You’ve probably heard the phrases, “Like mother, like daughter” or “Like father, like son.” Linguistically and socially, family members are often expected to share a certain degree of traits, from eye color to first language and, certainly, religion. However, in recent years, interfaith families are becoming more and more common.
In fact, nearly 40 percent of people who’ve married since 2010 have a spouse with different religious beliefs, Pew Research Center reports. The numbers only increase when you account for unmarried partners who live together: nearly half of all unmarried couples are living with a partner from a different faith.
How do families function when religion isn’t as simple as going to church every Sunday with your loved ones? And what impact do interfaith relationships have on the children involved? ENTITY talked to Susan Katz Miller, renowned author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, to find out. Here are five facts you probably don’t know about interfaith couples…and their kids!
Imagine that you’ve split your life between two different countries. Both have their own positive and negatives, as well as unique cultural “quirks.” In a way, living in an interfaith family is like being a dual citizen – you have experienced two different worlds and have a wider perspective because of it. Susan Katz Miller’s book features the only research (done so far) based on interviewing and observing interfaith children. According to Miller: “Many interfaith children see themselves as bridge-builders, as interfaith ambassadors, and as peacemakers in the world.”
Because of this, many people in interfaith families believe their “messy” religious roots have made them “more tolerant and understanding.” Interfaith children grow up seeing that following a different religion is OK – and that the people who do so (whether they are siblings or strangers) are still worthy of love. In fact, research has shown that marrying – or having regular contact with – someone of another faith makes people more likely to have a positive view of that faith.
Interfaith family members may also experience rejection from groups because of their complex religious identity or be put in the awkward position of having to explain their faith. These painful personal experiences could make interfaith children even more wary of doing the same to others.
Despite the challenges they often face, Miller said of the interfaith children she interviewed, “They were confident and articulate in describing the benefits of interfaith literacy. They felt connected to both religions, and deeply appreciative of the experience of growing up in an interfaith family.”
Being an “ambassador” of various different faiths isn’t easy – but children seem to receive plenty of important skills and benefits in return.
How many times have you been stuck on a hard decision only for someone to say, “Oh, just pick one already!” Unfortunately, that’s a common criticism for interfaith families.
However, interfaith children do not grow up confused or disoriented. “Children can handle the fact that people believe different things,” says Wendy Thomas Russell, author of Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. “The thing that confuses them is when their parents don’t say anything.”
Children are not forced to choose between two religions; instead, they are given the choice to carve out our their path. They may choose to observe one particular religion or practice aspects of multiple religions. Thanks to organizations like the Interfaith Families Project, families can also attend religious gatherings that incorporate various faiths. For instance, a Sunday meeting of the IFFP in Washington, D.C. includes the Shema (a prayer found in Jewish services) and the Lord’s prayer. Children at Sunday school are taught about the life of Jesus, but they also learn the Hebrew alphabet.
Yes, families that follow multiple faiths may be unconventional. However, that doesn’t make their religious beliefs invalid or “impossible” to share with their children. Instead, being an interfaith family just requires a little bit of creativity – and a lot of flexibility.
Being brought up with multiple belief systems can be a blessing and a curse. People may find themselves having to defend the ability to “be both.” In fact, Reverend Julia Jarvis, who helps lead the Interfaith Families Project in Washington, D.C., says: “For a long time, I believe people thought we were just nuts…They thought it was some sort of new religion we were starting…They’d say, ‘How in the world can you be Jewish and Christian? How can these kids be both?'”
However, Miller can attest that – from her research and her own experience as an interfaith child and parent – “being part of an interfaith family brings joy, not simply challenges. Interfaith families represent the idea that love crosses institutional boundaries.”
I think being from an Interfaith Family is a real gift that has brought me to be more compassionate, understanding, and to see the value…
— Matthew J Shochat (@MJShochat) November 16, 2016
My family is interfaith but my household practices Judaism. I celebrate christmas with my grandparents on my dads side and Hanukkah at home
— Excellent Rectangle (@MarziManed) December 26, 2016
Having multiple faiths in one family doesn’t mean the marriage is doomed, either. Pew Research reports that three-quarters of surveyed interfaith children say their parents rarely disagreed about religion. Being of the same religion is also reportedly less important for a successful marriage than having shared interests, a satisfying sexual relationship and equally distributed household chores.
Considering the number of celebrities who come from interfaith marriages – ranging from Gwyneth Paltrow with a Jewish father and a Quaker mother to Harrison Ford with a Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father – a person’s success certainly doesn’t seem to be negatively impacted by having multiple religious backgrounds, either.
Think back to your Christmas or New Year’s Eve dinners. How hard did you try to avoid touchy conversations like politics or religion – and how loudly did family members start arguing about those topics anyway?
When you live in an interfaith family, it’s impossible to not talk about religious differences. However, it’s in these moments that we can learn the most from each other. Therapist Jennifer Kogan regularly counsels interfaith families and has exposed her own children to the beliefs of both Judaism and Christianity. For her, “One thing that works for [our family] is that we don’t feel the need to say that one religion is right.” Instead, she tries to show how religions can overlap, such as by examining how Jesus’ last supper is often thought to have been a Passover Seder.
On this #WorldReligionDay, we are reminded of the ways in which our own faith calls us to do our part to ensure the rights and protections of all people and expressions of belief. We support one another, not despite our faiths, but because of them! #Faith #Religion #Interfaith #Love #Justice #World #Unity
The more family members discuss their own religious beliefs, the more connections they might find. In fact, Susan Miller’s son says that his interfaith upbringing means “there’s a heightened sense of looking for these connections, and how they relate, and the universal aspects of all religions, and how they play into each other.”
For Miller, educating children enough so that they can analyze religions’ similarities and differences is an important step for any interfaith family. “Everyone needs more interfaith literacy, but especially those of us in interfaith families,” she explains. “Whether you choose to raise children in one religion or both religions or no religion, make sure they have some level of interfaith literacy so that they understand the religions in their extended family and ancestry.”
The better people understand different faiths, the better they can understand – and love – the family members who hold those different religious beliefs.
When asked for her biggest piece of advice for interfaith families, however, Susan Miller had one key suggestion: “Even if you have different beliefs, try to support your partner by spending time with them in their religious (or secular) community or celebrations.”
Families who have embraced multiple faiths agree that compromising is crucial. For instance, Sheryl and Dharmesh Parbhoo wanted to expose their children to Hinduism and Catholicism. On their wedding day, Sheryl combined a white wedding dress with a purple and gold silk sari, and they served a vegetarian meal for Dharmesh’s family while including a wedding cake (containing eggs) for Sheryl’s family to enjoy. Today, holidays with their children involve both dying Easter eggs and lighting oil lamps called diya. These celebrations may not fit the “typical” holiday molds for either culture…but they work for the Parbhoos, which is what really matters.
My (interfaith) wedding included a chuppah and breaking glass. We were married by a family friend ordained online.
— Becky Albertalli (@beckyalbertalli) January 2, 2017
— Alicia Hendley (@AliciaMHendley) December 26, 2016
The truth is, no one set of beliefs, instructions or guidelines is going to fit every interfaith family. Just like not all families follow one belief system, “no single religious pathway is going to work for every interfaith family,” according to Miller. Instead, families must work together to discover what routines and set of beliefs work for them.
The old phrase, “Like mother, like daughter” may no longer be unequivocally true when referring to religion. However, that doesn’t mean the bond within families is any less strong. Instead, a new kind of family is emerging: one whose love doesn’t require going to the same church service or even believing in the same God.
And when you grow up surrounded by that kind of unconditional support, religious differences are no problem.
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