Monday, May 4, 2015

Till Death Do Us Part - Interfaith Marriage and Marriage Beyond Faith

In this post I'll be taking a look at both marriage outside of religion/faith and interfaith marriages. This topic is of specific interest to me because I'm now faced with the possibility of either of those scenarios being true in my own marriage. I have recently become an agnostic atheist and my husband is not sure yet what he believes. He's still doing his own research. I've been thinking, what if we end up disagreeing on matters of faith and become an interfaith couple? Will we be able to maintain the same level of relational intimacy? Will we be able to come to compromises? How will we raise our children? Will we grow to resent each other? Will we even be able to speak to each other about matters of faith without offending each other?

There are also questions that are raised if he ends up coming to the same conclusions as I did. Our entire outlook on life changes with these realizations, including our outlook on marriage. Do our vows still hold the same meaning if they were made in a church, under God? Our entire wedding ceremony was Christian and reflected our belief that God would be the center of our marriage. Should we recommit ourselves to each other? How and where can we find community outside of a church? What will we teach our children about religion? Do we still believe that marriage is forever? What should we do about holidays? Do we still celebrate them? If so, how will we celebrate them? There are just so many things to consider and reconsider.

I will attempt to answer some of these questions in this post so read on!

Interfaith Marriage

What is interfaith marriage?

Interfaith marriages or relationships are those that are between people who hold different views, values, or beliefs in regards to religion or faith. Approximately 42% of marriages in the U.S. are interfaith and the number has been rising (3). In fact, about 50% of Jewish men and women intermarry (9). They aren't the only ones though. About 50% of Catholics intermarry as well (7). The number of interfaith marriages has been rising because of an increasingly diversified culture and growing tolerance of other religious perspectives (2). There are also those cases in which a couple who married, holding the same beliefs, become an interfaith couple when one of them changes their beliefs. In some cases one spouse will actually convert to the other spouse's religion to create unity. Interfaith marriage can be difficult on a couple, sometimes creating a wedge in their relationship. This is especially true if one of the partners is a fundamentalist believer or if both are very set in their individual beliefs (1).

Does interfaith marriage work?

Interfaith marriages face many difficulties and are more likely to end in divorce than marriages between people of the same beliefs (1). People's religious beliefs affect every area of their lives including child-rearing, money, sex, traditions, worldviews, food, culture, community, family relationships, etc. If a person's spouse has religious views that affect every area of their life differently then that can obviously cause problems in the relationship and make it more difficult to come to agreements or compromises. Many times the strain proves to be too much and the marriage fails. Typically the more flexible the couple is with their own religious views the more likely their marriage is to succeed (9). Those who are evangelical or fundamentalist have a much harder time with an interfaith marriage because of the difficulty coming to compromises due to their strongly held belief systems. Even though interfaith marriage is typically more difficult for couples than same faith marriages, there are those that work. Many of those being happy relationships. An advantage to interfaith marriage is that someone who marries someone of another religion tends to develop a more positive attitude toward their spouse's religion as a whole (3). This can aid in the growing trend toward religious tolerance and acceptance of others with differing belief systems.

How to make interfaith marriage work?

Open/Honest Communication: The absolute most important aspect of interfaith marriage is keeping open and honest communication. This is key to the success of the marriage. Be willing to talk honestly about everything and refrain from harboring resentment. Discuss subjects such as raising children, beliefs about birth control, dietary restrictions, religious practices, holidays, family relationships, etc (4). Try to discuss these subjects before getting married, but if you're already married, it's not too late. Talk to your spouse. Discuss concerns. Share your beliefs with one another. Look for similarities and differences between your beliefs and values and focus on your similarities. Discuss how to make life decisions that honor both systems of belief.

Respect: Be respectful of each other even if you disagree. Don't mock each other's beliefs or belittle one another. This will only cause resentment. After learning about the similarities and differences in values, discuss these with openness, understanding and respect. Understand that every person holds their own beliefs for their own reasons. Try not to be judgmental of their reasons for holding their specific beliefs.

Get advice and insights: Go to other couples you know who have successful interfaith marriages and ask for advice and find out how they've made their relationship work. Get encouragement whenever you can.

