Ten Best Practices for Mixed-Belief Marriages

Now Featured at the Patheos Book Club
In Faith and Doubt
How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families
By Dale McGowan

Ten Best Practices for Secular/Religious Couples:

1. Never try to convert or deconvert your partner.In matters of belief, support and encourage your partner's autonomy. If your partner begins to question his or her own opinions and wants a sounding board, he or she knows where to find you.

2. Talk about your differences of belief as early as possible in the relationship.Sharing a difference in belief can demonstrate honesty and respect. You don't have to raise the issue on the first date, but when things start getting serious, it's best to discuss the differences openly.

3. Define your negotiables and nonnegotiables.Each partner will have a long list of preferences related to religious practices, from churchgoing to family identity. But not everything is nonnegotiable. To work out agreements, decide what you can't live without and what you can, and then compare lists for points of conflict.

4. Focus on shared values more than different beliefs.While the difference in beliefs is there, couples can choose where to place their focus and emphasis. Values impact daily life more than most beliefs. Moderate and liberal believers and nonbelievers share more values with each other than either does with the representatives of their worldview on the far end of the conservative spectrum.

5. Make personal respect nonnegotiable, even as you question and challenge each other's ideas.Ideas and opinions must earn respect. However, respect for each other as people is a nonnegotiable requirement of a relationship.

6. Engage in and learn about each other's worldviews.Make the effort to learn more about your partner's religious belief or nonbelief conviction. It's a gesture of personal respect and a great way to get to know each other.

7. Remember that the opinions of believers are not always the same as the doctrines of their churches, and the opinions of nonbelievers are not always the same as those of prominent atheists.The secular/religious marriage is not the marriage of the Holy Bible and The God Delusion. Take the time to find out whether and how your partner's beliefs differ from the stereotype.

8. Raise children with the freedom to choose their own religious or nonreligious identity.If parents have two different worldviews, do what's best for the kids: Keep them unlabeled; expose them to different beliefs and practices; and give them the space to come to their own conclusions. Let them know you will never withhold your love and support, no matter what decision they make.

9. Support and protect each other from mistreatment.If your partner is being maligned, pressured, or ostracized because of his or her beliefs, especially by family or community members who share your worldview, you are in a unique position to come to his or her defense. Never miss an opportunity to do so.

10. Spread the word! As moderating voices with real-world experiences, mixed-belief partners have the power to dispel negative stereotypes. When churchgoers start suggesting that all atheists are immoral, or when the local atheist group starts suggesting that all religious people are unintelligent, a mixed-belief partner knows better. Find the courage to speak up.