No, Non-Believers Are Not Increasing In America

No, Non-Believers Are Not Increasing In America

Weak Christianity is getting weaker and robust, and orthodox Christianity is getting stronger in terms of adherents, if not by theological maturity.

The stats are given as often and with as much confidence as they are wrong. The story goes that our nation is growing more secular with every passing day. Christianity is tanking, and atheists and generic non-believers mushrooming. The Daily Wire proclaimed that last week, with the headline, “God Help Us; Atheism Becomes Largest Religion In U.S.” CNN just reported something similar: “There Are Now as Many Americans Who Claim No Religion as There Are Evangelicals and Catholics.”

It’s not true. Not even close.

If you ask anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to what’s happening with religious faith in America, they will tell you with the confidence that the Nones (those reporting no particular faith) have grown by leaps and bounds, marking a growing secularization in America. This is not true either.

Journalists who tell us they are endlessly suspicious and dig into the depths of a story to bring simple folks like us “the TRUTH” have largely only done journalism by press release on this topic, and the falsehoods get repeated over and over again. But if one digs just a bit deeper into the larger body of research, it is unavoidably clear how incorrect most have gotten the story. Let me demonstrate by observing just three points.

Nones Aren’t New At All

First, the “nones” are certainly not a new group of unbelievers exiting the pews of our nation’s churches. They are merely a group who are identifying more accurately what they have always been, those without any real religious practice.

Dr. Ed Stetzer, who holds the distinguished Billy Graham Chair of Church, Missions, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, has given one of the best clarifying explanations of the nones that I’ve seen. In USA Today, he wrote that “Christianity isn’t collapsing, it’s being clarified.”

He is precisely right. He further explains, “Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed.” This is the precise secret to understanding what’s going on. Weak Christianity is getting weaker and robust, and orthodox Christianity is getting stronger in terms of adherents, if not by theological maturity.

The nones are simply those who until recently would have identified with a Christian denomination just because that’s what their family has always been. But their pastors know they are just CEO Christians (Christmas and Easter Only). Beyond that, it’s crickets attendance-wise. Even though most are inactive, many do hold some cold-to-lukewarm Christian beliefs in the back of their minds. According to Pew, almost a third say that religion is indeed important to them. So the nones are not some new and growing crowd of atheists, agnostics, or unbelievers.

Other leading sociologists of religion report the same thing. Rodney Stark of Baylor University, one of the world’s leading and most distinguished scholars in this field, gives the same explanation in his important book, “The Triumph of Faith: Why the World Is More Religious Than Ever”: “Today, when asked their religious preference, instead of saying Methodist or Catholic, now a larger proportion of non-attenders say ‘none,’ by which they most seem to mean ‘no actual membership.’”

Stark gets more precise: “The entire change [toward none-ness] has taken place with the non-attending group.” “In other words,” he adds, “this change marks a decrease only in nominal affiliation, not an increase in irreligion.” Stark says the wealth of data he has studied, as well as that his peers have, “does not support claims for increased secularization, let alone a decrease in the number of Christians. It may not even reflect an increase in those who say they are ‘nones.’” We will see additional support for his conclusion below.

In fact, the good folks at the Pew Research Center find that only 12 percent of young and older adults who say they no longer hold to the Protestant and Catholic faith said they had any kind of meaningful faith in their childhood. This is very significant. These are folks simply shedding what they never really had in the first place. Again, it’s more of a honest change in identification rather than actual belief.

This means that most kids who have gained a meaningful faith will carry that faith into adulthood. Some very recent research conducted jointly at Harvard and Indiana University supports Pew’s conclusion. These sociologists of religion find that the apparent growth of the nones is “solely a function of the decline in moderate religion.”

In fact, Professor Barry A. Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, the man who coined the term “the nones,” expresses frustration that the larger press has not really gotten the story right on what belief group is actually seeing the largest size increase. He told me, “The rise of nondenominational Christianity is probably one of the strongest [religious growth] trends in the last two decades” in the United States.

