This survey is designed to gather information for a book on marriages (and other long-term relationships) between religious and nonreligious partners. For the purpose of the survey, “religious” is defined as any viewpoint that includes belief in a supernatural God or spirit, while “nonreligious” is any viewpoint lacking that belief.
Many questions are phrased in terms of marriage, but all are intended to include other long-term committed relationships.
It’s ideal for both partners to complete the survey, but not required. I will use your email addresses to link your survey to your partner’s. If your partner will not be completing the survey, your solo participation is still entirely welcome.
Most questions are optional. If a question does not make sense for your situation or is confusing, please skip it.
Allow 20-30 minutes to complete the survey, and thanks for your help!
As I work on my book about religious/nonreligious mixed marriages, one of the important variables is when the couple got “mixed” and whether they still are. Couples who were both religious at the beginning, then had one partner lose the faith, deal with different issues than a couple that was already mixed at the altar. Same with couples who were both nonreligious, then had one partner become religious.
There’s also much to be learned from couples that started mixed, then both ended up on one team or the other. This is all part of the formal survey coming out later this month, but for now, here’s the informal poll question of the week.
IF you are (or have been) in a religious/nonreligious mixed marriage, please choose the most accurate statement:
We were both religious when we were first married, then one of us became nonreligious. (33%, 32 Votes)
When we got married, one was religious, the other nonreligious. Now we are both nonreligious. (32%, 31 Votes)
One of us has been religious and the other nonreligious since we were married. (28%, 27 Votes)
We are a religious/nonreligious mix, but none of the above. (7%, 7 Votes)
We were both nonreligious when we were first married, then one of us became religious. (1%, 1 Votes)
When we got married, one was religious, the other nonreligious. Now we are both religious. (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 98
[Note: If you choose "none of the above," please explain in the comments. Thanks!]
Off to a great start with the new form for sharing stories about religious/nonreligious marriages. To make sure all categories are covered, I’m going to prime individual questions once in a while.
If you’re in a religious/nonreligious mixed marriage, or once were, or almost were…let’s start with the first time you and your partner discussed the difference in your beliefs.
Ours happened in 1990 when I was 27. After the usual series of misfit relationships and a lot of thinking, I’d become incredibly picky. I finally knew exactly what I was looking for…and Becca was IT. Compared to everything else she brought to the relationship, the fact that she was a churchgoing Christian was a footnote. Honestly, if I’d learned she had a second head growing out of the back of her neck, I’d have bought it a little hat. This, at last, was the person I wanted to be with for the rest of my life, the person I wanted to raise a family with, grow old with, the whole cliché.
We’d known each other for years and been dating for a few months, but my atheism had never come up. I finally decided it was time. I was terrified of the possibility that I’d lose her over it, but I knew this was too big to be an “oh-by-the-way, funny-thing” moment later on. If it was going to be a big deal, it needed to be a big deal right then, before we got engaged, before we got married.
I decided that a fast-moving car was the right place to bring it up.
We both lived in LA at the time and occasionally drove to San Francisco to see her parents. Perfect. Somewhere around Kettleman City, in the middle of nowhere, I got the nerve. I don’t remember the exact words I said, but at some point it was out there: I don’t believe in God, it’s something I’ve thought about seriously for years, and it’s not likely to ever change. Is that, uh…okay with you?
The tires thrummed for a while. She clearly hadn’t seen it coming, and she seemed a little shaken.
Finally she said, “Well…is it okay with you that I do believe?”
I said yes, of course. I’d known that from the beginning.
“It has to be okay for me to go to church.” You’ll note that this was not in the form of a question. I said it was okay, of course it was. At which point I learned why it was so important for her to go to church. And as is so often the case, it had nothing to do with God.
