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Facts about inter-faith/intra-faith marriages

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Overview:

There exists an immense variety of of inter-faith marriages. Some involve a couple who follow:

bullet two very different religions, or
bullet two religions which have some similarities, or
bullet two major divisions within a single religion (e.g. Protestant and Catholic), or
bullet two denominations within a single division of a religion (e.g. Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God)

Couples treat their religious faiths differently:

bullet to some individuals, religion has no impact at all;
bullet some are barely active in their religion;
bullet some take their religion very seriously; it forms a major part of their life.
bullet to some, their belief goes beyond conventional religion and becomes a close intimate relationship with a god.

People have different beliefs concerning faith groups which are not their own:

bullet some value religious diversity and see great merit in other religions;
bullet some believe that their religion is the only completely true faith;
bullet some believe that other faith groups are seriously flawed;
bullet others believe that other religions are are evil, perhaps forms of Satanism.

All of these factors, and more, influence the impact that religious differences will have in an inter-faith marriage. Thus, it is very difficult to make meaningful general statements that apply to all or even most inter-faith marriages.

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Numbers of inter-faith marriages:

Estimates of the total number of inter-faith/intra-faith marriages appear to be hopelessly inaccurate. A book review in Psychology Today estimated that there are only 500,000 inter-faith households in the United States. Yet:

  • In mid 2010, the Washington Post reported that:

    "According to the General Social Survey, 15 percent of U.S. households were mixed-faith in 1988. That number rose to 25 percent by 2006, and the increase shows no signs of slowing.

    The American Religious Identification Survey, 2001 11 reported that 27 percent of Jews, 23 percent of Catholics, 39 percent of Buddhists, 18 percent of Baptists, 21 percent of Muslims and 12 percent of Mormons were then married to a spouse with a different religious identification.

    If you want to see what the future holds, note this: Less than a quarter of the 18- to 23-year-old respondents in the National Study of Youth and Religion think it's important to marry someone of the same faith." 10

  • An informal survey among Washington Post readers showed that 62% believed that "... it's important to marry someone of the same religion." 36% said it was not important. Since the Washington Post is a liberal news source, a larger percentage of the general population would probably feel it is important to be of the same religion.

  • It is estimated that "Inter-marriage for Jews rose steadily from 3% in 1965 to 17% in the mid-eighties." 7

  • Another guess is that 18 million (25%) of the Roman Catholics in the U.S. marry outside their faith. Estimates for Manitoba, Canada is 40%; for Britain it is 75%. 4

  • A series of studies in Northern Ireland (a rather special location for intra-faith relationships) gave rates varying from 2 to 25%, depending upon the exact location and year. 5

  • In Nepal, where Christians form less than 1% of the population, 53% of the marriages held in one church were inter-faith. 6

  • One writer commented that "Inter-faith marriages between Protestants and Catholics were once frowned upon, but today are accepted by 80% of the population." 7

  • The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America reports that about 67% of marriages conducted in the archdiocese are inter-faith or intra-faith. 8
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Orthodox Christian perspective: 

Emmanuel Clapsis, an Christian Orthodox priest, claims that "the percentage of Greek Orthodox [members] marrying other Christians has been inching upward for decades and will probably continue to move higher..." He sees a number of factors which influence the rate of his church's members marrying outside of their religion. These are probably true for all denominations and religions:

bullet The number of eligible marriage partners in the neighborhood who are of the same faith group. The fewer the possible partners, the more likely the individual is to look outside of their faith group for a spouse.

bullet The presence of ethnic or social class barriers which impede the mixing of young people across religious lines. For example:

bullet increasing enrollment at colleges and universities puts more young people of different faiths away from home and into social contact.

bullet movement from ethnic neighborhoods into the more heterogeneous suburbs lowers barriers to inter-faith dating.

bullet Where religious, parochial or separate schools are increasing in enrollment, (e.g. Ontario) youth have more social contacts within their faith and are more likely to date persons of the same religion. If such schools are in decline: e.g.
bullet in Newfoundland where 5 separate religious school systems have recently been converted into a singular secular institution.

bullet in Quebec which is expected to convert its Roman Catholic and Protestant systems into secular French and English schools.

the reverse effect will probably occur.

bullet religiously motivated home schooling, which is rapidly gaining adherents in North America often drastically limits the social contacts of youth outside their faith.

bullet The number of opportunities for single individuals to meet and mix with others within same faith group. Some denominations have very active youth groups; others do not.

bullet The commitment of parents to religion: As secular influences gain strength and church attendance rates fall, young people are being increasingly raised in homes that have little religious commitment. The latter has been shown to increase the rate of inter-faith marriages.

bullet The commitment of youth to religion: With the decline in attendance at Sunday-school classes, the gradual drop in church attendance, religion is probably decreasing slowly in significance among youth. However, with the increase in the percentage of conservative Christian youth, religion is increasing in importance.

bullet The children of religiously mixed marriages are more likely to have inter-faith marriages themselves. So, the rate will naturally increase with time.

bullet As increasing value and tolerance is given to religious diversity, people are liable to be more willing to consider a mixed-faith marriage.

bullet The "strength of ethnic identification seems to inhibit" religiously mixed marriages. As more Americans enter the cultural "melting pot," the inter-faith marriage rate may increase.

