A reader asks:
What are your thoughts on best practices if you’re in an interfaith relationship, as I seem to recall that your wife is Christian. My husband is a hard atheist, and although he’s wonderfully respectful and supportive of my beliefs and practices, things like holidays are always complex, and he’d never participate in any rituals.
This is something we need to talk more about in the Pagan community. Our wider society tends to assume that couples will follow the same religion, and generally they do. But interfaith marriages have been a thing for a very long time, whether between Christians and Jews, Protestants and Catholics, or any other combination – including Pagans and people of other religions, or of no religion.
My own situation is somewhat unique. Cathy and I both grew up Baptist. Neither of us were satisfied there, so after we got married we became Methodists. We explored other options together (including Unitarian Universalism) and then I had my epiphany and I was on the path of Paganism. Cathy wasn’t interested in changing religions.
We had been married 13 years when that happened – we had already built our relationship before our religious paths diverged. Things would have been different if we had met as Pagan and Christian, though how different is impossible to say.
Still, while the specifics of our relationship may not be applicable to others, I think the core lessons I’ve learned over the years will be helpful.
I don’t think this works without religious humility
How can you say you love and respect your spouse when you think an important part of their life is wrong?
Tolerance isn’t enough in a marriage. Tolerance is what you do with your fundamentalist neighbor who’s always quoting the bible to you. A marriage or other long-term partnership requires acceptance. Not “I think this is silly but I’m not going to try to stop you” but “this doesn’t speak to me but I’m happy it speaks to you, and who knows, you might be right.”
Good religion is humble religion. In an inter-religious marriage, humble religion is a requirement.
You have to be willing to practice alone
There’s the idea in our wider society that your spouse / romantic partner is supposed to be “your everything.” True love means finding your soulmate, your “twin flame” – someone you share everything with.
This is an impossible expectation.
I know a few couples who seem to share every interest, but not many… and in a couple cases, I get the strong impression one partner is constantly giving in to the preferences of the other.
A healthy relationship is based on common values, common goals, and some common interests. But not every interest has to be shared. I’m not interested in cooking shows or talent competitions. Cathy isn’t interested in basketball or old movies. We have two TVs and no problems. About the only thing we watch together is football. Cathy watches more football than I do, and I like football. She just likes it more.
Likewise, if you follow different religions, you have to be willing to do it on your own – and to let them do their thing on their own.
That doesn’t mean you have to do this totally alone. Find a coven, grove, or CUUPS group that you can worship and work with. Who knows, you may find a good friend and Pagan traveling companion along the way.
Support your partner’s religious interests
At the same time, support their interests. Cathy sings in the choir at her church. I always go to their music programs at Christmas and Easter. Sometimes Cathy comes to CUUPS rituals with me (when she does, she’s usually the one taking pictures). Other times she doesn’t – that’s always her call.
This can be as simple as occasionally asking about what they’re doing… so long as you’re asking to learn and not asking to argue. I occasionally ask about Cathy’s bible studies, though to be fair I’m a religion geek and I’m genuinely interested in what she’s studying and what she thinks about it. I do my best to not offer commentary unless asked, and when asked to give scholarly opinions and not my own evaluations as a Pagan (it helps that she’s in a United Methodist church – Mainline Protestant but inclusive and definitely not fundamentalist).
As for how Cathy supports me, she took this picture. The weather was even worse than it looks. She stood out in the cold and wind and rain because she knew this was important to me. I will always appreciate this, and many other things like this.
“No proselytizing” means your spouse too
Pagans don’t proselytize. We understand that different Gods call different people to worship and work with Them in different ways. We respect other people’s callings, decisions, and traditions.
That includes our partners.
I get it. You’d really like your spouse to join you on this path. Or maybe their path includes some things you aren’t comfortable with. And so you drop a hint here, an invitation there, and some comments that aren’t as subtle as you think they are.
And all of a sudden you’ve crossed the line from acceptance to tolerance and you’re moving rapidly toward intolerance.
Trying to change people’s religion is wrong when Christian missionaries do it to people in “foreign lands” and it’s wrong when Pagans do it to people in their own bedrooms.
Sex magic isn’t necessary
And speaking of bedrooms, one unique challenge Pagans face in inter-religious relationships is the question of sex magic. Now, not all Pagan traditions practice sex magic. But some do, and some Pagans feel the need – or at least, the desire – to do it.
Sexual coercion is unethical in any situation, including within a marriage. Likewise, sneaking magical workings into “ordinary” sex is also unethical. And so is breaking your marriage vows because you want to do sex magic with another magical person.
If your relationship is open or polyamorous, that’s a different matter. But pressuring your spouse to either participate in sex magic, or to agree to you working sex magic with someone else is unethical – and a good way to ruin a relationship.
There are many forms of magic. Find another one.
Holidays require negotation
Holidays and holy days present another challenge. Whether you’re Christian, Pagan, or atheist, there’s a tremendous pressure to, if not to celebrate Christmas, at least to observe it. Samhain and Halloween are the same day… although Pagan Samhain rituals are often on the Saturday closest to October 31.
This requires negotiation (particularly if there are family obligations), but the easiest solution – and the most fun – is to simply celebrate them all. Of course, this often means a more secular observance, but that’s OK. Save the deep religious celebrations for your Pagan group or your private practice.
The question of children
Cathy and I do not have children, by choice. If we did, this would be a complication. I don’t think I would object to my child attending Methodist Sunday School, but I absolutely would want them to participate in UU Religious Education. I am envious of the kids at my UU church – they learn the basic of world religions in an open and inclusive environment, centered on UU values. I wish I had something like that when I was growing up, instead of Baptist Sunday School followed by hellfire sermons.
And I would want them to be around and in my Pagan rituals, at least once they got old enough to understand what’s going on.
Children of interfaith marriages seem to handle learning two religions just fine – again, so long as both are presented with humility and in good faith.
Discuss how you will handle this before you have children. And be prepared for the possibility that when your child chooses their own path, it may not be yours.
Romantic relationships involving different religions present special challenges, but those challenges can be overcome with acceptance, respect, love, and with the willingness to practice alone.