She laid out the whole story. Her stepdad, a former Baptist minister, had an ugly falling out with his church when he left his first wife. As a result, he didn’t allow Becca’s very religious mom or her daughters to attend church. Becca vowed to herself at the time that she was bloody well going to church once she got out of that house, and that no one was ever going to keep her from it again. It wasn’t religious uniformity she needed from her eventual husband. She just needed to know that that particular bit of family history wasn’t going to repeat itself. It was never about salvation. As much as anything, her churchgoing was an act of proxy redemption for her mom.
By the end of the conversation, I was relieved, we knew each other a lot better, and the biggest secret I had was out in the open. And it had gone just fine.
As you may know, I am writing a book on marriage between religious and nonreligious partners. In addition to an upcoming survey, I am collecting stories to personalize the issues. If your marriage straddles that religious/nonreligious divide, I’d like to hear your insights and stories by using this form.
Possible topics include:
The first discussion of your different views
Extended family issues
Dating across lines of belief
Family identity issues
Talking about differences in belief
Kids and baptism, naming, circumcision, etc.
Kids and churchgoing / Sunday school
Kids and religious identity
Separation or divorce
Death, loss, funerals
Submit one story or ten, one sentence or a hundred. What have you learned? What would you do differently? What has made your relationship stronger, and what weakened it? Are you both in the same place belief-wise that you were when you married? Did kids bring out the complexities of the issues in a whole new way? Has the mixed marriage made you more tolerant of other beliefs…or less?
Thanks in advance for anything you can give. I can’t wait to read them. The form will be available until July 1, so no particular rush. Take your time and dig deep, then click here to submit your stories!
Thanks for participating in the first mini-poll of several. These polls won’t form the basis for any actual conclusions in the book, but they’ll help me think some things through, including the wording for questions in the full survey coming in a few weeks.
Though people in secular/religious mixed marriages have always been a part of my audience, readership for Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers (and this blog) skews significantly toward couples in which both partners are secular. Makes sense, since the books and blog are mostly about raising kids without religion. But even with that skew, 22 percent of the 509 respondents to this poll so far are in a secular/religious mixed marriage.
You can roughly double that number that once you get outside of the PBB skew. Religious intermarriage has been rising steadily for a century, from 26 percent of all US marriages begun in the 1910s to 45 percent of marriages begun in the past decade.1 And nearly half of all married nonreligious Americans currently have a religious partner.2 (This comes as a big surprise to many nontheists I talk to who are convinced that secular/religious marriages are simply impossible.)
The increase in religious intermarriages parallels an overall increase in acceptance of the idea. About 60 percent of those who reached adulthood in the 1930s felt that shared religious beliefs were “very important” for a successful marriage. For those who became adults in the 1950s, that dropped to 50 percent. And for those who came of age in the 1990s, that feeling plummeted to 23 percent.
If you believe some of the terrible books I’m currently reading on interfaith marriage, this change in attitudes is a disaster. Many of them, including recent titles by decent publishers, bang the drum of religious uniformity as a vital component of a successful marriage. Scratch the surface and you find that many or most of these are actually more concerned about their religions than about the marriages. And it’s true — religious intermarriage has had a deleterious effect on the cohesiveness and retention of many religious traditions. But the effects on marriages, though real, are seriously overstated in the literature. (More on all that later.)
The rest of the mini-polls, like the full survey itself, will be directed at those who are currently or formerly in secular/religious mixed marriages. I will also be creating a form to submit your own stories of dating, marrying, raising kids, and dealing with extended family across that religious/secular gap.
Thanks for your help with this.
1Cited in American Grace (Putnam and Campbell, 2010), from Gen. Social Survey 2Faith Matters survey (2006) 3World Values Survey, 1982 and 1990
Part of the research for my book on the religious/nonreligious mixed marriage will involve a large-scale formal survey in May. Before that’s released, I plan to run a few informal single-question polls to scratch the surface and guide my work. I also hope you’ll share these polls widely.
Here’s the first one. Phrasing is always a challenge, so thanks in advance for answering to the best of your ability. “Religious” in this case refers to theistic religion.
