When a group’s beliefs aren’t based in reality, it’s very easy for its members to suffer from confirmation bias. They perceive only things they think confirm their beliefs. Christianity in general is a great place to encounter confirmation bias in the wild, since the more conservative the Christians the worse they’ll suffer from. Earlier, I ran across a story from the conservative Catholic site Aleteia about early marriage. Its writer draws conclusions that fly in the face of every single fact we know about early marriage, focusing instead on some very skewed studies that she thinks confirm the benefits of early marriage. And along the way, she makes a bunch of other logical mistakes.

Confirmation bias might be one of the most human mistakes to make. So let’s examine this story to learn how we can challenge our own preconceptions in other areas.

(This post went live on Patreon on 1/31/2023. Its audio cast lives there too. If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron!)

“Research shows” what about early marriage, now?

There’s a beautiful kind of irony about conservative Christians suddenly glomming onto what they mistakenly think is rigorous research that confirms their beliefs. It doesn’t matter if it’s zany Creationists or wackadoodle Catholics. They all love seizing fake or shoddy research with both hands and crowing to the skies about how this has vindicated everything they’ve been saying all along.

When the fake or shoddy research gets revealed as such, though, they all tend to take vows of silence. The first time I saw it happen, I was shocked.

If you’re wondering, a fundagelical dude claimed online that “research showed” that the Shroud of Turin was real. I explained why that was not good research at all. In fact, no real research supports the veracity of any Christian miracle claim. He appeared to understand. However, the next day I saw him making exactly the same claim elsewhere online. When I confronted him, it was like he had no memory of our earlier conversation.

But this happened years ago. I’m well used to Christian “research” claims now. (Though I’m quoting the source post, consider these scare quotes too.)

This time around, a Catholic writer for a conservative Catholic site thinks that “research shows” that marrying very young without cohabitation “results in the most durable marriages.” Paola Belletti writes:

Many couples live together before marriage, but it turns out this approach often leads to a lot of pain and heartbreak. [. . .]

It’s a common belief among “secular” young people that it’s much more convenient to marry around age 30 if you want to have less risk of divorce. Yet, the risk of divorce is greatly reduced for their counterparts with religious faiths (not just Christianity), who instead usually marry in their 20s, certainly before their 30s.

She ends by hoping that with this totally rigorous new research, “Perhaps even the voice of the Catholic Church may now be heard more clearly and freshly.”

But it won’t, and here’s why.

The “research” leading to confirmation bias this time

Here is the “research” presented in the story:

Galena Rhoades, a Duke University psychology research professor, offers a YouTube video claiming that more sexual experience predetermines unhappy and short marriages later. She bases her assertions on a new release from the National Marriage Project, 2022 State of Our Unions. This release specifically asks, “Is Marrying Later Always Better? New Report Says No.”

The report comes to us straight from Brigham Young University (BYU). Every person involved with writing it comes from BYU. Rhoades wasn’t involved in making this booklet, but her YouTube video talks about it.

Also, I turned up a 2006 study Rhoades did about cohabitation. It sought to find a “cohabitation effect” to explain why cohabitation tends to correlate with divorce. The study concludes that some couples might migrate into marriage via cohabitation, and that this choice might not happen without cohabitation.

In addition, in 2014 Rhoades worked with the National Marriage Project called “Before ‘I Do.'” It’s a booklet featuring the photo of a young baby wearing a T-shirt reading, “What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas.” Charming. It seeks to frighten young adults out of having premarital sex or cohabiting, or even dating a lot before marriage. Among other things it implies as threats, the booklet implies that cohabitation partners dealing with domestic violence might settle into marriage instead of breaking up as they should, which would totally make for a sucky marriage (as per the 2006 research).

Interestingly, that 2014 booklet also tries to frighten young couples out of eloping or having an informal or casual wedding party. No, they must have formal blowouts with the full-meal deal of ritualism if they want happy marriages!

More “research” convincing Catholics of untrue things

Next up, Belletti refers to “research” quoted in National Review, a right-wing ultra-conservative magazine. In turn, the writer there refers to a 2021 release from the extremely religious and right-wing Institute for Family Studies (IFS). (IFS quotes accolades from Ross Douthat!) I notice more than a few Mormon names in their staff list as well.

