Interfaith marriages and the ‘what faith will the children follow’ question
Being the offspring of an inter-religious marriage, to me religion –the following of, the belief in or the lack of was never something that even crossed my mind while I grew up. I realise now how lucky I was in that my parents, all those decades ago, had the kind of idealistic marriage where my mother continued to follow her religion, my father his and I was not inducted into either. Choose what you want when you get older, they said, when I was a child and immensely envious of the special treatment the Catholic students received in the convent school I attended. I was determined then to be a Catholic, the religion my mother followed. My father, a lapsed Muslim, did not impose Islam on me. His method of educating me about religion was to bring me books about every religion and their founders, and the Amar Chitra Katha versions of the lives of the founders of each. By the end of it all, for better or for worse, I was no closer to deciding what religion I wanted to follow and ended up on the fringes of them all. The fringe is a lovely place to be though, it allows you to peek in, to observe, assimilate and step out when you choose.
In this era of love jihads and anti-romeo squads, I wonder if they would have ever gotten married if they’d fallen in love today. And then I then went ahead and fell in love with a very religiously inclined man, from a religion different from both my mother and father’s religions. I married him. It wasn’t something I’d bargained on when I did fall in love. You know hormones, those insufferable chemicals, they don’t really go by logic and ticking boxes, they just swarm on your brain like a plague of locusts and eat up all reasoning.
We were an odd couple all right, opposites in every aspect, including the religious. How will you bring up your children, a friend asked me, what religion will they follow? The question didn’t bother me then, today it does. It was then that it struck me that perhaps, the choice I had in not to choose was a privilege. When the offspring popped out of the uterus, I was determined to raise him the best I could and give him as firm a grounding in spirituality if not religion. Strangely though, for all that the spouse was fervently religious when I got married to him, and all that I was not, although I had my moments of doubt and schism and prayed hard to a few Gods from the pantheon whenever I was being greedy and grasping, he’s now more of a pantheist than I am. Nonetheless when the offspring was born I was suddenly worried about how growing up without a religion could perhaps impact his sense of belonging. After all, there is that famous saying that you need roots before you can grow your wings.
It is a very different socio-cultural milieu today than it was when I got married, and when the son was born. Would he choose to identify himself with a religion, or would he be like me, the not choosing being the choice he made.
According to some research conducted in the US, marriages between two people of different faiths are more likely to break up. I couldn’t find any research on this for India. Around me I do see marriages both within the same religion and between two individuals from different religions surviving and breaking up with what seems like equal intensities. I would think that grounds for breaking up would more likely be lack of faithfulness, domestic violence, abuse physical and emotional and the lack of communication in a marriage amongst others. Religion, if any, would come rather far down in that list.
The research also says religiously mixed households are more likely to produce kids who are unaffiliated. I see that sometimes in the offspring, I wonder how other couples who have interfaith marriages negotiate this tricky territory between belief and accommodation of other beliefs, does it strengthen the bond between them or more realistically given how most marriages are conflict zones most times anyway, does it lead to more conflict? Interestingly, for all the towel on the bed and toilet seat up conflicts we battled grimly, religion never played a starring role, in troth not even a side artiste one. I was free to continue with my version of faith and belief, or rather the lack of it. He followed his diligently. I did accompany him to his trips to temples, pilgrimage sites and more initially I must admit more for the curiosity than anything else, given it was something completely different from the two religions I’d grown up being on the fringes on. Yet again I was on the fringes of a third, part of it, but not quite a part of it.
In most interfaith marriages they say, the child often tend to follow the religion the mother follows because the mother is the one who has maximum influence on the children, spending maximum time with the child in the case of stay at home moms, or being primarily responsible for the child even in the case of working moms. In the Indian context, it is often a given that the child will grow up following the religion his or her father follows, given how predominantly patriarchal our socio-cultural environment is. As for the offspring, he identifies himself with his father’s religion. I don’t have much of religion, faith nor knowledge to pass onto him, at the best I tell him stories about how religion came about, and how we as humankind sought to find purpose in what we cannot understand by turning it over to a higher power who we hope knows the purpose to it all. He listens. I hope he comprehends that religion is religion, faith is faith and his parents try to give him the best they can of both.
Kiran Manral is a best selling author and the ideas editor at SheThePeople