He added that the percentage gain among the “nons,” or nondenoms, is “many times larger” compared to those we have come to know as the nones. Read that again. The growth of nondenominational churches has been many times larger than that of the nones. Is it likely that one group that is growing—the nones—are gaining folks from a particular group that is growing at even greater pace? That answer would be no.

Greg Smith, the long-time associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, adds heft to the conclusion that evangelicalism is actually growing. He confidently explains that while the more liberal mainline churches have been tanking dramatically, losing from 5 to 7.5 million members since 2007 (!), things are completely different for evangelical and non-denominational churches.

I would say, that particularly compared with other Christian traditions in the United States, Evangelicalism is quite strong. … If you look at Christianity as a whole … the share of Protestants in the United States who are Evangelicals, if anything, growing.

The Harvard/Indiana University researchers found the same thing, explaining “evangelicals are not on the decline” but “grew from 1972 when they were 18 percent of the population, to a steady level of about 28 percent” from the late 1980s to the present. This “percentage of the population” measure is very significant because it shows not only growth in terms of real numbers, but enough growth to keep up with or even exceed the rate of population growth. That’s not nothing.

The United States Is Not Becoming More Secular

Second, the United States is not growing more secular. The Harvard/Indiana University sociologists wanted to test the “secularization thesis,” the idea that modern life, cultural advancement, the abundance of material possessions, and the dominance of a scientific worldview inevitably translate into a culture where religion becomes increasingly irrelevant and relegated to the blue-hair pensioners and a few superstitious, anti-science hangers-on.

These two scholars asked whether this thesis was indeed true for America, and tested the assumption using some sophisticated measures. Their findings? It’s certainly not what most would have guessed.

What made their study unique was that they measured not only faith practices and beliefs—things like prayer habits, church attendance, and one’s view of the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible—but also the intensity of faith, the seriousness with which people practiced and believed these things, thus being able to distinguish between the dabblers from the diligent disciples. These two scholars’ findings were clear and remarkably counterintuitive. In the introduction of their study, they let their readers know point blank:

We show that rather than religion fading into irrelevance as the secularization thesis would suggest, intense religion—strong affiliation, very frequent practice, literalism and evangelicalism—is persistent, and in fact, only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States.

Get that? “Only moderate religion is on the decline in the United States,” which is precisely what Stark and Pew found. Their findings show, as they explain, “the United States has demonstrated sustained levels of intense religiosity [of which they mean Christianity primarily] across key measures over the past decades that are unique when compared to other advanced, industrial societies.” They describe “a patently persistent level of strong affiliation … a very stable trend line,” confidently stating that the United States is a marked exception and distinguished counterexample to the secularization thesis.

Thus, Christian faith in America that takes scripture and the spiritual disciplines seriously has remained strongly vibrant right up to the present day. In fact, the data shows that believers who pray many times a day have increased by more than 8 percent since 1991, and those who attend church services more than once a week rose slightly. Pew Research Center findings show the same thing over the last decade.

Atheists Are Not More Numerous Than Theists

Third, not only are we not an increasingly secular nation, there is certainly not an atheism revival as the Daily Wire claimed. There are not more atheists in America than adherents of any other religion. Not anywhere close.

Their mistake was assuming that those who report no particular faith are indeed atheists. That leap is as large as it is incorrect. Most nones are not strict or even convictional unbelievers per se. They are mostly drifters and non-joiners, even as about a third admit that faith is important to them.

The latest year for which Pew has figures, only 3 percent of the U.S. population identifies as atheist. Yes, there has been a sizable increase here over the last decade, but that’s up from only 1.6 percent of all adults.

All in all, it’s a ripple—and this was during the glory days of the atheist revival spurred by the burst of popularity in the writings of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. Comparatively, if you could fit all the serious Christians in the United States on a couple of Greyhound buses, all the atheists could fit in the backseat of a Prius with room to spare.

Robust Christianity is not shrinking, not even among young adults. It is holding quite firm and even growing in many important ways. It is increasingly liberalized, orthodoxy-denying, and lukewarm faith that’s tanking as if it has a mill stone around its neck.

