Are Interfaith Marriages with Atheists on the Rise?

It seems a bit out of place at The Economist, but the rise of interfaith marriages is a fascinating subject for discussion:

Yet American rates of inter-faith and inter-denominational marriage are rising, to the point where 45% of marriages in the past decade have involved either two religions or Christian doctrines that clash seriously…

There are a lot of reasons for this, as the article points out: People are marrying later in life so family traditions no longer weigh as heavily on their minds. Marrying someone of a different faith is no longer as taboo as it used to be.

I wonder, though, if atheists break those trends.

For a long time, we were in the closet. You didn’t know a lot of other openly non-religious people, so, by default, the people you met and married were at least somewhat religious. Also, atheism wasn’t necessarily as much a part of one’s identity as it is now.

Because there is a growing number of non-religious people overall, dating websites allow you to identify as atheist, people do identify very strongly as atheists, and there are more opportunities to meet other atheists in person, I wonder if we’re more likely now to marry people who share our disbelief in God?

Are atheists less likely to date people of faith these days because we finally have secular alternatives? I would think so… though I’ll admit it’s pure speculation. (There are obviously individual couples who are atheist and theist, but I’m speaking of an overall trend.)

Is there any validity to my theory or do you think atheists marry theists as much if not more than ever before?

(image via Shutterstock — Thanks to Jamie for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Garret Shane Brown

    I’m currently dating an atheist and I don’t think I could marry a theist. I have too many anti-religious rants.

  • Richard Wade

    I know of no data, but my impression is that there are and have been many, many marriages where one partner is nonbelieving, but keeps it to him- or herself. “Dad’s just not religious like Mom” I hear very often, and I wonder if some of those dads are secretly atheists, even if they never realized that the word applies to them.

    The rise of the “nones,” where people are not specifically religious but often still believe in some vague deity might be producing a large number of people who don’t find their potential marital partners’ atheism to be an obstacle to marriage. So that might give rise to more marriages between believers and nonbelievers because the god belief is so diluted and unimportant to either of them that it doesn’t cause friction.

    Then as you point out, atheists are now more able to openly express themselves and able to find each other, so those who find any level of god belief in a potential partner to be a turn-off will still have more options to find a better match for themselves.

    So I think we will see more of both: More marriages mixing tepid believers and nonbelievers who are open about it but just don’t care much about the issue, and also more marriages between atheists who want a partner with the same views and who have successfully found each other.

    In the meantime, there will continue to be plenty of nonbelieving people married to very religious spouses but who just quietly bite their tongues because they want to stay married for other reasons.

  • allein

    I’ve been single for a while now but religion has never been an issue in any of my relationships. And it’s only been relatively recently (since my last serious relationship ended) that I’ve really thought much about my own views on religion, and identified myself as an atheist, rather than being just generally non-religious (as I’d been since at least college). The only religious activities that I ever attended with former boyfriends were things like weddings, funerals, confirmations or whatever, but those were just events for friends or extended family, not personal religious activities for either of us. I’ve never dated anyone that was actively religious, but I suppose most of them would have identified themselves as some flavor of Christian if asked.
    Nowadays?…I’m not sure how much religion I could deal with in a partner. If someone was the sort of benignly religious I was growing up, and didn’t expect me to participate much, I could probably deal with it, but I would prefer someone who wasn’t religious at all (though he wouldn’t have to be “atheist”…that doesn’t really factor much into my everyday life, anyway…I’m not any kind of activist or anything). But if religion was central to his life, and he was a true practicing believer, I wouldn’t get involved in the first place.

  • MaxineN

    I’m dating someone who’s agnostic, not atheists, but I don’t think I could marry someone who was religious. Like the other comment bellow, I have too many strong opinions about religion and wouldn’t want to keep them to myself, especially not in front of someone I’m supposed to be closer to than anyone else.

    • MaxineN


  • JET

    The fact that interfaith marriages are on the rise shows that there is a trend toward not taking religion as seriously as in the past. These are marriages between people who are culturally of different religions, but have given up much of the dogma.
    I think it might be easier for an atheist to marry someone who was vaguely and culturally religious than it would be for two people to marry who were fundamentally of different faiths. A deist could be happily married to an atheist and they could actually enjoy the occasional argument. But it would be very difficult to marry someone you “knew” would be burning in hell for all eternity.

