Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by an anonymous reader:
I love reading all of your articles, they’re incredibly easy to relate to. I personally am not religious but I do believe in God and believe I have a personal relationship with God and don’t necessarily believe following an organized religion is for me. However, my boyfriend is currently finding his faith which I have been nothing but supportive about – but he feels it is imperative to be on the exact same page spiritually and have the same religious beliefs. I personally believe our core values are the same and we both are great people – I don’t believe going to church every Sunday makes one individual any better than the next. I even go to church with him because I appreciate the rich culture and history of the experience, but that’s more how I see it. I tried to explain to him that if we’re both open minded and respectful then that’s all that matters. I’m willing to go to church but he needs to be understanding that I may not have the same outlook on it. I come from a Muslim background but wasn’t raised so. My dad doesn’t believe in God and my mom does but more abstractly than holy books explain. However both of them have a “to each his own” perspective and never influenced me in the matter and let me make my own decisions. Therefore, it’s hard for me to associate with a religion when I come from a different background and I believe all religions are great and holy so why not just continue living a good life and not associate with any of them? Do you think this relationship is doomed? How do I approach a situation like this? I feel pressured to change my beliefs and abide to his in fear of losing him but I believe God made us each individually and I know He sees nothing wrong with me not being religious as long as I do good and live my life compassionately and tolerantly.
Thanks so much for the help, any insight is greatly appreciated.
Glad you enjoy the articles. Thanks! And your question is a great one!
In fact, here is another Spiritual Conundrum submitted on the very same day by a reader named Confused:
I’m in love with and dating a non-Christian, and I myself am a Christian. I would not ever turn my back on my beliefs as that is turning away from God, but I don’t ever want to force him to make a change he does not want to make. Yet I feel like we are so far apart spiritually when we are so close in every other way. What do I do?
A century or two ago, most people lived in places where almost everyone around them was the same religion. Today, we live in a global society where people commonly meet—and fall in love with—others who come from different religious backgrounds. This creates challenges that only a few of our great-grandparents had to face.
I wish I could just say, “No problem! Go for it!” But as both of you—and many others—have already discovered, it’s more complicated than that.
Every situation is unique. For some couples, having different religious beliefs may be no problem at all. For others, it may indeed doom the relationship.
(Image courtesy of: The Wedding Yentas)
I can offer some thoughts that may help those who are facing this issue to get some handle on it. But in the end, it is a very personal decision. I can’t tell you what to do. Only you are in your shoes, and only you can decide whether or how to continue in a relationship in which the two of you do not share the same religious beliefs.
That said, let’s take a closer look.
The Biblical background
First, let’s look at traditional religious strictures against marrying people of other religions.
Many, though not all, religions prohibit or heavily discourage interfaith marriages. These prohibitions are usually based on two dangers:
- Believers being drawn away from their faith
- Children not being brought up in the faith
To deal with the second danger, religions that do allow their members to marry people of other faiths often require that the children be brought up in their own members’ faith. Dealing with the first danger is even more complicated. And yet, despite both religious and social strictures, interfaith marriages have become increasingly common in recent decades.
The Old Testament on interfaith marriage
Judaism and Christianity are among the religions that prohibit or heavily discourage their members from marrying outside the faith—though in modern times this applies much more to their conservative wings than to their liberal wings.
The Old Testament contains many prohibitions against an Israelite (or Jew) marrying a non-Israelite. For example:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you . . . . Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. (Deuteronomy 7:1, 3–4
The concerns are just as mentioned above: believers and their children being drawn away from the faith.
This was the downfall of the famous King Solomon:
King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods”; Solomon clung to these in love. Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David. For Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done. (1 Kings 11:1–6)
However, there are other cases in which Hebrews married foreign women, and it is either tacitly accepted or specifically approved of. Here are some of the most prominent examples:
- Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob, married the daughter of an Egyptian priest. She was the mother of his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who were the patriarchs of two of the twelve tribes of Israel. (See Genesis 41:45, 50-52)
- Moses, the great lawgiver of Israel, married a foreign wife, which became a bone of contention between him and his siblings. However, God intervened on Moses’ side in the dispute. (See Numbers 12)
- King David’s great-grandfather Boaz married Ruth, who was a Moabite. (The story is told in the book of Ruth.)
Why were these marriages to non-Israelites accepted despite the general prohibition on marrying foreigners who did not follow the God of the Israelites? The basic answer is that if a foreign wife or husband does not pull an Israelite away from the God of the Israelites, and especially if she or he converts to the Israelites’ faith and way of life, then the marriage is accepted.
In the case of Ruth, she accepted the God of the Israelites (see Ruth 1:16). The Bible does not say whether Joseph’s wife and Moses’ wife accepted their husbands’ God and faith. However, these two men were pillars of their faith, so clearly their foreign wives did not pull them away from their religion.
The New Testament on interfaith marriage
In the New Testament, the primary source of interfaith marriage advice is the Apostle Paul. Here are the key passages from his letters:
A wife is bound as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39)
That last phrase, “in the Lord,” is usually interpreted to mean that she should marry a Christian.
Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Belial? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God. (2 Corinthians 6:14–16)
This is the passage most commonly quoted to say that Christians should not marry non-Christians. Notice, however, that this passage assumes that the unbeliever is engaged in darkness and in practices condemned by the believer’s faith, such as worshiping idols. Would this apply equally to a partner whose faith and practices are not opposed to one’s own religion, and who is a person of faith and conscience?
Further, that passage from 2 Corinthians is not the end of the story. In his other letter to the Corinthians Paul talks about existing marriages of Christians to non-Christians:
To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife. (1 Corinthians 7:12–16)
From this it is clear Paul is not adamantly opposed to interfaith marriage. As in the Old Testament, the main issue seems to be whether the non-believer pulls the believer away from his or her faith.
Summing up the Bible on interfaith marriage
From a Biblical perspective then, this is the big question to ask when considering whether to marry someone who has a different faith, or who has no faith at all:
Will marrying this person pull me away from my faith? Will marrying him or her pull me away from believing in God and following God in my everyday life?
The Bible itself presents us with a complex mixture of prohibitions against interfaith marriages, acceptance of interfaith marriage under some circumstances, major figures such as Solomon who violated that prohibition and were pulled away from God, and other major figures such as Joseph and Moses who married foreign wives and continued steady in their faith in God.
In short, the Bible presents us with the pluses and minuses of interfaith marriage, and requires us to use our judgment in considering whether to marry someone who does not share our faith. And the primary issue from a Biblical perspective is whether this marriage will help or hurt our faith in God.
Let’s move on to some other, related issues.
How important is your faith to you?
For some people, religious faith is a major part of their lives. For others, it is more of a side issue.
How important is your faith to you? How important is it to you that your partner shares your faith?
These are questions you and your partner must ask yourselves if you do not share the same faith.
If, for one or both of you, your faith is very important and it is important that your partner share your faith, this could be a real problem. You may think that “love will carry us through.” But will it really? Are you willing to have your partner, or your spouse, not share in beliefs and experiences that are a key ingredient of your life?
Yes, it’s painful to break up with someone you feel very close to and in tune with. However, once you get married, things may become very difficult if you have serious differences in an area of life that is very important to you.
The Apostle Paul raises the possibility that your husband or wife might, in time, come to share your faith. But it’s best not to count on that. Many people have married someone thinking, “They’ll come around in time” . . . but they never do. Ten or twenty years later, you may find yourself living with someone who still does not share your beliefs, and with whom you still cannot share some of your deepest and most important thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
If your faith is very important to you, and forms a core part of your life, I would suggest thinking very carefully before tying yourself to someone who does not share your faith. Likewise, if your partner’s faith is very important to him or her, and you do not share his or her enthusiasm for it, I would think very carefully about the relationship.
If, on the other hand, your faith is more of a side issue, and your main focus is on other things, such as career, service, humanitarianism, ecology, or political action, a difference in faith between you and your partner may not be such a big issue.
Of course, from my perspective as a spiritual teacher, God and spirit are at the core of human life—and it is best to share that with your partner. But only you can discern and decide what your core values are, and whether you share them with your partner.
As a general rule, I would suggest that before you commit yourself to someone, and especially before you tie the knot with him or her, make sure the two of you see eye to eye on your core values and on your morals, ethics, and goals in life. If the two of you are pulling in two different directions, and those two different directions reflect different core values and goals in life, it is only a matter of time before your relationship gets torn apart.
If you do share core values even though your religious faith is different, then as long as the two of you are able to bridge that gap in faith, the relationship might just work after all.
Fundamentalist, moderate, or mystical?
Another reality to consider is that there is a wide variety in the types of faith people have.
When it comes to a potential interfaith marriage and whether it can work, it’s important to recognize where you and your partner fall on the spiritual scale that runs from fundamentalist and evangelical on one end, through moderates in the middle, to broad and mystical perspectives on the other end of the scale.
Though there is infinite variety along this scale, the overall dynamics relating to interfaith marriages are fairly clear:
- Fundamentalists and evangelicals will have the hardest time being married to someone who does not share their faith.
- Moderates will generally find it easier to be married to someone who does not share their faith.
- People with broad and mystical spiritual perspectives will have the easiest time being married to someone with a different spiritual perspective. In fact, they will often find such a relationship spiritually invigorating.
Of course, this assumes that each is married to someone who falls in the same part of the scale.
For example, a fundamentalist Christian marrying a fundamentalist Muslim is a recipe for disaster. How can you really be married to someone whom you believe is going to hell, or is an infidel? It just doesn’t work.
However, moderate Jews, Christians, Muslims, and people of other faiths commonly marry one another and have good and loving relationships.
And a Sufi (a follower of a mystical form of Islam) and a Kabbalist (a follower of a mystical form of Judaism), for example, might find that their spiritual perspectives rooted in different faiths broaden and strengthen one another’s faith and practice.