Don’t believe the alarmist Chicken Littles who say real Christianity is going the way of the VHS player. The best research from the leading academics shows them wrong time and again. It’s just that many of our most vocal commentators and journalists are not doing the needed due diligence to dig deeper into the larger literature on the topic. If they did, they would find a very different story: One of increasingly vibrant faith.

This article was adapted from “The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity is Actually Thriving in America and the World.” It releases June 18, 2019; pre-orders available now.

This article was written by Glenn Stanton and originally published on April 24th, 2019 by the The Federalist.

Glenn Stanton

Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family

Former President of Palmetto Family


American Beliefs That Weaken Marriage

American Beliefs That Weaken Marriage

How is it that we can we value marriage so strongly as a highly important life goal, but act as if we don’t? Here are a few reasons.

Two key social indicators give us two very different answers:

  • The overwhelming majority of young people hold marriage and parenting as two “extremely important” life goals, and this majority has actually grown slightly in the past few years (77 percent for men, 86 percent for women).
  • If you look at the choices people actually make however, the choice to marry and stay married has slowly and steadily declined over the past few decades while cohabitation, non-marital childbearing and childlessness are all increasing markedly. Divorce is leveling off finally, but at a very high level.

So why can we value marriage so strongly as a highly important life goal, but act as if we don’t?

Of course, the answers to this question are complex, having many important and curious angles. The central reasons offered by leading family historians and sociologists are broken down below.

A) Marriage and Individualism: Distinctly American, but Contrary Values

Individualism – Sociologist Robert Bellah, in his landmark study Habits of the Heart, states that “Individualism lies at the very core of American culture.” It was this very spirit that led our ancestors to these shores, but in the last 50 years, it shifted from a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps type of rugged individualism to an expressive individualism. This new individualism is the pursuit of self-actualization and personal growth, in which our first allegiance is to express and act on the fulfillment of our unique needs and desires. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s recent comment to the Associated Press that he would die knowing he had met his “soul-mate” but that he would try to fall back in love with his wife couldn’t better demonstrate this value if it had been scripted by Hollywood.

This individualism is at direct odds with our other key American value: successful marriage and family. As leading sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University explains, “Both cultural models [individualism and marriage] are so ingrained that Americans move from one set of tools to another without necessarily realizing it.” We saw this clearly in Gov. Sanford’s positioning. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead explains the impact of this conflict between our marriage/family value and expressive individualism:

“Beginning in the late 1950s, Americans began to change their ideas about the individual’s obligation to family and society. Broadly described, this change was away from an ethic of obligation to others and toward an obligation to self.”

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the self-denial and sacrifice required for marriage and parenthood too often lose out to the desire of self. This is evidenced by the fact that two-thirds of divorces in America stem, not from abusive or seriously troubled marriages, but from “good-enough” marriages where husband and wife simply drift apart over time. Expressive individualism isn’t always at odds with marriage per se, but it is at odds with the spirit of marriage. This feeds another American belief that weakens marriage.

Expressive Marriage – This new form of marriage is centrally about the individual. I call these “eHarmony” or “soul-mate” marriages. The concern is certainly not with eharmony as a resource, but with their advertising strategy. In their commercials, marriage is primarily about me finding that other person out there who is just perfect for me: my soul-mate! As any older, successfully married couple will tell you, you don’t marry your soul mate. You marry a person you care for deeply and with whom you want to spend the rest of your life. And as you grow together – knocking the rough edges off each other – you forge a beautiful life together, becoming authentic soul-mates.

The Ideal Marital Value – Sociologist Ann Swidler summarizes the authentic Christian ideal of marriage as pointedly as the most capable pastor. She explains,

“In the evangelical Christian view, then, love involves placing duty and obligation above the ebb and flow of feeling, and, in the end, finding freedom in willing sacrifice of one’s own interest to another. … Christian love is, in the view of its practitioners, built on solider stuff than personal happiness or enjoyment. It is, first, a commitment, a form of obedience to God’s word. In addition, love rests less on feeling than on decision and action. Real love may even, at times, require emotional self-denial, pushing feelings back in order to live up to one’s commitments. Most critical in love are a firm decision about where one’s obligations lie and a willingness to fulfill those obligations in action, independent of the ups and downs of one’s feelings. … Only by having an obligation to something higher than one’s own preference or one’s own fulfillment, they insist, can one achieve a permanent love relationship.”