    • Vicki Williams

      I agree. I can’t imagine how a hell belief could be compatible with being in a relationship with an atheist. How could you ever agree to disagree? I do know people in that situation and it seems tense to me.

  • Vicki Williams

    As a leader of a large local atheist community, I think it is fair to say that I identify strongly as an atheist. I’m married to a Christian. Not only are there many mixed faith couples in our organization, I’m not even the only board member married to a theist. I’ve recently started a mixed faith couples dinner. Here, in the Pacific NW, there is a lot of benign religiosity so it isn’t hard to find Christians who have no problem with atheists and who stand firmly with us on core values: working to make the world a better place in real, tangible ways rather than just praying; promoting science and good education; supporting the separation of church and state.

    As someone who was raised in a cult like situation, the attitude that there must be something wrong with anyone who disagrees with me never sits well. It seems too much like the toxic part of religion. Sure, I disagree with my husband – but I value that disagreement. It keeps me on my toes; it teaches me how to look at things from other’s points of view; it makes me a better person. We don’t have to agree on everything to respect the work we are each doing to make the world a better place.

    • JET

      My father was a Mormon and my mother was Catholic. They were very happily married for their entire lives. Go figure!

  • Dan Allosso

    My wife, Steph, identified herself as atheist on her Yahoo personal, and wouldn’t have agreed to meet me if I had been religious. So yeah, it works.

  • Yojimbo Billions

    “Interfaith” to me would exclude atheists on principle.

  • C Peterson

    Hemant- I believe you tend to view atheism through the same filter that many activist atheists do, and see it as a strongly held “belief”. And certainly, there are more atheists like that these days, and I think you are probably right that such people are likely to seek out others who think as they do.

    But I doubt there are many more atheists today than there were 50 years ago. And I think the majority of atheists today will still identify with a religion when asked, even though they don’t really believe in it. For these people, religion- or the lack of religion- is just not an important part of their lives, so I’d guess that the religion of a potential spouse isn’t important either, unless that person’s life is centered around that religion.

    Bottom line: there’s probably not much difference between a marriage between a casual atheist and a casual religionist, any more than between a casual Baptist and a casual Methodist.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I am guessing that decades from now instead of it being frowned upon to marry an atheist (as it was in the past) it will be frowned upon to marry someone who believes in crazy ancient fairytales.

    • JET

      Let’s hope so.

  • ortcutt

    My wife is an atheist of the benign-indifference-to-religion type (although she thinks that American Evangelicals are insane), and I’m happy to be in a godless marriage. Studies have proven that the best advice with marriage is to marry someone as similar to yourself as possible. I don’t think it’s any different with regard to religion. It avoids a lot of problems with your spouse, avoids problems with In-Laws, and generally makes you feel that you’re with someone who’s on the same page.

  • r.holmgren

    “Also, a non belief wasn’t necessarily as much a part of one’s identity as it is now.”

  • Ian Burch

    I’m an Episcopal chaplain in the near ‘burbs of Chicago. I work with folks of all faiths, no faith, fiery, tepid–the gamut. My current favorite patients are a very elderly couple who are both in and out of the inpatient floor frequently. The wife likes the visiting and the support while being a vocal atheist. The husband also seems to appreciate having a listening ear but makes sure to let me know he is agnostic. I gather that they’ve been having a 40 year conversation about their differences of opinion, but I don’t detect anything but a strong marriage that’s of great comfort to both. I don’t notice a tremendous difference in how atheists and theists cope with medical crisis. In general, I find that it’s a matter of giving different names to whatever the ultimate concern of the moment might be.

  • Anna

    I think probably just as much now as ever before. We’re way outnumbered by theists, and the percentage of atheists who see atheism as an important part of their identity has got to be incredibly small. How many American atheists belong to atheist groups, read atheist blogs, or would sign up for an atheist dating site? 5%? 10%? It seems to me that it’s very much the minority position.

    My guess is that the majority of atheists (whether born or deconverted later in life) don’t see theism as important enough to disqualify someone as a romantic prospect, and I would bet that most atheists end up in relationships with liberal or moderate theists.

  • Noelle

    I was still a Christian when I married my atheist husband. I don’t think I ever could’ve married a devout and observant religious man.

