Ideas for Research On Interfaith Couples and Families

I conducted anthropological research on interfaith couples and marriages in Indonesia in 2010, and have continued to investigate interfaith dialogue practices, religious diversity management and interpersonal transformation in Rome and Israel/Palestine. I have found that studying interfaith couples entails many of the same research questions as does the study of interfaith dialogue, with the added layer of pressures exerted by the extended families and different religious communities. As an anthropologist I try to focus specifically on ritual and concrete religious differences, in order to have something solid and empirical to discuss instead of getting lost in psychological, interpersonal approaches. Nevertheless, different worldviews and modes of thought about religious themes is often where conflict emerges, so it can be crucial to consider cognitive styles and well as religious behaviors.

In my reading I have found that the strongest academic work on interfaith families and couples is by Kate McCarthy (Chapter 4 of Interfaith Encounters), Susan Katz Miller (Being Both), Sylvia Barack Fishman (Double or Nothing), and Robert Wuthnow (Chapter 9 of America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity). Wuthnow’s text is based on research in America but I think his discussion of interfaith couples provides a good framework for transcultural thinking about interfaith family dynamics. One of his arguments, which I have found to be true, is that if two people are willing to date and marry outside of their faith, religion or interreligion is probably not a determining factor for their choice of spouse; rather, religion becomes a conflict chiefly in moments where the extended families are involved. The central dyad is probably more pluralistically-minded to begin with, so the family position will determine more about how rituals unfold. This is a justification for including research questions about the family system and its dynamics.

In my experience there are several basic categories of interfaith couples. These categories refer to the levels and centers of religiosity within the couple, which determines a great deal about their religious behavior. In the broadest sense, the categories are: 1) couples with one “more religious” member, to whom religion is important and whose religious investment will likely determine the direction in which the religious practice of the family will go; 2) couples with “equally religious” members, wherein both people have strong commitments to the perpetuation of their religious investments in their home and praxis; and 3) couples where each member has a primarily identity/family-based affiliation but no strong investment in religious claims and traditions for their own sake. [FOOTNOTE 1] [FOOTNOTE 2]  

The third category is very interesting to work with, because as Wuthnow writes about, if neither of the dyad members has a personal religious investment they are likely only really facing their interfaith differences in ritual moments where family members are involved (weddings, funerals, coming-of-age rituals like baptisms or bar/bat mitzvahs), particularly wherein older generations have stakes in the perpetuation of family traditions and for the “salvation” (however it is understood) of younger generations. The leverage that each extended family possesses in the exercise of religiosity in the central dyad also falls into the preceding categories of religiosity–either one family has stronger stakes and claims, or both families have equally strong stakes and claims, in which case mediators (usually clergy) can be helpful (or unhelpful) in determining which ritual elements are central/essential and which can be more flexible. [FOOTNOTE 3]

I have found that in interreligious research some people find it important to control for the types of religions being combined–Hindu and Sikh, Catholic and Muslim, etc. But in my experience I find that the likelihood of encountering irreconcilable differences in interfaith relationships does not depend on the name of the religions that are involved in the dialogue/relationship. Rather, the interreligious conflict is provoked by the different modes of thinking about religion that parties are bringing to the dialogue. Thus it is crucial to examine cognitive styles and ideological differences. The biggest division seems to be the question of where do people acknowledge authority about how to interpret religious language, where religious boundaries lie, and how boundaries should be maintained. For instance, whether is is “right” to engage metaphorical versus literal approaches to religious language, text, and doctrine. If a person understands a religious text in a very rigid, literal, authoritative way they will probably encounter an irreconcilable difference with someone who reads religious texts and symbols as poetic, multivalent signifiers of the sacred. In a relationship/marriage with a more “fundamentalist” person, their inflexible, literal embrace of church doctrine will be more dominant (because it has to be in order to survive) than a partner with a more flexible, values-based understanding of religion. The two styles may influence each other or the people may change–it all depends of the level of religiosity and priority of religion within the dyad. Beyond the dyad, it depends on how much pressure a religious family may be exerting and how much authority is granted to the extended family’s pressure tactics, as well as to the authority granted to potential mediators of the conflict (clergy or couples therapists).

In my fieldwork I see that people who recognize authority in values rather than texts and clergy, who take a metaphorical approach to religious language and symbols, are also more likely to consider religious differences to be mere aesthetic details that can be transcended through values. They will be less bothered by the presence of religious difference and more invested in the quality of the relationship, the skill of communication, and the mutuality of respect present in the dyad. Whereas more “orthodox” thinkers about religion see that these differences are concrete and incommensurable, and tend to be more comfortable with exclusivity (which is sometimes objectionable to the metaphorical thinkers). Both “groups” can maintain solidarity via a mutual ethical norm and commitment to the marriage, but this language/thinking difference seems to be the hinge that constitutes irreconcilability on the religious level. [FOOTNOTE 4]

The final footnote below lists categories of questions that I would recommend for interview schedules for research on interfaith couples.[FOOTNOTE 5]


1. A typology one can draw on to discuss types of religiosity are those developed by “theologies of religions” scholars: Religious Pluralism, Universalism, Exclusivism and Inclusivism. You can read more starting here and here.

