June 16, 2014

So, you married an atheist…

FT_14.06.16_marryAnAtheistHow would you react if a family member were to marry a born-again Christian – or an atheist?

A new Pew Research Center survey found that despite high levels of political polarization overall, most Americans in each major political party said “it wouldn’t matter” if an immediate family member married someone who identifies with the opposite party. But fewer U.S. adults – especially Christians – are neutral toward the idea of welcoming someone who doesn’t believe in God into their family through marriage.

About three-quarters of white evangelicals (77%) and two-thirds of black Protestants (67%) in the survey said they would be unhappy if a family member were to marry an atheist, as did 55% of Catholics and 46% of white mainline Protestants.

By comparison, Americans who are religiously unaffiliated are much more comfortable with the prospect of a family member marrying a born-again Christian. Most religious “nones” (73%) said that such a union would not matter to them, while one-in-ten (9%) even said they would be happy to see such a marriage. About one-in-six (17%) said they would be unhappy.

Even among people who specifically identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, two-thirds (67%) said it wouldn’t matter if a family member married a born-again Christian, while just a quarter (26%) said they’d be unhappy.

Topics: Religion and U.S. Politics

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Jessica Martínez

    is a senior researcher focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Derek Glazener2 years ago

    As an atheist, I admit I largely wouldn’t care unless I would have to interact with the mentally ill (“born again” Christian”) spouse on a regular basis simply because in my vast amount of experience, pushing their brand of crazy down your throat is usually their number one priority, as opposed to talking about things mentally healthy people talk about in social situations.

  2. Joe Bigliogo2 years ago

    Easy to see which side has the tolerance. Taking a dogmatic approach to what you hold to be true is endemic to religion although not exclusively so. This unfortunate aspect of religion is what spawns so much conflict and why so many young people are losing their formative faiths.

  3. Ellis3 years ago

    I’m surprised by unaffiliated being largely accepting of Born-agains. I have known a dozen or so in my lifetime from various parts of the U.S. In my (limited) experience I found them to be shades of zealousness and largely delusional.

  4. Eric Stone3 years ago

    I think that this poll is misleading. In my experience religious difference between parents and children are the number one cause of mental and emotional disorders in children. Many parents have a hard time accepting children who do not follow the family’s religion even though we are supposed to live in a secular society where religious freedom is one of the most fundamental rights. Yet children who obviously have no say in being forced to assume a religious identity are not informed of their right to dissent and when they do mature and get the courage to leave “the fold” they are harassed by most members of their families and sometimes even kicked out of their homes for this “treasonable” act. There are few experiences in life as potent as these in producing severe emotional problems. This fact is not being acknowledged by the psychiatric community.

  5. Trey3 years ago

    My only concern with a relative marrying either an atheist or evangelical christian is whether or not they try to force them to accept their views. As long as they are not so dogmatic that they try to control the people around them them I don’t see a problem.

  6. mike ferrell3 years ago

    As an atheist, I’d much prefer my son marry an atheist, since atheists tend to be better educated and intelligent than believers. But, it is his choice, and I would welcome his choice.

    1. Kenneth3 years ago

      The data doesn’t show they are more intelligent, just more educated. Atheists are more likely to go for higher education, in part due to wealth. They score higher on standardized tests, directly related to education. Interesting research on this in the book “Acts of Faith” by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke.

  7. Richard Tebaldi3 years ago

    Define religion!! If it’s a “Kill the other religions” (infidels), it’s not a religion and needs to be taken out to protect those they seek to kill! Otherwise, It’s non of our business. She/He has to live with them, not you!

  8. PaulD3 years ago

    As an Evangelical I would be upset if my unbelieving child married an Evangelical like myself; that could only happen if the spouse were being disobedient to God’s word.

  9. Gwen Williams3 years ago

    I sent a very respectful and compassionate comment. It appeared on the comment page quickly using my whole name. Now it has been removed. Are you allowed to tell me why?

  10. humboldt3 years ago

    My son married a UC Berkley, 1970’s, free speech, Jewish lady, and I’m living with it.

  11. Gwen Williams3 years ago

    I would feel sad for them in either case.


  12. Doc Kennedy3 years ago

    Far more important than the person being an Atheist or a Born Again Christian, ‘What kind of a person are we talking about? The quality of the ethics, kindness, humility, education, common sense, etc. would be far more important to me. There is the militant Atheist that is out to join the new Atheist “Church” down the road, rails against those of faith…as well as Born Again Christians, live and act like the children they are, ‘born recently’ and not out of puberty yet! It is always the inner person…I was an Atheist and now am a Born Again Christian, but on my best day I am still not as good a man at 86 as my Father, Henry W. Kennedy, Sr., was at forty! He would have had to think about being ‘born again’ for he grew up in a Christian home and was a good person all of his life. He was one of the three best Christians I have ever know. All about the person, I think!

