(RNS) If interfaith marriages are supposedly doomed, Dale McGowan’s should have been toe-tagged from the start.

He’s a committed atheist; his wife comes from a line of Southern Baptist preachers. Yet 23 years and three kids later, they are still happily married.

Dale McGowan's most recent book, "In Faith and In Doubt," discusses how to craft a stronger interpath marriage. Religion News Service photo courtesy Dale McGowan

Dale McGowan’s most recent book, “In Faith and In Doubt,” discusses how to craft a stronger religiously mixed marriage. Religion News Service photo courtesy of Dale McGowan

What’s their secret? McGowan, 51, has just written “In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families,” to help other couples considering what he calls a “religious/nonreligious mixed marriage” succeed.

“The key is to talk about your values,” McGowan said from his home in Atlanta. “A lot of time we mix up the words ‘values’ and ‘beliefs.’ Beliefs are what you think is true about the universe. Is there a God? Where do we go when we die? But values are what you believe are important and good. When you get couples talking about values they find out they share a tremendous amount, even if they don’t share beliefs.”

That’s what McGowan and his wife, Becca, did. While she believed in one God, she did not believe salvation could be had only through belief in Jesus. And he agreed that he could go to church with her — and did, for many years, with their children.

“This isn’t about the way I see the world — it’s about whether I can be in a loving, enduring relationship with someone who sees it differently,” McGowan writes in the book. “And when the question is framed in that way, the ‘big’ theological questions are actually smaller and less important than the social values questions. On those, this atheist and his Evangelical wife had a solid match.”

In their book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and United Us,” social scientists Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of the University of Notre Dame show that in 1950, about 20 percent of all U.S. marriages were interfaith. Today, that number is 45 percent.

Dale McGowan. Religion News Service photo courtesy Dale McGowan

Dale McGowan. Religion News Service photo courtesy of Dale McGowan

Nearly six in ten – 59 percent –  of the religiously unaffiliated say they have spouses who are religious, according to McGowan’s book. Susan Katz Miller, author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family,” said her work among couples of different faiths shows there is a need for more information for couples where only one partner is religious.

“I think religious/nonreligious couples face the same issues as interfaith couples — namely, respecting each other and supporting each other without having to agree on a set of beliefs or practices,” she said. “We need to hear more stories from these families and the variations we will hear in the stories of humanist/Muslim, atheist/Christian, agnostic/pagan couples, etc., will be an important part of this new narrative.”

McGowan, too, saw a need for a book on religious/nonreligious unions in his work with parents raising children outside a faith tradition. He is the author of two books on parenting without belief and writes a blog on the same subject.

“It was an absolute drumbeat throughout the parenting work I was doing,” he said. “People would ask me for a resource and there wasn’t any. It became overwhelming at a certain point, and I knew this book had to be written.”

Yet there was precious little data on marriages between religious and nonreligious couples when McGowan sat down to write. So he commissioned a study with demographer Mary Ellen Sikes at American Secular Census to paint a portrait of such unions.

The sample was small — just under 1,000 respondents from around the world — but the results are intriguing:

  • Two-thirds of religious/nonreligious couples were aware of their difference before they married, but 29 percent did not know of the difference until after the union.
  • About half of all respondents expressed negative emotions about the difference, while 34 percent said they were “indifferent.”
  • In cases where the couple were unaware of the difference before marriage, 22 percent said it was because one partner experienced a religious conversion — or deconversion — after the marriage.

In those cases, the difference can sometimes be insurmountable, or nearly so. McGowan writes of one couple, Hope and David, parents of five who were both born, raised and married as conservative Baptists. David had been headed for ministry when he lost his faith entirely.

After much unhappiness, unsuccessful counseling and lots of discussion, the pair decided to stick it out. “I wish I could say it was easy to make up my mind to love David and then move forward with that decision, but it was not,” Hope says in the book. “I realized that we weren’t likely to end our marriage in a peaceful or friendly way, in part because of David’s traumatic childhood, so I decided to stay. Five years later, I’m really glad I did.”

McGowan’s own wife, Becca, experienced a change of faith in their marriage — she now considers herself a secular humanist, a migration she says her husband had little to do with. And while McGowan said he laments the loss of a second worldview for his children’s upbringing, he remains optimistic about the benefits of marriage between people who do and don’t believe in a god.

“We have these black and white views of each other, the religious and nonreligious,” he said. “But the common ground is extraordinary between the two, and the fact that this is overlooked is something I really wanted to look at. You don’t have to go searching as far or hard for the common ground.”

KRE/MG END WINSTON

24 Comments

  1. I wonder if there are good statistics on the knowlege base of people in such marriages. For instance, in test results published here at RNS last year or so, it was found that Atheists know the Bibles better than other groups, including Christians. With that, it would seem that the Christian in a mixed marriage like these may have more they don’t know – and hence learn more – and hence be more likely to deconvert than the other way around. Just guessing….