Note the stark difference here from an eHarmony ad-script. Even the secular Jewish psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, is truer to the ideal of the Christian marriage script than many Christians today.

“Love should be essentially an act of will, a decision to commit my life completely to that of another person. This is indeed the idea behind the idea of the insolubility of marriage. … To love someone is just not a strong feeling – it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling may come and it may go.”

B) Historical/Social Shifts

Companionate Marriage – In 1945, ground-breaking sociologist Ernest Burgess noted that marriage in America had been shifting “from an institution to a companionship” over the previous few decades. This was a profound shift, reaching its peak in the 1950s, motivated by changing national economics and the rise of suburban life, leading to the single-earner breadwinner/homemaker marriage where husband and wife became companions, lovers and friends first, and then co-collaborators in etching out a living. Thus, marriage became a significant source of satisfaction for the couple (as opposed to the individual focus that would come later), rather than an institution that served as a necessary structure for community connection and survival. This new form of marriage was exemplified by the marital durability and happiness seen in the 1950s, which also resulted and benefited from the lingering institutional view of marriage. It is not difficult to see, however, how companionate marriage served as a transition point from marriage as an institution that laid claims and responsibilities upon two people to marriage as a relational vehicle focused primarily on self-fulfillment.

Marriage historian and sociologist Andrew Cherlin explains how companionate marriage led to this more modern form:

“When people evaluated how satisfied they were with their marriages, they began to think more in terms of the development of their own sense of self and the expression of their feelings, as opposed to the satisfaction they gained through building a family and playing the roles of spouse and parent. The result was a transition from the companionate marriage to what we might call the individualized marriage.”

And while the spread of no-fault divorce laws throughout the nation in the 1970s and 80s legally permitted easier divorce, it was this individualized or expressive view of marriage which drove Americans to seek divorce in dramatic numbers. Moving to better marriages made for happier adults and happier adults were better parents and happier parents meant happier children, or so the reasoning went. But it didn’t work out as rosy as all that. Divorce is not as likely to lead to greater happiness when compared to couples who commit to improve their unhappy marriage. And the view of divorce changed. Rather than seen as a family tragedy, divorce was now seen as a new kind of success; a bold, assertive move to take control of one’s life – especially for women. This new form of divorce is referred to by sociologists as “expressive divorce.”

The Pill – In July 1961, G.D. Searle & Co. made available the first birth control pill. The effectiveness of this powerful pill created a significant personal and cultural psychological disconnect between the sexual act and the possibility of children. And since this pill was managed by the woman privately, and separate from the sexual act itself, a resultant child was increasingly seen by men as the woman’s responsibility. If she became pregnant, the personal or cultural pressure upon him to “do the right thing by her” and get a “shotgun wedding” was increasingly dampened because the man saw the woman as responsible for her own “protection.” The Pill’s impact upon marriage in terms of sexual opportunism, father responsibility and the blessing of children has been profound.

No Good Men – A greeting card asks the question, “Why are men like parking spaces?” Answer: “All the good ones are taken.” That has been the cry of twenty-something women over the past few decades. Now we hear, “Why aren’t their any good men to begin with?” Young women are realizing the problem is not that they showed up too late, but that there are very few “marriage material” men to be found even by those who did show up early. As one professional 26-year-old women explained about her highly male-populated MBA program, “There’s a reason those men are left in the pool. They are either drinking themselves silly on the weekends, or they want the ‘fun’ of a relationship without the commitment.” She smartly summed up the state of the game among this abundance of second-rate males, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” These girls will tell you, speaking of maturity and quiet confidence, there are far more Will Ferrells out there than Will Smiths. And if women cannot find good men to marry, no marriage. So they remain single or just move in with a guy to see how it might work out.

C) Misc. Attitudinal Shifts

De-narrated Marriage – Young people today do not have an over-arching narrative for understanding what marriage is or should be beyond their own personal happiness and contentment. Largely because of widespread divorce among their parents, they have no larger context for its meaning, purpose or reasons to work hard at it. Of course, this is another result of individualized or expressive marriage. Novelist Douglas Coupland, the chronicler of the last two generations’ fears and feelings, explains what this absence of narrative produces in young lives.

