When Religion Is a Sticking Point

Once upon a time, your fiance or fiancee probably would have practiced your religion, which was also your family’s religion and their family’s religion. That made things pretty simple. Oh, there might be some squabbles over this church or temple versus that church or temple, but if the bride’s parents were hosting, that wouldn’t be an issue for very long. Nowadays chances are good that you and your intended don’t come from the same religious background or practice the same faith, if any.

interfaith weddings

Off the top of my head I know married couples made up of a Catholic and a Unitarian, a Baptist and a Catholic, a Baptist and an Atheist, and a Jew and an Agnostic. Getting personal, I consider myself a non-denominational Christian, while The Beard might best be described as spiritually ambiguous, but no great fan of religion. As you can probably imagine, things can get pretty complicated in a marriage when a pair of people have different views on little-g god or big-g God or the Divine Spirit or whoever, but the wedding is often the first hurdle a couple has to make it over.

How do the successful interfaith brides and grooms do it? There are a few wedding ceremony options open to those couples who find themselves on different sides of the religion divide.

Who cares more?
When religion is very important to the bride but not so important to the groom (or bride #2 or one of the families or the other way around, you get the point) it may be worth planning a wedding ceremony based on the traditions of that person’s faith. There’s only so much you can do to make sure no one’s family is offended, but it wouldn’t be at all nice for the very religious member of the couple to have to get married without god. I’m not entirely sure, but it feels to me like it would be less painful for an committed Atheist to participate in a religious ceremony than for a committed Christian to have to have a humanist ceremony. I could be wrong, though. Edit: And I was, as was pointed out to me. To many, Atheism is as much of a core belief as faith in a deity.

Ditch the divine (for now)
Then again, if no one immediately involved really cares that much, but it’s family that’s causing the problem because they’re each pushing for a wedding ceremony that reflects their faith, you could go neutral. There are Humanist ministers and non-denominational officiants who are happy to whip you up a non-religious (but still rather spiritual) ceremony that won’t offend anyone… or make one family feel like it was jilted in favor of the other.

Creative combinations
Interfaith weddings are totally cool! I particularly like it when two people of different religions have a wedding ceremony that includes an officiant from each faith. Like the idea but finding it hard to set up? You can create your own ceremony that includes bits and pieces from the wedding ceremonies common to your religious traditions and have a spiritual (but not religious) officiant preside over the whole thing. There are some rad interfaith ministers out there who will custom design a wedding ceremony just for you.

Ceremony A, Ceremony B
In rare cases, your or your intended’s religious tradition won’t recognize you as being really and truly married if you don’t include the rites and rituals of that religion in your wedding ceremony. You could use that as the deciding factor in choosing one religion over the other, or you could have two ceremonies back to back or even two weddings. This tends to work out particular well when there are cultural clashes on top of religious differences, and when your family is in one country while your SO’s family is in another. It is, of course, the most expensive way to deal with the issue, but all parties are placated and you get two weddings!

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7 Responses to “When Religion Is a Sticking Point”

  1. Dr.FabulousShoes says:

    Just to give you atheist’s perspective: If my fiance or his family (Episcopalians) insisted on a Christian wedding, I would have seriously reconsidered marrying him. Not because they were Christian, obviously, but because such a lack of respect for my beliefs would not bode well for the union. You (rightly) take great pains in this post to say that potentially deep personal beliefs are in play here and it’s best to try to take everyone’s into perspective, and then you go and say something akin to ‘Oh you’re just an atheist. You should be able to get over it, right?’ Perhaps there are strong, emotional reasons that person is an atheist, just as you likely have strong personal feelings about being a non-denominational Christian.

    I think the point you were trying to make here is that the views and strength of those views of everyone involved should be respected (there I go with the humanist thing again), so I suggest you heed your own advice.

  2. Twistie says:

    Speaking as an atheist, I can safely say that there are atheists who would care a lot about participating in a religious ceremony. Some wouldn’t, just as some religious people wouldn’t care that much about which flavor the ceremony was so long as there was some mention of some god.

    I was happy to participate as a bridesmaid when two friends of mine (Catholic and Baptist) had an interfaith wedding. They were (and still are) my friends and I was there to support their decision to marry. How they chose to marry was up to them. All that was asked of me was that I stand at the altar and wish them well. That I could do, whether or not I believed what they did about religion.

    On the other hand, when it came to getting married myself, I was happy that Mr. Twistie is, as you put it, ‘spiritually ambiguous but no fan of religion’ so that the question of whether to go religious or secular never came up. I would have felt hypocritical mouthing words that had no meaning for me about a deity I don’t believe in. That is not a feeling I relish one bit.

