Love conquers all. Except religion."/> Outlook: Interfaith marriage - The Washington Post Love conquers all. Except religion.">

Outlook: Interfaith marriage

Jun 07, 2010

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal and author of 'God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America,' was online Monday, June 8, at 2:30 p.m. ET to discuss her article titled Love conquers all. Except religion.

Naomi Riley here. Ready to (try to) answer your questions about interfaith marriage. Ask away.

Regarding the Illinois couple whose child cannot be exposed to a religion other than can this be? Doesn't that child have a right to freedom of religion? How can anyone force her to be any particular religion, or limit her exposure to other religions?

Different states have different laws about how much the state can intervene in the religious upbringing of a child. There was a Supreme Court case a few decades ago involving whether a Jehovah's Witness family had the right to take their child door to door to proselytize. The court determined that doing so went contrary to the child's welfare. So it's not unheard of. That being said, it is hard for a court to decide which religion is in the best interest of a child.

Is there research about the success of marriages where one partner is an avid atheist and the other isn't very religious either, but still believes in God and wants some kind of minimal connectiion to religion (like celebrating holidays)?

Not that I'm aware of. One of the things I found in interviewing people for this article is that religious commitment is not static. So it really depends on how strongly you feel at a particular point in the marriage and how strongly the partner feels. Also, there are atheists who don't mind their children being raised with religion and atheists who think of their lack of belief in God as a kind of religion.

Are you aware that the "more recent" study you referenced concluded that "Theological beliefs and the belief dissimilarity of spouses have little effect on the likelihood of dissolution ((of marriage)) over time"? Why did you only reference the specific subgroups from this study that fit your thesis?

Yes, but for a variety of reasons, including sample size, I think that the data from the American Religious Identification Survey (of 50,000 people or so) is more useful.

Ms. Riley, My wife and I are about to celebrate our 30th anniversary; she was raised Episcopalian and I was raised Jewish. We found a religion for our family...Unitarian Universalism. We can celebrate Jewish and Christian holidays without dimishing either faith. There is wisdom to be learned from all world religions. Why does religion need to be a zero sum game?

I am not in a position to say whether religion should or shouldn't be a "zero-sum game," but given that many believers do think of it that way, interfaith marriages can be difficult.

Are there any statistics on their divorce rates? Also, what about divorce rates when people of different sects of the same religion marry? For example, reformed/orthodox Jewish marriages? Conservative Catholic (think Opus Dei)/liberal Catholic marriages?

There is some data on the "no religion" category. The American Religious Identification Survey numbers include that. But the other categories are really too small to get any exact percentage. That being said, I think many of the same issues apply. There was just a piece in the magazine Tablet about a formerly orthodox Jewish woman who married a Christian convert to orthodox Judaism. And they were having real conflicts over which rituals to practice, etc.

What is your advice on how couples can best speak to each other about their desires and the details of their spiritual/religious/cultural practices?

I am not a counselor, of course, but the counselors I have talked to have recommended not only discussing these issues ahead of time but taking one of the very long marriage tests. The Catholic Church has a 500-question one that is used in premarital counseling. These tests explore people's specific beliefs about marriage, children and faith. And they will tell  you a lot more than simply "I'm Jewish, but I don't mind raising children Christian" or some variant of that.

Not sure your column specifically addressed this... Are divorce rates only differential among couples after they have children, or do childless interfaith marriages show higher divorce rates than similar intrafaith one?

Interfaith couples tend to be childless more often (which can be the result of other demographic factors, like getting married later in life), but I don't know specifics on when the divorces occur.

Just a comment...I think interfaith marriage works better if both parties are not terribly religious! (obvious I guess) My husband is Catholic and I'm Jewish. We've been happily married 26 years. We raised our only child in the traditions of both. We attended services in both although I decided to formally raise him as a Catholic. He later made a decision to be an Athiest at age 13 which did not bother either of us!

Yes, this is certainly true, but there are plenty of couples who think of themselves as not particularly religious when they marry and then find religion later, especially when they have children.

I was very disturbed by the tone of this article. I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation which was (and is) populated by many mixed race and religion marriages. Your failure to mention U.U. as an alternative for interfaith couples was a glaring omission, and indicates an extreme bias in my opinion.

Attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not an uncommon solution for interfaith cuples. And there is a fascinating story about how UU became the interfaith destination of choice. But it is not for everyone, obviously.

I saw how friends were dealing with their intermarriages, so I decided to marry within my own faith. It just made it easier on all fronts. There's enough to deal with from in-laws and general issues with raising children. I didn't want the added pressure. Those friends who inter-married are no longer together. All it took was a few Christmas/Chanukah's to show them that they felt more strongly about religion than they thought. Who knew a Christmas tree could prove to be so divisive?