“One factor that sets us apart from other animals is that our lives need to be stories, narratives, and when our stories vanish, that is when we feel lost, dangerous, out of control and susceptible to the forces of randomness. It is the process whereby one loses one’s life story: denarration.”

Marriage is now denarrated. And with it, any reason that marriage itself should make demands upon us.

Cohabitation – The fastest growing family form today is cohabitation, the most prevalent type of relationship among twenty-somethings. Nonmarital child-bearing is its closest challenger. Many young people (and the not-so-young) are cohabiting today, not so much out of an anti-marriage attitude, but out of fear of failing at marriage. Cohabitation is a place-holder relationship until Mr/Mrs Right comes along, or to see if Mr/Mrs Right is really all that right.

Cohabitation however, rather then strengthening future marriages, is actually more likely to harm them. One reason is that people who are cohabiting learn to negotiate with each other in less healthy ways because the relationship is less defined in terms of commitment and solidity. Therefore manipulation and power plays are more likely to be a part of negotiations.

Sex and Gender Roles Don’t Matter – Same-sex “marriage” is a harm to marriage and this radical new relational form only makes sense if we agree that marriage is not necessarily about children nor male or female, but only exists for the satisfaction of an androgynous couple or individual adult. But heterosexuality itself is very confused about the importance of male and female in marriage. Most men do not know their role in marriage, nor do women. In fact, many groups find the previous sentence highly offensive on its face. But we are confused as to how to be men and women in the family today.

Connected to the “no good men” item above, men are at a loss for knowing how to lead and protect their families. A feminized culture sees male leadership as putting his wife in a subservient position? But this leadership has more to do with faithful servanthood than patriarchy. And the reticence and timidity on the part of men causes women to feel they need to fill the gap which they often do with subtle attitude and quiet resentment toward their husbands. Researchers find this male reticence moves the wife into a “gatekeeper” role in marriage and parenting, further crowding out the man.

Wedding as Status Symbol – Increasingly, the wedding and marriage are status-statements of achievement, rather than about forging a life together forever. Professor Cherlin explains marriage has “evolved from a marker of conformity to a marker of prestige.” Marriage is now “a status one builds up to … It used to be the foundation of adult personal life; now it is sometimes the capstone.” The wedding itself has increasingly become a symbol of one’s professional and material achievements and a major step in their self-development; a sign that one has achieved, rather than the institution that helps the couple/partnership achieve their dreams. And those who don’t think they have achieved are less likely to marry.

What is more, couples would never think of staging a wedding without elaborate plans and great forethought, but usually do exactly that with their marriage.

Premarital Sex is of No Consequence – For most young people, in and out of the Church, there is very little appreciation that premarital sex – with or without your future spouse – has a substantial impact on marital health. Research consistently shows that the most sexually satisfied adults are married couples with no pre-marital sexual history, but this is lost in our over-sexualized culture. And our sexual histories are often unwittingly brought into the marriage bed, plaguing and clouding the relationship between the husband and wife. We take early sexual experiences into our later relationships and they can cause serious trouble for the marriage.

Glenn Stanton

Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family


Premarital Sex and Greater Risk of Divorce

Premarital Sex and Greater Risk of Divorce

Having sex with someone who is not our spouse can have a real, measurable and harmful impact upon later relationships.

This is a question many young people ponder. Even if you grow up with a faith or belief system that teaches sex before marriage is wrong, many wonder what real, practical difference engaging in unmarried sex might have beyond the risk of unmarried pregnancy or contracting an infection.

Well, here’s one: New data emerging consistently for decades show that premarital sexual activity seems to be associated with a significant elevated risk of divorce. And, as nearly all people enter marriage desiring it last, this is not a small consideration for teens and young adults.

Let’s look at the handful of leading population-based studies exploring this question and what they find.

