Religion, Atheism and Teen Pregnancy

Bristol Palin, raised in a religious home, became pregnant as a teenager
Bristol Palin, raised in a religious home, became pregnant as a teenager

Religion and Teen Pregnancy

What is the relationship between religious belief and teen pregnancy? Does a more religious community have fewer teen pregnancies? Does it have fewer teen abortions? We will look at the data to find answers to these questions. We will consider the US nationally, the US states, and the world.

American religion and teen pregnancy over time

The United States has become less religious in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Christian identification, rates of prayer, rates of religious service attendance and rates of reading sacred texts have all fallen from the 1970s and 80s to the late 2000s. In 2007, among those who were asked how often they read sacred texts, the largest group (27%) were those claiming to never read them.

Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans claiming no religious identification rose notably during this period. In addition, the percentage of Americans who believe religion is old-fashioned and out-of-date, and not applicable to most of today's issues, is near its highest level ever, since the question was first asked in the late 1950s.

While America has become less religious, teen pregnancy has fallen, teen birthrates have fallen, and teen abortion rates have remained flat overall. To see this, I used Microsoft Excel to plot the data on national teen pregnancy, birthrate and abortion rate from the Guttmacher Institute. See the charts below.

US teen abortion and birthrate over time

American teen birthrate has fallen, and teen abortions have increased, then decreased, since 1972
American teen birthrate has fallen, and teen abortions have increased, then decreased, since 1972 | Source

US teen pregnancy over time

American teen pregnancy rate has significantly fallen since 1972
American teen pregnancy rate has significantly fallen since 1972 | Source

Religion and teen pregnancy: among the states

The data show a positive relationship between religious belief and teen pregnancy, among the American states. To see this relationship, I plotted state-level data for the importance of religion in people's daily lives according to Gallup (2009), against the teen pregnancy statistics (2005). See the chart below.

In addition, religion in daily life is negatively correlated with teen abortion, and strongly correlated with teen birth. This likely has much to do with more traditional and religious attitudes around abortion.

Teen pregnancy and religion, by state

Each dot represents a state. There is a positive correlation between the importance of religion in daily life, and teen pregnancy
Each dot represents a state. There is a positive correlation between the importance of religion in daily life, and teen pregnancy | Source

Teen pregnancy and religion around the world

Similar tendencies are found among nations. In general, the less religious societies see less teen pregnancy. For instance, the United States is one of the most religious countries in the developed world, and in 1998 had the highest teen birthrate in the developed world (52.1 per 1000 women). The lowest teen birthrates were seen in South Korea, Japan, Switzerland and the Netherlands, all of which report that religion is not important in the daily lives of most people.

Religion, atheism and teen pregnancy: conclusions

There is a notable positive correlation between teenage pregnancy and religious belief in a number of studies. There are a number of possible reasons for this relationship. Both religion and teen pregnancy are correlated with poverty and lack of education.

Lack of education includes lack of adequate sex education. The areas of the US where teen pregnancy is highest tend to be those places where comprehensive sex education is discouraged, or abstinence is taught as the only form of sex education. In this case, religion motivates teen pregnancy as young people who do end up having sex do not do it in a safe or responsible way.

Another way that religion causes teen pregnancy is in traditional attitudes toward gender, family and marriage. More religious communities may place greater emphasis on a woman's role as a mother and wife, and therefore undervalue female education and work. A teenage woman, or especially a woman in her late teens as she finishes secondary education, is more likely to opt for having children in that environment, rather than continue her education or enter the workforce.

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Comments 19 comments

Merlin Fraser profile image

Merlin Fraser 5 years ago from Cotswold Hills

I noticed you didn't include the UK in your list, I would say we are not an overly religious country but we do seem to have the worst teen pregnancy rate in Europe.

Nor can I put it down to just sheer ignorance unless our educational system is a lot worse than we are led to believe.

Many, many years ago when I went to school sex education away from the bike shed was nonexistent. I knew there was an opposite sex but wasn't sure which one I was ! Now they are getting sex education in Pre School !!

Plus the fact that these days contraception is now widely available, (not just from the barber's shop, "Something for the weekend Sir !" or from machines in pub toilets) together with birth control pills, morning after pills and as a last resort abortion without stigma, so is there any real excuse for an unwanted or unnecessary pregnancy ? All of which leads me to the conclusion that it must be a deliberate act perhaps of defiance, although against what or whom I have no idea.

So why else all the pregnancies ? There is no religious, or lack of, connection that I can see. Stupidity perhaps ?

