Interfaith couple
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One big assumption made by most online dating sites is that birds of a feather flock together. But opposites also attract, of course, including in the realm of religion. Stephen Prothero, author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, shares what he has learned about making interfaith relationships work. 
Forbidden fruit is, of course, one allure of interfaith romances. The Capulets and the Montagues have nothing on the Hindus and the Muslims, and in many traditional Jewish homes, if you marry a Christian, your family might well disown you. In fact, a New York–based modern Orthodox rabbi recently told me the prospect of his son marrying a non-Jew was "the nightmare scenario."

Almost every couple I know, however, is an interfaith couple. My friends are Catholics married to Jews, Protestants engaged to Buddhists and Hindus dating Muslims. And they are not alone. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 37 percent of married adults in the United States have spouses from a different religion. So for every two Jewish women scanning JDate or her local kosher deli for the perfect Jewish man, there is one Jewish woman eyeing a Protestant or a Buddhist.

But making an interfaith relationship work isn't easy. Especially in the United States, religion matters. And despite what popular books on the subject might tell you, the world's religions differ fundamentally on matters of both belief and practice. So when sparks fly across the interfaith divide, they do not have to leap very far to set off an interreligious skirmish.

When Shanny and Kimberly Luft started dating, both Jesus and Yahweh seemed to be standing in the way. He had been raised a Conservative Jew, she had grown up an evangelical Protestant and faith mattered to both of them. So they talked endlessly about religion. They even went to each others' worship services, including one excruciating nondenominational Protestant affair where the preacher went on and on about how the Jews killed Jesus. But try as they might, they couldn't get to yes. So they broke up and got back together and broke up again. Finally, they decided they were happier together than apart. They vowed to make the religion thing work. And they did.

Other couples are not so lucky. While researching this article, I met a Catholic woman whose relationship with a Muslim ended after five years and an evangelical Protestant man whose relationship with a Sikh ended after seven years, both because of religious differences. But some interfaith relationships thrive. What's their secret?

Many interfaith relationships work because one or both of the partners just don't care all that much about religion. Katya Ramdya, a Hindu writer living in London, says she and her Muslim husband get along because both of them are pretty secular. "My answer is not a very PC one," she tells me, but "I think the only way for interfaith couples to make it work is if both or one person in the couple are somewhat indifferent to their faith(s)."

What do you do if you or your partner take your religion more seriously?
Author Stephen Prothero
But many interfaith couples take their rival religions seriously. What then? Avoidance is one strategy. A Hindu friend whose family wants her to marry a Hindu reports that she and her Muslim boyfriend deal with the God gap between them by not talking about it. But the way forward for most successful interfaith couples seems to be conversation rather than silence.

Today, Shanny and Kimberly Luft are married with two children. She still identifies as a Protestant, but they are raising their kids Jewish. How did they make it work? In part, by old-fashioned concessions. Initially, she conceded by agreeing to raise their kids Jewish. More recently, he conceded by agreeing to trim a Christmas tree and organize an Easter egg hunt. "You have to allow yourself to be on this uncomfortable ground," Shanny explains, adding that "to her credit, Kimberly was able to do that before me."

In my new book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, I make the case that interreligious harmony depends not on pretending the great religions are the same but on recognizing their differences and then coming to respect and perhaps even to revel in them. The same seems to go for interfaith romances. When it comes to our most intimate relationships, the pretend pluralism of the "all religions are one" variety just doesn't cut it. Muslims know that Islam is different from Hinduism just as surely as Jews know that Judaism is different from Islam. The way forward for most couples is to explore the differences and then to learn to accept and perhaps even to celebrate them.

Old models of interfaith dialogue—let's call them Interfaith 1.0—were really monologues, welcoming only to liberals and progressives who affirmed the unity of all religions. But new efforts—call them Interfaith 2.0—such as those of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core bring together a wide variety of Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians and traditional Muslims precisely because there is no requirement that participants check their distinctive theologies at the door.

Shanny and Kimberly started out their relationship doing Interfaith 1.0—"we looked more for commonalities when we first started dating," Shanny explains—but gradually they shifted to Interfaith 2.0. "The longer we were together, we were more comfortable discussing our differences," he says, including, "What I don't agree with and what makes me uncomfortable."

Religion is, of course, a formidable force in both our public and our private lives. In the end, however, religious differences may not be all that different from the other differences every couple must navigate. "Every marriage is a mixed marriage," says Nora Rubel, a Jewish college professor from Rochester, New York, who is married to a Protestant man. "Everybody comes from a different perspective than their partner. If you aren't brother and sister, it's a mixed marriage."

Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author if God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.


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