Values and Mixed Marriages

My friend (and boss) Dale McGowan has a new book coming out in a couple months called In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families. Kimberly Winston interviews him about it.

If interfaith marriages are supposedly doomed, Dale McGowan’s should have been toe-tagged from the start.

He’s a committed atheist; his wife comes from a line of Southern Baptist preachers. Yet 23 years and three kids later, they are still happily married.

What’s their secret? McGowan, 51, has just written “In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families,” to help other couples considering what he calls a “religious/nonreligious mixed marriage” succeed.

“The key is to talk about your values,” McGowan said from his home in Atlanta. “A lot of time we mix up the words ‘values’ and ‘beliefs.’ Beliefs are what you think is true about the universe. Is there a God? Where do we go when we die? But values are what you believe are important and good. When you get couples talking about values they find out they share a tremendous amount, even if they don’t share beliefs.”

That’s what McGowan and his wife, Becca, did. While she believed in one God, she did not believe salvation could be had only through belief in Jesus. And he agreed that he could go to church with her — and did, for many years, with their children.

“This isn’t about the way I see the world — it’s about whether I can be in a loving, enduring relationship with someone who sees it differently,” McGowan writes in the book. “And when the question is framed in that way, the ‘big’ theological questions are actually smaller and less important than the social values questions. On those, this atheist and his Evangelical wife had a solid match.”

I am the product of a mixed marriage as well. My father and stepmother have been married for 37 years. He is an atheist, she is Pentecostal. They share neither beliefs nor values, really, but they’ve made it work. But for me, I think values is the key. Yes, I could be married to a Christian as long as they shared my belief in equality and justice and liberty.

"You could make a case that the burning and hanging of witches and heretics was ..."

Swanson Thinks Burning Man Wants to ..."
"They want to burn "...literature with liberal, democratic tendencies / attitudes..."Presumably that includes the US ..."

White Supremacists Cancel Book Burning in ..."
"A toddler is a human being. It's not a full grown human being. But it ..."

The ‘We Should Just Ignore Them’ ..."
Follow Us!
POPULAR AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    “And he agreed that he could go to church with her — and did, for many years, with their children”

    Wow! Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his Sunday morning for his wife!

    In related news: my wife’s a Catholic, and goes to church most weeks. She, poor thing has to put up with the occasional joke along the lines of “Don’t worship anything I wouldn’t”. Doesn’t seem to bother her much…. I hope….

  • nichrome

    An “Evangelical” Christian who “did not believe salvation could be had only through belief in Jesus” – weird…

  • sundoga

    Not that weird, nichrome. I’ve met several Christians who believe that there are many paths to salvation. Mind you, most of those I would NOT have described as evangelistic.

  • cry4turtles

    Interesting post. The only thing that bothered me was that both theists in the described relationships were the women. I wish women would be more skeptical of a belief system that actively oppresses them. How can they not see it? I saw it when I was five.

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    Beliefs are what you think is true about the universe. Is there a God? Where do we go when we die? But values are what you believe are important and good.

    Though McGowan uses two different words there– “think” and “believe”– he’s talking about beliefs both times. Values are beliefs about what is important and good.

    I’m not saying that there isn’t a difference between empirical beliefs (truth claims) and moral/existential beliefs (also called “values”). There certainly is, a significant difference! But they’re grounded in the same thing– our willingness and ability to acknowledge their validity. Or not.

    For a lot of theists out there, that grounding is actually in another belief– their belief in God. To such people, both morality/meaning and the empirical facts of the universe itself (among which, if you’re a moral realist, you count morality) are dependent on God, and more specifically what they believe God has said to the world about these things.

    I could not date such a theist, let alone have a long-standing relationship with one, let along marry them. And it has everything to do with focusing on values.

  • eric

    @4 – my best friend is Catholic; his wife is atheist. Going on, oh…I think about 18-20 years married now.

    @5 – what you’re describing sounds like a believer in Divine Command Theory, which not every Christian is. In fact I’d say most aren’t, even if they say things that occasionally sound DCT-ish. Do not attribute to malicious theology what can be explained by fuzzy/superficial theology. :)

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    what you’re describing sounds like a believer in Divine Command Theory, which not every Christian is. In fact I’d say most aren’t, even if they say things that occasionally sound DCT-ish. Do not attribute to malicious theology what can be explained by fuzzy/superficial theology. :)

    I’m talking about theists whose beliefs about reality and morality are both constrained by what is endorsed in their holy text of choice, and/or the words from the mouth of their prophet/minister of choice. As in, people with no desire to hear truths about the world or how people should act in it which contradict either of those sources.

    I wouldn’t call it “malicious.” I would definitely call it closed-minded, and proudly so. As in, this sort of person considers it a virtue to see things this way. It is literally an article of faith.

  • whheydt

    Pikers all… My wife (Catholic) and I (somewhere in the atheist/agnostic range) have been married for 43 years.

    I did have to promise to permit any children to be raised Catholic, and the expected happened, though earlier that I thought it would. Our son asked the Sunday School teacher a question she couldn’t handle when he was about 7 and he got kicked out. Our daughter insisted that if her brother didn’t have to go, she wasn’t going to either. So, yes, I permitted it, but I never promised to force it on them.