  13. P Patrick3 years ago

    The research assumes the Christian (one that believes Jesus Christ is the son of God) and the AA are equally yoked in their dedication to their beliefs. They are not. Much of the true believers’ hope in life, and current happiness comes from their belief in a personal relationship with a loving, grace-giving Lord. Wouldn’t they want the same relationship of hope and happiness for their children and grandchildren? Of course they would thus making the difference in the AA comparison. This is not a question of “tolerance” among sub-populations but one’s belief. To the AA it should make little or no difference to them if their child choses believer or non-believer. What they think, makes no difference if God exists not. To the believer it does matter because Christ is real in their own lives, giving them a multitude of blessings the world or anyone in it cannot give.

    1. Alan2 years ago

      This is a very good point.

  14. slk3 years ago

    i’d ask one question…are you happy!!!

  15. Mikki Mack3 years ago

    if the atheist were honest and hard working, helped out in his/her community, and had a good heart it would not bother me – what does bother me is that born-again Chrisitan’s become fanatical evangelicals that think their way is the only way and push it onto to others who do not believe as they do, and the odd part about them is they were the drug users, the alcoholics, the abusers, the theives, the ones who had extra-marital affairs, etc., Then all of a sudden they clean up their act and find God and now everyone else has to listen to all the preaching.

    1. Mikki Mack3 years ago

      P.S. I was raised in the Presbyterian Church. I no longer care for organized religion and consider myself a mixture of Deist, Agnostic, Humanist

    2. Andile Luvuno3 years ago

      There is no way that a person can be inherently good. It is for that reason that we preach to introduce the Master Who helps us in all our weaknesses. We hae instruction from the Scriptures of not being equally yoked with unbelievers. Andile-Mzantsi Afrika

      1. Alan2 years ago

        I live in the Christian “Bible Belt” of the USA. I’m afraid regarding marriage, theres nit much choice in the matter. There are only a handful of non-beleivers that Im aware of in my community. And it is kept very quiet. With that said, I would love if my offspring were to we’d a “none”, I would beam with pride. I completely disagree with you as well. I am an Atheist, active philanthropist, and inherently good. I refuse to believe that I am a supposed “wretch”, paying for asin I did nit commit, destined to burn in a lake of theoretical fire for all eternity punished by a “loving god”. Hogwash.

  16. N3 years ago

    It would be nice to see these statistics relating to the age of the respondents. For instance, I would expect younger people to be less “unhappy” with a relative marrying an atheist.

    1. Michael Lipka3 years ago

      Thanks for your comment. This detailed table should have what you are looking for: people-press.org/2014/06/12/fami…

      Michael Lipka

  17. IL Heisler3 years ago

    What strikes me about these results is the “wouldn’t matter” category, regardless of the question. If tolerance of others’ beliefs is a virtue, atheists and agnostics have more of it than believers.

    1. slk3 years ago

      tolerance??? many go out of their way, to instigate trouble!!! i’ve never seen a christian sign in times square denouncing atheists, but plenty of the other way around!!! go on huff post and read the atheist attacks on jews and christians!!! thats not tolerance!!!

      1. MsColleen3 years ago

        As a lesbian, I have countless times read fundamentalist comments on LGBT issues, and tolerance is the LAST thing I see from the fundamentalist Christians. Likewise, I read constant creationist comments on science articles, and again tolerance is the LAST thing I see from the fundamentalist Christians. I read articles about transgender people and again the LAST thing I see from fundamentalist Christians is tolerance. Now I read an article about atheists and I see you claiming that it is the atheists who are intolerant.

        What am I to believe? That fundamentalist Christians are profoundly intolerant, and that they love to cry about others being intolerant of them.

        1. slk3 years ago

          how many were christian organizations??? christians believe in man and woman, because thats the only way, human life will proceed!!! i’m not religious, but i do believe in God, and the freedom of religion or not!!! as in my comment, i was backing those that il trashed!!! and being gay, firefox, hgtv, hobbylobby, chik-fil-a etc etc!!! zero tolerance there!!! what you want to do with your life is up to you!!! as long as it makes you happy, it’s legal, and it doesn’t interfere in my life, i have no problem!!! now, have a great weekend!!!

          1. slk3 years ago

            one more thing!!! what am i to believe!!! your a grown woman, with a brain, and your views, don’t look to others, for belief!!! belief comes from the heart!!!

        2. Kenneth3 years ago

          I’m an evangelical Christian and I am sorry if you have seen bigotry, but you must know you are dealing with an extremely flawed sample. Internet comments do not represent any general population (except members of the given internet community), including creationists and evangelicals. There is a lot of empirical data on tolerance among Evangelicals and while we aren’t perfect, neither are any other demographic, including atheists. Evangelicals are becoming very diversified in their beliefs.

