Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast?

I wish Naomi Schaefer Riley had consulted with us, or at least looked at the resources available on InterfaithFamily.com, before the Washington Post published her story, Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they’re failing fast too.

My main complaint about the article is that it cites no compelling evidence whatsoever to support the thesis of the title that interfaith marriages are failing fast. It is a common perception, to be sure, that interfaith marriages fail at rates higher than same faith marriages, but I have never been able to find reliable evidence to that effect. In addition to citing a 1993 paper (but not any data in it comparing inter- and intra-faith divorce rates), Riley says that “According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.” Who made the calculations? Are they published some place – and available to be scrutinized?

It seems that Riley’s article was prompted by the notorious Reyes case in Chicago. We’ve blogged about that extreme case several times. It’s not fair to generalize to all interfaith marriages, however, from a case where the husband converts to Judaism, the couples splits up, and the husband then takes their child to church trailed by TV cameras.

Last August we published a report on a study by Janice Aron, Interfaith Marriage Satisfaction Study Yields Answers and More Questions. Her conclusion:

The study found absolutely no difference in marital satisfaction between people who were married to partners of the same faith, and people married to partners of a different faith.

This is an interesting finding because it seems to herald a new trend in the psychological research in this area. There is a body of research supporting the idea that homogamous marriages tend to be happier than heterogamous ones, but some recent research like mine finds no difference. Perhaps this is the trend of the future. I am hoping it means Americans are becoming less suspicious about, and more accepting of, other religious views. Perhaps the more heterogamous our society becomes, the more we are forced to re-examine our assumptions about others.


It is commonly reported that the overall divorce rate in the United States is 50%. Young people are doubtless aware of that, but thankfully they continue to marry. As a practical matter, which Riley recognizes, young people in love are probably not going to be dissuaded from pursuing their interfaith relationships by calculations of a higher risk of divorce. I think it is unfortunate, though, to have yet another negative pall cast over intermarriage.

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5 thoughts on “Are Interfaith Marriages Really Failing Fast?

  1. Thank you for this reaction to the article – my husband and I did not enjoy being told that our marriage was doomed to failure over our morning coffee! (He, as a social scientist, immediately noticed the over generalizations from very little data)

  2. I very much appreciate this post, and also wish she had consulted with you all in the course of her “reporting.”

    I also wrote a blog post in response to the Washington Post story, and my readers are deconstructing her shoddy use of statistics in the comment section. Check it out at [url=http://onbeingboth.com]onbeingboth.com[/url].

  3. Don’t even get me started on the misuse of statistics when it comes to intermarriage, especially given the tiny numbers and dubious assumptions on which such “studies” are based. Every mixed marriage is a separate entity with unique factors. The sooner Jewish institutions understand that and deal with each intermarried family where it is, the more success we’ll have in keeping mixed families within the Jewish community.

    Cantor Ellen Jaffe-Gill
    http://www.ellenjaffegill.com
    author, Embracing the Stranger: Intermarriage and the Future of the American Jewish Community

  4. Thank you for synthesizing my impressions of this op-ed.  Linking to source material has been common for over a decade.  Actually citing your source material has been standard practice for generations.  

    Ms. Riley fails to do either consistently.  And when she does she cherry-picks the results that support her thesis.  

    Below are the studies, papers, surveys, polls, etc mentioned in her article.  I’ve linked the ones I can locate.

    General Social Survey – [url=http://www.norc.org/GSS+Website/]http://www.norc.org/GSS+Website/[/url] – incredible site with deep tools for comparison.  This is a real contribution to the world.

    American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 – [url=http://www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/research_briefs/aris.pdf]http://www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/research_briefs/aris.pdf[/url] [i]PDF[/i] – Cited and linked within the op-ed

    National Study of Youth and Religion – [url=http://www.youthandreligion.org/]http://www.youthandreligion.org/[/url] – unlinked within the op-ed but easily linkable from the site.  In fact, if I could figure out which report/article she was referring to I could link directly to it.

    “…recent research by Harvard professor Robert Putnam…” – [url=http://web.hks.harvard.edu/publications/faculty_name.aspx?PersonId=119]http://web.hks.harvard.edu/publications/faculty_name.aspx?PersonId=119[/url] – I have no idea which article by Professor Putnam this research comes from.  But this is a list of all his research as compiled by Harvard.

    “According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001…” [b]No citation[/b] – This is what the entire piece hangs on and she can’t provide ANY citation?  

    “In a paper published in 1993, Evelyn Lehrer…” – [url=http://www.jstor.org/pss/2061647]http://www.jstor.org/pss/2061647[/url] – This is the only research Prof. Lehrer published in 1993 according to her VITA [url=http://www.uic.edu/~elehrer/vita.doc]http://www.uic.edu/~elehrer/vita.doc[/url] [i]Word Doc[/i]

    “…in a 2009 paper, scholars Margaret Vaaler…” – [url=http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122662573/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0]http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122662573/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0[/url] – Although not free to read the abstract focuses on religious attendance as a main effect of divorce (as stated in the op-ed).  It does not discuss interfaith marriages.  However, a paper published in 2005 by the same authors does [url=http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/2/2/3/1/p22316_index.]http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/2/2/3/1/p22316_index.[/url] – “Theological beliefs and the belief dissimilarity of spouses have little effect on the likelihood of dissolution over time.”

    “…Philip Weiss wrote in the New York Observer…” – [url=http://www.observer.com/author/philip-weiss?page=5]http://www.observer.com/author/philip-weiss?page=5[/url] – The Observer teases ‘more’ in their listing (see article dated April 30, 2000) but the link only goes to the main page.  Bad form Observer.

    Pew Survey on Millennials – [url=http://pewsocialtrends.org/assets/pdf/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change.pdf]http://pewsocialtrends.org/assets/pdf/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change.pdf[/url] [i]PDF[/i] – cited and linked within the op-ed

    I hope this helps people in the future to search for the source when you hear something that just doesn’t sound correct.  And, once again I echo Prof. Brad Delong [url=http://delong.typepad.com/]http://delong.typepad.com/[/url], why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

  5. Pingback: ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: Book Review | On Being Both

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