A number of people I interviewed said that the reaction they had when the ritual of another faith (like a Christmas tree) was introduced in their house was just visceral.

In my own experience, many "interfaith" marriages involve couples who aren't themselves religious, but whose families practice different religions. I question whether the word should even apply to such couples. I might use the word "interfaith" only for couples who are devout believers in different religions or, if they don't have affiliations, have some significant differences in their religious views. Would you agree with this usage? I find it confusing when "interfaith" is used to denote a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew even if neither spouse is religious.

As I said in the previous post, I think sometimes people are unaware of how important religion is to them until their wedding or until it comes time to raise children. While it is obviously important to consider how much both spouses actually practice or believe in their faith, if they call themselves even a nonpracticing Jew or nonpracticing Christian, I think it can be of some significance.

Is there data on what the interreligious marriage rates are among students at or who have graduated from religious colleges? I wonder how rare or common it is.

I haven't seen any but I suspect it's fairly uncommon. For two reasons. These are broad generalizations but...

First, people who attend religious colleges tend to be more religious on the whole and less likely to consider marriage outside the faith. Second, a lot of religious college students tend to marry young, or even marry someone they went to college with.

How do the percentages that you gave in your essay compare to non-interfaith divorce rates? Please give us citations so we can see these numbers ourselves.

Here's the relevant paragraph from the article:

According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.

In a paper published in 1993, Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that if members of two mainline Christian denominations marry, they have a one in five chance of being divorced in five years. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination have a one in three chance. And a Jew and a Christian who marry have a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years.

How do you think a couple needs to approach faith if one parent and the children are one faith and the other parent isn't? How does that family keep that other parent from feeling like the "odd man out" (i.e. disconnected)?

I don't know. There are a lot of resources out there for interfaith families. In part it depends on whether the religion of one spouse permits a nonmember to participate. For instance, the evangelical woman I quoted in the piece was already upset about the fact that she cannot technically be in attendance if her child has a wedding in a Mormon temple.

Do these couples that break up have disimilar value systems and religion is where it gets played out? How much of a problem is it that parents and siblings don't approve of the match?

I think family tensions can certainly contribute to this problem. Ultimately, though, I think that American families have come a long way in accepting people of other religions marrying their children. If you look at research done on this topic in the 1960s you will see that one of the biggest problems interfaith couples (and their children) faced, was total ostracization. That's not the issue for most interfaith couples today.

I see an important distinction between couples that have attachments to different sets of beliefs versus attachments to different sets of rituals, because religion is more about the former and not the latter. I know many people who don't believe in Christianity but who celebrate Christmas and Easter as secular holidays, and the same may be true for many Jews. When you say that many people are unaware of how important religion is to them until children, are you talking about the beliefs or the rituals?

I think it's both the beliefs and the rituals. Different ones are important to different people.

My boyfriend and I are different, but similar, religions. I am Catholic and he is non-denominational Christian. He is religious in his everyday life but does not attend services, while I am less religious on a day-to-day basis but I do enjoy going to Mass each week (for example, he always prays before he eats, I rarely do). We have talked about this topic at great length as we are now talking about marriage and we plan to take part in pre-marital counseling at both my church and his. Most importantly, we have decided to raise our children in both religions and let them choose. My question is, can this work? Can we really raise our children in two religions? Or are we making a mistake to even try?

I have talked to a number of interfaith couples who have arrived at this solution. Counselors say that it is important to discuss specifics. Say, for instance, a relative passes away. Do you tell your children that the person is in heaven, that the person is in the ground, that the person will be resurrected? Can you say all three at the same time?

I have been in an interfaith relationship for 12 years (6 married) now with a child. My husband and I are going strong. Our families have some issues with some of our choices (but really, who doesn't), but for the most part have been respectful. My question is, what role do extended families play in the break-up of interfaith marriages?

As your question "But really, who doesn't?" implies, extended families will always disagree with choices that parents make for their children. What would sitcoms do for plots if that weren't the case? But religious holidays are important rituals for families and they can be formative ones. If you don't attend or if you do attend but as an outsider, this can certainly add tension.

Can I get a link to the National Study of Youth and Religion study you mentioned in your article? Thanks!

Also, I recommend two books by the study's leader, Christian Smith. "Soul Searching" and "Souls in Transition" are very interesting guides to what young people today really think about faith.

Does where you live matter at all? For example, if you live in a cosmopolitan big city that is very accepting, versus a more rural homogeneous area (religiously speaking).

I am curious about this too. In the area where I live (metropolitan New York), it seems that there are a number of religious institutions that are very welcoming of interfaith couples and I think that would have some effect on how these couples fare (though I don't have any research to back that up).

