(CNSNews.com) - Married couples who attend church together tend to be happier than couples who rarely or never attend services, according to sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia.
Using three nationally representative surveys - the General Social Survey (GSS), the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), and the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) - Wilcox found that married church-going Americans across denominational and racial classifications were more likely to describe themselves as "very happy" than their non-religious counterparts.
Couples who attended church regularly were also less likely to divorce than couples who seldom attended church services, Wilcox found.
"Attending church only seems to help couples when they attend together," Wilcox told Cybercast News Service. "But when they do, they are significantly happier in their marriages, and they are much less likely to divorce, compared to couples who do not attend church. I would say that church attendance is a beneficial component of marriage when it is done together."
Wilcox explained that regular church attendance offers certain positive benefits to a married couple: "Churches supply moral norms like sexual fidelity and forgiveness, family-friendly social networks that lend support to couples facing the ordinary joys and challenges of married life, and a faith that helps couples make sense of the difficulties in their lives-from unemployment to illness-that can harm their marriages."
"So, in a word, the couple that prays together stays together," said Wilcox.
However, Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry, took issue with the findings. In an interview with Cybercast News Service, Flynn questioned whether there is an actual cause-and-effect relationship between church attendance and good marriages.
"Some studies have reported a correlation between church attendance and successful marriages," Flynn said. "That may reflect the fact that males who are settled in their lives and highly socialized are both more likely to succeed in their marriages and more likely to attend church."
Flynn said other studies have suggested a link between church membership and better health or longer life.
"That doesn't necessarily mean that believing in God makes you healthier," he said. "Once again, it may mean that folks who have their lives together tend to avoid substance abuse, practice good health habits, and go to church."
Skeptics of the claim that religion is beneficial to marriage point to a 2001 Barna Research poll that showed that individuals who describe themselves as "born-again" Christians were just as likely or more likely to divorce than other Christians and non-Christians.
"A few studies have shown that seculars who do marry have a better track record at staying married than members of Southern Baptists and other conservative denominations," Flynn said. "Those seculars who bother to marry may be marrying more successful than very traditional, male-authoritarian Christians."
Wilcox, while acknowledging there is truth to the Barna findings, pointed out that his research goes beyond "just looking at people's beliefs."
"Men and women who hold a religious faith and put that faith into practice by attending church on a regular basis do look different in the marital realm," Wilcox said.
"At least in the marriage arena, faith alone doesn't work. You've got to combine faith and works to enjoy a happy and stable marriage. You need the consistent message, the accountability, and the support a church community can provide to really benefit from religious faith," he added.
Wilcox presented his findings in a new book, "Is Religion an Answer? Marriage, Fatherhood, and the Male Problematic," published by the Institute for American Values.
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