    I didn’t see the trend when I was a girl and a young woman, but looking back at my previous young crushes, the boys I liked the most were almost exclusively atheist. And I wouldn’t know that ahead of time. But if the crush was of the painful pining consuming most waking and dreaming thought variety, then it was almost certain the young man was or would be an atheist. I figured it to be a coincidence at the time. I tried to like some Christian boys, and though a few became good friends, that was all. Could I have eventually found a man with all the qualities I liked so much: smart-ass intelligent introvert, socially awkward, who found my jokes funny and didn’t treat me like a child when I was being crass or bitchy? One who supported my aspirations of higher degrees and a demanding career? One who had all this and was’t immediately dropped into the friend-only category? I don’t know. I liked them hottie atheists too much to see any good reason to not persue them.

    Now as C Peterson pointed out, I was only casually religious. I prayed silently at night before falling asleep. I had no interest in discussing Jesus with anyone ever. My mother taught me at the tender age of 5 to not proselytize to the atheist neighbor kid, and I took that as a life lesson to never prostyletize to anyone ever. I was too busy for church, and really only missed the singing. I eventually gave up my belief in a god in my 30s, after I bothered to scrutinize my faith with the same scientific skills I was taught to use on everthing else. My husband is hardly an atheist activist himself. He broached the topic gingerly when we were first dating, as if I would be shocked to hear he was an atheist. Of course he was. I told him I knew before he ever asked me out. When asked how, I didn’t have an answer other than I just knew. All the best ones were.

  • cdub

    I’m an atheist married to a Christian. We were both very religious when we married, years later I came to my senses. We’ve discussed that if we were not already married, we wouldn’t consider each other as dates due to the religious differences, but we’re still both very committed to the vows that we took.

    Since I left the church, she’s been not nearly as regular – I don’t think her beliefs are wavering much, but she’s much less adamant about regular church attendance.

    • TCC

      My story is similar, except that my wife became more religious after my own deconversion, perhaps as a coping mechanism for what she perceived as being blindsided by my sudden unbelief. I have a feeling – although it’s far from confirmed by experience or conversation – that our marriage would have been less than certain if I hadn’t been a Christian when we started dating.

  • Tobias2772

    I think i would have trouble truly respecting anyone who really believed this religious nonsense. I think my disdain for their irrationality would come through in so many aspects of our lives together. I would constantly be questioning thier reasoning in other areas.

  • Frank

    You seem to be equivocating between two different comparisons, Hemant. Your conceptual argument suggests that atheists today would have fewer interfaith marriages than atheists a decade ago. That does not necessarily meant that atheists today would have fewer interfaith marriages than religious people today. It could mean that atheists ten years ago had more interfaith marriages than theists ten years ago, but that atheists today have the same number as theists today.

  • Rob Clay

    I think in the UK, you’d be hard-pressed to find a partner WITH religion.

    • Mungo

      Technically Christians were still a majority in the last census, it’s just that talking about religion is much rarer here as it’s seen as your own private business.

      • Allogenes

        Being “Christian” for census purposes does not necessarily imply being “with religion” in the way Rob means it. Lots of people without real faith nevertheless have a cultural or ethnic sense of identity with a “faith community.”

  • Dustball

    Purely anecdotal, but my wife (of less than a year) is pretty spiritual but not religious. She does believe in god, although to what specific degree I’m unsure. We met online a few years back, and my dating profile was fairly stark about my non-belief. We’ve discussed our spirituality (or lack thereof) a couple times, but it’s never been a wedge issue. Her family is slightly more pushy about it, but it’s been great overall. She knows I’m quite unlikely to sway her way even a little, and I love her too much too push her from her position, even as I question how tenuous it may be. So at least in my case, an interfaith marriage was no big deal.

  • Bert humperdink

    Pew forum gives the rate for ‘unaffiliated’ to be 41% same religion. Of course that category includes atheists, agnostics, apatheists and people who say they don’t have a religion, they have a personal relationship with Jesus.

  • Tainda

    I wouldn’t date a religious person.

    The closest I get are Wiccans

  • thegoodlife

    I’m a Christia married to an atheist. I’m not gonna lie- it’s tough. The deconversion happened after we were married.