Be flexible: Flexibility, understanding and communication is how an interfaith marriage can work. Be willing to bend and be selfless in your marriage. Compromises will have to be made. It's inevitable. The more flexible you are the happier your marriage will be.

Make love: Keeping the intimacy in your marriage isn't only about communication! It's also about physical intimacy. Marriages that work are the ones that maintain physical loving as well as emotional intimacy. Don't underestimate the power of sex. There's a reason make-up sex is a thing. A couple that plays together stays together! This is true for all marriages and intimate relationships. Learn about each other's bodies and explore each other. Sex brings incredible closeness and can soften resentful hearts. Be sure that you are making love to your spouse and not just getting off. There is a huge difference. Make them feel loved, appreciated and respected in bed and that attitude will reflect in the rest of the marriage.

Effects on the children

Interfaith marriage can be tough on kids. They may feel confused about what is truth and what isn't. They may feel like if they choose to believe one faith over the other they will be siding with one parent over the other. Some interfaith couples are more prone to conflict because of their differing beliefs, which can be hard on the kids.

A friend of mine shared his experience with me of growing up in an interfaith home. His parents argued so often that he wondered when they were finally going to get a divorce. He saw many of his friends' parents getting divorces and, with how much his parents argued, he figured it was just a matter of time. His parents have managed to stay together and their marriage is stronger now than ever, even though they still have different beliefs. My friend attributes their marriage's success to his Christian mother's forgiveness and love. This may be true. I won't claim to know what kept their marriage together. However, I know that in my own experience growing up in a home with both parents being Christian and believing exactly the same things in matters of faith, they sure did fight a lot and even came close to giving up on occasions. My parents are now an interfaith couple, with my mom being a Christian and my dad being an atheist, and they love each other just as much now, if not more, than they ever have. Marriage inevitably brings conflict and difficulties and I, personally, believe that if you can work through the challenges of life together then you will reap the rewards years down the road.

It was hard for my friend to watch his parents fight all those years and to know that it was because they didn't agree on some of the fundamental aspects of their lives. Children watch their parents and learn how to resolve conflict by example. They may respect how their parents resolved their conflicts and strive to do the same in their own relationships or they may hate the way their parents fought and strive to be better or they may hate the way their parents fought and end up acting the same way. The responsibility lies on the parents to be a good example to the kids in regards to conflict resolution and the responsibility is on the kids to grow up and make decisions for themselves on how they will interact in their marriage and other relationships.

It may seem that interfaith marriage would have only negative effects on children, but in reality it can have many advantages. Children in interfaith families tend to grow up with the ability to think more critically about faith and come to their own conclusions on what they believe (2). Exposing a child to different religious perspectives gives them a more broad and open understanding of the world and the differing ideas and beliefs that people possess. It gives them the opportunity to make choices for themselves instead of taking whatever they are spoon fed as truth. Children actually handle growing up in interfaith homes pretty well overall (10). This article has more info on this topic: 7 Myths About Raising Interfaith Kids.

Some parents will choose to raise their children in one of the parents' faiths and not the other in an attempt to avoid confusing them. They want them to be able to identify as one particular religion. More often than not it's the mother's religion in which the children are brought up (1). Although, this approach may seem to make sense, it may actually prove to be more beneficial to let the children experience both religions and come to their own decisions on faith. This can be true even if one of the parents is agnostic or atheist. Being open and honest with your children is just as important as being open and honest with each other. Children are more resilient than we give them credit for and they are capable of taking an objective look and drawing their own conclusion. Giving them the proper tools in order to do that is the best thing you can do for a kid. Another friend of mine has been married to her husband for 17 years and has had different religious views than him the entire time. In fact, when they married she was Christian and he Muslim. They exposed their kids to both religions and let them decide for themselves what they would believe and the kids all came to their own conclusions. I believe that this is the best way to handle raising kids in an interfaith marriage, but every couple has to make this decision for themselves. Again, communication, respect, flexibility and patience are key!

Marriage Beyond Faith

What were my prior beliefs about marriage?

