April 1, 2019
Growing up with Christmas trees in her parents’ home—while also observing the Jewish High Holy Days—Elisabeth Becker “felt very confused about what I believed.” By adolescence “I was very interested in spirituality,” she says, “but I didn’t know what to call it.”
Small wonder. She describes her mother as “this agnostic Jewish scientist” for whom Judaism is “fundamental to who she is.” Her late father, meanwhile, grew up Southern Baptist and contemplated the ministry before becoming a psychiatrist.
Now married and 35, Becker long ago embraced her mother’s Reform Judaism and joined a synagogue, though—like her—she doesn’t keep kosher or light Shabbat candles. And yet on Fridays she sometimes dons a hijab and joins her devout husband, Ufuk, and their young son, Sami, for jumah, or Islamic community prayer, at a masjid in Charlottesville, Va.
“On paper we look like we’re on the opposite side of the spectrum,” she says. But her husband’s deep faith has affirmed her own religiosity in ways she never felt as a child. It helps, too, that both are religious scholars with abiding interest in the other’s faith tradition.
They’re also exposing 4-year-old Sami to both faiths, and are even sympathetic to his pleas for a Christmas tree. “I’m comfortable in shared religious traditions,” says Becker, “because that’s what I grew up in.” One-in-five U.S. adults were raised in interfaith homes, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center.
The same survey found that interfaith couples tend to be “less religious than their counterparts who are married to spouses who share their faith.” Interfaith couples tend to “pray less frequently,” are “less likely to believe in God with absolute certainty,” and are “less inclined to say religion is very important in their lives.”
Other adults who grew up in religiously mixed households say their experience can free them to embark on their own journeys toward piety—or unbelief.
“My parents had two different religions,” says 21-year-old Gerardo Rivera. He’s studying horticulture at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. “My father was a Jehovah’s Witness who went to services every Saturday…. My mom is Catholic, but she was never hardcore."
Rivera was baptized Catholic as an infant, but his parents divorced early. When he was 9, his father started taking him to temple services, but after about two years the father drifted out of his son’s life and away from his religion. Then, when Rivera was about 13, “my mother started taking me to Mass” and Catholic religious education classes, he remembers.
“I went with the flow” at first, Rivera recalls, but soon found Catholic liturgies and homilies “tiresome.” They paled, he thought, against the Witnesses’ “practice of reading the Bible in a more critical perspective.” Yet by his mid-teens he was growing skeptical of the Bible’s miracle stories, increasingly aware that his worldview was not religious but secular-scientific.
At college he launched a “militant” advocacy group for atheists. “It’s not like I want people to leave religion,” he says. “But I’m proud of what I believe, and I’m not afraid to say so."
Thirty-six-year-old Crystal Gordon of Ashland, Wisconsin., is proud, too, of her faith journey. In spite of her father’s indifferent Catholicism and her mother’s casual Methodism, she explored both traditions before finding a spiritual home.
“I remember my dad teaching me night prayers,” she says, and she attended Methodist worship and Sunday school during childhood until these “faded out” in middle school. She had “almost no religious instruction at home,” but at 17 started walking by herself to the Methodist church. “Their adult Bible study was what I was looking for,” she recalls. “It was just part of who I was."
Gordon “got out of the habit of going to church” when she married a nonobservant Catholic, but after the birth of their son she felt impelled “to introduce my child to Jesus.” At 28 she “met Jesus in prayer” and “felt reborn,” but her search for a faith community led her to realize “the Methodist Church no longer lined up with what I believed.”
Curiosity and some coincidences she found meaningful pointed her toward Catholicism, which she found “beautiful and meaningful.” She formally converted on Easter 2018 and now teaches religious education at her parish, partakes in adoration liturgies, and is raising her son in the faith.
“I’m all in,” she says.
To learn more, view the 2016 Pew Research Center report, “One-in-Five U.S. Adults Were Raised in Interfaith Homes.