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An ongoing series of five-minute short posts while I’m writing a book on the secular/religious mixed marriage.

Cafeteria_SignPart of the message of Chapter 1 is that labels can be incredibly misleading. When we hear about an atheist married to a Catholic, for example, we tend to see God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything married to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. How’s THAT gonna work?

Well THAT probably isn’t. But look beyond the antitheist books and the Vatican doctrines to the individuals in the marriage, and things start to make more sense.

The Catholic Catechism says a Catholic is morally obligated to attend Mass on Sundays, that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” matters of “grave depravity,” that birth control is “intrinsically evil,” that “divorce is a grave offense against the natural law” and that a “remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery,” and that abortion is without exception a “moral evil” that is “gravely contrary to the moral law.”

Since these are diametrically opposed to the views of most atheists, it would seem a bad match is in the works. But look instead at the actual opinions of individual Catholics and a different picture emerges.

78 percent of U.S. Catholics say a person can be a good Catholic without going to Mass every Sunday, and 77 percent attend less than weekly, including 32 percent “rarely or never.” 82 percent of U.S. Catholics consider birth control to be “morally acceptable,” and 69 percent say it’s OK to differ from the teachings of the church on divorce and remarriage. And American Catholics closely mirror the general population on abortion rights and are actually more progressive in their attitudes toward LGBT rights than the U.S. average.

Despite what the more orthodox might say about them, these folks do not consider themselves any less religious or less Catholic: 77 percent of U.S. Catholics say they are proud to claim that identity, even those who depart dramatically from the official doctrine of their church.

Other denominations yield similar disparities between doctrine and individual belief. And the gap is growing.

On the secular side: Though atheists lack a central set of doctrines, it’s not difficult to see that strong antitheism in the secular partner would tend to make a secular/religious marriage less successful. But as a recent University of Tennessee study shows, antitheists make up only about 14.8 percent of the population of nonbelievers.

In short, neither partner is likely to be embracing the far end of his or her spectrum. I call this “meeting in the cafeteria.”

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...