          If I post a prayer request on twitter, it is not unusual for for atheists to bombard me with hateful comments. On several YouTube videos and articles produced by Christians or about Christians, extremely hateful are often left by atheists. This does not accurately represent the atheist population. There are several known factors about internet discussion forums, namely, the factor of anonymity, that encourages angry people to be overrepresented.

          In short, your observations regarding Christians online, and mine regarding atheists online are do not represent reality.

  18. Tushna3 years ago

    Only 18% of Atheists/Agnostics would be “Happy” if a family member married an Atheist/Agnostic (AA). I’d assume this % would be much higher for most people who have a religious affiliation. It’s interesting that AAs assign a lot less importance to belief/non-belief, indicating that they perhaps think it’s only a small part of what will make for a good partner.
    Typically small, non-mainstream groups tend to have a high propensity to identify with other group members – which may not be the case here.

  19. Carolyn Thomas3 years ago

    The line that leaped out at me from this article is this one: 55% of Catholics said they would be unhappy if a family member were to marry an atheist. Only 55%? Church standards must have slipped significantly since I got married back in 1971, when marrying a non-Catholic (even if they were a devout church-goer of another faith) was virtually unthinkable. When my fiance and I met with my parish priest, my guy refused to sign the standard church agreement that promised he (as a non-Catholic) would “not interfere with the religious education” of any children we might produce one day. “It doesn’t mean anything – just sign it!” the priest pleaded. “If it doesn’t mean anything, I’m not signing!” protested my suddenly-ethical fiance. But his staunch refusal ended the meeting and all associated wedding plans on the spot. No signature = no Catholic wedding. The priest refused to marry us in the church I’d attended to my whole life. We ended up getting married in the United Church downtown – a humiliating experience for my poor mother, who equated this with “getting married in a bowling alley.” I’m pretty sure my devoutly Catholic mother actually considered this kind of union to be a humiliating mortal sin. When we later had babies and chose not to have them baptized in the Catholic Church, it merely reinforced her horror that her eldest daughter had chosen to bring a heathen into her own family!

    1. Thomas R3 years ago

      A large percent of Americans, plausibly a majority, who identify as Catholic are not church-going and do not accept the teachings of the faith. So on most religious questions Catholics come out either blander or more tolerant, depending on one’s perspective. If you limited to people who attend Mass more than once a month you might get slightly different results. Although even then I find many Catholics, I’m Catholic BTW, to be basically ignorant of their own religion.

      I admit I am intrigued by how accepting atheists are listed as a relative marrying a born-again Christian. In life atheists I’ve known are often tolerant like that, but the Internet could give one the impression atheists are just seething balls of rage about “Believers in Bronze Age fairytales” or whatever nonsense they call us Christians. Still possibly an issue is many of them come from Christian families so a relative marrying a born-again is not unsurprising.

      1. MsColleen3 years ago

        I would suspect that many times you encounter the “bronze age myth” atheists would be in response to fundamentalist Christians who are demanding that their faith trump the rights of others, either to be free of forced participation in religious observations, to be free to marry their LGBT significant other, or to be free from demands that creationism be taught as science. Most atheists such as I don’t usually care what someone else might believe except when the believer demands special privileges for his faith. Yes, there are militant atheists, but considering the numbers of militant religionists (of Christianity/Islam/Judaism/etc) I would ask that you expand your awareness to the causes that stimulate such “bronze age myth” attacks.

        1. Andile Luvuno3 years ago

          The problem is that generally people teach evolution as a Science, whilst it is theory which needs faith to be believed. An atheist is religious and his deity is either himself or his theories. Andile from Mzansi

          1. Dave3 years ago

            A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method, and repeatedly confirmed through observation and experimentation.

            And as someone once said, if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby.

          2. Alan2 years ago

            You seem to be quite mislead about Atheists. I am an Atheist and throughout a normal day, I don’t even ponder religion, much less worship myself. Really?

          3. Mike Heywood1 year ago

            But evolution actually is a scientific theory, backed by all of the available evidence. It has the full weight of the fossil record behind it (and before you complain about “gaps” in that record, keep in mind that unless we had the perfectly preserved remains of every organism that ever lived, there would always be gaps). The mechanism by which it works, natural selection, can be and has been observed in action (see the peppered moth’s change of color and the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria), and is understood on the chemical level. So no, you don’t need faith to believe it, you just need to look at the evidence.

        2. slk3 years ago

          and you have your beliefs!!!

          1. Andile Luvuno3 years ago

            Interestingly, the Laws of Thermodynamics teach that everything move from the state of order to that of disorder. Evolution refutes this theory where a unicellular organism develops to a multi-cellular organism.

            It would also be scholastic to study the last writings of the founder of Evolution, in Christianity we can them repentance and confession while the Atheistic Science community would refer to them as re-discovery.