Field of Science

Religion and marital infidelity

Here's another one for the 'It's about attendance, not belief' files. It turns out that strong religious beliefs do not reduce infidelity, although regular churchgoers are more faithful. The study was published last year, but it's new to me at least (thanks to Brian Cleary for bringing it to my attention).

What the investigators (David Atkins and Deborah Kessel from Fuller Theological Seminary in California) did was to analyse data from the 1998 General Social Survey of the USA.

The survey is massive - 3,000 questions - including 37 on different aspects of religion. They grouped these into 9 categories, and analysed them together with other factors that influence infidelity - age, gender, income, and marital happiness.

Now, there are some caveats that need to be applied here. This was self-reported infidelity, something that people are likely to under-report, and attendance, which is often over-reported. And it's a cross-sectional analysis, like most of these sorts of things, so cause-and-effect are open to question.

But it seems that religious attendance is associated with less infidelity. The authors put this down to the likelihood that couples that go to church together are more likely to stay together, for a number of reasons.

However, I wonder whether regular church goers are simply more conscientious and family oriented than other religious people. That's why they go to church. For non-religious people, I suspect you would find a similar thing for those people who commit to secular activities.

There's another interesting fact that they found. It turns out that there's an interaction with marital happiness. Now, people who are not too happy with their marriage are, unsurprisingly, much more likely to have affairs. However, it's here that the effect of attendance is biggest.

People who are unhappy with their marriage and who never go to church are 23% more likely to have an affair than people who are happy and never go to church. However, people who are unhappy with their marriage and regularly go to church are only 12% more likely to have an affair than people who are happy and regular church goers,

In other words, church going seems to be effective in keeping people stuck in unhappy marriages.

One last thing. From the graph above, you can see that people who feel that they are 'near to god' seem to be more likely to have an affair. Atkins & Kessel dug into this a little deeper, and it turns out that people who are near to god but do not go to church are actually 25% more likely to have an affair - which is statistically significant.

There are several possible reasons for this. It could be that these people are disgraced, rejected from their communities, and so exclude from communal activities. Or it could be that these are people who have religious differences from their spouse, and these differences lead to less church going and more infidelity!

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ResearchBlogging.orgAtkins, D., & Kessel, D. (2008). Religiousness and Infidelity: Attendance, but not Faith and Prayer, Predict Marital Fidelity Journal of Marriage and Family, 70 (2), 407-418 DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2008.00490.x


Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

9 comments:

  1. I completely disagree with your assertion that "church going seems to be effective in keeping people stuck in unhappy marriages."

    Firstly, the research (or at least your write-up of this part of it) is about infidelity and says nothing about whether people are staying in unhappy marriages or not. Secondly, it seems to state that an affair is an effective or desirable way of ending an unhappy marriage.

    The research is interesting enough on its own, there's really no need to take cheap shots at church-going. You can do better.

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  2. Charlotte, it's funny how you put things: First you state that the research doesn't say anything about people stay in unhappy marriages, implying that Tom's extrapolation is a cheap shot. However, here is what he said:

    There's another interesting fact that they found. It turns out that there's an interaction with marital happiness. Now, people who are not too happy with their marriage are, unsurprisingly, much more likely to have affairs. However, it's here that the effect of attendance is biggest.

    All he is adding is that people who are unhappy in their marriage are more likely to be unfaithful. You complain that he should stick to what the study says. But then, in your next sentence, you do exactly what you chide Tom for doing: You read something into Tom's words that you are making up entirely on your own, namely that affairs are 'desirable.' And he never says anything like that (whether he thinks so or not).

    This is what he says:

    People who are unhappy with their marriage and who never go to church are 23% more likely to have an affair than people who are happy and never go to church. However, people who are unhappy with their marriage and regularly go to church are only 12% more likely to have an affair than people who are happy and regular church goers,

    In other words, church going seems to be effective in keeping people stuck in unhappy marriages.


    There is nothing anywhere there about ending unhappy marriages.

