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Mixed Race and Mixed Families in Britain: The Case of Growing up in a Mixed Faith Family (Dr Elisabeth Arweck, University of Warwick)
16 August 2007

Mixed Race and Mixed Families in Britain: The Case of Growing up in a Mixed Faith Family

Posted on: Thursday 15 August 2007

University of Warwick

Paper by Dr
Elisabeth Arweck

Embedded within issues of mixed race ('mixedness') and mixed families ('mixing') are families which do not only combine ethnic backgrounds, but also faith backgrounds. A research project in the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU) at the University of Warwick is currently underway which is studying precisely such families - 'mixed faith families', as we refer to them in short.

In June 2006, a half-hour long programme on BBC Radio 4 highlighted some of the issues surrounding mixed couples in Britain, especially marriages between Blacks and Asians (Breaking the Last Taboo, 12th June 2006). The couples who contributed to the programme contended with two sets of potentially difficult, if not sensitive issues: mixed race and mixed faith. Anecdotal and other evidence suggests that the number of inter-cultural marriages is growing, but there is - as Breaking the Last Taboo also pointed out - a dearth of research in this area. While our knowledge of inter-racial relationships has been growing - there are statistical and sociological data which indicate developments and trends over the last decades not only in the UK, but across European countries (see, for example, the work of Richard Berthoud at the University of Essex) -- the information about mixed faith couples or families remains scant and is not underpinned by national survey material or concrete figures.

However, although there are few solid statistics on the number of mixed faith or interfaith marriages, every faith community is aware that such marriages are on the rise, particularly among younger adults. Some evidence of their existence and the issues which arise from religiously mixed families can be found in web chat rooms where contributors discuss mixing and meshing traditions in wedding ceremonies, holiday celebrations, and child-rearing.

Further evidence can be found in the arts, in particular in literature and drama. For example, Monica Ali's Brick Lane, a novel set in the Bangladeshi Muslim community in East London, is informed by the author's own dual heritage. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for its portrayal of this community and the quality of the writing, Monica Ali grew up as the child of a Bengali Muslim father - who wished her to be a 'good Bengali girl' - and an English mother. Another example is Child of the Divide, a play by Sudha Bhuchar, co-founder of Tamasha Arts and co-winner of the Asian Women of Achievement Award in Arts and Culture. Embedded in this story is the experience of one of Pali/Altaaf's play mates, a girl called Hasina. She is 'half-half' (Hindu/Muslim), as she puts it when she tells her secret, with two names: 'Hasina 'cos my abu said I was his beautiful princess, and Sita which was my secret with my mama.' Hindus killed her Muslim father because 'he married a Hindu and they [the Hindus] don't like that. Bloods shouldn't mix. But mine is.' Hasina's story illustrates the prejudice on both sides and the consequences for those who get into the crossfire of prejudice.

While some people are sceptical and even negative about the mixed faith background of children who grow up in interfaith families, others see it as an enrichment, a fertile ground for creativity, and a fine example of successful resolution of conflict. However, there is no conclusive sociological evidence that children raised with two faiths are any better or worse off than children raised in a single faith. Academic research in this area is scant, with some notable exceptions, such as Abe Ata's work on Christian/Muslim Intermarriage on the West Bank and in Australia. Hence the project in Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU) on 'Investigating the Religious Identity Formation of Young People in Mixed Faith Families'. The project seeks to investigate how children, who grow up in mixed faith families in the UK and whose parents have different faith backgrounds, form their own religious identity. The faiths in question are Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism. Families of any combination between these four faiths are part of this research. Ethnographic methods investigate how young people in such families come to identify themselves in relation to their parents' religions and which factors are at play which influence their religious beliefs. One of the central questions is how upbringing and teaching (for example religious education in the school and in the community) affect young people's own religious identities. Fieldwork to date points to a rich vein of cultural experience and practice in such families, which is relevant to wider discussions about multi-culturalism in contemporary society.

As many areas of social life have become increasingly diverse in terms of people's ethnic and cultural backgrounds, questions about the role which upbringing and teaching play in young people's religious identity formation are of great importance. Such questions are all the more significant given widespread assumptions about the discrete nature of religious and cultural communities and their related faiths, which do not allow for the more plural reality of many families and individuals. Interfaith or mixed faith families are 'obvious' examples which demonstrate that faith and religious identity do not necessarily come in neat categories. All this has implications for the way in which religious education is constructed and taught in schools and the way in which educators approach individuals from various faith communities.


About the author

Dr Elisabeth Arweck is Senior Research Fellow in the Institute of Education at the University of Warwick and an editor of the Journal of Contemporary Religion. She is currently researching, with Dr Eleanor Nesbitt, the religious identity formation of young people in mixed-faith families.

The research team would welcome any relevant information and contact with members of mixed-faith families. Please email them at


Thank you, Sal and Harris Lorie, for your comments.

In response to Sal, I am not sure whether religion or faith would be a greater barrier than ethnicity. In some cases, the two are closely intertwined and thus difficult to separate from one another. A recent survey by the BBC Asian Network found, for example, that British Asians are five times less likely to marry outside their race than the white population. One would need to test your statement to find out whether religion weighs more than ethnicity.
You are quite right, some religious traditions do not want their members to marry outside their communities, as is, for example, the case among the Jewish community, but again, the ethnic and the religion are very closely linked here.
When inter-faith relationships happen, as you put it, it could be, as you say, that the two people concerned see the humanity before the religion. I would say that a lot depends on their respective degree of commitment to their faith traditions and the degree of tolerance and willingness to conduct a dialogue with the other person. However, it is too early for us to draw on our data on this point.

In answer to Harris Lorie's question, will we investiagte the impact of respective faith communities towards mixed faith families on young people's identity? We certainly explore the 'community' aspect in young people's lives and to what extent that shapes and influences their views and attitudes towards religion. However, questions need to be asked about the kind or kinds of community/communities in which young people are embedded. The link or lack of link to a faith community seems, at least at this stage in our research, an important element.


Elisabeth Arweck
05 September 2007

I found this a very interesting piece.

You talked of examining factors influencing the religious identity formation of young people from mixed faith families, and stressed the key question of upbringing and teaching. Will you be investigating also the extent to which perceptions of the respective faith communities towards mixed faith families has an impact on the identity of these young people?

This could be a signficant factor, if a somewhat distressing one!

Harris Lorie
05 September 2007

I'd guess that if you polled people on whether they'd marry someone of a different faith the percentage of yeses would be much lower than if you asked them about marrying people from a different ethnic group.

I think one study found that amongst ethic minorities in the UK religious people are less likely to be in an inter-ethnic marriage (is this related to the low religious affiliation rates amongst the mixed race group?)

And in some religious traditions you're not expected to marry out of your extended family let alone your ethnic group or national origins.

So when inter-faith relationships do happen, I'd guess they were between quite exceptional people who see the humanity before the religion. Look forward to seeing the results of your study.

17 August 2007

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