Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Christian Wife

My wife is the most special and wonderful person. She is a Christian of deep belief. She enjoys being part of an evangelical church. She likes the people of the church, the community, and the many opportunities for participation.

She and I are very different in some respects, but together we work. We met in 1995 and have been building a life together ever since.

I figure some might be curious about the relationship of a hard-line Atheist and a fervent Christian, so I put together a self-interview. That is, I wrote some questions and answered them myself below. If folks like the subject and format, perhaps I'll ask the wife if she would be willing to answer questions from y'all.

1. Let's start with an obvious question: How is it that two people of such different--perhaps even opposing--beliefs get together and build an apparently happy marriage?
My wife and I actually share many beliefs in common. Our values are fundamentally similar, and our differences are often complementary rather than contradictory. Clearly, religion and religious belief are places of difference, but in most every other place we stand united.

I think people make more of religious difference than there needs to be. My wife and I are different people, and we always have been. We have different jobs and different backgrounds. We don't always vote for the same people. We like different foods. Our tastes in music and art can be way off.

As far as I can tell, religion is just another difference. It's something that each of us has and keeps in the household, but it doesn't really define our home. It doesn't dominate our relationship at all. Rather, our lives together are dominated by just living. We try to be together in the morning. I leave for work, and then I come home at night and we try to be together with the kids until their bedtime routine starts.

Maybe if we had both been Catholic or Jewish when we started dating, things would be different today. But since we started out with difference, I think that religion quickly and necessarily became bracketed as a personal thing and not a universal thing.

When we first met, my wife was a practicing Catholic and I identified as Jewish. I don't remember the state of her belief then, or my own. When we moved in together in 1997, she took a spot teaching Sunday school at the local church, and I eventually got involved with my local Hillel house. I even taught the kindergartners in Hebrew school!

If we ever saw our religious differences as a problem, we didn't see it as a big problem or as a relationship problem. We wanted to be together; that was always the important point. We didn't even need to say it. From the beginning of our relationship, being together was implicitly understood and not being together never entered our minds.

2. You both went through changes in religious thinking, right?
Very much. In the 2001-2003 timeframe, my wife started to move away from the Catholic church. We were back in the Boston area by then, and the child sex abuse scandal had started to hit. The response of the Church to these horrific acts perpetrated by priests and then knowingly covered up at the highest levels of the institution--well, it was too much to take. The Church's position on homosexuality was probably also an issue for my wife. Our oldest daughter was confirmed Catholic--that was in 2003--but I don't think my wife went to church very much in those days.

It wasn't until 2006 that my wife found a Christian religious community that she liked. This community called itself non-denominational. She found many people there who were about her age and also having children. The religious message was personal and positive. The services were energetic and carefully crafted. I think my wife felt that this community had a lot of people who could understand some of her questions and problems in a way that I never could have.

I won't go over my changes here, since they are pretty well documented in this blog.

3. Surely, you and your wife must have strong disagreements about religion.
No doubt. We don't talk about it very much. In church and in her church activities, she has her space to express what she believes; in this blog, I have mine. We rarely talk face-to-face about these disagreements because I am not able to convey the sense that I take Christian belief very seriously. Now, I take it seriously to some extent. After all, my wife is sincere about her Christianity, and she seeks to bring our kids to services most every Sunday. Plus, I know that lots of people call themselves Christian, and I am familiar with much of the history and background of both early and established Christianity.

But I have limits to the deference I am willing to give ideas that have been demonstrated faulty. I cannot fake credulity for the story of a virgin-born-of-a-virgin who was impregnated by a ghost and who birthed a miracle-working human sacrifice destined to open the world's ultimate can of whoop-ass. I know the arguments around the story. I am aware of the paucity of genuine facts regarding the story's main character. I am familiar with the details of the story and their history, and I feel as though I've spent more than enough intellectual and emotional energy to give the story it's due. I have little interest in revisiting this particular story when there are, to my mind, more exciting and controversial questions to consider.

For my part, I have no desire to make Atheist arguments or to force Dawkins and Hitchens on my wife. What's the point? She's an intelligent human being and I've got my work cut out for me just defining the contours of my own thinking. We both have our own "spiritual" questions that we're pursuing, and it's enough that we support each other in our respective pursuits.

At the end of the day, our religious differences and our different rationalizations for our beliefs have very little to do with the practicalities of our love and our household. Maybe, after the kids have grown up and we're retired, we'll spend our days debating the lack of evidence for gods and the ridiculousness of all religious beliefs. I suspect we'll rather spend our days having more fun together, but who knows?

4. How do your differences in religion and Atheism apply to the way you raise your children?
In terms of how we raise the kids, I don't think there are any issues. I don't openly scoff at Christianity or Judaism in front of my children. I also don't push Darwin's Origin of Species or Dawkins's The God Delusion on them. The fact is that I don't need to do this. The reality of my Atheism will become apparent to my children when they are old enough to see it. They'll notice I don't go with them to church and that some of the books in my library make cases for Atheism.

Parenting is a practical art. It's hard to get kids to believe or to know things in the exact way you want. They develop beliefs and knowledge through their own doing and their own experiences. Neither my wife nor I is interested in controlling our children's intellectual environment to the extent that they can only have these-or-those thoughts or only come to such-and-such conclusions about the world. So, we both parent in the day; that is, we try to handle each day as it comes and enjoy it as best we can.

Honestly, I don't think personal religious or atheistic beliefs have much impact on what we parents need to do as parents. We need to be with our kids. We need to play with them, teach them, help them, encourage them, and show them we enjoy all that. To me, in marriage and in parenting, togetherness is the name of the game. It's all about being in the same place at the same time.

It's not about using the children as my personal social experiment. It's not about making the children live out my dreams and my ideas. It's not about coercing the children to think and act like me. It is about enabling and empowering them to grow according to their own reasoning and desires.

We parents are an extension of our children, not the other way around. We are their conscience until it becomes their responsibility to tell themselves what's right and necessary. We are their butlers until they are fully able to get the items they need and can clean up after themselves. We are their cheerleaders until they learn how to develop their own confidence and motivation. We are their counselors until they are able to take the lead in making the tough decisions that affect them.

My wife and I share this fundamental outlook in most ways, if not in every single way. We agree on the major things and differ in some of the details. We want the same seeds and are comfortable with however the flowers develop. This is why it has worked so far for us, and why I have no reason to be anything less than very optimistic about the future.


  1. I added this comment to your guest post at the Meming of Life blog

    Very interesting post.
    I’d really love to read your wife’s perspective too, I hope she’ll do it.
    I agree with many points you make, I’m in a similar situation (though I’d call my wife only nominally catholic, she would probably disagree)
    But I do agree with citizensmith and gordongoblin about your kids, our (still very young) kids don’t regularly go to church but they are in a catholic school and more religion on my wife’s side of the family.
    This makes that I am more proactive about my atheism, both in reaction to the early indoctrination that is going on but I’ll also talk about skepticism and atheism with them unprovoked, religion does it so I do it too (in the nicest most gentle way like comparing the jesus/angel stories to other fairy tales and having books and tales about other religions and instilling a scientific mind, how do you know it’s true?) and I’ll also always be straight with them by saying that I do not believe it (not always adding that others, like mom, do)

  2. Hugo,

    I've thought a lot about whether I should be more proactive in debunking religious tales like Noah's Ark, Jonah, the resurrection, angels/devils, and others. My feeling is that it's not a battle I need to fight right now.

    I certainly don't pretend to be a believer, but I have not been outspoken to my kids because their intellects are already doing the work of identifying contradictions between religion and reality. When my kids come up against these contradictions, we talk about what they're seeing and what the possible solutions are.

    As the children get older, they will not only be able to reach their own conclusions, but they'll have tools to do it. These tools include the problem-solving skills we discuss and practice as well as my library and the internet.

    I'm training my kids to be independent thinkers and focused on their own flourishing. Atheism or religion is just one aspect of their lives that they need to work out.

  3. I saw your comments on the other blog too and agree with you. One little blog post cannot tell the whole story (and neither can one comment)
    It is always best to choose what works anyway, perhaps I'm more outspoken because I feel I can be because my wife is actually not really religious at all (again she'd probably disagree but that's how I'm seeing it)
    I wholeheartedly agree with the independent thinking skills, way more important than countering a few stories :-)

  4. Hugo = Belgian Atheist, I was messing with Google's profile a little ;)

  5. Rambam9:49 AM

    My wife and I are both atheists and former theists. We don't have any kids.

    I grew up in an orthodox Jewish environment and was force-fed that entire theistic outlook. I would come to intellectually reject it as an adult. I still get worked up about it all though. It's hard to undo everything I was taught at such an impressionable age. Theists shamelessly indoctrinate because, well because they think their right and the ends justify the means.

    Your kids probably aren't being indoctrinated in such a severe way if they are already showing signs of skepticism. Nevertheless, I would think that they will be convinced of some false ideas that will be hard to unconvince them of it they are getting a consistent religious message and only a passive counterpoint from you.

    Still, passive or not, knowing your dad doesn't believe the stuff is huge. When young kids have both of their parents saying something is true, they are sure to believe it.

  6. Rambam9:53 AM

    I get your take.. live and let live, don't be defined by your differences, etc.

    but I would like to know how your wife can put up with you. Isn't your influence on the kids extremely dangerous? They have MAYBE a decent father to gain from you for a few decades, and their eternal souls to lose.


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