  • Synfandel

    My Baptist wife and I have been married 16 years and hope for many more. There have been good times and bad times, but religion has never been an issue.

    I was up-front before we ever dated about my atheist convictions. I am respectful of others’ religious beliefs, but I don’t obligingly go to church with her, even on high holidays, and she doesn’t expect it. Even my right-off-the-deep-end religious mother-in-law eventually accepted me and came to be happy that her daughter married me..

    Our marriage is founded on love and deep mutual respect and is far stronger than many marriages I’ve seen between people of faith. A mixed marriage can work very well if both parties have their priorities straight. In the beginning, lust is an amazing catalyst, but in the long run, mutual respect is the backbone of an enduring marriage.

  • Michael Heath

    Grechen writes:

    Though McGowan uses two different words there– “think” and “believe”– he’s talking about beliefs both times.

    I agree; where in both cases belief is a demonstrably juvenile defect in thinking, as is faith.

    When people in meat-world ask me what I believe, I tell them I abandoned belief a long time ago. Instead I make conclusions based on the relevant set of facts. My confidence in any particular conclusion is based on the degree of inquiry I’ve made on the matter coupled to the combined confidence and consensus the relevant experts have in their conclusions.

  • http://mostlyrational.net tacitus

    For those of you who are in mixed marriages, or have them in your family — a question. Are your/their political beliefs aligned?

    I don’t have any concrete evidence to back this up, but from what I have observed over the years, it seems to me that where people lie on the political spectrum is often more important to their overall worldview than their religious beliefs.

    I think for most people, whether they have a liberal or conservative outlook on life (especially when it comes to education, discipline, and other child-rearing decisions) has far more of an impact on their daily lives than whether they go to church on Sundays or not, so many couples can compartmentalize their religious differences as long as they have a similar political outlook.

    Just a theory.

  • whheydt

    Re tacitus @ #11….

    In my case, similar but far from identical.

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com Gretchen

    Michael Heath said:

    When people in meat-world ask me what I believe, I tell them I abandoned belief a long time ago. Instead I make conclusions based on the relevant set of facts.

    Well, that’s silly of you, and you should really stop doing that immediately.

    Your “conclusions” are also beliefs, of course. A belief is simply assenting to the truth of a claim. Knowledge is justified, true beliefs.

    The problem with McGowan’s distinction is not a problem with beliefs, for heaven’s sake, but the fact that he suggests that values are not beliefs, as if they come from different places and have nothing to do with each other. In actual fact, for every person who believes that morality is objective– which presumably includes yourself– values are as much about “what is true about the universe,” as McGowan puts it, as the things he assigns to belief– whether God exists, where we go when we die, etc.

    Faith is a kind of belief which does not require evidence, because its motivation is moral. Most theists actually do not base most of their beliefs on faith, because in practice it’s a terrible standard for believing in things.

    Requiring evidence, empirical or logical, is an excellent standard for believing in things, which is why most people try to do it– including yourself. Some are more successful than others, because they are better informed about what constitutes evidence and more capable of applying logic. That’s called critical thinking. It leads to more justified beliefs.

    They’re still beliefs, though, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Synfandel

    tacitus wrote, “Are your/their political beliefs aligned?”

    Yes, more or less.

  • Michael Heath

    Me earlier:

    When people in meat-world ask me what I believe, I tell them I abandoned belief a long time ago. Instead I make conclusions based on the relevant set of facts.

    Gretchen writes:

    Well, that’s silly of you, and you should really stop doing that immediately.

    Well no. I started doing to it several years ago merely to be true to myself and make a modest case for fact-based thinking rather than belief. The context here is almost always about business or other topics that aren’t directly related to religion or politics.

    If one expressed themself like Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, then sure it would be silly, but as a failure in style, not on the cogency of the point being made.

    Given my pessimism regarding most humans willingness to adapt, I had almost no expectation my distinguishing my conclusions from the standard understanding of belief would positively impact others, except hopefully for smart young people. But to my amazement, it really resonates with everyone even some Palinites. It’s built a lot of unexpected credibility for me. It also has me observing, again to my surprise, that my sphere is increasingly making a case based on facts rather than personal feelings.

    Your argument that conclusions are beliefs is a gigantic whoosh. My asserting that I make fact-based conclusions has me exploiting an opportunity to reveal that standard-issue faith-based beliefs can not compete with the higher standard of sufficiently framed fact-based conclusions. Your point also ignores the reality that conservative Christians, when confronted with well-informed critical thinkers, frequently argue that beliefs are mere opinion, where their faith-based beliefs are no better than a fact-based conclusion. But such a position quickly wilts when one starts repeating the facts. It also reveals how they’ve mutated the definition of belief to be unrepresentative of what I do. So I’ve happily abandoned the word belief because I have no confidence my referencing my beliefs would signal that I’m doing is very different than what many do in my neck of red-state America.

    And yes, I’m perfectly cognizant that falsifying a conservative Christian’s beliefs in their presence has them increasing their commitment to their false beliefs. But that’s typically only if those beliefs are about religion, politics, and sex. So I avoid those conservations and use other topics to make this case.

    So no, I’ll continue to do what I observe to be very successful, well beyond any expectations I ever had.