So is it fair to say that it is STRENGTH of religious beliefs, not just the religious beliefs themselves that causes friction in the relationships? Also, how many of these couples had "other" factors that led to the demise of their relationships? I'm wondering because my spouse (different religion than I) and I are both not very religious (while our families are), but we share all of the same fundamental values (how to raise kids, money, education, lifestyle choices, etc.). Are we in danger???

I would never suggest that any couple is "in danger." I have no idea what goes on inside of individual marriages. If you have been married for a long time and have kids and haven't been disagreeing on how to raise them or how to practice your own faiths, then it doesn't seem like you're in any more danger than anyone else. But, as I said, I'm not a counselor. Just a reporter.

I know you might be venturing beyond your field of expertise, but would like for you to speculate anyway. Why do you suppose that members of a couple who are moderately or non-observant discover the contours of conflict in the context of children? Presumably the couple has already made choices about how to deal with either/or decisions (Christmas tree or no Christmas tree?), so perhaps it is something about the parents-child connection that uncovers pretty strong emotions about religion that lie below the surface.

As any parent will tell you, and I can say this from personal experience, you have no idea what it will be like to be a parent until you are one. So it's hard to come to conclusions about raising children in the abstract before you have them. Also, I think most people instinctively think about how they were raised when it comes to raising their own children. Finally, the birth of the child is maybe the first time (after the wedding ceremony anyway) where a couple has to make an official decision (and sort of public pronouncement) about the child's religion. Will there be a baptism or a bris, for instance?

Your thesis seems to be that people don't think about religion enough when entering marriage and/or that people change over the years. How is this different than people who don't discuss political viewpoints and having (or not having) children? Is the whole point of your essay that people should talk more before getting married?

The point of the essay wasn't really to offer advice to couples. But I guess that's inevitably the takeaway people would like. The two examples you pick of differences couples have are pretty, well, different, I would think. Political differences don't usually break up marriages. Unless they're somehow really rooted in something much deeper--entire worldview, etc. But disagreeing on whether or not to have children is a pretty life-shaking difference and could be more similar to religious differences. But it depends on how seriously you take religion, I guess.

Isn't using this divorce just inflammatory? It sounds like the father was using the child's faith as a weapon against the mother rather than exposing any real desire for religious training.

I can't get inside Joseph Reyes' head, but from our interview, it did seem like the religious differences began very early on in the marriage and were not simply a ruse to get back at his ex-wife.

Are the divorce rates and children issues different in the sects that have a stronger sense of membership requirements (Catholic, Mormon, Jewish) than in the denominations that are highly welcoming of members of slightly different faiths?

I put some statistics in the piece. But there are important distinctions here. For instance, the Catholic Church does not forbid interfaith marriages. The church used to require that the spouse who wasn't Catholic promise to raise the child Catholic. But they don't to that any more either. Now it's just a matter of going to counseling and making sure that the non-Catholic spouse understands what he/she is getting into. Jews have a variety of views on interfaith marriage, depending on what denomination they're in. I believe that the Mormon Church discourages interfaith marriage.

Do you know of any research done on Muslim-Christian or Muslim-Jewish interfaith marriages, specifically where the Muslim is the woman and the man is of another faith?

I don't know of any research done on the subject. From the couple of interviews I have done it seems like this is an issue that Muslims are only beginning to think about themselves.

You can't divide them. Whereas it is easy for two people in a house with different beliefs to cohabitate, when it comes down to decideing if Junior goes to Communion class or Bar Mitzvah class. All of a sudden, one person loses. All of a sudden one person wins.

I think that's true, but there's another issue too. In interfaith marriages the burden of a child's religious education can often fall to one parents. If you're not feeling up to Church on Sunday, the child won't go. There's no one else to motivate him or take him. This too can cause difficulties.

It seems to me that one of the issues in question is whether the dogma of a given religion is exclusionary (at least as practiced by the member of the interfaith couple). The man you quoted at the beginning of your article said he believed he would go to heaven after death, but that his daughter would not if she wasn't (at a minimum) christened in the Catholic church. While every religion believes that it is "right" and others must therefore be "wrong" to some degree, not all have such a rigid view of the fate that awaits outsiders.....

It is true that belonging to a church that has exclusivist beliefs can cause more difficulties. Some try to solve this problem by bringing the other member of the couple to the faith after marriage. Evangelicals joke about "missionary dating" in which a person (usually a woman) thinks she will drag a man into the religion after they're married. It rarely works out that way.

Thanks for the questions, everyone.

In This Chat
Naomi Riley
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal, is the author of ?God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America.?
Recent Chats
  • Next: