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Religious Faith and the Family: An Interview with Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox

Bradford Wilcox is a professor of sociology and the lead author of a recently released report entitled The Ties that Bind: Is Faith a Global Force for Good or Ill in the Family? As part of my research on the psychology of meaning, I study religious beliefs and practices, so I was curious to learn more about the research in this new report. Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Wilcox for Quillette about the report and his broader work on marriage and family.

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Quillette Magazine: I’ll start by asking you to answer the question posed in the title of your report. Is faith a global force for good or ill in the family?

Bradford Wilcox: In the main, religion is a force for good in the families we examined in this report—from 11 countries ranging from Mexico to Canada, from the United States to Ireland. Partners who attend religious services together tend to do better than their secular peers and their peers in nominally religious, or religiously mixed, relationships. They are more likely to report higher-quality relationships marked by greater satisfaction, commitment, attachment, and stability, for instance. Men and women who share a faith are also significantly more likely to say they are “strongly satisfied” with their sexual relationship. The effects are especially large for women here, with women in such jointly religious relationships being about 50 percent more likely to be strongly satisfied with their sexual relationship, compared to women in other relationships.

QM: What’s going on here? Why is religion linked to these better relationship outcomes?

 BW: To quote from the report:

Scholars of religion and family life often note the “norms, networks, and nomos” religious communities provide that encourage positive family functioning. That is, religious organizations provide messages and understanding about the importance of good marriages and families, and how to achieve them. They surround their adherents with like-minded people who can offer emotional support and accountability should husbands or wives start to deviate from the straight and narrow. And they may engender what psychologist Annette Mahoney and colleagues referred to as the sanctification of marriage, where marriages are imbued with spiritual character and significance. The norms, networks, and nomos associated with religious communities may be especially influential when both partners in the relationship are committed to their religious communities, privy to the same messaging, and embedded in the same social networks (i.e., shared religion has more potential to be protective than individual religion). 

In simpler terms, for many couples, I think a shared faith translates into greater exposure to norms like fidelity and forgiveness, family-friendly networks that lend counsel and support when the going gets tough, and a nomos—or a religious belief system—that both buffers against the stresses of married life and encourages them to prioritize their marriage by investing their relationship, and life more generally, with tremendous meaning.

Surprisingly, religion seems to matter not just for relationships in general, but for sex as well. Another new study indicates that religious couples enjoy more commitment and greater generosity towards one another, both of which boost sexual satisfaction. What happens outside of the bedroom, then, would appear to matter for what happens in the bedroom.

QM: Does the report have negative news about faith and family?

BW: On the negative side, we did not find that religion is protective against intimate partner violence (IPV). For the men and women we interviewed, about one-in-five reported some kind of experience with IPV, defined as domestic violence, threats, forced sex, or controlling behavior, and religion was not associated with less IPV in our study. So religious faith is not a panacea when it comes to relationships.

Also, we find that couples who are characterized by a “lukewarm” or mixed religious background are more likely to suffer from lower relationship quality, more infidelity, and less shared decision-making. See men’s reports of infidelity here, for instance:

It looks like a little religion can be worse for some couples than a shared secular relationship.

QM: How did your research team explore this question?

BW: Scholars from the Wheatley Institution and the Institute For Family Studies fielded an international survey of more than 16,000 respondents age 18–50, the 2018 Global Family and Gender Survey (GFGS), which was conducted in 2018 by Ipsos Public Affairs. The GFGS relies on a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 American adults, and opt-in samples for adults from the other 10 countries in our sample that are weighted to be representative of those countries. In this report, we focus on more than 9,000 men and women in heterosexual relationships and draw on their self-reports regarding a range of attitudes, relationship outcomes, and socioeconomic factors.

QM: What finding surprised you the most in this study?

