Divorce and the rise of the “nones”

October 10, 2016

A new group is dominating America’s religious landscape. According to a recent survey report from the Public Religion Research Institute, nearly 25 percent of Americans now “claim no formal religious identity.” In less than three decades, these “nones”—Americans claiming no formal religious affiliation—have grown from only six percent of the population into “the single largest ‘religious group’ in the U.S.”

This represents a staggering shift in America’s religious patterns. For decades, the Christian religion has dominated America’s religious and social life. But the rapid increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has already weakened traditional structures of American Christianity, and even more significantly, these trends likely portend a more secular future in terms of our nation’s public life.

The report indicates that the “growth of the unaffiliated has been fed by an exodus of those who grew up with a religious identity.” While the ranks of unaffiliated Americans have swelled more than 15 percent, the three largest Christian groups, Catholics, white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants, have all declined over the same period. Of these three, Catholics have suffered the largest decline, falling more than 10 percent. The research shows, “Nearly one-third (31 percent) of Americans report being raised in a Catholic household, but only about one in five (21 percent) Americans identify as Catholic currently.” At the same time, white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants are also experiencing negative growth, falling 2 percent and 5 percent of the total population, respectively.

The effects of divorce

The nature of these statistics leaves us with many questions, especially as we recognize that these declining percentages represent millions of people abandoning organized religion. So, we must ask, how did we get here?

The answer to that question is both complex and multi-faceted, but there is an interesting correlation mentioned in the PRRI’s report. Listed in the findings among the causes of disaffiliation is divorce.

Consider the following data:

These conclusions are certainly revealing. While divorce is by no means a definitive factor in determining whether an individual will continue to adhere to the religion of his or her youth, the data demonstrates that there is a strong correlation in this regard. The research positively establishes the fact that stability in the family increases the likelihood that an individual will develop strong religious habits. And conversely, it indicates that “the children of divorced parents have grown up to be adults of no religion.”

The importance for evangelicals

This is incredibly instructive for us as evangelicals. We have long maintained that the way we live tells the world what God is like. For Christian parents, it is equally true that the way we live tells our children what God is like. It should not be surprising then that our children have such difficulty maintaining their religious beliefs after the divorce of their parents.

We should take heed of these statistics and consider them in light of our own practices. For too long, our churches and pulpits have been silent on the issue of divorce. And the data indicates that this has crippled the faith of an entire generation:

Today, nearly four in ten (39 percent) young adults (ages 18–29) are religiously unaffiliated—three times the unaffiliated rate (13 percent) among seniors (ages 65 and older). While previous generations were also more likely to be religiously unaffiliated in their twenties, young adults today are nearly four times as likely as young adults a generation ago to identify as religiously unaffiliated. In 1986, for example, only 10 percent of young adults claimed no religious affiliation.

In response to this, we must consider carefully, our responsibility to cultivate Christ-centered marriages and families. And this reflection should take place on at least three levels.

  1. What can parents do? The family is the center of nurture and formation for the individual. Christian parents should strive to love their children and to raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Deut. 11:19, Eph. 6:4). Moreover, husbands and wives should strive to cultivate and maintain a healthy and sustainable marriage that is built on the foundation of the gospel, in order that their children might observe an accurate and healthy picture of the love and goodness of God. And in this regard, fathers should assume the responsibility of exercising spiritual leadership over their households.
  2. What can pastors do? Pastors should seek to equip their congregations with the resources and biblical wisdom to pursue gospel-centered marriages and families. Pastors should also assume the burden of speaking the truth about the issue of divorce. They must strive to faithfully uphold the teachings of Christ. This includes counseling, confronting and rebuking those under their care who may be tempted to forsake their marriage vows or those unwilling to cultivate a gospel-centered home.
  3. What can the church do? Local churches must recognize their unique stewardship in both partnering with parents to raise and disciple their children and to exercise spiritual care over one another. It is the duty of the local church to support and help sustain the marriage covenants represented among their membership. It is also the duty of the local church to love, assist, confront and rebuke those who fail to honor their commitments to the Lord as husbands, wives, daughters or sons.

It should be our desire to see our local churches filled with gospel-centered families seeking to share their lives with one another for the good of the church and the glory of God. We cannot be silent on the issue of divorce. For the faith of our children and the integrity of our public witness, we can and must do better. God help us.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24