Q & A with Prof Ara Norenzayan: Merry Christmakwanzika!


An increasing number of families are observing more than one religious holiday. (Photo: Flickr)

At this time of year, many Canadian households are setting up Christmas trees, lighting menorahs, celebrating the birth of Prophet Muhammad, or marking the solstice. And an increasing number of families are observing more than one religious holiday. As UBC Psychology Professor Ara Norenzayan explains, interfaith families are a part of a diverse society. They are not without their challenges but if nurtured, they can be a living example of cultural coexistence.

How common are interfaith marriages?

Depending on your perspective, interfaith marriages are either quite common or very uncommon. In Canada it’s currently about one in five, which includes Protestant-Catholic unions. If you exclude those, it’s about one in 10.

Two really important social forces in Canada have been conducive to interreligious unions. One is cultural diversity. There are increasing opportunities to meet marriage partners outside of one’s cultural and religious community. The other is secularization. As people stop going to places of worship, their chance of marrying someone of a different faith increases. And as religion becomes less important in one’s life, religious compatibility is no longer as relevant in selecting a partner. 

Who is more likely to be in interfaith marriages?

Ara Norenzayan

Ara Norenzayan

More educated, less devout, and younger Canadians are more likely to enter into interfaith marriages. Among the religious traditions in Canada, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims are the least likely to be in interfaith marriages. These are also the most overrepresented among the most recent immigrants in the last 20 to 30 years, and in general, more recent immigrants are less likely to marry out of their culture.

How do mixed religious households negotiate their situation?

It can vary. One end of the spectrum are marriage partners from different religious backgrounds where neither is religious, so it’s less of an issue. The other end of the spectrum, and less common, is where both are very religiously involved but they come from different religious traditions. That’s when struggles can occur, and families face the challenge of finding creative ways to preserve both sets of traditions and raise children in both.

Then there is the situation where one partner is religious and one partner isn’t. This is perhaps more typical, as the non-religious partner accommodates the religious partner. Statistically, women tend to be more religious than men, so it’s more often the woman’s religion that becomes part of the children’s lives.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities of being in an interfaith marriage?

There are a couple of challenges: one is that despite the multicultural landscape, a substantial and growing subsection of the Canadian public continues to have an unfavourable view of religions other than Christianity. These negative attitudes also extend toward interreligious marriages. So interfaith unions have to deal with two layers of prejudice or disapproval: from the general public and from their own families and communities.

The challenges of raising children can be particularly acute in interreligious unions. People in these unions report less relationship satisfaction, partly because of disagreements about child rearing. It’s important to be aware of this when entering an interfaith marriage, and build strong relationship skills and cultural awareness.

That said, I see interreligious marriages as a microcosm of the larger Canadian society, where diversity is increasingly part of the social fabric. Thriving interreligious families cultivate a richness of intercultural skills, perspectives, and experiences that are sorely needed today.

This Q and A was originally published on UBC News.