BW: Well, when we separated out our sample by religion and gender ideology, there is a J-Curve of sorts for women’s relationship quality. Women on the secular Left do comparatively well when it comes to relationship quality, as do religiously conservative women on the Right. Interestingly, women in the religious middle, and women who are secular conservatives, don’t do as well. In the United States, for instance, when we look at the share of wives who score above average on a relationship quality index that encompasses satisfaction, commitment, attachment, and perceived stability, we see a J-Curve like this:

As we noted in the New York Times, for all their differences, we think that wives at the opposite ends of the spectrum both enjoy clarity not only over gender roles but also over the importance of men engaging on the family front:

In fact, in listening to the happiest secular progressive wives and their religiously conservative counterparts, we noticed something they share in common: devoted family men. Both feminism and faith give family men a clear code: They are supposed to play a big role in their kids’ lives. Devoted dads are de rigueur in these two communities. And it shows: Both culturally progressive and religiously conservative fathers report high levels of paternal engagement.

Generally, high levels of male familial engagement translate into happier wives.

QM: As a researcher who studies the psychology of religion, I’m very familiar with the large and methodologically diverse body of literature spanning the social, behavioral, and brain sciences that indicates religious beliefs and practices are associated with a wide range of positive physical, mental, and social health outcomes. And yet, in academia, media, and secular society more broadly, religion is often treated as being of little value or even bad for people. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on this disconnect?

BW: Yes, I think the suspicion of religion is directed primarily towards the more traditional norms related to gender and sex supported by many of the great religious traditions. Religion is seen as an antediluvian force in society.

 

Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @WilcoxNMP

Clay Routledge is a Quillette columnist and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. You can follow him on Twitter @clayroutledge

30 Comments

  1. E. Olson says

    Interesting interview and research. It would be interesting to know what portion of your sample was in each group, assuming the sample is representative of a wider population. The reason I ask is that I wonder if there are very many people in some of the categories such as highly religious progressive, or shared secular traditional, or mixed traditional. I also wonder about religious faith interactions with the variables of interest, since the sample has Muslim, Jewish, and various Christian denominations represented, because doctrine is quite different among these various religions/sects regarding gender roles, and I assume it is much more likely to have mixes between some groups than others.

  2. Morgan Foster says

    Interesting article but, I feel, a bit too brief. I would liked to have learned more.

  3. dirk says

    So, higly religious women disfruit about twice as much a sexual relationship with their partners as secular men do. What can that mean? Does that exclusively depend on that religionship? Or may be on some other related factor?? I wonder!

  4. Farris says

    As a religious person I am a bit skeptical of these findings. If you remove the secular v. Religious angle, and stated the findings as couples equally committed to similar core marital values, roles and goals tend to find greater marital happiness would that finding be especially surprising? Pardon the pun but isn’t the secular v. Religious angle just what makes the study and story sexy?

    • E. Olson says

      Farris – skepticism is good, no need to apologize. As for sexy – the study got picked up by Quillette and National Review, but I wonder how sexy these results will be to the “religion is bad – except Islam” mainstream media?

      • Farris says

        @E. Olson

        I just see continually pit one group against another as a gimmick to draw interest. For instance if a study showed in western countries inhabitants of temperate climates tend to be happier and live longer than those in extreme climates and then is recast as “Southerners happier and live longer than Northerners” or visa versa below the equator.
        Or put another way did you learn anything from the study you didn’t already know or suspect?

    • S.Cheung says

      Farris,
      agreed. If “degree of religiousness” was postulated as the causative input, and “relationship satisfaction” was the target phenotype, then the results certainly put a damper on the postulate having any causative effect. The middle cohort prevents it from being a whitewash (cuz if there was no gradient in effect at all regardless of the degree of input, then that input pretty much has no causative value). Yet the fact that a little religion makes things worse than none or lots raises more questions than it answers.

      Which leads to the other issue others have raised, wrt the methodology. An opt-in survey is responder bias writ large, and who knows what myriad confounders are at play that moderate or mitigate the effect of religion. Or the myriad other factors that may be stronger influences on relationship satisfaction.

  5. Robin says

    I am always a little bit suspicious of self-reported statistics. But if we take them at their face value they show that the divorce rate is ~35% among the Christian religious vs. the non-religious. Far below the 50% national average. Or in other words the non-Christian secular community would have to be far above the national average for it to balance out. So unless you are marrying into the religious community your chance of being divorced goes through the roof.

    While it may not have been Wilcox’s intention he does make a very good case for avoiding getting married.

