February 13, 2020
Navigating religious differences in relationships has never been easy. Most religious traditions are not overly welcoming to interfaith romantic relationships, let alone marriages, even as they become increasingly common. A study by the Pew Research Center found that nearly four in 10 (39 percent) recent couples walked down the aisle with someone who did not share the same religious affiliation. But the increasing prevalence of interfaith couples is due less to a rise in the number of marriages between people of different faith traditions (e.g. Christian and Muslim) and more to marriages between religious and nonreligious people.
A look at current dating priorities and preferences suggests that these types of arrangements will continue to multiply. AEI’s American Perspectives Survey finds that religious compatibility in relationships is not a high priority for many Americans. Even when it comes to one of the most fundamental religious beliefs — belief in God. Only 24 percent of Americans say it would be impossible to date someone whose belief about the existence of God is different from their own. Far more Americans say Donald Trump would be deal breaker for them.
There is some variability across religious traditions, but only among white evangelical Protestants does a majority (55 percent) say that disagreements over the existence of God would make a relationship impossible. Substantially fewer black Protestants (38 percent), white mainline Protestants (20 percent), Catholics (20 percent), and members of non-Christian religious traditions (13 percent) say they would need to be in complete agreement when it comes to a belief in God. Notably, few atheists would be unwilling to date a believer. Only eight percent of atheists say it would be impossible to date someone who believed in God. Forty-nine percent say it would be at least somewhat difficult, while 43 percent say it would not be much of an issue for them.
But across religious traditions there is a stark generational divide. Younger Christians are much more comfortable than older Christians with the idea of dating someone who does not share their views about God. Only 26 percent of young Christians (age 18 to 29) say it would be impossible for them to date someone whose views about the existence of God differed from their own. Among Christian seniors (age 65 or older), 41 percent say this would be a deal breaker for them.
That younger Christians would place less emphasis on religious compatibility is not surprising for a couple reasons. First, they have grown up in an era of increasing religious pluralism and are more likely to have friends with different religious beliefs. Younger Americans also express more positive views of atheists and generally reject the notion that morality is contingent on religious belief. One result is that young Christians are three times more likely than Christian seniors to say their spouse or partner has different religious beliefs than they do (37 percent vs. 12 percent).
Research has shown that couples over time — at least those whose relationships endure — tend to converge in their beliefs and values. This may happen among young Christians in committed relationships with non-believers or the nonreligious. But at a time when more of their peers are abandoning religion and trust in religious institutions is at historic lows, it’s unclear who will be moving towards whom.