Kahn and London, 1991

Data from the National Survey of Family Growth indicate that “women who are sexually active prior to marriage faced considerably higher risk of marital disruption than women who were virgin brides.” These scholars explain that even when controlling for various differentials between virginal and non-virginal groups — such as socio-economics, family background as well as attitudinal and value differences — “non-virgins still face a much higher risk of divorce than virgins.”

Laumann, Gagnon, Michael and Michaels, 1994

The massive and highly respected National Health and Social Life Survey, conducted at the University of Chicago, was the first serious, fully reputable study of sexual behavior in America. It found a marked connection between premarital sex and elevated risk of divorce. The authors explain:

“For both genders, we find that virgins have dramatically more stable first marriages…”

“The finding confirms the results reported by Kahn and London…those who are virgins at marriage have much lower rates of separation and divorce.”

Additionally, “Those who marry as non-virgins are also more likely – all other things being equal – to be unfaithful over the remainder of their life compared with those spouses who do marry as virgins.”

This higher prevalence of marital infidelity among the non-virginal is assumed to be an important factor in their higher likelihood of divorce, while “those who are virgins at marriage are those who go to greater lengths to avoid divorce.” Essentially, non-virgins typically appear to do more to harm their marriages and virgins do more to strengthen them.

Heaton, 2002

In a study looking at factors impacting increased marital stability, Brigham Young sociologist Tim Heaton examined how premarital sexual experience, premarital child-bearing, cohabitation and marrying someone of a different religious faith were all associated with greater risk of divorce. Heaton explains, “Dissolution rates are substantially higher among those who initiate sexual activity before marriage.” Heaton asserts that divorce is more likely among the sexually active and cohabitors because they have established their life together on “relatively unstable sexual relationships.”

Teachman, 2003

Sociologist Jay Teachman examined how both premarital sex and cohabitation impacts risk of divorce among women. He found that “[i]t remains the case, however, that women with more than one intimate relationship prior to marriage have an elevated risk of marital disruption.”

Paik, 2011

This newest study looks specifically at first sexual experience in adolescence and was conducted by Professor Anthony Paik at the University of Iowa. He explains that his “research shows that adolescent sexuality/premarital sex is associated with marital dissolution” and that a significant factor is whether the sexual experience in later adolescence was welcomed by the girl. He explains, “Adolescent sexual debut that is not completely wanted is both directly and indirectly linked to marital dissolution” which are the overwhelming majority of adolescent sexual experiences for girls. Seldom do they report not being pressured or forced into sex.

Paik also found that females who first had sex in their teens had roughly double the risk of divorce later in life compared to women who had their first unmarried sexual experience in their adult years.

He found that teen girls who experienced their first sexual experience with a young man who would eventually be her husband did not have particularly elevated risk of divorce. However, very few of girls who lose their virginity in their teens end up having only had sex with their husband. The overwhelming majority of non-virginal adolescent girls – nearly all – end up having had sex with multiple partners before marriage, thus increasing their later risk for divorce. 


Science is now showing us what our grandmothers and pastors knew all along. Having sex with someone who is not our spouse can have a real, measurable and harmful impact upon later relationships.

When we give ourselves away – and sex is a full giving of ourselves away physically, emotionally, spiritually – to someone outside the commitment and protection of marriage, it breaks down an important part of us, making our future relationships more unhealthy and difficult to sustain.

Young adults have a right to know about this sort of empirical information because of its very real potential impact on their later, most-important relationships.

Glenn Stanton

Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family


Here’s What 69 Percent Of Americans Say Brings The Greatest Meaning To Their Lives

Here’s What 69 Percent Of Americans Say Brings The Greatest Meaning To Their Lives

We must not forget that one of the most important aspects of being human is that we are made for others, and we cannot live in isolation.

The good folks at the Pew Research Center have just released a major new report on a very important question: Where do Americans find most meaning in life? The answer to this question is perhaps the greatest indicator of the kind of people we are, individually and collectively. It also telegraphs the kind of nation we are. Therefore, Americans’ answers on this topic matter.

So, what did Pew find? Was it work, money, friends, pets, education, buying stuff, or hobbies and leisure that provided people the greatest sense of meaning and happiness? It was none of those. The absolute run-away answer was family, those enduring relationships between husbands and wives, children and parents, grandparents and grandchildren, along with uncles, aunties and cousins.