    • augustine says

      To add to this, I have read that two other factors, in addition to religiosity, bring the U.S. divorce rate down from about 50% to about 25%: marriages with children and marrying after age ~18.

  6. Doug Bancroft says

    This is interesting to read, but what to do with the takeaway? If a group of people swear allegiance to leprechauns and the power by which they make all green things grow–and report better sex lives–what are we to conclude? I would still feel sorry for the leprechaun worshipers.

    It is likely Farris (see above) is right. There’s nothing special about believing strange things that makes sex better, or so I’d like to believe. I’m open to re-thinking the issue, but more studies are needed.

    • Fred says

      Well, Doug, except that belief in God is nothing like belief in Leprechauns or such things. Frankly it does not particularly surprise me that people who believe that there is an objective moral order, created by a loving, all-good Being (which does not fit the definition of leprechaun, unicorn, Santa Clause, etc.), to which the human will ought to conform are better able to make and keep commitments than people who believe the human will is completely sovereign and its commitments binding only as long as we choose to be bound by them. Nor does it surprise me that two people committed to other and to each other’s happiness and well being would have better sex than those not so committed. What does surprise me is that anyone with two brain cells to rub together would find any of that surprising.

      • Fred says

        I mean, of course, two people committed to each other. Proofreading is your friend.

  7. Andreas K. says

    What is belief that we treat it so much more as a matter of feelings than perspective
    and behavior? That is a question which I often ponder. Verily, I believe in Florida too, yet I have no strong feelings about it. How then is belief to be defined and measured?

  8. Leah The Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon says

    The first thing that should be said is that Wilcox is a full time propaganda hack for the deeply misogynist “religious” outfit opus dei. the dark details of which are described in comprehensive detail on this site: http://odan.org

    But why is the much vaunted nuclear family inevitably falling apart? And as a corollary what if the isolated nuclear family is one of the principal causative factors in the disintegration of American “culture” or the move/motive towards cooperative community?
    And what about the influence of TV (or the 24/7 insanity machine) which is easily the most powerful anti-cultural force, especially in Amerika which now has its first “reality”-TV President.

    The great social problem of the present time is not the fragmentation of the family – although this too is symptomatic – but the great social problem is the fragmentation of community and the destruction of the intimate social and spiritual culture of community, in favor of the domination of humanity by the abstracted Power of the State and all the media of popular indoctrination (or brain washing), of which TV is easily the most powerful.

    Freedom from the Parental powers of materialistic politics of the State is possible only if people enter into responsible cooperation with one another in free communities.

    On the topic of TV I have just finished reading the 1978 book Four Arguments For The Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander – a very prophetic book.
    Check out Jerry Mander’s 1991 book In The Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. Thirty years later the title should be changed to the Survival of Human Culture.

    • Alexander Allan says

      To fragment the community in favour of the “abstract Power of the State” the family had to been attacked and weakened. The builders of all communities are the women who, through their intrinsic nature, are more people orientated than men and better at building relationships and networks e.g.: it is usually the case that the wife/mother within a family keeps the contacts going – sending cards, calling relatives etc. Traditionally the women were the home builders and eyes and ears of the community. There were the communal glue. However in such a situation the state has a limited role, so this cohesion had to be attacked, and socialism did this by selling the persuasive lie that they were being oppressed by men, particularly religious men, and needed freeing from a mythical bondage of marriage/motherly servitude. Feminism was born, and the women’s fundamental role in creating a social equilibrium was abandoned for the modernist pursuit of instant personal gratification. The created a more individualistic society with less time for charity as burdens are no longer shared. Thus we have less time for charity the state was allowed to take over this role.

  9. Peter from Oz says

    Leah
    When you used your first paragraph to make a very silly ad hominem attack on Wilcox, I thought the rest of your comment wwould be a rant. I was mostly wrong.
    There is the kurnell of a very good argument in there. Could I put to you that the fall of the nuclear family is all the cause of the lack of community?

  10. jimhaz says

    is it religion or the higher degrees of conservatism that religious people may naturally have.

  11. Perhaps I should whisper this: correlation doesn’t equal causation. Perhaps unattractive people with a low sex-drive become religious?