If either if you leans toward the fundamentalist or evangelical end of your religion, and you belong to different religions or churches, that is a serious red flag. Fundamentalists of many faiths consider it to be a critical duty, commanded by God, to convert others to their faith. If one or the other does not convert, that relationship is headed for disaster.
If your partner is pressuring you to convert to his or her faith, that is also a serious red flag. Relationships must be based on mutual respect. Disrespecting a partner’s beliefs is not compatible with real, spiritual marriage.
However, if both you and your partner are moderate or mystical in your spiritual views, and you respect each other’s beliefs, the two of you may be able to work something out so that you can support one another in your respective religious faiths and practices.
What about marrying an atheist or agnostic?
What about if you are a believer and your partner is an atheist or an agnostic?
This, too, is a personal decision.
Once again, how important is your faith to you? How important is it that your partner share your faith, or at least be sympathetic to and supportive of your faith?
Clearly a relationship between a hard atheist and a committed Christian, Muslim, or Jew, or to a strong adherent of one of the other faiths, is going to face a rocky road.
However, if the two of you share important values and goals that draw you together in common cause, and if you are both able to accept and respect your partner’s very different views about God and spirit, perhaps it can work.
Please do not go into the relationship thinking that your partner will come around to your viewpoint in time. Here’s the general rule:
- If you can’t love and accept your partner as he or she is right now, with the beliefs she or he holds right now, do not make the mistake of committing your life to that relationship.
- If your partner can’t love and accept you as you are right now, with the beliefs that you hold right now, do not make the mistake of committing your life to that relationship.
A lifetime of pressure to change is a very long time to be stressed out. It is a recipe for conflict and eventual breakup.
As you consider whether this relationship can work, it’s best to assume that neither of you will ever change your beliefs. If, and only if, you can imagine the two of you together after ten, twenty, thirty, or more years, still believing as you do now, then you may have the basis for a lasting relationship.
Keep in mind that mutual respect is a key part of any relationship that works. You and your partner must be able to respect one another’s beliefs, values, and goals in life if your relationship is to have a future.
What about the children?
If there is even the slightest possibility that the two of you will have children together, this introduces a whole new layer to the issue of interfaith marriage.
Put simply, if you intend to marry someone who does not share your faith, you must work out ahead of time what kind of religious upbringing, if any, your children will have.
It’s all well and good for the two of you to respect one another’s faith, and each follow your own religious beliefs and customs. But when there are children involved, the two of you will have to come to some agreement about their religious upbringing.
As I mentioned earlier, many churches and religions allow their members to marry someone of a different religion as long as he or she agrees that any children will be brought up in the church member’s own faith. Whether you are a Catholic or Protestant Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or of some other faith, if you are active in your local congregation it is important to find out whether it has this kind of requirement. Then you and your partner may have a difficult decision to make.
If you belong to a more liberal church or religion that does not have this requirement, you still have to come to an agreement between the two of you about how you will raise your children. For example, if you are a Christian and your husband- or wife-to-be is a Muslim, will the children be brought up Christian or Muslim? Will they go to religious classes at the church or at the mosque? Or will they be taught both religions and allowed to make up their own minds as they grow up?
Every situation is different. The important thing is that you and your partner talk about it, and come to an agreement before you get married and start having children.
The choice is yours
I hope this article helps you to think through some of the issues you may face—or are already facing—if you have fallen in love with someone of a different faith.
What should you do? Is your relationship doomed? Or does it have a real future?
Only the two of you can decide that.
But please don’t just skate along thinking, “Love will conquer all!”
Yes, of course, love is the most basic ingredient of any relationship. But it is not the only ingredient. Common beliefs, common values, common morals and ethics, common goals in life—over time these, or the lack of them, will make or break your relationship.
Many relationships start out with raptures of transcendent love only to end out on the rocks of disagreement, conflict, breakup, and divorce. Even marriages in which the partners do share a common faith can end in breakup and divorce.
If you can’t love and accept your partner’s spirituality right now without any hope of change, and if your partner can’t love and accept your spirituality right now, without any hope of change, then I would think very carefully before committing your life to him or her. It’s true that in long-term, stable marriages, the partners’ spiritual outlooks on life tend to merge. However, if it does happen, that merging of spirituality must occur organically. It cannot be pressured or forced on one partner by the other.
It is not possible to know the future of your relationship. But if you and your partner of a different faith think carefully about these issues, talk them over with one another, and come to some common ground, your relationship has a far better chance of being a good, loving, and lasting one.
And if you and your partner do decide to commit your lives to one another, Annette and I wish you every blessing and happiness in your life together.
This article is a response to two spiritual conundrums submitted by readers.
For further reading:
- How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?
- How to Attract the Opposite Sex—and Keep ‘Em
- Beyonce and Jay-Z Reveal the Secret: How to Start a Lasting Marriage
- How to Know if Mr. or Ms. Right is Right for You: Pointers from Gloria and Emilio Estefan
- “And They Lived Happily Ever After”