Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Discussing Secular/Religious Relationships with Dale McGowan

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Marriages between atheists and theists aren’t so popular with many Americans—at least, that was the finding of a recent study by the Pew Research Center. According to the study, 49 percent of Americans reported that they would be unhappy if a member of their family married an atheist. This seems like terrible news for humanists, especially those who are married to or in long-term, committed partnerships with religious individuals. But it might not be as bad as it seems. Dale McGowan, author of the upcoming Faith in Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families, has some keen observations about the Pew study and how its findings differ from those of his own research.

For instance, McGowan was quick to point out that the results of the Pew study were based on a hypothetical question. In reality, when an atheist marries a believer, the family’s negativity isn’t as serious. “My survey of 1,000 people who are actually in secular/religious marriages seems to indicate that this reaction is most often tempered once the normal, adorable face of an individual atheist is in the picture,” said McGowan. “Only 10 percent of respondents said extended family disapproval was a problem in their relationship. It’s actually less common than we tend to think.”

However, religious/nonreligious couples who do face disapproval from family members can experience problems in their relationships. “Extended family pressure exacerbates existing weaknesses in a relationship,” McGowan said. “And if the source of the tension is the religious difference between the partners, such disapproval can greatly increase existing tensions between them.” But McGowan also offered the assurance that interfaith marriages are not automatically doomed to fail, even in the face of parental objection. He strongly criticized the common assumption that marriages between individuals with different belief systems are more likely to end in divorce. “No one can ever quite point to the supposed evidence for [that assumption],” said McGowan. “There are literally no records on which to base such claims. They are made primarily by religious authors and clergy seeking to preserve their institutions.”

In fact, the differences between couples that have opposite opinions about the existence of God or the importance of religion can actually strengthen their relationship. McGowan says that this is because they learn early on to communicate effectively with each other. “Direct communication becomes the norm, and they develop communication skills that serve them well for a wide range of issues.” These skills extend not only to matters related to religion but also to concerns that come up in any relationship, such as finances, goal-setting and dealing with in-laws.

McGowan’s optimism about the outcomes for religious/nonreligious marriages is particularly heartening in light of the Pew study’s dire warnings about increasing polarization in American politics and society. The study found that respondents’ unhappiness over a hypothetical atheist in-law differs drastically along ideological lines. Seventy-three percent of individuals who identify as consistently conservative reported that they would be unhappy if a family member married an atheist, while only 24 percent of consistent liberals claimed that an atheist in-law would make them unhappy. This dramatic divide is only one example of the many divergences in Americans’ opinions based on their political leanings, and our gridlocked Congress is an example of just how discouraging and dangerous these disagreements can be.

But McGowan is hopeful that secular/religious couples may be able to play some small role in reversing the polarization of American politics and society. He points to the “moderating effect” that being married to someone with different religious views can have on one’s own opinions. Individuals in relationships in which their belief in God differs from that of their partner, McGowan states, “are less likely to demonize the other side, more likely to see nuances in their position, and even more likely to defend them and others like them.” Being in a religious/nonreligious relationship can help individuals accept viewpoints that are different from their own. “That,” says McGowan, “can only help to erode our divisions.”