Does “Faith” Separate Us?

religious baby?“You ruined my life,” my mother told me. The first time she said it was decades ago, when I first married, and she’s repeated it more than once since then.

The distress I caused her (which, perhaps oddly, never seemed to impact our loving relationship), was due to my marrying a non-Jew. Nominally, he was Greek Orthodox.

He and I had two children. And, according to ancient superstition, Jewish women have a supernatural power to bestow (inflict?) a religion on their young from birth. Thus my kids became Jewish, too.

Their father thought it wasn’t a parent’s role to influence his kids’ beliefs, so he didn’t even try to answer their big questions. The boys and I celebrated all the traditional Jewish and Christian holidays in a light-hearted way. If I had to do it again, I’d make up my own rituals and my own special days.

When we divorced and I remarried 13 years later, I again chose a non-Jew, this time someone who was raised Protestant but who isn’t even certain what branch. But it didn’t matter as much to my family. You see, I’d had my tubes tied by then. The funny thing is that the only “religious” disagreement he and I ever have is over his insistence on calling himself technically an agnostic, rather than an atheist like me.


I recently read ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America, by Naomi Schaefer Riley. It’s a thorough sociological look at what happens when Americans of differing religious beliefs marry, raise children, celebrate major holidays, and divorce one another (not necessarily in that order). Most of these mixed couples start out believing that love will conquer all differences, which is often the case. At least until there are progeny in the mix. And then, some adults find themselves clinging more tenaciously to the rituals and certainties they themselves were raised with.

Apparently, according to Riley’s broad research, Jews marry out of their “birth” faith most often, Mormons least, and Muslims in the middle of the range. Rates are increasing, and younger generations seem to care less about all this.

Reading Riley’s book at this stage of my own evolution was a strange experience. All those nonsensical beliefs, all those quandaries in which mixed-faith couples find themselves at different times in their relationships! And rather than finding wise relationship guidance in the words of their religious leaders and books, they are told they are going to hell if they screw up, or letting down centuries of their people who suffered and died for the faith, or dooming their children to confusion, rootlessness, and amorality. Such so-called wisdom appears obscene to me.

However, if your religious beliefs or rituals or birth culture retain any importance to you, and you’re of marriageable (or remarriageable) age, reading Riley’s book may offer you a dose of reality beyond thinking, “Oh, we’ll work it out, it won’t matter.”

Because it turns out, to many people, that intermarrying ends up mattering more than they expected. Riley herself admits to an occasional sense of loneliness when she participates, without her husband, in her local Jewish community’s events, which she began doing, well, religiously, when they had kids.

Then again, my dad won’t even go with my mom to High Holy Day services, and they were both raised Jewish. At which point she yells at him and blames him for ruining me.

There are many ways to be lonely.

Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry … Follow me on Twitter @bunnyape.

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5 Responses to Does “Faith” Separate Us?

  1. George Kern says:

    An honest and forthright statement. You have faith in yourself and it has served you
    well. For others faith is a tangible thing, delicate and fashioned in our psyche…few are
    so dedicated to their faith that unforeseen circumstances such as; divorce, debilitating injury and death of a loved one will not undermine faith.
    Yet we all all human beings endowed with a need to interact, lets not be derailed by an unwinnable discussion of faith.

  2. Hey A Rational Woman,
    Thanks for the info, I was thinking what some scientists were saying. Most of the people in Washington DC are Christians with who make decisions based on ideology. Not on evidence. Why? Because most have little to no science training. And so all decision processes most make are based on faith and ideology.

    So thats’ not a separate church and state at all. Would it be better to make sure we only have non-believers in office? Then we know religion is separate from the state?
    BTW great blogpost

    • Avatar photo A Rational Woman says:

      The truth is that we have so very few non-believers in office that I and other strong secularists would be thrilled to have SOME, so that at least we’d have a batch of lawmakers more representative of our views and of scientific reality.

  3. Avatar photo Umwelt Utahpia says:

    Great post! And funny as well. My family–the Kilgores–are practically poster models for mixed-faith marriages. My father was a member of the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints out of Pennsylvania, and my mother is Japanese (which means her belief system is a mix of Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and agnosticism). My little brother, a California atheist, married his college sweetheart, a New York Jew, and had a son, who was raised Jewish but recently “came out” as atheist, just before starting college. After divorcing amicably (not over religion), his X wife introduced my brother to his current wife, a New Jersey Irish Roman Catholic. I, a stout atheist and Bright, married a Latter Day Saint from Oregon, and we’re raising two children in the LDS faith in Utah. I attend one hour of church nearly every Sunday, to be with my family and my neighbors, who’re terrific people. As a dad, I feel it’s my responsibility to provide my kids with a sense of family and community that comes from participation, though I don’t believe in the religious principles or teachings and wouldn’t attend church if not for my immediate family. Some say I’m being dishonest; I say it’s a little like playing Santa Claus at Christmas: Santa doesn’t exist, but it’s fun for the family to pretend and take part in a tradition of hearth and the community. Also, when asked about what I believe, I’m always direct and honest about it. At least for the Kilgores, religion has never been a cause of major marital conflict, probably because we try to talk openly and rationally about what we want for ourselves and kids and respect the beliefs of each family member. It’s worked so far for my parents and their kids, and I hope it’ll carry on to my children and theirs.

    • Avatar photo A Rational Woman says:

      You may be unusual in that you’ve thought this all through and also are willing to play along while remaining honest when it counts. Sounds warm, humane, and honest, to me, even if it wouldn’t be the way I’d choose.

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