Specifically, this quoted “research” comes to us from Lyman Stone, of all people. Back in 2020, we had a good time talking about his fearmongering and non-solutions regarding Christianity’s decline. Dude actually stated out loud that religious persecution and massacres of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ were on the table as potential outcomes if Christians couldn’t reverse their decline.

So now, Stone claims that there’s some kind of odd “paradox” for religious married couples: When they marry really young, they divorce less. He also seeks to find a link between people’s level of religious upbringing and their chances of cohabitation per year, just so he can say that religion impacts cohabitation decisions.

In reality, the numbers do not look very different at all. About 1% of nonreligious people have a chance of marrying without cohabitation, while just over 2% of religious people do. This is how Stone massages those numbers:

For women with a non-religious upbringing who have not yet married or cohabited, about 1% are likely to begin a direct marriage in a given year. For religious people generally, it’s a little more than 1.5%. But for women with Evangelical Protestant or Non-Christian Religious upbringings, the rate of entrance into marriage is over 2%: this is twice the rate of entrance into “direct” marriage.

Similarly, he found very few links between religious upbringing and divorce rates. In fact, he shot himself in the foot by discovering that any couple marrying before age 20 had a larger chance of divorcing than almost any other age or religion group. Worse, older religious couples who cohabit first have almost the lowest chance of divorce out of all groups:

And nobody will be surprised to learn that nonreligious cohabiting couples are way more likely to break up than married couples are, but he makes a big deal of that too.

Leaping into confirmation bias

Aleteia’s writer concludes that Catholic teachings about early marriage and no premarital sex are actually the best for humanity. Therefore, all humans should adopt it. Of course, she cautions, they should adopt it as part of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™:

True, religious marriage lived purely out of conformity to social norms, without awareness of the ideal it embodies, has also been a form of oppression in the past. Reduced to a compulsory custom, to an irresponsible convention, it was in danger of being reduced to a hypocritical appearance of fidelity.

But that is absolutely not what Stone concluded. He wasn’t even examining the depth or fervor of religious beliefs, just the presence/absence of a subject’s religious upbringing. He even included non-Christian religious traditions in his examination. To be fair to Stone, because I strive to be completely fair to everyone we discuss, he did not even once address why couples were conforming to religious rules. Dude didn’t even ask if his subjects’ married lives conformed at all in the first place. His conclusions are completely ridiculous, yes, but his actual research questions don’t refer to faith levels in the first place.

Y’all, I think this Catholic writer has put a few words in her sources’ mouths that they never actually said.

Further, people never rejected Catholic norms because they were hollow, shallow, appearances-based farces. They rejected them because decades of trial and error have revealed that those norms don’t work for most people—not even for most Catholics. So no: TRUE CATHOLICISM™ won’t fix the situation. Making sure couples know exactly why TRUE CATHOLICISM™ calls for early marriage won’t ensure that young couples stay together longer, any more than knowing what prayer really totally means in the Bible ensures that Christians pray more often.

How we know young marriages lead more to divorce

Since the 1960s at least, researchers have studied young marriage, which they usually define as marriages entered into before age 21 for men and 18 for women. This research has consistently found a robust link between age at marriage (for women in particular) and a union’s likelihood of divorce.

One 2020 source even calls age at marriage “among the most important predictors of marital stability, independent of the historical period.” It elaborates on this predictor at some length.

The opposite link exists, as well, and it’s equally robust: When people delay marriage, they become far less likely to divorce. Right now, with people entering marriage later than ever, researchers expect a big decline in America’s divorce rate. As one study from 2019 concludes:

The reasons that higher education, older age at marriage, and lower-order marriage all reduce the odds of divorce are beyond the scope of this analysis, but they are consistent with long-standing observations about marital stability (Isen and Stevenson 2010; Lundberg, Pollak, and Stearns 2016)

This link between age and divorce even occurs in other countries. In 2004, researchers even noted that delayed age at marriage had impacted the divorce rate of super-religious Indonesia!

But you know what researchers don’t often cite as a predictor of a union’s durability and happiness? Religion, religious fervor, religious commitment, or anything like that. In fact, religious sentiment seems to be almost irrelevant to the question of a marriage’s chance of success. Even Lyman Stone couldn’t spin his numbers that far.

And I’d argue that religion isn’t relevant to the doings of our everyday lives, our personalities, or our decision-making processes. Little to no difference exists between Christians and non-Christians. Each group’s members have premarital sex, get divorced, cheat on their spouses, and everything else. Even when a couple professes deeply-held religious beliefs, they get on with divorcing if divorcing seems necessary to them. And the factors that make divorce seem necessary to religious couples are the same ones that make it seem necessary to nonreligious couples.

Defeating confirmation bias

When people have beliefs they really want to be true, there’s a serious danger in accepting the first hit of information that seems to confirm that belief. As humans, we’re really, really good at grabbing those hits and then ignoring anything that doesn’t work to confirm our belief.

Brains are expensive to run, after all. Overwhelmingly often, they try to do as little work as possible. That’s why we have to be careful about anything that seems to confirm a deeply-held belief of ours, especially if that belief is part of an overall belief system that cannot be supported with objective evidence. If that belief relates to morality somehow, that rule goes double. Maybe triple.

When we start to bask in the glow of PROOF YES PROOF, that’s a good time to stop and ask about contradictory information.

If this Aleteia writer had done that, she’d have discovered that a young age at marriage is a huge predictor of divorce regardless of a couple’s religious beliefs. (And about 95% of Americans have premarital sex by age 44. Religion slightly influences fervent Christians to abstain while very young, but they eventually catch up with their heathen peers.) She might also have noticed that overall, Americans’ marriage rate itself has declined steadily along with our divorce rate.

So people who cohabit and have premarital partners might not even have the goal of a lifelong union anymore. And they certainly aren’t rushing into anything just to make hardcore Catholics feel better.

Without the central pillar of Christianity being real, its beliefs won’t relate to reality

In a lot of ways, the central pillar of Christianity—a real live god who loves his followers (or all humanity)—doesn’t exist. At most, he doesn’t meaningfully exist. More likely, he doesn’t exist at all. Without him there to make the other beliefs work, they just, well, don’t. They’re like clothes flung across a dressmaker’s form. They’ll hang there all right, but they won’t make the form get up and dance if it can’t already do that.

Often, Christians insist that their religious rules work for all of humanity, then imply (or state outright) that this must mean their god is real. But their rules don’t work, and even if they did that wouldn’t mean their central belief in a real live god is true.

Of course, Catholics add a doughnut-shaped pillar around that central one: a real live god who speaks through Catholic leaders to express his desires and instructions for all humanity. In her piece for Aleteia, Belletti tells us about that outer pillar:

Perhaps even the voice of the Catholic Church may now be heard more clearly and freshly.

Yet it is always the same voice, maternal and masterful, showing humanity its own nature, pointing out dangers, pointing out virtues and models, and offering a way to reach them.

She assigns a variety of qualities to this “voice,” too. Unfortunately for her and the rest of the contributors and readers of Aleteia, these qualities can be tested—and inevitably they’re found wanting.

Will the real voice of the Catholic Church please stand up?

Strangely, this same voice has silenced sex abuse victims and shuffled sex abusers around Catholic dioceses for centuries. This same voice also kidnapped children away from their families and sold them, enslaved women under the flimsiest of pretenses (and why not, as this same religion’s Pope fully endorsed slavery), and forcibly colonized native children and cultures all over the world. For centuries, this voice authorized and encouraged the torture, imprisonment, dispossession, and execution of dissenters and heretics. We might also mention that this same voice turned the AIDS crisis in Africa into a miserable epidemic and would rather see pregnant women die than grant them access to therapeutic abortions.

There is nothing “maternal and masterful” about “the voice of the Catholic Church.” It is the voice of purest evil: a cosmic horror on the galactic scale. It is an insectoid and reptilian, a bloodless and cold and clammy grating voice. In its weirdly roiling drumbeat tones, it demands the surrender and obedience of all who hear it. And it makes these demands whether or not everyone believes it to be the voice of a real live god who loves them.

It’s terrifying to anyone who believes in love, compassion, and working together in harmony to accomplish goals.

This voice doesn’t point out dangers. It is the danger. Nor does it offer a way to reach virtues and models. It offers only a way to obey, then demands everyone look away from all the stuff it’s said that was cruel and evil and completely wrong.

Even if hardline Catholics had somehow lucked into a link between following their outdated, misogynistic rules and marriages lasting longer and being happier, which they absolutely have not, that wouldn’t magically make their belief system into a net benefit for humanity.

Only confirmation bias gets them from the first point to the last. And that’s nothing steady or solid to hang anyone’s marriage on.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.


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