I seem to remember that it was in the late 70s that the “families that pray together stay together” add campaign insulted airwaves and billboards across the country. When the numbers were run the campaign faded into obscurity. Apparently families that pray together are half again as likely not to stay together as those that do not pray at all. This is a good example of knowing the answer to something and then having difficulty making the data fit the previously decided correct answer. I should write a couple of entries on this sort of faulty reasoning. This post is more about the families staying together than on polishing reasoning skills.
So, do atheists get divorced?
Unfortunately they do. In fact over half of the marriages with at least one self identified atheist or agnostic will end in divorce within five years. It is just that this is a significantly smaller large number than the divorce rate for marriages with one or more self identified evangelical (or orthodox or fundamentalist or Mormon) in it.
Those of you with a statistical bent (and I feel your pain, really I do) are probably thinking about the synergies and instabilities caused by mixed faith marriages. Some are wondering how many of the atheist divorces are occurring in marriages where the other partner is a firm believer in an interventionist god. I will not disturb your wonderings by injecting any more poorly referenced statistics here.
I am more interested in what the above referenced data might mean in terms of what can be done to increase the level of stability. In other words; the atheists appear to be doing something right so how can we do more of it more often?
Many who stumble upon an internet site that speaks of atheists and marriage will be thinking of natural selection and sex. It is probably true that passionate sexually self-aware (even studly) people tend to be atheists. This would mean that marriages with at least one atheist would be less likely to have a frustrated partner. I do not have any data on this. As an experimental scientist I see this as an exciting and stimulating field of research (Especially if you are not stuck with the control group.).
All joking aside, the major predictive factor in marriages lasting is effective communication. Couples who have participated in communication effectiveness coding studies have been tracked for marriage longevity. The results were astounding. There were almost perfect levels of correlation between utilizing positive communication skills and relationship longevity. This correlation was independent of belief system, sexual orientation, frequency of sexual activity, income level, race, and almost any other identified variable. It was even mostly independent of how much each partner thought they loved the other partner.
There are two important points made in the last paragraph. First that being an atheist has little primary effect on the factors that make for a lasting relationship. Second is that love is not a deciding factor either. Effective positive communication trumps everything.
For those of you who have read this far wondering when I will jump the rails and go from describing information to wildly hypothesizing I will do it in the next paragraph.
Love clouds the mind and it is too easy for people under the powerful influence of love to believe that it exists in some magical dimension. Some even speak of love as being a shared emotion. The idea of a simultaneous emotional event actually obviates the need for any communication. If you can “feel in your heart” what is going on with your partner why communicate? Some of the very immature might even test the extent of love by seeing how well it substitutes for communication. In this way a spiritually-based knowledge of magical love actually impedes the development of a relationship where love can be mutually experienced by both partners.
In case you did not see where I went off the rails let me assure you that the next paragraph starts off the rails and continues on a tangent.
Love, though a singularly individual phenomenon, occurs as a result of human interaction. The use of effective communication and the continued self referential refinement of communication in a relationship increases the resolution of the human interaction. There are more triggers, more reinforcement, more about the situation to fall in love with. Communication sounds like only talking, and words are powerful to a lover, but at the level of love physical intimacy is powerful communication too. Identifying each interactive action as a loving gesture and consciously making the effort to engage one’s lover requires clarity and reason. Far from weakening love by removing its magic the atheist is uniquely positioned to love more and to love more fully.
We need to increase the amount of love in the world. The world will be a better place for it.
The part of loving communication easiest to control is listening. I hope that each person reading this will find something written to them (An old e-mail, a forgotten love letter, if nothing else this very blog post) and realize that it was a gesture of love. Feel the neurochemicals flooding the brain. Feel the heightened sense of awareness. Try re-reading the message (or this blog) and realize a more intense and intricate perspective on everything.
You love. You are human. Together we are humanity. We can make this a loving world together.