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Roman Catholic perspective

James Davidson, a sociologist at Purdue University has studied inter-faith marriages in the Roman Catholic church. He writes that the intermarriage rate is today "at least twice what it was in the pre-Vatican [II] era." He attributes this to a number of influences:

bullet Younger adults today have less attachment to the Church.

bullet The total of Church-approved marriages is in decline (382,861 in 1970 vs. 293,434 in 1995). This is in spite of the increase in number of Catholics during the same period. 

bullet There was a decline of 23% in church-sanctioned weddings between 1975 and 1995.

bullet Interfaith couples are choosing civil ceremonies in record numbers. There are far more interfaith marriages outside the church than within. "A report given by the interchurch and interfaith committee at the 1996 Clergy-Laity Congress stated that a failure to reach out to the interfaith couples in our churches would "be [like] closing our doors to the very children, adults and families who are the church's future.8

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Mormon perspective:

The LDS Restoration movement is made up of denominations, sects, and small faith groups who trace their origins back to the original Church of Christ that Joseph Smith's founded in 1830. There are currently on the order of 100 denominations that trace their spiritual ancestry back to that church.

In what is by far the largest denomination, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, if both the husband and wife are members of the church, they can be married in the Temple and have their marriage sealed for all eternity. That is, they believe that their marriage will survive their deaths. If they have led righteous lives, accepted Jesus' teachings, and met all of the ordinances, they can spend eternity in the Celestial Kingdom -- the highest level of Heaven.

In the largest fundamentalist wing of the LDS Restoration movement, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the wife may be able to attain the Celestial Kingdom. However, she requires an invitation from her husband. This options is not available if one spouse is a non-Mormon.

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Stressors in inter-faith marriages:

Stressors often begin before the marriage itself, when parents realize that a serious relationship is developing between their child and a friend of another religion. The next hurdle is often at the time of the engagement. Organization of the marriage ceremony and reception can be a "disaster of the Hindenberg class," as some members of the extended families may feel that the couple is being unfaithful to the traditions in which they were raised. Frequently, religious groups rules place roadblocks in the couple's path as they plan their ceremony.

Simply dealing with the spouses' different faiths on a week-to-week basis can be a point of contention: whether to attend church, circle, mosque, synagogue, or temple of the one partner or the other; or to alternate attendance, or to attend a compromise denomination, or to back away from religious observance entirely.

When the couple has children they may have to decide whether the child will be baptized. They have to decide in which faith the child will be trained and educated. A partner might find it very difficult to handle having their child taught what are, in their opinion, untruths. If this decision is left until children arrive, this unresolved religious conflict can cause chaos.

Different faith groups advocate varying beliefs and practices concerning family size, abortion, birth control, artificial insemination, diet, food preparation, sexual abstinence, the sharing of power between the spouses, the sharing of decision making with the children, etc. Some parents are affiliated with faith groups that advocate corporal punishment as the preferred method of discipline; other groups regard spanking and hitting children with an implement to be child abuse. All of these factors can cause friction and may have to be individually resolved.

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Related essay:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Vera Lawlor, "Is it OK for those of different faiths to wed?," The Bergen Record, Hakensack, NJ., 1999-MAR-11. See: http://www.bergen.com/
  2. Emmanuel Clapsis, "The challenge posed by mixed marriages," at: http://www.voithia.org/
  3. "At home with other faiths," Oxford Diocesan Council for Interfaith Concerns, at: http://www.oxford.anglican.org/
  4. Fenella Temmerman, "Letter to 'Columbia,' " at: http://www.aifw.org/aif/journies/
  5. Valerie Morgan, et. al., "Mixed marriages in Northern Ireland," University of Ulster, (1996). Preface and sections 1,6 & 7 are online at: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/
  6. A.F. Sharma, speech at a Synod for Asia at Rome on 1998-APR-29. See: http://www.natcath.com/
  7. Terry Matthews "The changing nature of denominational life," at: http://www.wlu.ca/
  8. James Davidson, article in Commonweal magazine, 1999-SEP-10.
  9. Interfaith Marriage, at: http://www.interfaith.goarch.org/  They have chat rooms and message boards on their website.
  10. Naomi Schaefer Riley, "Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they're failing fast too," Washington Post, 2010-JUN-06, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
  11. Barry A. Kosmin, et al., "American Religious Identification Survey, 2001," City University of New York, at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1999-MAR-16
Latest update: 2011-FEB-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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