If you are married or in a committed long-term relationship, please choose the most accurate statement:
I identify as nonreligious and my partner does as well (72%, 402 Votes)
I identify as nonreligious and my partner is religious (21%, 119 Votes)
I identify as religious and my partner does as well (even if the religions differ) (3%, 15 Votes)
Don't know / can't answer as phrased (2%, 14 Votes)
I identify as religious and my partner is nonreligious (2%, 12 Votes)
The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. MARK TWAIN, Letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888
Well into the writing and research for my book on religious/nonreligious marriages and ready to start blogging it a bit. As I did with Atheism For Dummies, I’ll be looking for your help to chew on some ideas. If you give me even half of the terrific input you gave last time, I’ll be grateful. It really helps.
Right now I’m looking for the perfect, concise term to denote the marriage of religious and nonreligious partners.
I can pretty much guarantee we’re not looking for an existing word, at least not one used in this context. We’re going to need a new coinage here, or at least a repurposing. The term should denote this kind of marriage without including other mixes, such as marriages between adherents of two different religions. For that reason, “mixed marriage” and “interfaith marriage” don’t do the trick, though they are useful for the larger categories.
The ideal word would be concise — four syllables is an absolute max for a single word, maybe five for a two-word term. And even though its meaning doesn’t have to be obvious at first glance, it would be nice if it didn’t rely too much on knowledge of ancient Mediterranean languages to make sense.
If I introduce the term up front in the book, I can then use it in place of long, tedious phrases (“When couples in which one partner is religious and the other is nonreligious…”). The new term might even make it into the title, who knows. In any case, if you coined it, you’d certainly get a loud shout in the Acknowledgements.
So help me find le mot juste here. Help me find the lightning.
I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve reached a deal for my next book with the folks who did Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers — AMACOM Books in New York. The topic is marriage and parenting between religious and nonreligious partners. No title yet, and I hate even the working titles I’ve come up with. (More on that soon.)
I’ve been hoping to get this done for about three years now, but other projects kept butting in. Many of the most common questions I get from secular parents are about issues around this kind of mixed marriage. Though there are several books on marriages between partners of two different religions — including half a dozen titles on Jewish-Christian intermarriage alone — there’s nothing for the biggest belief gap of all. And since there are at least five times as many nonreligious people in the U.S. as Jewish, we’re talking about a much larger population, one that’s totally unserved.
The issues are also different when instead of two religious traditions, you’re blending natural and supernatural worldviews. Existing interfaith marriage books aren’t all that helpful with this different set of questions.
This is a complex project that will take all year. Since detailed data are sparse for the topic, I’ll be conducting a large-scale survey sometime in March or April, as well as a series of interviews with mixed couples.
Like the Dummies book, I’ll be blogging the process and asking questions along the way — just watch for posts with the “mixed marriage” tag. Thanks in advance for your help!
A self-described “hard-line Atheist” interviews himself about his strong, loving marriage to a fervent Christian. A great read, and plenty to discuss.
My wife is the most special and wonderful person. She is a Christian of deep belief. She enjoys being part of an evangelical church. She likes the people of the church, the community, and the many opportunities for participation.
She and I are very different in some respects, but together we work. We met in 1995 and have been building a life together ever since.
I figure some might be curious about the relationship of a hard-line Atheist and a fervent Christian, so I put together a self-interview. That is, I wrote some questions and answered them myself below. If folks like the subject and format, perhaps I’ll ask the wife if she would be willing to answer questions from y’all.
1. Let’s start with an obvious question: How is it that two people of such different–perhaps even opposing–beliefs get together and build an apparently happy marriage?
My wife and I actually share many beliefs in common. Our values are fundamentally similar, and our differences are often complementary rather than contradictory. Religion and religious belief are places of difference between us, but in most every other place, we are in just the same place.
Anyways, I think people make more of religious difference than there needs to be. My wife and I are different people, and we always have been. We have different jobs and different backgrounds. We don’t always vote for the same people. We like different foods. Our tastes in music and art can be way off.