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  3. I find that I can't help but think of a certain Republican governor when thinking about these results. They also remind me of another result that I think I saw on this site a while ago, that is that people who feel close to God are less likely to be charitable. This makes me think that the most trustworthy people would be church-going atheists. Now, before anyone including Charlotte starts protesting, please understand that I am saying this with my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek.

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  4. A more serious point. The last point on the graph suggests that there is no correlation between being more faithful and believing in a punitive God. This is significant in so far as the standard argument against atheism is that without a belief in a punitive God there's nothing stopping people from behaving unethically. I have no feel for whether the result from this study is inline with other studies, although I suspect it may have been covered here previously. Tom?

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  5. Charlotte, it's an extrapolation, but whether you think it's a fair one or not will depend on what you the mechanism is underlying the link.

    Why should religious attendance have a bigger effect on infidelity in unhappy marriages than happy ones? It seems likely due to social pressure from the peer group, together with the priming effect of being in church/listening to sermons. That makes people stay faithful in a loveless marriage.

    The same pressures apply to staying married, of course. SO I think it's reasonable extrapolation.

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  6. Konrad, yes, that fact got me thinking along similar lines, too (especially after reading that your article on DS Wilson was published).

    I think the one of the most serious challenges to the idea that religion is an adaptation is that religious beliefs actually do not seem to have any effect on behaviour.

    This study is just the latest example. Time after time the studies show that behaviour is influenced only in the short term by attendance (and by priming, but in the real world that would only occur in a religious setting).

    So, you can influence behaviour by placing a pair of eyes above an honesty box, but not simply by convincing people that a god is watching them. And the priming and religious attendance works just as well for atheists as it does for the religious.

    So I think that supernatural beliefs cannot modulate behaviour directly - only if they encourage the creation of cultural settings that drive priming. But it's hard to see why you actually need supernatural beliefs to do that.

    So I'm increasingly of the opinion that religion (at least the supernatural aspects of it) is a by-product, not an adaptation.

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  7. Tom, that's all pretty much right but I think that I have an account which manages to combine the by-product and the adaptation accounts in a way that you'd like. The basic idea is that religion is a meeting of superstitions, that are a cognitive by-products of genetic evolution, and ideology, a group-level adaptation that, of course, works on the level of cultural evolution. Superstitions and ideology works together in religion to mutually support each other. The superstitions are included in a broader social structure which allows them to last much longer than the usual couple of centuries that normal superstitions last. On the other hand, the ideology is based around beliefs that are psychologically plausible while being relatively hard to test empirically. So, as you say, the superstitious beliefs do not modulate behaviour directly but by helping to prop up an institution.

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  8. Yes, your St Andrews poster, which was very interesting. I think the problem is that I remain to be convinced. I mean, it's clear that there are social systems that improve the fitness of the group, and it's clear that superstition is wrapped up in that.

    But it's not at all clear that the group-level constructs (religion) require or are even augmented by superstition.

    The only evidence I have seen for this that I have seen is the work by Richard Sosis on commune longevity. And he puts that result down to costly signalling (another theory that I'm pretty skeptical of, as it happens).

    I think the example of communism shows that it is, in fact, possible to construct a rigidly-enforced pro-social "self sacrificial' secular culture. Which makes me suspect that the only reason we haven't seen more of them is simply that humans are intuitive supernaturalists.

    Now, Bruce Hood would probably argue that communism invokes a kind of supersense. And that's the case, I think. But it doesn't invoke a 'punitive watcher', which is what people usually take to be the primary pro-social mechanism of religion.

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  9. Tom @8:58 "The same pressures apply to staying married, of course. SO I think it's reasonable extrapolation."

    That sounds fair, thanks for clarifying, but I still think you're stretching further than the evidence justifies. My experience of Catholic friends and family is that divorce is acceptable in a way that infidelity isn't. (Remarriage, OTOH, is a very sticky issue for them.) Since this study was done on US data I'm assuming the dominant religion would be evangelical Christian denominations, and although I'm not that familiar with their beliefs regarding marriage, I thought that they considered divorce and remarriage pretty normal? So I'd argue that the religious-attendance-induced social pressures re divorce and fidelity are different. YMMV, but it'd be interesting to see some actual data.

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