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Religious Adherence Influences Lifestyle and Experience

An economic interpretation of human behavior examines perceived benefits and costs of the decisions people make over their life cycle, including their choices about living together, marriage, divorce, family size and employment. Because those various decisions are closely related and influence one another, when religious teachings directly influence any one of them, the others are indirectly affected. That means that there is a religious cost or benefit associated with the teachings of faith traditions and how they change human behavior. It is no surprise, then, that several U.S. religious groups show patterns of economic and demographic behavior that diverge significantly from those of mainline Protestants. For example, Conservative Protestants stand out for their tendency to avoid cohabitation and enter into marriage and childbearing at a younger age. That correlates to lower levels of educational achievement, larger families, less likelihood that the wife works outside of the home and lower earnings when she does, a greater asymmetry in home-front labor divisions, and overall lower levels of family wealth. On the other hand, non-Orthodox Jews stand out for exhibiting the opposite patterns. Both male and female Jews tend to postpone marriage in order to complete higher levels of education, which results in smaller families, high levels of female employment, employment in high-earning occupations, a more equitable division of household responsibilities, and high levels of family wealth.

Mormons stand out for their unusually large families, low levels of female employment with low earning levels when they are employed, and high marriage stability. The “no religion” group stands out for its markedly higher level of marriage instability. Relatedly, families that participate more regularly in religious services within a congregation have children who are less likely to be involved in substance use and delinquency; those families also exhibit better parent-child relationships and better educational outcomes.

On the other hand, it may be that there can be too much of a good thing. Some recent studies have suggested that individuals who attend religious services weekly have higher earnings than those who attend less than weekly, but those who attend more than weekly also have lower earnings than those who attend weekly. One possible explanation for that downward turn among those who attend more frequently is that engaging in more religious activities begins to “crowd out” secular market activity. Similarly, religious participation is correlated to a reduction in at-home violence, but some religious restrictions — for example, strict teachings regarding gender roles and divorce — can lead to sustained abusive relationships.

Two other resources that might interest you are “Gender Differences in Religious Involvement,” and “The Impact of an Evangelical Worldview on Parenting and Family Life.” Also see our feature article on how people actually live out their faith, and explore the links and suggestions in our article, “Best Resources to Research Cultural Trends.” 

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