    From comments I’ve heard (though without hard data this guess is near worthless), it seems to me that the non-religious partner is more likely to let the kids be taught Christianity than the Christian partner is to let the children be taught about freethought. I find that sad, that we freethinkers often don’t seem to care enough to give the children a tool that we have found so valuable ourselves.

  2. Kimberly – Thanks for an excellent article. Very thought provoking.

    “McGowan’s own wife, Becca, experienced a change of faith in their marriage — she now considers herself a secular humanist,…while McGowan said he laments the loss of a second worldview….he remains optimistic.”

    This was surprisingly gut wrenching to read.

    Having been married for 27 years – with children – it was a shocker to me when I discovered I was an Atheist.

    One day I turned to her with a question I had been pondering all morning:
    “What changed in the world because Jesus stopped breathing?”

    My wife, who had been a Christian with me all these years seemed to have just accepted our religion without very much thought. She looked at me with the strangest look in her eyes like I had thrown her the biggest curve ball.

    She said: “I don’t know. But when you put it that way…”

    We both discovered that the Jesus story made no sense at almost the same time. And I am relieved about that.

    Though I have come to hate religion for what I have come to see as a complete charade – a life of needless guilts and shames I am still recovering from. My wife has been more awestruck by how many people can take these claims for granted.

    She is not so keen to the harms of religion because – I suspect – she wasn’t as totally invested in the belief of the Holy Spirit as I was.

    We are both enormously relieved that religion is fading (however slowly) from society. Life is so much better after religion.

    • Growing up in a family with a large and religious mixed extended family, any serious belief was always tempered with very tangible limitations. Religion was just something that got in the way of sane relations. It was either “Live and let live” or Thanksgiving becomes a nightmare for all involved. One didn’t antagonize the beliefs of a relative in a public setting because it would be rude and drive them away. We had too many friends where that happened. We did not want to be like them.

      The most extreme happened my mother’s friend. This friend was Jewish, she was very upset her son married a Catholic girl. The animosity went on for years. Even as my mother’s friend was dying of cancer, she refused to see her son and daughter in law. The woman’s funeral was a turning point for my parents. They went from merely non-practicing and respectful to outright atheists. There was no further point in keeping up a pretense for the sake of culture.

      I was went through enough about religious education to know about my heritage, but it was hardly likely to instill belief. A main sticking point I always objected to, even when little, was the stance taken against inter-marriage. As part of a family where it was common, such views were personally insulting. There was no point in accepting any religious belief. They were all nonsense which caused trouble.

      My brother and I both have mixed faith/interracial marriages. We were both surprised by how even our most religious relatives were respectful to those differences. The people we most expected to misbehave, came through and acted like real human beings. The real issues came from peers. The most annoying thing to hear during my engagement was, “are you worried about raising your children Buddhist?”, “is one of you going to convert?”

      Where religion was always seen as a source of tension and headache, it was very easy to transition from non-practicing to non-belief.

  3. A Christian who marries a non-Christian is at best a disobedient Christian, and likely is not a Christian at all. Yes, that sounds harsh and judgmental, but someone here should be expressing the orthodox Christian view.

    • …and this is why you can’t be around nice people Thophilus. :)

      How can you be a good Christian if you are unwilling to respect a spouse in all aspects? Does being a good Christian mean showing disrespect to others?

      • The Apostle Paul addresses the situation where one partner becomes a Christian after marriage. In that case, the Christian partner should not seek to leave the marriage or in any way denigrate it. I’m referring specifically to the case where a Christian marries a non-Christian.

        And I agree, should a Christian marry a non-Christian he or she should love and respect that spouse. A Christian should rarely if ever show disrespect to others.

        • So am I. What other context were you thinking of? Your claim that “the Christian partner should not seek to leave the marriage or in any way denigrate it” is untrue since you premised belonging to the faith on doing just that.

          You claimed that marrying outside the faith was disobedience to it or an outright denial of it. Being a good obedient Christian is premised either on isolating to just those who believe as you do or in denigrating the faith of others. Including one’s own spouse.

          When a Christian marries a non-Christian, they show respect by not asking the non-Christian spouse to convert, to not denigrate the beliefs of the spouse and act like a loving normal human being. If showing respect and love to another is being a disobedient Christian, then being a Christian is of no value.

          • There are two ways a Christian can be married to a non-Christian:

            1. A Christian marries a non-Christian. This is disobedient.

            2. In a marriage of two non-Christians, one becomes a Christian. This is the case Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians. This of course does not reflect badly on either partner; Paul’s special burden in bringing it up is to say that the Christian should NOT divorce the unbelieving partner.