As far as I can tell, religion is just another difference. It’s something that each of us has and keeps in the household, but it doesn’t really define our home. It doesn’t dominate our relationship at all. Rather, our lives together are dominated by just living. We try to be together in the morning. I leave for work, and then I come home at night and we try to be together with the kids until their bedtime routine starts.
Maybe if we had both been Catholic or Jewish when we started dating, things would be different today. But since we started out with difference, I think that religion quickly and necessarily became bracketed as a personal thing and not a universal thing.
When we first met, my wife was a practicing Catholic and I identified as Jewish. I don’t remember the state of her belief, or my own. When we moved in together in 1997, she took a spot teaching Sunday school at the local church, and I eventually got involved with my local Hillel house. I even taught the kindergartners in Hebrew school!
If we ever saw our religious differences as a problem, we didn’t see it as a big problem or as a relationship problem. We wanted to be together; that was always the important point. We didn’t even need to say it. From the beginning of our relationship, being together was implicitly understood and not being together never entered our minds.
2. You both went through changes in religious thinking, right?
Very much. In the 2001-2003 timeframe, my wife started to move away from the Catholic church. We were back in the Boston area by then, and the child sex abuse scandal had started to hit. The response of the Church to these horrific acts perpetrated by priests and then knowingly covered up at the highest levels of the institution–well, it was too much to take. The Church’s position on homosexuality was probably also an issue for my wife. Our oldest daughter was confirmed Catholic–that was in 2003–but I don’t think my wife went to church very much in those days.
It wasn’t until 2006 that my wife found a Christian religious community that she liked. This community called itself non-denominational. She found many people there who were about her age and also having children. The religious message was personal and positive. The services were energetic and carefully crafted. I think my wife felt that this community had a lot of people who could understand some of her questions and problems in a way that I never could have.
3. Surely, you and your wife must have strong disagreements about religion.
No doubt. We don’t talk about it very much. She has her space to express what she believes, and I have mine. It’s hard for us to talk about these disagreements with each other because I am not able to convey the sense that I take Christian belief very seriously. I take it seriously to some extent. I know that lots of people call themselves Christian, and I am familiar with a lot of the history and background of both early and established Christianity.
But I have limits to the deference I’ll give ideas that I feel have been demonstrated faulty. I can’t make it sound as though the story of a virgin-born-of-a-virgin who was impregnated by a ghost and who birthed a miracle-working human sacrifice makes any sort of sense to me. And I know the arguments around the story and the history of some of its details. Once I feel I’ve thought through a question and seen it resolved satisfactorily, I generally prefer not to revisit it and rather move onto some other question.
For my part, I have no desire to make Atheist arguments or to force Dawkins and Hitchens on my wife. What’s the point? She’s an intelligent human being and I’ve got my work cut out for me just defining the contours of my own thinking. We both have our own “spiritual” questions that we’re pursuing, and it’s enough that we support each other in our respective pursuits.
At the end of the day, our religious differences and our different rationalizations for our beliefs have very little to do with the practicalities of our love and our household. Maybe, after the kids have grown up and we’re retired, we’ll spend our days debating the lack of evidence for gods and the ridiculousness of all religious beliefs. I suspect we’ll rather spend our days having more fun together, but who knows?
4. How do your differences in religion and Atheism apply to the way you raise your children?
In terms of how we raise the kids, I don’t think there are any issues. I don’t openly scoff at Christianity or Judaism in front of my children. I also don’t push Darwin’s Origin of Species or Dawkins’s The God Delusion on them. The fact is that I don’t need to do this. The reality of my Atheism will become apparent to my children when they are old enough to see it. They’ll notice I don’t go with them to church and that some of the books in my library make cases for Atheism.
Parenting is a practical art. It’s hard to get kids to believe or to know things in the exact way you want. They develop beliefs and knowledge through their own doing and their own experiences. Neither my wife nor I is interested in controlling our children’s intellectual environment to the extent that they can only have these-or-those thoughts or only come to such-and-such conclusions about the world. So, we both parent in the day; that is, we try to handle each day as it comes and enjoy it as best we can.
