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Which came first, the faith or the fidelity?


The Edmonton Journal,  25.10.98
By Lorne Gunter

Which came first the faith or the fidelity?

Statistics Canada says it is impossible to know. However, according to the state number-cruncher’s 1995 General Social Survey, released last month, “regular attendance at religious services is related to stronger marriages.”

Faithful people have happier, longer-lasting marriages. After decades of being told otherwise by secularists, it is refreshing to see the slow dawning of the importance of traditional virtues among researchers.

Warren Clark, an analyst at Statistics Canada, who wrote about the connection between faith and healthy marriages in the Autumn edition of Canadian Social Trends, says “compared with those who never attended religious services, the odds that a weekly attender’s marriage would break down is less than half.”

And the benefit is as real for couples who married in the 1980s as for those who married in the 1950s. True, weekly attenders who married in the 1950s’ are more likely to stay married than weekly attenders who married in the 1980s (96 per cent versus 80 per cent, after 15 years).

Yet, over the same period, the bottom fell out of the marriage market for non-believers.

In 1950, 91 per cent of couples who never attended church, synagogue, temple or mosque were still married after 15 years. By the 1980s, that figure had plunged to just 57 per cent.

The 40 per cent of marriages that fail are, apparently, disproportionately the marriages of couples with no strong faith.

In a backhanded way, the latest StatsCan numbers may confirm the secularist theory that any coherent community can sustain healthy marriages. Religious communities offer no special magic.

In the 1950s, Canada’s secular society was more cohesive (and more rigid), and couples who never attended religious services stayed married in almost the same numbers as weekly attenders. Then assorted social progressives began tearing apart non-religious traditions and cultural values with as much vigour as they attacked religious ones.

The result is a diffuse, unfocused, heterogenous secular society. And the Great Marriage Depression among non-religious couples — who now have neither a religious community nor a secular one to support them — may be proof, in reverse, that the secularists were right.

Forty years ago, both religious and secular societies argued against adultery, a leading cause of divorce. Canadians could grab either anchor, or both. Today, that secular anchor is gone.

Faithful couples stay together longer, Clark speculates, because “acceptance of biblical teachings about the sanctity of marriage...act as a barrier against divorce by reducing the likelihood of infidelity.”

StatsCan also determined that religious people had better mental health, were more content with their lives, experienced less stress, were more forgiving of a spouse’s misdeeds (except abuse and philandering), placed higher priority on having children, and were more willing, by far, than non-believers to keep their marriages together for the sake of those children.

Few theories are offered for this contentment gap between religious and non-religious Canadians. Yet one seems obvious.

Even if their sincere goal is the common good, those who argue that individuals are capable of establishing worthy moral codes and creating sustainable communities on their own, are, in effect, placing “self” at the pinnacle of existence. Whereas those with deep religious convictions believe in something greater than themselves, such as God.

In self-centred belief systems, sacrifice for others often has the practical effect of removing one farther from the pinnacle. In most religious belief systems, by contrast, sacrifice moves the sacrificer closer to the pinnacle.

For instance, staying together for the kids — a sacrifice StatsCan discovered much more often among faithful Canadians — flys in the face of the dominant cultural view that divorce is less harmful to children than life with parents who no longer love one another.

However, the dominant view is just a mask for selfishness, “Whatever makes me happy, will be better for my kids than what is making me unhappy.” Much of the latest research on child development indicates homes with both biological parents are better for children than single-parent or blended-family homes, even if both biological parents are discontented. The exception, of course, being abusive homes.

Religious Canadians, both men and women, were also significantly more likely to place family ahead of career, and to agree with such statements as “keeping a (home) is just as fulfilling as working for pay;” further indications of a willingness to place others ahead of oneself.

Heaven knows (literally) that religious people have no monopoly on selflessness. Many non-religious Canadians are equally capable of sustained selflessness.

Still, sacrifice is a trait more common among the faithful, which may explain their greater success in creating happy marriages and families.

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Updates:
2001 01 30 (format changes)
2002 03 05 (added link to Table of Contents)