By Dale McGowan
My book about mixed-belief marriage was inspired in part by the enormous disconnect between the interfaith marriage literature—which tends to describe such marriages as “regrettable” choices and “slow catastrophes” leading to shattered families—and my own mixed-belief marriage, which was happy and relatively free of drama.
Perhaps the oddest claim I saw repeated again and again in these books was that children raised by parents with two different worldviews are subject to “confusion” and “alienation.”
Again, it was my own kids who disproved this claim for me. Growing up with an atheist dad and a Baptist mom, they came to see differences of opinion among adults, even on the “big questions,” as perfectly normal. That’s good—because such differences are normal in the world at large. Why, then, should it be unbearably confusing in the home?
Children accept as normal the world with which they are presented. Someone raised in a dogmatically one-religion home may see anything else as unthinkable and confusing. But children whose parents differ on religion will automatically see that as normal, and they tend to adapt perfectly well.
Religious/nonreligious partners are in the ideal situation to facilitate an open process for their kids to examine and thoughtfully choose among worldviews. Both parents can and should wear their own identities openly, even as they point to each other for alternate points of view.
When my daughter came to me at age eight and asked whether Jesus really came back to life after he died, I gave my honest opinion: “I don’t think he did,” I said. “I think that’s just a story to make us feel better about death. But be sure to talk to Mom. I know she thinks it really happened. And then you can make up your own mind and even change your mind back and forth a hundred times if you want.” And Becca always did the same for me, always sending the kids to hear my perspective after offering her own.
This open approach works just as well whether couples are different or similar in their beliefs. As you share what you believe, just say something like this: “Here’s what I believe with all my heart, it’s very important to me and I think it’s true, but these are things each person has to decide for herself, and I want you to talk to people who have different beliefs so you can make up your own mind. You can change your mind a thousand times. There’s no penalty for getting it wrong, and I will love you no less if you end up believing differently from me.”
Imagine if that was the norm! Imagine kids growing up with an invitation to engage these profound questions freely and without fear. Well, more and more couples don’t have to imagine it. They’re living it, and their kids are reaping the rewards.
DALE McGOWAN, Ph.D., a Harvard Humanist of the Year, teaches workshops on secular parenting and serves as Executive Director of the charitable Foundation Beyond Belief. He is the author of In Faith, and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Non Believers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families.