            That being said, it always behooves a Christian to believe that anyone who does not embrace the Christian faith is wrong. This is simple logical exclusivity. I do not equate declaring other religious beliefs incorrect with denigrating them. Jews do not denigrate me by saying that Jesus Christ is not the Messiah; that is just what they believe. Atheists do not denigrate Christians when they say that they don’t believe in a god.

            A believing spouse should indeed love an unbelieving spouse. The Apostle Paul doesn’t say anything about “asking the non-Christian spouse to convert” in this passage — though in general Chrisitanity, as you know, is an evangelistic religion by command of Christ Himself — rather, he says that the unbelieving spouse should pray for the unbelieving partner that he or she might come to faith, and strive to win them over by their good behavior.

          • You would never survive Thanksgiving with my family. They would strip you to the bone like piranhas at feeding time for what you suggested.

            Its all doubletalk.

            You say that marrying outside the faith is wrong and Un-Christian, but you don’t want to own up to the implications of such things. That your faith demands attacking others or deliberately disrespecting one’s spouse.

            All you are doing is showing me that your version Christianity is premised on not showing respect or love to a non-believer, even if it is one’s spouse. Either they are considered “disobedient” for respecting their spouse’s religious beliefs or they must attack the spouse’s belief as required by faith.

            “That being said, it always behooves a Christian to believe that anyone who does not embrace the Christian faith is wrong. ”

            Obviously this statement is untrue. According to you, if a believing spouse should indeed love an unbelieving spouse, then they cannot be considered real Christians. Showing love to an unbeliever is hateful to Christianity.

            Evangelicalism is inherently at odds with religious tolerance or respecting the beliefs of others. Its why Christians almost never “play well with others”.

            “he says that the unbelieving spouse should pray for the unbelieving partner that he or she might come to faith, and strive to win them over by their good behavior.”

            To the expectation is that one spouse should abandon their religion in order to reinforce the faith of the other. This is not what one does out of respect and love. Its inherently condescending and hostile. Not acts of love but acts of ego. Trying to exert power over a spouse and compel their beliefs.

            You do yourself a disservice to Christianity. You are describing the faith as something which attacks love, attacks respect, in favor of obedience to authority. You strip the faith of any value.

          • I have striven to be sincere and straightforward. You insist on twisting my words, I have to believe that you are aware that you are doing so.

            Answer me this: Are you denigrating your wife by not believing in her faith? If not, how can you say that for a Christian denigrates his spouse by not joining her in her unbelief?

            I said, “it always behooves a Christian to believe that anyone who does not embrace the Christian faith is wrong.” To which you responded, “Obviously this statement is untrue.” Which completely flabbergasts me! If I said “it always behooves a Christian to believe that anyone who believes that 2 + 2 = 5 is wrong” would you say that statement is also obviously untrue? They are completely parallel!

          • “Are you denigrating your wife by not believing in her faith? If not, how can you say that for a Christian denigrates his spouse by not joining her in her unbelief?”

            Not at all.

            One can respect something without adopting it. I can respect your belief in Christianity and not impede your practice and worship of it without believing in it. It doesn’t mean that I attack or make fun of it. I wouldn’t demand that you must adopt my view as your own.

            Plus my wife was raised in a faith which does not proselytize (Buddhism/Shintoism). So living and let living was always the order of the day. Debating religious belief is considered rude in that culture. :)

            Proselytizing is incompatible with mixed faith relations because a proselytizer does not inherently respect the beliefs of others. It is just another challenge to overcome in service of their faith.

            “I do not equate declaring other religious beliefs incorrect with denigrating them.”

            Most people would however.

            Especially since religious belief has nothing to do with facts, logic or reason. Belief is a deeply personal thing and almost entirely emotional in nature. The act of making the declaration is rather rude and uncivil in most situations. Some things are best left to one’s self at times.

            Btw when a Jewish person tells you Jesus is not the Messiah, what they are saying is, “stop trying to convert me”. It is less an attack on your faith as much as it is a commentary on your mode of discussion.

            “Atheists do not denigrate Christians when they say that they don’t believe in a god.”

            You wouldn’t know it gauging the reactions of a lot of Christians. :)

          • OK, well it seems as though we understand each other better now.

            A few parting comments from my side:

            1. When I say that it is disobedient of a Christian to marry a non-Christian I don’t mean to imply that it is some sort of unforgivable sin. It may have lasting negative consequences, but it can be forgiven.

            2. I have never, to my recollection, had a Jew tell me that Jesus is not the Messiah; that was a hypothetical.

            3. I think you’re wrong about Evangelicals as far as toleration goes; we practically invented it. But you have to understand what toleration really means; you aren’t really tolerating a belief unless you find it seriously objectionable:

            http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/toleration/

            The Left’s definition of toleration is something along the lines of “to have an attitude that no one has a monopoly on truth; it’s all cool.” That simply is incompatible with true Christian belief.

