Field of Science

Praying and staying together - and away from those infidels

Here's a conundrum for you. In the USA, religious couples report higher satisfaction with their relationship. African-American couples are more religious than white couples. Yet African-American couples report lower relationship satisfaction than White couples. What's going on here?

The answer, according to a recent analysis of the National Survey of Religion and Family Life (NSRFL), is that African-Americans would have even worse relationships if it weren't for their religion.

The graphic shows how different groups map out in terms of average family religious activities - "praying together" - and relationship satisfaction. African-Americans are the most religious, yet report the lowest relationship satisfaction.

Teasing these data apart, the researchers (led Chris Ellison at the University of Texas) conclude that family religious activities have a positive effect, and that African-Americans would have even worse relationships if it wasn't for the fact that they are so religious.

The details are a little bit technical, but basically when they chucked a whole bunch of variables into the model, which took account of differences in education, income, marital status and other things (but not religious activities), they found that African-Americans did not, in fact, have lower relationship satisfaction.

Then they added family religious activities in, and suddenly being African-American was linked to worse relationship quality. They concluded that the higher family religious activities of African-Americans were bumping up their relationship quality. Here's W. Bradford Wilcox, one of the study co-authors:
"Without prayer, black couples would be doing significantly worse than white couples. This study shows that religion narrows the racial divide in relationship quality in America," Wilcox said. "The vitality of African-Americans' religious lives gives them an advantage over other Americans when it comes to relationships. This advantage puts them on par with other couples." [Press release]
Now, although this is a reasonable conclusion, it is also something of a statistical sleight-of-hand. They didn't actually show a statistical interaction. They're inferring one, which is a bit dangerous. It's also a weak effect - going all the way from 'never' to 'more than once a week' on the religious activities scale would only shift relationship satisfaction by 0.6 points on a 6-point scale. Even with all their variables in the model, they only explain 10% of the variation in satisfaction. And, of course, we don't really know which way cause-and-effect is running. 

But think about what it means if they are right. It means that the surest way to relationship satisfaction is to enjoy whatever it is that Whites have apart from education and money - high social status, I guess. But for African-Americans, religion acts as a kind social support to help them deal with their allotted place in society.

The researchers did also show one other effect of religion. When partners shared religious beliefs, they tended to be more satisfied. On the face of it, that's not too surprising. You'd expect partners that shared beliefs and attitudes to have more in common, and so to get on better.

But turn it around, and you can see that couples who belong to different beliefs systems are inherently less likely to be happy together. And the effect is potent - partners whose beliefs are strongly different score 1.3 points lower in relationship satisfaction. They may be a great match in every other way, but those different beliefs about an intangible thing like your choice of god is enough to drag them down.

In other words, what we have here is strong, incontrovertible evidence of the fracturing effects that religious beliefs have on society. But somehow that conclusion didn't seem to make it into the press release!

ResearchBlogging.orgEllison, C., Burdette, A., & Bradford Wilcox, W. (2010). The Couple That Prays Together: Race and Ethnicity, Religion, and Relationship Quality Among Working-Age Adults Journal of Marriage and Family, 72 (4), 963-975 DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00742.x

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. If African-American couples have similar relationship satisfaction to Caucasian couples until you factor in time spent in religious activities, and then their relationship happiness becomes much lower, wouldn't that indicate that religious activities are driving them apart?

  2. Views on politics and economics have a huge fracturing effect on marriages too. How about views about sex?

    Shared views help. So our options:

    (a) seek those of similar values [problem: may be hard to find and hormones guide us poorly]

    (b) learn to value nothing [problem: zombies have terrible sex lives]

    (c) learn to see beyond opinions [problem: opinions have consequences]

    Ouch, no easy answer, even if religion is out of the picture. Religion, like politics, economics and sex can serve us well, it is just how we hold them. The problem is "tribalistic" and "soteriologically exclusive" religions teaches us to hold with a clenched fist.

    Thanks for dissecting the article, people who want to believe the author's speculation will ignore effect strength (and probably won't understand it).

  3. @Anon: what the researchers think is that religion was masking the underlying dissatisfaction of African-Americans with their relationships. Take the religion out, by statistically adjusting for the fact that African-Americans are more religious, and the underlying dissatisfaction is revealed

  4. Sabio: religion is different from politics and other opinions about the 'material' world. religious beliefs have to be taken on faith, by definition. There's no particular reason to believe one over another, and as a result they're almost always inherited (although there's some movement within a faith tradition, hardly anybody switches from Christianity to Islam, etc).

    So differences in political or other opinions will, of course, affect relationships. But they don't cause segregation in the same way (because these kinds of beliefs can and do change over generations).

  5. @ Tom :
    Religions, I'd imagine you'd agree, are not mere beliefs. Beliefs are the glue to help hold together what is largely a sociological alignment (*Sabio experiments with phrasing). I fumbled with a "Syndrome Definition" of religion to illustrate the allusiveness of capturing our use of "religion".

    Religion, largely sociological in effect and being, then shares a lot with politics. Of course, I understand the differences, but I find people holding their beliefs about politics as irrational and untestable and closed to verification as they do religion.

    The reason to believe one religion vs another is what benefits it offers you socially and psychologically. But since voting is largely private and religion is public, in some societies, politics is not as easily inherited. But I think they hold much in common and thus illustrate how religion is much bigger than beliefs.

    The segregation in Ireland, South Africa and many other places due to politics, comes to mind to again liken the two.

    Am I missing something?

  6. Sabio, I agree that in theory that should be the case. With religious beliefs, like any other, you should look around at what's on offer and choose the 'firm' whose 'goods' most closely match your needs. A lot of US sociologists certainly think of religion in that way. And it does sometimes work like that - especially when it comes to switching between different varieties of the same basic faith (the various kinds of Christianity, for example). And I also think that it happens more frequently in the US than in other countries.

    But, even in the US, I don't think this marketplace of ideas in religion operates freely, and that's especially the case when you look at different religions (rather than different sects).

    There's lots of evidence that this is the case - the sociologist Steve Bruce wrote a book in the topic ("God is dead").

    There are certain obvious barriers. If a church uses a certain langue (arabic, or swedish, or Pennsylvania Dutch, then it's not easy to switch. Religions are also social institutions, which means that switching religions means leaving your social contacts behind.

    Religions are closely bound to ethnicity. Religious schools are common, and are accepted as normal. Of course a parent wants their child to be the same religion, and so (by implication) they have a right to shield them from other religions)! Imagine if someone tried to set up a communist, or fascist, or republican infants school. It wouldn't make sense, of course.

    On a related line, but even more fundamentally, religions claim exclusivity (they are the 'one true religion'). If you believe the wrong one, then you are going to hell. That can cause enormous strain for families.

    OK you can get around that by abandoning claims to exclusivity - but then you have to remove one of the fundamental pillars of your faith.

    As a result, when people are confronted with the competing claims of different religions, then they often reject religion altogether. That's because religions claim exclusivity (they are the 'one true religion'). You can see that in the statistics - nations with a lot of different faiths (high 'fractionalisation') tend to be less religious.


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