2. Researchers can also use cognitive categories to codify approaches to interreligious difference: minimization, reversal, and acceptance or adaptation are common positions described by The Bennett scale, also called the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS). Thus, some people might focus on similarities (minimization), some might view other religions idealistically and put down their own (reversal), some might acknowledge differences in a positive way and seek to learn to work within those differences rather than try to determine which is better (acceptance or adaptation).

3. These categories will also help determine whether it is possible for a dyad and their family to participate in mixed/syncretistic ritual exchanges (combining different religious elements, like these), or whether the faiths need to be maintained with “purity” (this can either mean that one form of ritual dominates and both dyad members participate in one; or it can mean that both religions can be present and fully intact but not combined).

4. “Literal” and “Metaphorical” approaches to authority and religious laws/texts are not always engaged with consistency. People, despite their most earnest religious or relational intentions, can often be messy, lazy, un-self-aware, and selfish. Good anthropological research will identify behavioral dissonances and rationalizations about uneven applications of religious commitments.

5. Researchers interested in interfaith couples can pursue the following lines of questioning to uncover trends about how people manage religious diversity in intimate settings, given the complicating factors of extended family pressures and/or religious community expectations.

  • Questions about levels of religiosity of the central dyad and about the extended family. This question can be complex but as a fieldworker I recommend that you allow your subjects to self-define about levels of religiosity. Ask about their daily and weekly ritual practices, level of loyalty to their practice, visions for future practice, and their “purity” investments–whether syncretism is “bad” or whether the religion must be practiced in an “orthodox” sense. Try to get a sense of their flexibility and their rigidity (where they are in the pluralism, exclusivism, inclusivism, universalism matrix). You can ask questions about how they view other religions, their own, religious differences, etc. (where they are in the minimization, reversal, acceptance/adaptation matrix).
  • Questions to determine how much authority the dyad members place with the extended family–i.e. how susceptible they are to family religious pressures. The family system of interfaith couples is very complicated but I believe it is also crucial for determining the quality, depth, and flexibility of deference that the central interfaith dyad must pay to their extended families. Cultural mores about family loyalty or individuation from family heritage should be considered.
  • A collection of descriptive narratives (and attendance/observation) of ritual moments that involve family members (wedding, funeral, rite-of-passage ceremony) in order to collect thick descriptions (à la Clifford Geertz) with which to illustrate your points.
  • Seek information about mediators with whom the dyad consults–are clergy or therapists helpful or not helpful in supporting mixed/syncretistic rituals or in determining the boundaries of what is “essential” about certain rituals, and what elements can be discarded or combined? How much determinant authority do these mediators possess?
  • Ask about and search for any further sources of “authority” on what is pure, where religious boundaries are, whether syncretism is evil or inevitable. Chapter 8 of “Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life” by Meredith B McGuire features an illuminating discussion of religious blending and hybridity, who is granted authority to say what is “pure and essential” about religion, and the inevitability of blended, unstable, changing, unboundaried religious practice in real life.

 Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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2 thoughts on “Ideas for Research On Interfaith Couples and Families

  1. Dear Jenn–

    Thank you for this essay. I am a pastoral counselor (not an anthropologist) who works with couples, sometimes of different faiths. You said as an anthropologist you do not want to get lost in psychological and interpersonal approaches, but can an anthropologist completely separate psychology from anthropology? The reason why I’m asking this question has to do with Murray Bowen and family systems. Bowen believed parents transmit their anxieties onto their children and these anxieties get passed down generation to generation. If religion and faith are ways of managing anxiety, and parents irrespective of religion and faith, pass their anxieties onto their children, could a marriage between anthropology and psychology (perhaps psychology of religion) produce richer understanding for interfaith couples negotiating how to raise their children?



    1. Hi Ayo! Thanks for the note! I actually did mention the importance of considering family systems in this article–although way down in Footnote #5. I do indeed think this is a crucial consideration because it determines how much authority is placed in the preferences and traditions of the couple’s respective formative environments. The phrase you mentioned–my not wanting to get lost in psychological and interpersonal approaches–is NOT intended to disregard the very important contours of inter-psychological relations, but rather to avoid getting LOST in theoretical abstractions, by anchoring the empirical data collection on ritual behavior and discourses. I find ethnographic research that allows me to spend time with and observe the interfaith dyad to provide a more fruitful starting place for research than studies that are chiefly theory-driven. A psychological interpretation of that anthropological data which accounts for family systems is then crucial. So, yes, I think we are “barking up the same tree”! 🙂 Thanks again for the discussion.

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