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Interreligious unions in Canada
by Warren Clark
Religion is only one of many characteristics that may be important in the search for a partner. As such it may be traded off for other desirable traits.1 Friends and family may also influence the choice of a partner. In some religious groups a marriage outside the faith may be forbidden or only allowed if the outsider converts or promises to raise any children from the marriage in the partner's religion. In very secular societies where religious identity is weak, religion may be viewed as a matter of indifference in the selection of a partner.2
This article uses data from the Census of Population and the 2002 Ethnic Diversity Survey (EDS) to examine the prevalence of interreligious conjugal unions and the social and demographic factors associated with their occurrence. The EDS is used to create models of the probability that a person in a couple is in an interreligious union where the impact of all other socio-demographic variables in the model is removed except the one being examined.
Interreligious unions refer to marriages and common-law unions where partners are from different broad religious groups. For example, if a husband is a Buddhist and the wife is a Roman Catholic, this union is considered to be interreligious because each partner is from a different broad religious group. However, unions between people of different denominations within the same broad religious group are not considered interreligious; for example, an Anglican/Presbyterian union is not interreligious as both partners are Protestants.
What you should know about this study
Nearly one in five Canadians are in interreligious unions
Given declining religious affiliation and increasing cultural diversity, the number of interreligious unions has increased in Canada. In 1981, 15% of people in couples were in an interreligious union. By 2001, interreligious unions had grown to 19% of couples: of the 14.1 million Canadians in couples, nearly 2.7 million had a partner from a different religious group.3 Despite the increase in interreligious unions, most Canadian couples are homogamous unions where both partners are from the same broad religious group.
What was once incongruous, now accepted
Not surprisingly, over half of interreligious unions are between Catholics and Protestants, the two largest religious groups in Canada. The 1.3 million people in Catholic/Protestant unions represented 9.6% of all persons in couples in 2001, up from 8.6% in 1981. Increasing numbers of young Catholics and Protestants intermarry because of a commonly shared culture.
Catholic/Protestant unions are not evenly distributed geographically as the availability of same-faith partners has a negative effect on the frequency of interreligious unions. In Quebec, where 83% of the population is Catholic and only 5% is Protestant, only 2% of Catholics in couples are married to (or in common-law relationships with) Protestants. In Ontario, where there are nearly equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants, 18% of Catholics in couples are in interreligious unions with a Protestant. In Newfoundland and Labrador, where Catholics are outnumbered by Protestants, 25% of Catholics in couples are in interreligious unions with a Protestant. This data illustrates that interreligious unions are related to the degree of religious homogeneity of the population; when the population is relatively homogeneous, there are few opportunities for majority religious groups to marry outside their group, and few opportunities for minority religious groups to marry within their group.4
Conservative Protestants less likely to be in interreligious unions
Religious groups that are more traditional in religious doctrine have higher levels of involvement in their religious community and are less likely to be in interreligious unions.5 Conservative Protestants6 are more likely to have high religiosity and are less likely (13%) to be in interreligious unions than Mainline Protestants7 (23%) or Catholics outside Quebec (27%).
More interreligious unions with "no religion" spouse
Generally, interreligious couples find it easier if one or both partners do not possess strong religious convictions or if one party is willing to convert. Men are less religious and are more likely to report "no religion" than women. The imbalance of potential partners with "no religion" means that men with no religious affiliation are more likely to be in interreligious unions than women are.
As the percentage of the population with "no religion" has grown to 17% in 2001 from 7% in 1981, interreligious unions where one partner professes "no religion" has decreased to 25% in 2001 from 38% in 1981 as the availability of potential "no religion" partners has increased. It is not surprising that the second and third largest interreligious unions groups in 2001 now involve a "no religion" partner with a Catholic or Protestant. Since 1991, the number of Catholic/no religion unions have increased by 52% while Protestant/no religion unions have increased by 18%. As "no religion" is more common among young adults, these interreligious unions are predominantly young couples. People who report a religious affiliation, but have lower levels of religiosity are more likely to select a partner with "no religion" than someone with higher levels of religiosity.
Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus least likely to be in interreligious unions
Many immigrants citing Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism as their religion, arrived in Canada between 1991 and 2001. As such, they are more likely to have a strong cultural association with the marital traditions of their country of origin. In fact, for these three religious groups, interreligious unions are less likely in 2001 than in 1981.
About 71% of Muslim couples resided in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The most common interreligious union involving a Muslim partner is with a Catholic, representing 4% of Muslims in couples. According to the Census, only 1% of Muslims in couples are in a conjugal union with someone who has no religion. Sikhs and Hindus are most likely to be in interreligious unions with Catholics or Protestants and rarely with those with no religion.
Although many Buddhists in couples have recently arrived in Canada, many also arrived earlier. Perhaps because of this longer history in Canada, and also because they are less likely to be highly religious, Buddhists are more likely to be in interreligious unions than Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus. The most frequent Buddhist interreligious union is with a partner who has no religion.
Orthodox Christians are more likely to be in interreligious unions
Orthodox churches developed in Greece, many of the countries of south-eastern Europe, the Middle East and Russia. When immigration brought large numbers of new residents from these parts of the world to Canada, their numbers included many Orthodox Christians. Over 70% of Orthodox Christians in couples were born outside Canada, but only about 25% arrived recently. According to the Census, Orthodox Christians are one of the most likely groups to be in an interreligious union (26%). After accounting for socio-demographic variables, the EDS probability models also support this finding.