When asked the open-ended question about what brings the greatest meaning to their lives, where they could freely say what came to mind without prompting, 69 percent of Americans said family without being prompted in any way. The next highest factor was one’s career, but by half as many votes. Third was money, but with three times fewer adults listing it compared to family. Nineteen percent said friends gave their lives a major sense of meaning, and a measly 5 percent said their pets did.

Only 7 percent listed their community as significantly meaningful, and 5 percent said a sense of “making a difference” did. Thus, family had no close competitor and no replacement. Not even friends and community, when it comes right down to it. This was true across all socio-demographic groups.

When it came to a similar, but more definitive question, “What is the MOST important source of meaning in your life?” — determining the intensity of their answer — family was still the run-away winner. Second to family in this more specific close-ended question, but by half, was one’s religious faith, at 40 and 20 percent of Americans saying so respectively. Only 4 percent of Americans said their job or career was the most important source of meaning, 6 percent said their pets, and 4 percent spending time with friends. Family and faith were both way out front of every other factor.

This is not a one-off finding. Family has been consistently listed among the most important life goals and sources of satisfaction and happiness for Americans for as long as such surveys have been conducted. Regardless of how materialistic, politically divided, and atomistic our culture gets, family and faith still play very substantial roles in the human heart. Let’s look at some of the other research that shows how important family is to both young and old.

Child Trends, a non-partisan research firm in Washington D.C., released a 2009 report revealing that 83 percent of young adults say that being married someday is a “very important” or “important” life goal. Remarkably, only 5 percent said marrying was unimportant to them.

In 2007, an MTV survey found that young people said their families were their primary source of happiness, followed by spending time with friends or a significant other. Nearly none of them mentioned money as a source of happiness. That same year, the London School of Economics reported the top life-desire for young adults in the United Kingdom was for a happy marriage and family, with almost a third of women citing it as their childhood dream. Nearly one in five men said it was their top choice as well.

Additionally, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan conducted a survey examining four decades of family attitude trends in the United States, drawing from five large-scale, nationally representative data sets. They report that for all the change seen in social values and family trends, “there is very little evidence that the commitment of Americans to children, marriage and family life has eroded substantially in the past two decades.”

Of course, commitment to something is different than how people actually behave in things like divorce, cohabitation, and unmarried childbearing. Unfortunately, all of these exist at very high levels, with cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births continuing to climb at dramatic rates. The American divorce rate has stayed level at a very high rate since the early 1980s, even showing some indication of declining a tad in the last ten years.

But each of these is no one’s life dream. If today’s young adults could wave a wand and create the kinds of lifelong relationships they deeply desire, a lasting, happy marriage and thriving parenthood is their greatest wish. It is the nature of the human heart and soul to deeply desire enduring marriage and raising happy children.

In fact, these University of Michigan researchers explain, “As compared to the 1970s, young Americans in the 1990s were more committed to the importance of a good marriage and family life” and parenthood was viewed by young people then as more fulfilling than it was three decades ago. There is no substantive indication this has declined today and could very well be continuing to increase.

Many sociologists surmise this could well be because generations tend to yearn especially for that which they were denied in their formative years. This is evidenced in the fact that the children of the Great Depression went on to become one of the most materially prosperous generations of adults in our nation’s history. Both Xers and Millennials were severely robbed of loving, intact, enduring families by the millions. They were the first generations of Americans to see so many of their own families die or never form in the first place. For them, family is so much more than a feeling of nostalgia. They know firsthand, in a deeply embedded way, that nothing can replace it.

We must not forget that one of the most important aspects of being human is that we are made for others, and we cannot live in isolation. We are made to love and be loved. And the most important and meaningful places where people find these are with their family and with God — the very local and transcendent. All other relationships and life-aspects orbit around these, and research shows this time and again. Pew’s work in this report is simply the latest installment in this story.

It’s why there will always be a robust job market for those working to strengthen both of these relational aspects in people’s lives. They are not only what people want, but what they need.

This article was written by Glenn Stanton and originally published on December 6th, 2018 by the The Federalist.

