Ask Interfaith Mom: What About Humanist or Atheist Interfaith Families?

Dear Interfaith Mom:

We’re a family that is interfaith by heritage, but we don’t belong to any religious community. And we’re fine with that. We’re atheists, we lead a secular life, and we already have plenty of communities (through our neighborhood, schools, family and work). Why do you put so much emphasis on the importance of interfaith family communities? Not every interfaith family feels a need to commune with other interfaith families.

–Sincerely, Happy Humanist

Dear Happy Humanist,

If you have the communities you feel you need, that’s great. There is no single “solution” that is going to work for every interfaith family. Some will be fulfilled choosing one religion. Some will be just fine choosing no religion. Some families with humanist or atheist parents have traditionally found homes in Unitarian-Univeralist (UU) communities, in Ethical Culture, or in Humanistic Jewish congregations.

With the increase in interfaith marriage, and the decrease in religious affiliation (the rise of the “religious nones”), innovative new communities have been growing at the grassroots. There’s been a lot of recent media coverage of emerging atheist congregations, designed with many of the benefits provided by religious communities (singing together, reflecting together, community service and support), but without the need for God.  In fact, this idea is not new: Ethical Culture (the movement that supports Ethical Societies in many areas)  has existed since the late 19th century.

But it’s not always easy for interfaith families to find the right spiritual, religious, or humanist community, and not every community specifically addresses the issues faced by interfaith families. That’s why I spend a lot of time writing about meeting the needs of interfaith families. The major communities designed by and for interfaith families celebrating both Judaism and Christianity (in Washington, Chicago, and the New York area) include many atheist, humanist or secular parents, as well as parents with a broad array of beliefs in God. The one thing these families share is a desire to give their children an educational foundation, or literacy, in both family religions. So parents who choose these communities need to be comfortable with their children learning about different approaches to God in dual-faith Sunday Schools (while understanding that these programs never tell children what to believe).

When the school-year ends, my own interfaith families community does not meet formally for Gatherings or Sunday School. But in this endlessly hot summer, I have still felt strongly connected to this community, in the way that many people feel connected to a synagogue, temple, mosque, or church. As a group, we are bringing food weekly to one family with a parent facing cancer. Last week, our minister organized a healing service for family and friends of a young adult child in crisis. Meanwhile, our rabbi is planning High Holy Day services for early September—a time when we will return to celebrate together the Jewish roots we share (through our own parents, or through our interfaith children and grandchildren).

In short, Happy Humanist, you may not want or need this type of community. But know that there are communities (whether UU, Ethical Culture, humanist, or interfaith families communities) that would welcome you as atheists, or with any theological or non-theological label you choose, should you ever feel that you want or need us.

–Interfaith Mom

Ask Interfaith Mom: How Can We Help Grandparents Feel More Comfortable?


In a regular feature titled “Ask Interfaith Mom,” I plan to tackle your questions about raising interfaith kids. Here’s a great question from a comment on a recent post about interfaith grandparents:

Question: In raising my son both, I realize his grandparents will not always like or support how we are bringing the two traditions together and I am interested in ways to present to them that they should always feel free to opt out of saying anything or doing anything they don’t really believe. Thanks for any guidance you have!

One of the most liberating aspects of choosing both family religions is that you give yourself permission to pass on to your children that which is meaningful to you, rather than a required system of beliefs and practices. And in making your own choices, you set a precedent that your children will have the right to opt into or out of any of these beliefs or practices.

Discussing this freedom with your parents (the grandparents) will help them to feel comfortable making their own choices about whether or not to participate in any ritual or prayer they might encounter when celebrating with your interfaith family. Ideally then, the idea that they have permission to participate, or not, would be integral and natural, and would not need to be announced in a formal manner.

But of course, it may take time for extended family members to reach this state of appreciation. Grandparents who have spent a lifetime in a “monofaith” environment, and who may still feel sadness over the fact that their grandchildren will not be raised exclusively in their own religion, cannot always be expected to jump into interfaith practice with enthusiasm. What I can tell you is that many who have started out reluctant or even upset over the idea of an interfaith upbringing, over time have come to appreciate the way extended interfaith families are able to share spiritual inspiration, religious history, and cultures.