Orthodox Christians are most likely to be in interreligious unions with Catholics. This may be associated with their geographic proximity and also with the many similarities between Orthodoxy and Catholicism.8 Over half of Orthodox Christians in couples are located in Montreal and Toronto, where Catholics represent the largest religious group.
Interreligious unions increasing among the Jewish religious group
According to the Census, interreligious unions have become more frequent among Jewish couples, 17% being interreligious in 2001 compared with 9% in 1981. Only 8% of those with a Jewish religion arrived in Canada between 1991 and 2001, so people who have the Jewish religion have a longer history in Canada than many other religious groups. Jewish couples are concentrated in Montreal and Toronto (75%). Perhaps because of the cultural diversity of these large cities, interreligious unions between Jewish and other religious groups have become more common, particularly with Catholics and Protestants.
Young couples more likely to be interreligious
Increasingly common interreligious unions may indicate a decline in the importance of religion in social life, or that Canadians are becoming more tolerant of people outside their own religious group.9 Others argue that secularization has resulted in the declining influence of religion as a factor in selecting a mate while the influence of education has increased.10
Many factors are associated with the frequency of interreligious unions. (Table A.2) Older Canadians are less likely to be in interreligious unions. This may be because they entered into their marriage or common-law union when Canadian society was more homogenous than it is today, and had fewer opportunities to find partners from a different faith. American researchers also suggest that because interreligious unions are less likely to survive than homogamous unions, older people who have been married or in a common-law union longer than younger cohorts have simply undergone attrition, leaving fewer interreligious unions among older people.11
Home language makes a difference
Catholics who speak only English at home are much more likely to be in interreligious unions than their French-speaking counterparts both in and outside Quebec. Most French speaking Canadians are Catholics, but the minority who are Protestants are more likely to be in interreligious unions than either English-speaking Protestants or Catholics who speak only French at home. Most of those who speak only a non-official language at home have only recently arrived in Canada and as such, their choice of partners is more reflective of the traditions of their home country. Only 8% of those in couples who speak a non-official language at home are in interreligious unions.
Interreligious unions more likely for highly educated people of "other" religions
Researchers have found it is more likely that more highly-educated minority groups marry outside their group than lesser-educated peers.12 Some suggest that highly-educated people may have more individualistic attitudes and are therefore less influenced by family and community to select a mate from their ancestral religious group.13 Others suggest that highly-educated groups have wider intellectual horizons as well as higher levels of socioeconomic achievement, both of which may be traded off against religious compatibility.14
According to the 2001 Census, those with less than high school graduation are much less likely to be in interreligious unions, but this may be related to age (older people have less education). The EDS probability models show that after accounting for other characteristics such as age, education has a significant effect on the probability of couples being in an interreligious union primarily for "other religions"15 and Catholics outside Quebec. There is no significant effect for Protestants and the effect for Quebec Catholics and those with "no religion" is mixed. (Table A.3)
When co-religionists are scarce, interreligious unions more likely
If individuals with particular traits are scarce, they are more likely to be in interreligious unions. However, this does not always hold true. According to the 2001 Census, people in almost every religious group living in communities with a low concentration of co-religionists of the opposite sex are more likely to be in interreligious unions than people in communities with high concentrations of coreligionists. For example, among Catholic couples outside Quebec, 39% are in interreligious unions if the concentration of Catholics is low (less than 20%) in their community. However, where there is a high concentration (50% or more), 20% of Catholics in couples are in interreligious unions. The only religious groups which contradict this finding are Buddhists and "Christian n.i.e. (not included/ elsewhere)".
Chart 2. Most religious groups are more likely to be in interreligious unions if there are few co-religionists in their community.
Parents interreligious? Adult children more likely to be interreligious
Parents often play a key role in the development of attitudes and values of their children and are more likely to pass on their religiosity and religious affiliation if they have a common religious background.16 According to the 2002 EDS probability models, after accounting for other socio-demographic factors, people whose parents were of different faiths were more likely to be in an interreligious union themselves. This was observed for Catholics, Protestants, and other religions, but not the "no religion" group.
Highly religious people less likely to be in interreligious unions
Several studies confirm that those who have higher levels of religiosity place more importance on religious compatibility when selecting a mate than persons with lower levels of religiosity.17 Those with high religiosity may feel a strong affinity to their own religion and feel uncomfortable in other religious settings, especially those whose doctrine and religious practices are distant from their own tradition.18 Therefore it is not surprising that the EDS probability models show that after accounting for other social-demographic factors, those with high religiosity are least likely to be in an interreligious union.
With increasing cultural diversity in Canada, interreligious conjugal unions are on the rise, but still the vast majority of couples have partners from the same broad religious group. Of course, the likelihood of an interreligious union is associated with where you are, how homogeneous the religious mix of your community is, how religious you are, how traditional the doctrine of your religion is, and how long you've been in Canada.
People in communities which are religiously homogeneous and people who are highly religious are less likely to be in interreligious unions. Immigrants are also less likely to be in interreligious unions.
Warren Clark is a senior analyst with the Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division, Statistics Canada.