Before my journey into agnostic atheism I was a devout, Bible-believing Christian. I believed that marriage was a sacred gift from God meant for a man and a woman. I believed marriage could only be successful if both partners were dedicated to loving God more than they loved each other and seeking him in every aspect of their lives. When I made my vow to my husband at our wedding I believed I was also making that vow to God. I wanted every aspect of our life and our marriage to be centered on our faith in Christ. The Bible says that divorce is committing adultery and I took that very seriously.

What does marriage mean now?

Now that my beliefs have changed, what does marriage mean to me? Do our vows still hold the same meaning? If I dare, I would say that our marriage holds even more meaning now. Now, when we work through challenges and fight to stay together and love each other in good times and bad we're doing it because we want to and because we truly love each other rather than because we've been commanded to do so. I now believe that I have one life to live and this is IT and I have chosen to spend that one life with Patrick. That, to me, holds so much more meaning now. I believe that our vows still hold meaning because whether we were making them to ourselves and God or just to ourselves we still promised each other that we would stay together forever. That promise still holds true and I intend to keep my word. I chose to marry Patrick because he is the most amazing man I know and I'm absolutely obsessed with him. That feeling has only gotten stronger in the past 7 years (2 years dating and almost 5 years married) and I anticipate that it will continue to grow in the years ahead. Whether we hold the same beliefs or not is ultimately irrelevant because I don't love him for what he believes, I love him for who he is. He's the man of my dreams and the incredible father of my children. What does marriage mean to me? It means that I take this one life that I have to live and I pledge it to the one man that I want to spend it with.

Is a strong marriage/relationship possible without God?

Absolutely yes, it is. In fact agnostics and atheists have one of the lowest divorce rates in the U.S. (6). I was interested to learn that the highest divorce rate in the country is within the Bible belt (5). According to a study by the Barna Research Group (a Christian research group) Christians have one of the highest divorce rates while atheists have the lowest (6). In an article from an explanation is given for a possible reason that scientifically minded atheist couples have an easier time coming to agreements and compromises. It says:
"Scientific beliefs are generally based on observation and experimentation. Opinions can be debated and resolved. The belief with the best supporting evidence wins. However, religious beliefs tend to be based on faith." (7)
I don't say that to bash Christianity, but just because I found it fascinating that I was taught that marriage can only be successful if God is at the center of it, but, as it turns out, those who don't even believe in God seem to have the most successful marriages. The statistics certainly don't back up the claim that marriage takes three.

Where do we find community?

One of the first concerns I had when I started coming to grips with my unbelief was the question of where to find community outside of my Christian community. Community is something religion does really well and I want to maintain a connection with others outside of the church setting. I was directed to a website called On this website you can input your interests, beliefs and hobbies and it'll suggest certain groups in your area with other people who are interested in the same things. It's an awesome idea and a great way to meet new people and get connected with others. Also, getting involved in local events or charities is another way to meet people and engage. Participating in events at a public library can also be a way to connect.

What will we teach the kids about religion?

Patrick and I plan to teach the boys about as many different religions as we can and explain what different religions teach. We will be open and honest with them about what we believe, but will not force our beliefs or conclusions on them. They will be free to make up their minds on what they, personally, believe. They will be allowed to attend church services whenever they want and when they come home we will have conversations about what they learned and discuss what they thought about the experience and the teaching. I want to raise open-minded, critical thinking, intelligent children who will learn to think for themselves.


We plan to continue to celebrate holidays even if Patrick decides he no longer believes in Christianity. We've discussed this and have decided that we see holidays as being a cultural thing to be enjoyed by all within that culture not just Christians. Christmas will be a time of family and gift giving that will be fun for the children. I wouldn't want to rob them of the joys of that season just because we no longer believe in "the reason for the season." In all actuality, Christmas is such a mess of pagan and Christian traditions it's hard to say that it's actually a Christian holiday at all. Look into it for yourself. It's kind of crazy how much of that holiday is based on pagan and mythical traditions. Watch Christmas: Behind the Curtain. Every secular family must come to their own decisions regarding holidays, but for us, we still plan on celebrating them in our own way.

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