However, everyone in an interfaith family (or for that matter, living in our religiously pluralistic society) is going to have moments, often when visiting a more traditional place of worship, when they may want to opt out of participating in a prayer or ritual. Let’s get to some challenging specifics: for instance, taking communion at church. In some churches, the ritual of taking communion becomes a public declaration around who has the right to participate. In such a setting, it would be important to reassure interfaith family members in advance (whether a grandparent, spouse, or interfaith child) that it is fine to remain seated in the pew, and not go up to take communion. Explain that even some Christians abstain from communion at certain times or in certain places, for their own personal reasons, or because not every Christian denomination invites all Christians from other denominations to participate. While those who choose not to take communion may feel like they are sticking out by staying seated, in theory no one should ask them why they remained in the pew.

When you design an interfaith family celebration, this is your opportunity to make the rituals and prayers as inclusive as possible. Ideally, such a celebration would be so welcoming that no one would feel the need to abstain. Sometimes, this means recasting a prayer or ritual to be more radically inclusive, and explicitly inviting all to participate. Personally, I have seen Jewish people (and even a rabbi) take communion at a super-progressive Christian service in which the communion ritual was presented as a metaphorical table where all share food and drink together, based on the Jewish rituals of blessing over bread and wine, regardless of religious institutional membership or beliefs.

To take another example from the other side of the aisle, the bris, or Jewish ritual circumcision for baby boys, can be difficult for non-Jewish family members. Honestly, it is difficult for many Jewish people too, some of whom now oppose circumcision and have designed baby-welcoming ceremonies that do not involve cutting. It’s important to share all the different viewpoints on this ritual with non-Jewish family. I do understand why some interfaith families choose to have a bris, and the deep meaning it has for some Jewish family members. But I don’t think anyone (Jewish or otherwise) should feel required to attend the ceremony. And it would be important to communicate this permission to participate, or not, to everyone in the extended family as early as possible to avoid misunderstandings. Both the new grandparents and their intermarried children must make an extra effort to empathize with each other at this vulnerable moment around birth: the new parents must try hard to accept and not resent family members who choose not to participate, and family must try hard to accept and not resent the choice of the new parents to honor (or conversely, to move away from) such an ancient ritual.

Sometimes, grandparents may surprise you with their willingness to participate, and cross theological boundaries. For instance, I was worried about how my Jewish father would react to hearing his interfaith grandchildren say a traditional Christian prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer in our interfaith community Gathering. To my surprise, I saw my father reciting the prayer along with his grandchildren, and discovered that he said this prayer in his public school classroom everyday, growing up in the 1930s. Since the prayer does not mention Jesus, my father did not even realize until much later that this is officially a Christian prayer. As an adult interfaith child who was raised Jewish, my own appreciation of the Lord’s Prayer is heightened by the knowledge that many scholars have pointed out the parallels between the language in the Lord’s Prayer and the Kaddish and other central Jewish prayers. So a moment I had anticipated as possibly problematic became an opportunity for interesting theological discussion with my parents.

What experiences have you had in including interfaith grandparents? Or, what is your perspective as an interfaith grandparent? And what questions do you have for “Ask Interfaith Mom”?


An Interfaith Celebration of Grandparents


When interfaith couples choose to celebrate both family religions, both sets of grandparents can freely share religious traditions with their grandchildren. Nevertheless, grandparents may not understand, at first, the new concept of an interfaith families community. They may worry about whether their religion is being honored and respected, and whether their grandchildren are getting adequate religious education.

So on Grandparents Day, we invite them to see for themselves: to come and experience our interfaith Gathering, and then go with their grandchildren to interfaith Sunday school, or meet in a group with the rabbi and minister to ask questions about the program.

Of course, grandparents are welcome in our community at any time—anyone is welcome at any time. And we have many grandparents who have become regular visitors, or even community members. My interfaith parents love visiting when they are in town. We have at least one interfaith couple who are senior citizens who intermarried later in life, and chose our community as their own. Meanwhile, some of our original members now have grown children, and are becoming grandparents themselves. But also, we have young interfaith couples who have brought along parents who became members.

For instance, we have a Moroccan-born Jewish grandfather who plays doumbek (a Middle-Eastern hand drum) in our house band at each Gathering. I love that his interfaith grandchildren get to see him there each week, and that he adds to the joy for all of us with his drumming.

