She's great, but she's not Catholic." "He's cute, but he's not Jewish." Every now and then, we hear a friend say something like this. And usually it's a friend who hasn't attended church or synagogue more than once in the last three years. On one hand, I have always believed religion plays an important role in building a relationship based on shared values and understanding. On the other hand, I wonder why religion matters for so many people who give it such a small place in their daily lives.
A person's formal religious background can -- but doesn't have to -- shape his expectations, morality, and spirituality. You can grow up hearing about fire and brimstone, and still reject the idea of a punishing God. You can grow up without attending a single religious service, and find spirituality later in life. What's important in a relationship, though, is mutual respect.
I think the more you share, the more you have in common, the better your chances.
Of course, religion is only one thing that people have -- or don't have -- in common. I'd also say it's better if you both root for the Dodgers, read The New York Times, grew up in Trenton, N.J., and prefer Macs to IBMs. Faith can also sustain a relationship -- but I'd bet on two atheists, with their similar viewpoints, sticking together before I'd bet on a mismatched pair (insert your two favorite religions here).There are enough differences between men and women built into the system that you don't need to provide any more. Take it from me: you've already got enough challenges to overcome.
We could debate the benefits of dating someone with a similar resume/background to yours versus dating someone with complementary interests and skills. We could talk about couples who are similar to each other and couples who are different. But the issue here is religion. Even if it's easier to be with a partner who eats the same flavor of ice cream as you do, you probably would not call off a wedding over ice cream. Religious differences, on the other hand, can ruin a relationship -- even though a lot of people I know eat ice cream more regularly than they pray.
When a person is not attending regular religious services, and yet religion still impacts his or her choice of mate, I wonder why. What is different about religion?
Religion is more intrusive than ice cream. For example, you happen to like mint chocolate chip ice cream, and I don't. When we go out for ice cream together, you order mint chip, I order swiss chocolate. If we had a kid, he could order whatever he wanted.
If I don't attend religious services, and you do -- we have a different problem. Do you go alone? Can you still be involved in your religion to the extent you'd like? Do you believe my choices will have an impact on our ability to be together in an afterlife? Am I imparting the right lessons to our children? Do your family -- or your friends -- think less of us? Does this reflect on you? Are you meeting your responsibility to your god if you don't share your beliefs with your family?
Two people who care little about religion can -- and often are -- together regardless of their religious beliefs. But when someone tells you that "She's great, but she's not Catholic" it means either that (1) Catholicism is important to him, or (2) Something else (Judaism, Protestantism, whatever) is important to her.
I think what we've figured out is that when religion takes on a greater importance for someone in choosing a mate than in his or her daily life, it's probably got to do with the strength of their own family ties. I can't stop thinking there's an irony here, though. On one hand, when you date a fellow Christian, Hindu, Jew, or whatever, your partner's got an instant connection with your family. On the other hand, if your family is strong, accepting, and resilient -- which is probably what they're like if you care enough about them to factor them into your choice of mate -- then they're going to accept anyone you choose who keeps you happy and treats you well.