Honestly, I don’t think personal religious or atheistic beliefs have much impact on what we parents need to do as parents. We need to be with our kids. We need to play with them, teach them, help them, encourage them, and show them we enjoy all that. To me, in marriage and in parenting, togetherness is the name of the game.It’s all about being in the same place at the same time.
It’s not about using the children as my personal social experiment. It’s not about making the children live out my dreams and my ideas. It’s not about coercing the children to think and act like me. It is about enabling and empowering them to grow according to their own reasoning and desires.
We parents are an extension of our children, not the other way around. We are their conscience until it becomes their responsibility to tell themselves what’s right and necessary. We are heir butlers until they are fully able to get the items they need and can clean up after themselves. We are their cheerleaders until they learn how to develop their own confidence and motivation. We are their counselors until they are able to take the lead in making the tough decisions that affect them.
My wife and I share this fundamental outlook in most ways, if not in every single way. We agree on the major things and differ in some of the details. We want the same seeds and are comfortable with however the flowers develop. This is why it has worked so far for us, and why I have no reason to be anything less than very optimistic about the future.
Larry Tanner will now take your questions!
________________________________________________________________ Larry Tanner is senior proposal lead for a New England-based robotics company. He is currently preparing a dissertation in Anglo-Saxon literature and textuality. A married father of three children, he teaches English literature and composition at a local community college. He can be contacted via email at lartanner[at]hotmail[dot]com.
I’m the lone humanist in my household. My wife Joan is a committed Catholic, and our teenaged son Will, though not formally aligned with any religion, does believe there’s a God. People are understandably curious, wondering, “How do you make it work?” Here’s the story:
Joan and I met and became a couple thirty years ago this summer. I was then, as now, an atheist—hadn’t yet discovered the term “humanist”—and she was in “searching” mode, having made a break from her Catholic upbringing. While not an atheist, she supported my penchant for collecting and writing non-theistic life-affirming meditations and philosophies. At our wedding five years later, the ceremony we wrote and read to our family and friends was full of heart and free of theism.
Several years later, Joan started reconnecting with her Catholic roots. Though this shook our shared foundation, our long-term commitment and our new parenthood motivated us to make it work. Without realizing it, we followed mediation guidelines: Make a mutually agreeable “plan of practices” to follow, and stick with it. Limit philosophical debates that divide and irritate.
One of our first positive steps was to agree on how to raise our son re religion. We would each let him know our outlook and eventually encourage him to make his own choices. (Lo these seventeen years later, it’s now pretty obvious that he’d have done that anyway.) We would phrase our beliefs not as certainties (e.g. “God wants you to…” or “There is no God”), but as beliefs (“I believe that God wants you to…”, or “I don’t believe in God”). We asked our relatives to respect this style, not stating opinions as “truths” to Will, but only as their beliefs, if at all. Understanding that their cooperation was a way to support our marriage, thank goodness, they complied. As for the moral code we’ve tried to teach, we don’t disagree: Caring and respect for others is the guide.
Naturally, when discussing religion with Will, I would try my best to be convincing. Along with discussing why it’s important to be a good person, I would tell him that the idea of an invisible father who controls everything just doesn’t make sense to me. Though he never bought church doctrine, since he was small he has maintained: “Then how did all this get here?” To me, the only answer to that is “No one knows”—but “God did it” works for him.
Despite Joan’s and my cooperation, the increasing differences created a painful sense of loss for me. While she still appreciated my positive philosophy, she was now regularly going to church and embracing beliefs and practices for which I had little feeling or respect. I sometimes felt I just couldn’t handle it. I went to a counselor and did a lot of complaining. The counselor’s refrain was, “What are you going to do?” I took a hard look at ending the marriage, and realized how much I had, and how precious it was. Joan is a wonderful person with a big heart and a great deal that I can learn from. We still agreed on so many things, and we had all that shared history. I decided to find more ways to make it work.