Although unlike many European countries the UK suffers more from the loss of family and social community cohesion than most perhaps that is the answer.

There is a cynical theory that given Britain’s overly generous social services, being pregnant and potentially a homeless single mother might get you to the top of the town council housing list !


Loveslove profile image

Loveslove 5 years ago from England

There is a cynical theory that given Britain’s overly generous social services, being pregnant and potentially a homeless single mother might get you to the top of the town council housing list !

THAT'S IT EXACTLY ...you got it in one Merlin !!


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 5 years ago from New York City Author

Merlin, the UK is certainly an interesting case. According to UNICEF, in 1998 the UK had the second-highest teen birthrate in the developed world (after the US). And as you say it continues to be at or near the top in Europe.

Of course religion is not the only driver of teen pregnancy. However, it may be more consequential than you think; Britain has a relatively high population of immigrants from Arab, South Asian and African countries. Of course they tend to be more religious, poorer and with a more traditional outlook on things like gender and family. This applies not just to the immigrants themselves, but their children and grandchildren who are often raised in an environment with the same values.

The equivalent in the US would be black and hispanic populations, which tend to be poorer and more religious, and where teen pregnancy is much higher than in the white population.

Also, your point about defiance is interesting as well. In one of the articles I researched, a commenter said that in the South, young people are told by the stuffed shirts to "abstain" from sex (that's the only sex education often), and that's that. So many of them have sex as a form of rebellion. But they do it unsafely or irresponsibly of course, hence the teen pregnancy.

Also it has been seen that children from broken families have higher rates of teen pregnancy, as you said. The welfare thing is also a factor in the US.

So there are many factors affecting teen pregnancy in any given time or place, but across all countries, from developed to underdeveloped, there is a notable correlation with religion/ religious belief.


Beatrice G. profile image

Beatrice G. 5 years ago from New York State

Interesting article. I noticed that several of your charts show a spike in the US birthrate in the early 90s. Any theory about what might account for this?


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 5 years ago from New York City Author

Thanks, Beatrice. I'm not sure, but there are probably a number of explanations put forward by social scientists and scholars. Just off the top of my head, religion began to decline significantly in the 1970s in America, and has continued to decline ever since. However, in any period of transition in social values and long-established institutions, there are bound to be bumps in the road and negative fallout initially.

In this case, one manifestation of negative fallout was the rise in teen pregnancy from the 1970s through the 1980s, peaking in the early 1990s. Subsequently, as secular alternatives and the nonreligious lifestyle became more normalized and society learned to incorporate it into its overall framework, teen pregnancy declined. Even as religious belief continued to precipitously decline in the 1990s and especially in the 2000s. (This is just one piece of the puzzle; there have also been a number of federal and state initiatives to reduce teen pregnancy and educate young people about safe sex, etc.)

Another example would be slavery in the South, which had been a fundamental part of the socioeconomic structure of the South for centuries. For a period of time after slavery was abolished, the South went through a very difficult time. Some at the time may have thought the answer to this difficulty was to bring slavery back. But eventually it got over it, without re-legalizing slavery.


brotheryochanan profile image

brotheryochanan 5 years ago from BC, canada

So there are 10 people at this sex education class. One of them is a pastor. The 10 people are all given a piece of paper, written thereon were their professions for the night then they all introduced themselves, shook hands and seated themselves for the rest of the class.

The teacher then says, which card had the red dot in the corner? A fellow stands up. She says "this man has herpes, how many of you shook hands with him. All but the pastor who declined to play.

Moral of the story

Abstinence is the best precautionary measurement.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 5 years ago from New York City Author

Another believer trying to avoid the issue by ignoring the facts. Religion is correlated with teen pregnancy. Face it.

Anyway, your joke doesn't even make sense. You're saying 90% of the population has herpes, or will have herpes, or something? In reality it's a small percentage. And the risk is significantly reduced through safe sex practices, which is ironic given the fact that your joke is about a sex ed class!


nicomp profile image

nicomp 4 years ago from Ohio, USA

"The data show a positive relationship between religious belief and teen pregnancy, among the American states. "

Actually, no. Two sets of data that have similar paths on a graph are not necessarily related and certainly cannot be linked through cause and effect. Many other quantifiable trends took place at the same time: simply plotting on the same chart does not prove anything.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 4 years ago from New York City Author

Nicomp:

Thanks for coming. The data do show correlation. You are talking about causation. I do not say that religion definitively causes teen pregnancy, or vice versa. But at the end I do offer some possible ideas on how religion may, in fact, cause teen pregnancy--but not definitive or 100% factual, more my interpretation and logical theorizing.