          • 1. You are trying to put in an nice way that marrying a non-Christian is more or less an offense to the faith. It doesn’t matter that you consider it a forgivable sin. Calling it a sin raises issues from the outset as to how Christians are supposed to associated with others. It severely undermines the worth of the faith. Christian love is for Christians only.

            2. You probably would never hear a Jewish person tell you such things unless you were engaging in obnoxious proselytizing behavior towards them. You probably wouldn’t hear such declarations in mixed conversation because Judaism doesn’t proselytize. They don’t try to convince you to join their faith. As typical of the tone deaf nature of proselytizing faiths towards others, you wouldn’t even consider that others would consider such declarations inherently rude.

            3. Evangelicals tend to be the least respectful to the religious beliefs of others. You can play around with what you think toleration means but ultimately there is only a few practical definitions which count. Being civil and respectful to the religious beliefs of others. You can’t do that when you are trying to bring them over to your faith.

            There is a tone-deaf nature to their interactions with people of different beliefs. They usually fail to see how they are giving offense (usually unintentionally) because they are so wrapped up in the idea of a religious duty to evangelize. They think because God tells them so, it can’t be considered rude or obnoxious. An excuse to be indifferent to others beyond one’s own religious duty.

            As for “the left’s…” I did not make this a political partisan thing. Its about civility and how to interact with people outside your religious belief. Their attitude is keep it to yourself, respect others, be civil. Our laws and government is not beholden to just your faith.

            Evangelicals always think rules do not apply to them because God tells them so. They always think they have a God given right to tell others what to do or believe. This is why they tend to be on the wrong side of many civil liberties issues.

            Making your religious belief a function of political ideas is fairly obnoxious, uncivil and petty. The idea that Christianity = conservative politics is both insulting to Christianity and politics.

          • I’m sorry you don’t like the fact as a Christian I share my beliefs and attempt to make disciples for Christ. Those are rights that our constitution guarantees to me. The founding fathers probably couldn’t envision a time in this country where religious freedom would be under attack, but they wisely included that provision anyway.

            I did not mean to suggest that Christianity was an inherently right wing phenomenon. I was just making the observation that I have only heard left wingers use “hate” in the new sense of holding unpopular beliefs. If you are a conservative atheist, I was not directing that comment towards you.

          • I am sorry you need to make excuses with your religious faith for behavior which would be considered rude and uncivil towards others. There are plenty of Christians who do not feel the need for such things. People who do not use Jesus as a pretext to treat others in an insulting manner. I am certainly related to enough of Christians like that.

            Nobody is preventing you from proselytizing (unless you are abusing public power to do it). But it is considered offensive to many, especially being on the receiving end. One should be mindful of such things when acting with civility towards others.

            There really is nothing more ridiculous than people who complain about being called a “hater” rather than do anything to refute such accusations. It just means someone is thin skinned. It is not a denial or even much of a response.

            Complaining of people complaining about you is not a refutation of their complaints. :)

          • You are so lacking in clarity and integrity in the way you express yourself that I find no point in continuing this exchange. I don’t know if it is a defect in your mental processes or a finely-honed technique, but it doesn’t really matter.

          • I can’t help it if you think that you find it sinful to engage in personal relationships with people outside your narrow religious bubble. Its a wider world out there than what you let yourself see.

            There is a certain unintentional arrogance to evangelizing that few within that faith care to pay attention to. Its not nice to hear but it doesn’t make it any less true. Chalking it up to “anti-Christian” prejudice is just being defensive and whiny. It is merely a coping tool to avoid the implications of objectively uncivil behavior towards others.

  4. I agree to different views of couples on religious beliefs I don’t expect both to have a match in that! It makes sense of how we our given that opportunity of likes and dislikes of religion that we know to find that special someone it is on the top of the list, no hassle that you are satisfied with what you chose.

  1. […] If interfaith marriages are supposedly doomed, Dale McGowan’s should have been toe-tagged from the start. He’s a committed atheist; his wife comes from a line of Southern Baptist preachers. Yet 23 years and three kids later, they are still happily married. What’s their secret? McGowan, 51, has just written“In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families,” to help other couples considering what he calls a “religious/nonreligious mixed marriage” succeed. “The key is to talk about your values,” McGowan said from his home in Atlanta. “A lot of time we mix up the words ‘values’ and ‘beliefs.’ Beliefs are what you think is true about the universe. Is there a God? Where do we go when we die? But values are what you believe are important and good. When you get couples talking about values they find out they share a tremendous amount, even if they don’t share beliefs.” [Read more] […]

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