  12. dirk says

    Comment on methodology and sourcing: as an agronomist and reviewer for journals, I always immediately look at the history and affinity of the author(s) when judging the article. E.g., if a comparison is made between organic and non-organic agricultural practices of certain aspects (productivity, efficiency, taste, soil health a.o.) and the author himself is of that organic school, the results can’t be trusted, whatever the statistical methods. One can trust such reseach only when the studies or trials are cross examined.

  13. Klaus C. says

    Ha, I took one glance at the photo and thought: conservative US religious nutjob.

    Amusing how people instinctively seek to resemble their stereotypes. Must be a PhD in that somewhere.

  14. Klaus C. says

    OK, a more detailed response 🙂

    Routledge, Wilcox and their ilk are conservative religious activists who seek to sidestep the verdict of Western philosophy – that religion is primitive fantasy – by producing binders of graphs and charts showing that the superstitious are “happier, richer, nicer etc”.

    A conclusion which is of course pretty laughable when applied to statistics relating to the world’s most religious populations, but which they can sufficiently tweak to create a crude match with certain US demographics, those ostensibly “following” a Christianity remolded by the US right to serve the interests of $$, alongside religion’s traditional service to “conservative values”.

    Conservative values of the kind extolled here tend to be centred on “family life”, which we could define more technically as: the reproductive cycle, the chemically compelled priorities of the “selfish gene”.

    Being reductionist about it, we could say that conservatives (particularly religious conservatives) see the noblest human fate (at least “here on Earth”) as “the f-r-d agenda”:

    fuck, reproduce, die,
    fuck, reproduce, die,
    fuck, reproduce, die,
    …und so weiter für immer.

    But as Wilcox argues, religion invests “tremendous meaning” into these drab functions that other species undertake without requiring such self-deluding pretences.

    Religion is centrally concerned with projecting conservative social, political and familial conventions (all serving the f-r-d agenda) into a fictional supernatural realm to reinforce them on a pseudo-cosmic scale, so that primitive chemical compulsions become “holy, sacred, transcendental”.

    Endorsed and exalted by sacred familial authorities – God the holy father, Mary the lucky carrier of sacred sperm, Baby Jesus the holy son etc – the priorities of the “selfish gene” become a supernatural soap opera taking place in the sky, replacing the “meaningless” picture of the world presented by science.

    But unfortunately, this “chemical utility” of religion is constantly threatened by its fatal intellectual weakness – religion proclaims that the supernatural cosmology it offers is “objectively real”, which is too obviously a fib.

    Another weakness is that for many people, there is of course a lot more to life than fuck-reproduce-die, and this is not entirely lost on the preachers, who are otherwise sworn servants of the selfish gene. Thus they introduce the promise of an “afterlife”: the f-r-d agenda is followed by a glorious eternity in which the believer is presumably free to pursue more varied enthusiasms.

    But what these pious souls are actually expected to “do” in heaven remains unspecified. Presumably it’s no longer fuck-reproduce-die (at least for Christians – Muslim men apparently look forward to their “virgins”) but what else it could be remains mysterious, since in mortal life the believers often have little in the way of other interests or priorities.

    For the non-religious, and those not centred on the f-r-d agenda, there are of course often many noble pursuits in this mortal span. For some of us, there are the complex joys of creatively exploring the world through the imagination in art, music and literature, and discovering what scientific enquiry can tell us about the nature of reality. There is the joy of exploring the natural world for what it is, untainted by gods and angels.

    There is the challenge of guiding humanity away from primitive tribalism into more constructive, co-operative and progressive directions in line with out highest ideals.

    There is the challenge of advancing human cognition via biotechnology into future forms that abandon the primitive dead-end of f-r-d, emphasising instead the uniquely “human” characteristics of creative imagination and intellectual enquiry, while expanding sensory engagement – and lifespan – far beyond the limitations of the current human body.

    In such a transhumanist future, we can be confident that there will no place for religion. A product of primitive culture, religion represents a very limited use of the ability of the imagination to transform the world into a more humanly meaningful place, only to then betray both the imagination and intellect by proclaiming that the crude myths thus constructed are “objectively real”.