There will always be differences between people. Even small differences can cause friction, even between otherwise like-minded people. The key is keeping control of the friction, not eradicating the differences. Some of our understandings:
• Agree to disagree when possible.
• Emphasize common ground.
• Don’t unnecessarily put something hard-to-take right in the other’s face.
• Leave the door open to respect as much as possible of the other person’s outlook and practices.
All of the above have helped.
From the start, I was relieved that we agreed to avoid children’s books and movies with religious themes. Joan was glad for the chance to share Christmas and Easter services with Will and didn’t mind my occasionally taking him to Unitarian church. Either of us talking religion with others is best done away from common areas where it might get on the other’s nerves. Family activities, even the art and pictures we display on the walls of our home, reflect the things we both love: nature, music, togetherness, good memories. Atheist cartoons and pictures of the pope go in our respective rooms.
This isn’t to say we avoid discussing our beliefs. But when we do, we take care to be respectful and to back off when it is going nowhere (as it often does). Agreeing to disagree actually provides some relief. As we abandon the conversation, I feel that we are affirming peace in our house, which I appreciate and cherish. And we can go right from there into some more harmonious part of our common ground. It’s a choice I’m happy to make.
There’s a bright side to this in-home diversity – the benefit to a kid of seeing parents and kids coexist and be loving despite disagreements, or even a different set of core beliefs. Learning to accept some dissonance is good practice for later life. Good people can disagree and still love.
Beyond that, this family harmony suggests that the real core beliefs have more to do with “what is good behavior” than with what’s up in the sky or after death, or what happened 2000 years ago. Absence or presence of mythology needn’t necessarily lead to disharmony any more than a difference in hobbies or in favored sports teams. Why should a spouse’s dedication to something I find uninteresting – be it the Detroit Tigers, NASCAR, 19th century English novels, or the Catholic Church – unsettle me? (Well okay, it’s not really that simple – but I gladly take private comfort in this construct.)
Joan is from a large family, and their occasions are often infused with religion, which at times makes me squirm. But I have also cultivated an appreciation of the benefits her family derives from Catholicism – their deep sense of charity that fuels an ongoing penchant to do for others, their ability to forgive and go on from upsets, their ability to accept and include, refraining from judgment. When their religion calls on them to embrace supernaturalistic myths or ideas I’m at odds with, I can at least try to tie the pieces together as part of one cloth, as varied as the entire human condition. And I can also just literally look the other way, or even flat out leave the room if I can’t take it. Joan is more at ease with my views, and even reads my Family of Humanists columns with interest and some good suggestions.
The above set of practices and guidelines is far from perfect. It has been a stretch for me, a person with perfectionist tendencies, to learn these ropes. But that’s all the more reason to do it: learning flexibility, learning to accept. And religious diversity will not be the hardest challenge to accept as I grow older.
Having made progress in this area has given me some deep satisfaction. At first I wasn’t sure it was possible. How could I put up with the pain? It turns out to be quite possible. I find myself thinking, if we can learn to do this in our house, maybe there’s hope for the Israelis and Palestinians, the Indians and the Pakistanis. Peace is a wonderful thing. I work at it because it’s worth it, and I’m still at it. This past June we celebrated our 25th anniversary.
Bronx-born Coloradoan Pete Wernick earned a PhD in Sociology from Columbia University while developing a career in music on the side. His bestselling instruction book Bluegrass Banjo allowed “Dr. Banjo” to leave his sociology research job at Cornell to form Hot Rize, a classic bluegrass band that traveled worldwide. Pete served as president of the International Bluegrass Music Association for fifteen years.
Pete, his wife and son survived the disastrous crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City in 1989. A Life magazine article following the crash identified Pete as a humanist and noted that he didn’t see a supernatural factor in his survival. An atheist since age fifteen, Pete was president of the Family of Humanists from 1997 to 2006. Today he continues to perform, run music camps nationwide, and produce instructional videos for banjo and bluegrass.