But the really primary point is that religion and teen pregnancy are caused by the same kinds of socioeconomic factors--poverty, low education, etc. That is principally why the documented correlation exists.


Josell 4 years ago

This "article" is based on ignorance and misinformation:

1) People who use to have higher rates in teen pregnacies use to have a worst education, and they use to identify themselves with the biggest group; in this case, Christianity... In North Korea and China, atheism or irreligion.

2) There is better control birth today, so time should be not be used as a variable for comparison with older times.

3) Poor countries are "religious" because they recieve help from religious intitutions and they use it to feel better. In other words, religion works for them. Also, there is a difference between belief and practicing.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 4 years ago from New York City Author

Josell:

There is no ignorance or misinformation here. Just hard data and analysis.

"1) People who use to have higher rates in teen pregnacies use to have a worst education, and they use to identify themselves with the biggest group"

Those with higher rates of teen pregnancy used to, and STILL have the worst eduction. Low rates of eduction are correlated with high rates of religious belief. Not just identifying with the "biggest group," but actual religious and superstitious beliefs. The statistics show a strong correlation between wealth/ prosperity, high rates of education, and low rates of religious belief and practice (and superstition).

In officially "atheist" nations like the USSR or China, religion was or is still very popular among the masses. It was just kept secret from the authorities. Also, the people still hold superstitious beliefs that involve a supernatural element in human life.

"2) There is better control birth today, so time should be not be used as a variable for comparison with older times."

The only comparison over time I present is for the United States as a whole over the last 40 years or so. In the US as a whole, abortion and contraception have been available more or less consistently for all this time. Assuming abortion has become more available, nevertheless the abortion rate has been declining for half of the period observed.

And in any case, even if use of contraception has increased, this may very well be a reflection of more secular morays, whereas a more religious population would not use contraception to this degree.

"3) Poor countries are "religious" because they receive help from religious intitutions and they use it to feel better. In other words, religion works for them. Also, there is a difference between belief and practicing."

My analysis accounts for both belief and practice.

Poor countries are not religious only because of religious institutions helping them. That is a ridiculous statement. Poor populations have been more religious than wealthy populations for a long time, long before modern church groups and charities.

Indeed, religion does work for them. The main reason they are more religious is that religion helps them understand their world and make sense of their lives. That is ultimately what it comes down to.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 23 months ago from Ohio, USA

"But the really primary point is that religion and teen pregnancy are caused by the same kinds of socioeconomic factors--poverty, low education, etc. That is principally why the documented correlation exists."

Unequivocally not. Being poor does not cause teen pregnancy. Low education does not cause teen pregnancy. You are confusing correlation with causation.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 23 months ago from New York City Author

Nicomp:

The causes of teen pregnancy have been pretty well-documented by this point. Poverty and poor education are principal among them.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 23 months ago from Ohio, USA

"The causes of teen pregnancy have been pretty well-documented by this point."

Nope. You confuse correlation with causation. Being poor financially or academically has never made anyone pregnant.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 23 months ago from New York City Author

Yes it has. For example, not knowing how babies are made will lead directly to unplanned pregnancy when teenagers have sex.

Provide them with sex education, and this problem declines or disappears.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 23 months ago from Ohio, USA

You continue to confuse correlation with causation. A poor person can have a moral framework that helps them avoid the behavior leading to pregnancy. A poor person can have a strong family unit that keeps them out of trouble. You seem to have a very low opinion of poor people.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 22 months ago from New York City Author

You're ignoring my point. I gave a specific example of how less education can and will directly contribute to teen pregnancy. It is causation, not correlation. That does not mean it is the only cause.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 22 months ago from Ohio, USA

You are ignoring my point. So-called poor people can avoid teen pregnancy through high moral standards regardless of their level of education. There is no causation between financial wherewithal and pregnancy.


secularist10 profile image

secularist10 22 months ago from New York City Author

To say that "poverty is a cause of teen pregnancy" or "low education is a cause of teen pregnancy" does not mean that it inexorably always leads to that outcome. It means that it is a cause of it. There are other potential causes, and it is not an ironclad "law of nature" type of relationship.

An analogy: drunk driving causes accidents. Will every drunk driver be in an accident? No. Can a drunk driver avoid accidents? Yes. But in general, the causal relationship is there.

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