Glenn Stanton

Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family


The Upside of Nagging

The Upside of Nagging

If marriage is indeed the “old ball and chain” it is because it brings people into our lives who tie us down to healthy behaviors and habits.

For many decades now, it has been shown in sociological, psychological and medical research that married men and women tend to do better in every important measure of physical, social and psychological well-being compared to the unmarried of any category. The literature on this fact is broad, consistent and well-documented.

A 2009 study from the Journal of Marriage and Family explains that “a classic social science tenet is that married people face a lower mortality risk than unmarried people” and this “mortality gap between the married and unmarried…raises concern for population health.” Some research indicates that the notable health and mortality gap between the married and unmarried of every category has remained relatively constant over the past two decades.

Why the Health Premium for Marrieds?

Many scholars have wondered exactly why marriage provides such benefits while cohabitation does not. It has to be more than simply having someone to share life with. Some contend that it’s actually the nature of marriage and the state of being married that brings these benefits. Others wonder if it’s simply that healthy people are more likely to be a desirable spouse, therefore we find that the married are the healthiest. There is some reasonableness to this idea. However, of those who suddenly face a serious health issue such as cancer, the married tend to recover quicker and more successfully than the single, divorced or cohabiting. Other findings support the protective quality of marriage.

This brings us to the topic of this FINDINGS: What is the personal benefit of having someone in our lives who’s concerned about us and takes interest in the business of our behaviors, attitudes and general well-being? The answer might surprise you.

“Social control” is the term sociologists use to refer to the activity of one person influencing and directing the behavior of someone else. All cultures and people need this. In the early years of life, it’s called parenting. But in later years, it is still needed. In terms of everyday adult domestic relationships, the old fashioned term is “nagging.” And it does keep us healthier. Essentially it involves someone who loves us reminding us of things like “eat your vegetables” “get a good night’s sleep” “don’t drive so fast” “be sure to wear your scarf and ear muffs!” and “how many donuts have you had today?” These may not always be welcomed questions in our lives, but they do make us healthier.

A scholar who has long studied this dynamic of social control is Debra Umberson, a sociologist at the University of Texas Austin. In one of her first articles on this topic, she concludes, “it appears that social integration via marriage and parenthood has an inhibiting effect on health-compromising behavior.” She explains:

“Spouses or children may tell or remind an individual to engage in health behaviors or avoid taking risks. For example, an individual might remind his or her spouse to avoid using salt because of its effect on blood pressure. Regulation may also take the form of sanctions or threatened sanctions: an individual might threaten to leave a spouse because of excessive alcohol consumption.”

It makes sense. Family members (children, parents and spouse) are typically those most motivated to insert themselves into our business and habits because they love and are tied to us in the deepest ways humans can be linked. And unlike boy/girl friends or cohabiting partners, family members are not as likely to take off when we do encourage them to change behaviors. Spouses, children and parents are more likely to be seen as having such an imposing right.

Research specifically comparing marrieds and cohabitors found, “there was no additional survival advantage for persons who lived with someone other than a spouse…[T]he critical factor for survival was the presence of a spouse.” Cohabitors were more likely to resemble singles in terms of health outcomes.

Women Have the Power, Wives Even More

A very consistent theme in Umberson’s research is that “respondents are more likely to report women [wives for married men and mothers and sisters for non-married men] as people who attempt to control their behavior.”

Umberson explains, “When asked if they ever told or reminded anyone to protect their health, the female respondents almost always responded affirmatively and provided specific examples.” She cites a 33-year-old married woman her team interviewed who confessed,

“My husband, I feel free to nag. He comes from a high risk family for heart disease, and I nag him regularly – about exercise primarily.”

Given the difference in married and single men’s health outcomes, it appears — not surprisingly — that wives are more powerful in changing grown men’s behavior than even their own mothers. If marriage is indeed the “old ball and chain” it is because it brings people into our lives who tie us down to healthy behaviors and habits and away from the doctor’s and psychiatrist’s office as well as the funeral home.

That is a rich gift that marriage provides to us, our children and the larger community.

Glenn Stanton

Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family