On the most recent Grandparents Day, Jewish grandparents visiting for the first time may have felt reassured when we began our service with the familiar song “Hine Ma Tov” (“how good it is for people to dwell together in harmony”).  We said the central Jewish prayers: the Shema and the V’ahavta. We sang the Hamotzi (the blessing over bread) in Hebrew and English. And the three and four-year-olds got up to sing a good morning and good night song, showing off the fact that they are learning some conversational Hebrew.

Jewish grandparents, and Christian ones too, were probably also glad to hear our rabbi, lively at 81, reflect on the wisdom that comes with age, and to hear the specific words of wisdom he chose from each of the five books of the Torah.

The Christian grandparents may have felt reassured when we began our Gathering by passing the peace (a Christian tradition of greeting those sitting near you), and that we sang the Shaker song “Simple Gifts.” We also said the Kindness Prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer.  A Jewish community member, a young mother with a toddler in her arms, got up to read from the Gospel of Luke. And since the theme of this gathering was “The Treasure of Wisdom,” we also sang along with the band to “Let it Be” by The Beatles. (The song feels Christian for many, since it refers to “mother Mary,” although Paul McCartney has said that it refers to his own mother, named Mary.)

At this Gathering, many of us felt moved as we realized once again that we can do this. We can share our traditions with each other, and we can feel sustained by a partner’s rituals, or a son-in-law’s rituals, even if our theologies and cultures differ. At times, as we sing or clasp hands, we will experience an endorphin rush of pleasure–a specific and electric form of spirituality we experience as interfaith families. And grandparents, and siblings, and friends, can share this pleasure with us.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: In a Blizzard

Boston Snow, photo by Susan Katz Miller

I spent a lot of time worrying this week about my pioneering interfaith parents (88 and 82) braving the New England blizzard. More than two feet of snow covered their home, the house I grew up in. But miraculously, the power and heat stayed on. My mother, an artist, finds the snow thrilling, gorgeous. As the storm approached, I heard excitement, not fear, in her voice. I suppose there’s a reason she loves a February snowstorm.

Fifty-three years ago today, my parents got married in my mother’s hometown in upstate New York. A brave rabbi presided (few rabbis would perform an intermarriage in those days). My mother’s Episcopal minister from across the street said a blessing. And then, a blizzard descended and the guests got snowed in at the hotel. An epic pyjama party ensued.

The next morning, on Valentine’s Day, my parents consumed a giant chocolate heart for breakfast–a wedding gift sent by a friend. To this day, my parents are chocoholics. My father hides chocolate espresso beans and nonpareils in his sock drawer. And every year, my father sends all of his children and grandchildren heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, with handmade cards drawn on shirt cardboards.

I don’t usually give my parents anniversary or Valentine’s gifts. But exactly sixteen years ago this morning, I gave birth to their first grandson (in a hospital just a baseball’s throw away from Fenway Park). The next day, a nurse put a foil heart sticker on my son’s tiny hat for Valentine’s Day.

These are the themes of February in my family: snow, chocolate, love. The snow reminds us to slow down, experience awe, and snuggle. The chocolate represents the sweetness between grandparents and grandchildren. And the love of my parents for each other continues like a powerful blizzard, sweeping away all objections, blanketing our family, our world, with beauty.


Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Your Turn: Grandparents and the Interfaith Child

Grandparents are often relieved when their intermarried children choose a religious home for their grandchildren, regardless of what home they choose. Their biggest fear may have been that the children will be raised “Godless” or “rootless.” While choosing to raise children in an interfaith community may be an uncommon (though growing) and unfamiliar choice to the grandparents, it is often perceived of at first as “better than nothing.” Over time, many grandparents come to realize the benefits of allowing both sets of grandparents to more fully share their religious beliefs and life with grandchildren.

My own mother, who married my father more than 50 years ago, is envious of the interfaith community in which we are raising her grandchildren. She often says that she wishes such a community had existed in the 1960s. My parents love to visit our Sunday gatherings, wear badges that read “Interfaith Pioneer,” and get respected as the wise elders that they truly are. The wisest thing they ever did was to get married.

If you’re intermarried, how do your parents feel about having interfaith grandchildren? How do they feel about your choice of a religious home for your children, your family?  And let’s hear from some interfaith grandparents about how they feel (my mom loves to comment). I invite your reflections…