    The conservative cultures regulated by religion, however elaborate their cathedrals become, remain centred on ensuring that human nature should never progress much beyond the concerns of cognitively far less advanced animals.

    • Brother says

      But tell us what you really think @Klaus!

      Even at 60 years, seems you still have much to read.

      Or something happened in your life, yes? Let’s hear it.

  15. dirk says

    Wie alt sind Sie, Klaus?? Most probably not as old as I am. I had that period of anti-religion feelings too, I fear because of the normal puberal development. But in the meantime, I realise how much we, in the free west, own to that christian and centuries old civilisation, if only for that liberal humanism only. Just look around, to other religions and cultures, especially where it comes to relations and man/wife togetherness, really, not bad at all, though, not a field of scientific and sociological study, there I agree.

    • Klaus C. says

      I’m 60 this year, dirk 🙂

      My post above is of course unappreciative of the role of the more advanced religious thinking that helped the West move beyond religion into a more rational humanism.

      But my main point was to contrast these conservative’s claim that religion provides “tremendous meaning” with the fact that their religion is actually obsessively focused on the reproductive cycle, (a process we have in common with much more primitive animals) rather than the more advanced aspects of human cognition and creativity.

      • dirk says

        @Klaus: As what relates to sex, loneliness, relations, meaning with and without religion, compare also the articles and comment sections on Quilette:- from astrology to cult politics- and -naked yoga and cuddling parties..-. Looks as if of special concern on this blog.

  16. Lightning Rose says

    As the peoples who tend toward religiosity tend to be less urban, educated, multi-cultural, or cosmopolitan than the erudite post-moderns who’ve decided the ethos of “if it feels good, do it” rules, perhaps their background generally closer to the rule of natural law may be a factor.
    After all, lacking modern technology to make any fuck “zipless” in the words of Erica Jong, the probability of pregnancy used to be MUCH higher. And having kids you couldn’t feed and take care of was frowned upon by “God” in the person of society, bigly!

    So “God,” aka Natural Law, taught if you don’t want a foal, don’t send your mare to the breeding shed! Like, duh? We’re looking at a whirlwind hundred years wherein high fertile output changed with blinding speed from a valued asset to a huge liability. Absent the current American welfare state, which rewards reproductive irresponsibility with subsidies, the poverty/crime problem so engendered would be almost non-existent! In the days when burdening your family with bastard brats could get you severe social ostracism, people’s decision-making process was predicated on cost-benefit analyses attached to marriage; the lie today is that women’s sexuality equates with men’s. “Wild oats” get you 20 years of mandatory caregiving while the lad whose oats they are prances away? Wot, did y’all think this was no different than going out for ice cream?

    At least barnyard animals know what they’re doing . . .

    • dirk says

      Take care, Rose, just imagine barnyard animals allowed to follow their instincts, and procreating without any limits (as is done by their wild cousins), it would be a horrible scene, everywhere pigs, chicken, horses, cattle, finishing off all the grass and grains, and leaving no place anymore for us humans. Good that we manage this little bit, no barnyard animal without human management. The egg I had at breakfast was not fertilized, neither got the chance to hatch, thanks to us humans.

  17. JVF says

    (many) attribution fallacies aside, i’m entertained, but not for the reason the author(s) intend, by this: “They are more likely to report higher-quality relationships marked by greater satisfaction, commitment, attachment, and stability, for instance. Men and women who share a faith are also significantly more likely to say they are “strongly satisfied” with their sexual relationship” – apparently, the ‘researchers’ take this self-reported difference at face value, without considering whether the ‘they’ are in a theologically coercive community that impels them toward answering surveys in this way, more than those who aren’t in such communities –

    the relationship between this survey work and real science is exactly the relationship between Astroturf and grass –

    separate: i see no meaningful distinction between faith in a leprechaun who promises to make green things grow and faith in, for example, trans-substantiation –

  18. Richard Palmer says

    I am apparently unlucky, being an atheist. What would the writer think if a study was released saying that couples who both believed in the tooth fairy had a higher degree of sexual satisfaction? How about a belief in a flat earth, … ?

    Clearly, the researchers here have been correlation shopping to find something they can sell to their religious clients to.

    This wonderful site can do better than posting this kind of silliness.

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