Do Children of the 'Unequally Yoked' Do Worse?
The September 2007 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion includes a study by Ph.D. student Richard J. Petts and assistant professor Chris Knoester of The Ohio State University on the question of religious heterogamy between parents, or the effects of parents being "unequally yoked" on their children. How do children fare when one parent is a believer of some kind and the other is not?
The authors noted studies confirming positive effects of religious participation on the lives of children in the form of higher self-esteem, overall satisfaction, higher grades, and reduced usage of drugs and alcohol. Given the likelihood that mixed-faith marriages would tend to reduce religious participation and cause marital conflict, the authors hypothesized that children would be negatively impacted by these marriages.
The study produced surprising results. Children of religiously unmatched parents did not manifest lower grades, lower self-esteem, or lower satisfaction. But they were far more likely to use marijuana and engage in underage drinking.
I interviewed Richard Petts about his findings.
Are religiously heterogamous unions on the rise? If so, why do you think that is?
All signs point to a sizeable increase in religiously heterogamous marriages, although detailed numbers are hard to come by.
There are a number of reasons for this increase. First, increased individualism among Americans starting in the 1960s led to a greater focus on spirituality and personalized religious practices. This led many people to turn away from traditional churches, and also helped to increase acceptance of religious diversity.
Moreover, religious affiliation as an identifying characteristic seems to have declined in importance. For example, people may identify more closely with labels such as "religious" or "Christian" instead of "Methodist."
Religions have also become more accepting of interfaith marriages than in the past.
Finally, higher education and mobility in the U.S. (as well as new waves of immigration from both Christian and non-Christian countries) mean that people are more likely to meet individuals from diverse religious backgrounds. Increased acceptance and a greater likelihood of interacting with people of different religions increase the likelihood of marrying outside of one's religious denomination.
The study is limited to families with parents in their first marriage. Wouldn't such families they have more stability and therefore greater social capital? How did that affect the study?
To some extent, you are correct. There is likely some bias here towards children raised in more stable family situations. However, this bias is consistent for both the same-faith and interfaith families in the study.
Our study may be limited in that these results may only hold true for families with greater social capital, but the fact that we find differences between children raised in religiously heterogamous families suggests that there is something unique about the religious dynamics in these families that affects youths' outcomes.
I suspect that parents in the interfaith marriages included in our study may have been better equipped to handle the stresses associated with these differences, which may help to explain the lack of significant differences in outcomes such as self-esteem and life satisfaction. If this is the case, then our study provides a very conservative estimate on the effect of parents' religious heterogamy on children's well-being, because interfaith marriages with lower social capital may have already dissolved (which is detrimental to children's well-being).