    Of course, if Mr. Twistie had been devout, I would have done my level best to help find a compromise that would work for both of us. If you can’t find a way to make it work for your wedding, how are you going to make it work for your marriage? But my belief in no belief is just as strong as many other people’s belief in a religion.

  3. Thanks for weighing in, Dr.FabulousShoes (and also Twistie!). I certainly meant no offense, which I hope would be clear considering I both said I could be wrong and that I wasn’t sure of the validity of my statement! Most, if not all, of the Athiests I know are the sort who would rather their lack of belief in a deity *not* be treated as anything resembling faith or a belief commitment (in that facts don’t require faith) and that has, from what I’ve seen, made them less opposed to the notion of playacting religiousity in, say, a wedding, since religion doesn’t mean much to them one way or the other. Hence, my confusion. I tend to think of Secular Humanism as being a system of belief and Atheism as being the surety of there being no god without any other connected beliefs, but one man’s Atheism isn’t another man’s Atheism.

  4. Mae says:

    I know that others have already weighed in but I wanted to add one more thing. My SO’s mother is very strongly Catholic and when she mentions a Catholic ceremony I have one thing to say to her. Does she really want someone who doesn’t believe in it just go through the motions? I’m agnostic, but I respect religions, and taking part in a religious ceremony when I am not a part of the religion feels like it cheapens the whole thing.

  5. Annie says:

    Another atheist here. I’d like to throw out another take on the issue that hasn’t been mentioned yet.

    I’m a fan of separation of church and state and believe that these days, despite its origins, marriage is an institution that promotes tax breaks and certain legal rights to partners. I’m also a huge fan of letting consenting adults marry in whatever configuration they choose, whatever their gender, skin color, or belief system, without peripheral religious folks trying to dictate the lives of other people. So a religious ceremony for what I consider to be an entirely secular, government-recognized institution, seems to be completely hypocritical to me if I were to be one of the parties getting married. If you believe in whatever deity or religious custom and consider it essential for being considered married, then I’ll back you up on it, as long as it’s just between you, your significant other, and whatever officiant and other religious trappings it involves on top of the government-backed legal reality. Want to get sealed in a ceremony where only devout LDS folk are present? Good for you. Want to have all your friends sit through an entire Catholic mass? Sure. Want to break dishes or take the seven steps around the fire or do a handfasting? Great. Just don’t expect me to do the same, even if I attend your wedding in whatever capacity.

    I also agree with Twistie about not wanting to take part in something I just don’t believe in, and Mae about the fact that if I did take part, it would be hollow and meaningless because I don’t actually believe in it.

    And just one last thing to add to my rambling: I grew up around religious and moderately religious folk who made a point of being rude to me about my atheism, disrespecting my beliefs, acting like I could not possibly have a valid reason for my beliefs, and in some cases ostracizing me or putting me in very uncomfortable situations where I had no choice but to partake in a religious act they knew I did not believe in. Years of being treated like crap because I don’t believe in a higher power have made me very impatient when it comes to being pushed on the issue. I don’t preach at anyone, and I will not tolerate being preached at. While I have no problem accompanying friends to church/temple/mosque/whatever or attending a religious event if my belief system is respected by the person asking me to come, the moment someone starts pushing me on religion even after I’ve explained my position to them, I lose any and all tolerance for the person, because I’m not a helpless and confused teenager anymore, and don’t need to put up with it. So I don’t, whatever the personal consequences. There are family members I already don’t speak to because of the religion issue, and I don’t particularly have any qualms about that list expanding, however harsh that may sound. Apologies for the long comment.

  6. raincoaster says:

    My mother was a Buddhist who had a fondness for New England architecture and my father was an agnostic (he would have been an atheist, but he liked to hedge his bets) and they married in France. By law, they had to have two weddings: one in church and one in City Hall. Mother picked the prettiest local church, which was how I ended up getting baptized Presbyterian.

    Mind you, neither the marriage nor the baptism took very well, so perhaps this should stand as a lesson to be learned?

  7. TJ says:

    Atheism is a faith in itself, not be to confused with agnosticism, and there are many devout atheists who are very impassioned and have a bit of an axe to grind because they currently or at some point in the past felt pressure or persecution (real and/or imagined) by peoples of the more mainstream faith in their culture, and rebellion against may be a pillar of their faith. For these reasons I suspect they are actually much LESS likely to ‘compromise’ when it comes to religious activities/ceremonies than those of the more mainstream faiths (various forms of Christianity in the US), though I too could be wrong.