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Worried about a Secular/Religious Marriage? Let Dale McGowan Help

I’ve been an enthusiastic reader of Dale McGowan‘s books for a few years now. He has found a very relevant niche (secular family life) and has filled it with compassion, knowledge, and humor. His first two books in this area, Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion and Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief, were focused on parenting, and I found them to be very useful sources for both contemplation and practical resources as a secular parent.

His latest book, In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families moves a bit away from parenting as a focus to another important and underserved question: mixed marriages. Specifically, marriages in which one spouse is a religious believer and the other isn’t. I’m in such a marriage, and I’ve written previously about how J and I have navigated the difference.

McGowan has personal experience with “secular/religious marriage” (his preferred term for the phenomenon), and we read several stories about how he and his wife, Becca, started a relationship with different beliefs and how their beliefs challenged them and changed over the years of their relationship. What makes the book valuable, though, is that McGowan didn’t base his thoughts on just his personal relationship or a few anecdotal other relationships.

Instead, he conducted an online survey of participants in secular/religious marriages (contacted mostly through atheist and skeptical social media) that collected information from nearly 1000 different relationships (and, in some cases, former relationships) in a wide variety of combinations and levels of success. By collecting this much data, McGowan’s message that secular/religious marriage are not inherently doomed has a lot of support.

McGowan starts with a review of the scant previous literature on the topic of secular/religious marriages that shows a different conclusion: that they are doomed to be miserable and short. However, McGowan points out that the authors of those books generally had a vested interest; they were usually conservative practitioners of more exclusionary faiths, trying to scare their fellow believers away from mixed marriages. In contrast, by looking at the results of a broad survey of real-life examples of these marriages, McGowan demonstrates that the doom-and-gloom isn’t warranted.

Well, isn’t necessarily warranted. That’s because he identifies several things that can make a successful secular/religious marriage much more difficult, including these:

  • A partner changed worldviews after the wedding (converting or deconverting)
  • Both partners intensely identifying with the worldviews
  • Dogmatic thinking
  • Strong desires to convert the other
  • An antitheist secular partner or a fundamentalist religious partner
  • Problems with extended family or raising the children
  • Other risk factors, like substance abuse, mismatched desire for children, big age differences, etc.
In Faith and In Doubt
In Faith and In Doubt

Of course, there are helpful things on the flip side:

  • Not trying to convert the other
  • Discussing the differences early
  • Working out agreements and understanding both the negotiables and non-negotiables
  • Focusing on shared values instead of differing beliefs
  • Valuing mutual personal respect
  • Allowing any children with the freedom to choose their own identity
  • Supporting each other

Looking through these lists, I can see why J and I have been able to make our relationships work. Though we are both very involved in our respective worldviews (separately actively attending and volunteering at church for her and the Ethical Society of St. Louis for me), we don’t try to convert each other, we knew about and deeply discussed our differences coming in, we encourage our kids to question and come to their own conclusions, her belief isn’t fundamentalist, and my disbelief is focused more on Humanism than antitheism.

To demonstrate how these factors played out for other couples, McGowan provides chapter-length profiles of a variety of different combinations: a liberal Southern Baptist married to an increasingly-atheist-oriented agnostic, a secular American and a South African Hindu, a Southern Baptist couple in which the husband deconverted, an atheist and a liberal Catholic who compromised on Unitarianism, a couple that switched places, etc. Some of these couples were able to build strong relationships without much difficulty, some fell apart completely under the strain of change, and for some the difference in religion was just one of many cultural issues.

With these examples and the results of the survey under his belt, McGowan uses the last half of the book to dive deeply into a variety of specific aspects of relationships, from the initial discovery of difference to the wedding to holidays to kids, etc. McGowan does a very good job at presenting good advice and principles and then establishing his point with stories from his life or the lives of the couple he profiled in the second section of the book.

As a personal note, as a member of the Ethical Culture movement, I was really glad to see his plug for us:

If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with an Ethical Culture Society, well, I’m jealous.

I suppose that shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, since McGowan became the National Director of Ethical Education for the American Ethical Union earlier this year, but I was glad to see it nonetheless.

Anyway, the book ends on a hopeful note, pointing out that successful secular/religious marriages give the partners better understandings of each other’s worldviews and can both soften fundamentalist belief on one end and give relief to religious resentment on the other. Further, since secular/religious couples have had to worth through the religious issues through compassion, communication, and compromise, they are often in a better shape than others to whether the other types of crises that inevitably affect long-term relationships.

In conclusion, I’m really glad that Dale wrote this book. Some of the stories were familiar to me because I’ve read his other books, but there was also a lot of information and were a lot of examples of practices and approaches that J and I can use to make sure that our 13-year-old marriage survives for decades more.

A secular/religious marriage needs a solid foundation of trust, shared values, and communication. Both partners have to be willing to make compromises. It may not compatible with all theisms (or even all atheisms), but it can work through focus on shared values. It isn’t guaranteed to work, but it isn’t nearly as foolhardy as some would have us believe.

Featured Image credit: Mural: Boxi, Photo: Frank Vincentz


Lance is the father of two boys, a software developer, and an occasional world traveler. Now an active member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran home in which he took Christianity very seriously. Fortunately, going to college helped him break through to see that he believed because he thought he was supposed to, not because it makes sense. Now he's glad to be more than just a SIWOTI skeptic. @LMFinney

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