or length of courtship. I suspect that fundamentalists are more likely to marry younger and more likely to marry after short courtships and without living to together. It's possible that fundamentalists marry at haste at greater rates, and then get divorced, whereas non-fundamentalists in the same relationship would have broken up without ever getting married in the first place.

John Thacker writes:

Indeed, checking on it myself, I see that 23.4% of those with "Liberal" religious views have never been married, whereas only 18.9% of "Moderate" and 16.0% of "Fundamentalists" have never been married.

Fundamentalists clearly marry at a higher rate, which explains a tremendous amount of their divorcing at a higher rate. More marriages to divorce, obviously.

Also, Fundamentalists do indeed have a considerably lower age when first married.

Barkley Rosser writes:

I do not have a source on this, but I did read somewhere that fundamentalist Protestant women reported having higher rates of orgasms than any other group of women. So, maybe their sexiness is offsetting their religious morality, all inflamed while feeling sinful and cheating?

John Thacker writes:


That's this article from Slate. Which, come to think of it, could be an example of fundamentalists being different from stereotypes. After all, I suspect that many people stereotype fundamentalists as hating sex and fundamentalist women not having orgasms.

Jane Galt writes:

Does this take into account whether they were fundamentalists at the time of their divorce? I suspect that a non-zero number of people (particularly women) who divorce find Jesus in their sorrow. That would tend to skew the numbers.

What John said, too; Blue States have lower divorce rates than Red States, but that appears to be mostly because high risk people in Blue States never get married in the first place.

Steve Sailer writes:

Fundamentalists get married younger, for obvious reasons such as their opposition to premarital sex. That gives them more time and incentive to get divorced while they are still good looking enough to attract somebody else.

The divorce rate is kind of a red herring. What really counts is the "years married" rate, a statistic I invented after the 2004 election, modeled upon the Total Fertility Rate. Bush carried the 25 states in which white women can expect to be married the most between ages 18-44. In Utah, where he got 71%, white women average 17 years of marriage versus only 7 years in DC, where Bush got 9%. The correlation coefficient between years married for white women and Bush's 2004 share of the vote in the state is an astonishing 0.91, one of the highest in the history of the social sciences.

meep writes:

I was going to mention what Jane Galt said. I know more than a few people who became more religious after their divorces. If nothing else, it can give you a ready-made social life.

That's one thing about Americans - we are probably more apt than others to try out a lot of different religions and beliefs. I remember one woman at my RCIA class who had already gone through New Age stuff, Judaism, and Buddhism, before she decided to become Catholic. I wonder if she's still Catholic. I had friends in high school who thought it cute to try out paganism, but then one became a born again Christian, and another became a militant atheist. It's hard to predict where people are going to end up.

Jordan writes:

I review Ron Sider's book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, which examines many of the cultural cases in which the behavior of evangelical Christians is indistinguishable from the broader culture, here.

Rachel Soloveichik writes:

These results are actually not unexpected at all. For the United States as a whole, there are three main religious groups: a)Religious catholics, b)Religious Protestants c) Atheists and non-religious. a) The Catholic Church has a very strong position on divorce - they consider it absolutely forbidden. Therefore, we should expect that religious Catholics have the lowest divorce rate. b) Religious fundamentalists have an intermediate position - they consider it a very bad thing. But even though divorce is completely disapproved of, it is not forbidden, and not even necessarily a sin. c) Atheists and non-religious don't have much of a religious opinion, divorce might be a personal tragedy - but it's not really bad.

Given these religious and cultural beliefs, we should expect that Catholics have the lowest divorce rate, Fundamentalists are in the middle and atheists & non-religious have the highest. I think this is what surveys actually find.

Dr. T writes:

Rachel Soloveichik is wrong. Atheists and agnostics have the lowest divorce rate in the United States.

Other studies (most prominently, the Barna study in 1999) showed that fundamentalists and born-again Christians have higher divorce rates than average.

This is no surprise to me: I have a born-again Christian brother who divorced and married a born-again Christian divorcee. Both pretend that their first marriages never happened. And, yes, both were born-again Christians before their first marriages.

John Thacker writes:

Atheists and agnostics have the lowest divorce rate in the United States.

Not surprising. They also, by far, have the lowest marriage rate in the United States and the far highest percentage of people who never marry. Unless you're talking about a study which adjusted for that.

RogerM writes:

As a fundamentalist for about 40 years, I'm not at all surprised by these results. Non-fundamentalists tend to view church as a museum of perfected people. We fundamentalists have always known that our churches are spiritual hospitals. We attract broken people. You should also find that we have an unusually high number of former acoholics, homosexuals, drug users, prostitutes, thieves and possibly even murderers. Thank God.

Kent Gatewood writes:

I define divorce as the termination of any heterosexual sexual relationship. Divorce defined that way should return the world to its proper balance.

Ryan writes:

Fundamentalists take the Bible literally, thus they believe that they are offered an absolute forgiveness of sins. This is compounded by the current incarnation of Christian teachings moving away from the Fire and Brimstone and towards Christ's Forgiveness and Love. Further as divorce has become much more common and accepted in society the opportunity cost of divorce has proportionally declined. Choosing divorce is much simpler than twenty, thirty years ago when you would have been the only person in your church or perhaps your community to be divorced.

El Presidente writes:

I'll second Kent. I see marriage as instrumental strategy rather than a terminal one; that's terminal, not fatal. Easy with the jokes fellas. To the extent it facilitates the individual's terminal strategy for reproduction (# of children x genetic diversity x likelihood of survival to reproductive age) it persists. So, as was stated, if you believe you must get married to have sex, to have kids, to have your family embrace and support those children, then you do it. And if you think you can do better with somebody else afterward, you do that too. In that context, the dissolution of any heterosexual relationship is the variable of interest. Marriage is a cultural construct that imprecisely approximates that variable.

Cyrus writes:

As several commenters mentioned the last time you brought it up, the biblical literalism question on the GSS is poorly worded, and the people you are trying to measure are exactly those people to whom it would matter that is poorly worded.

RogerM writes:

Another way to look at this might be to do a similar regression on hospitals and illnesses. You would find a high correlation between hospitals and sick people. Does that mean that hospitals cause people to become sick, or that hospitals don't help people become well? Without domain knowledge, it's easy to construct regression models that don't make sense.

Bryan may be assuming that all fundamentalists are fundamentalists because they grew up in fundamentalist families. It's probably true that most fundamentalists grew up in fundamentalist families, but a high percentage of fundamentalists are converts. In addition, many fundamentalist children leave the church and lifestyle during their 20's and return after some devastating event, such as divorce, causes them to seek spiritual help. So the converts and the prodigals will contaminate the data set.

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