From an atheist married to a Christian

A while back I ventured a few thoughts on some of the challenges inherent in interfaith marriages. In response an atheist friend of mine wrote and invited me to share with you the following letter:

I’m a bona fide marriage expert. Not because I have some fancy Ivy League degree hanging on my wall, nor because I’m a published marriage counselor—no, I’m a marriage expert because I’ve been married twice. I’m a big believer in the school of you-don’t-know-it-until-you’ve-done-it. Having done it twice, I now know it twice as well. Hence, marriage expert.

My first marriage was to a lovely woman of like-spirituality. We were both humanists (which is a fancy term for do-gooder atheists) of Jewish descent. That marriage failed when she realized that she didn’t love me. ME! How could she not love me? You probably don’t know me, but I am very lovable. I know this, because my second wife, an even more lovely Christian woman named Rachel, told me so. Rachel also told me that our marriage is a resounding success, and I believe her. We both have no doubt that we will be together until we die, at which point we will be separated. According to her, I will go to hell and she will go to heaven; in my version, we will both simply be dead. Either way, we won’t be together anymore, and that’s sad.

Rachel is a Christian and I am a heretical Jewish humanist. How can this marriage of ours really be a success? How can we fully be together when we don’t share the same spirituality? How can we unleash the full potential of our marriage if we have a spiritual chasm between us? How can we possibly understand each other when we approach life so differently? What will we teach the children? For Pete’s sake, think of the children! (If anyone knows Pete, or why he cares about the children, please let me know in the comments—oh, and tell him I want back my copy of ABBA Gold.)

As tempting as it was to ignore the problem of our differences and hope it went away, Rachel and I talked about it, and decided that since we valued our marriage too much to leave it to chance, we would be proactive about addressing our differences: we’d do it the hard way. (What is it about Jews and Christians that they need to suffer to feel alive? Wait a minute, maybe we aren’t so different after all! No, that’s not it. We’re different. Might as well face it. We’re really, really different.)

Women and men are different. Christians and people of other faiths are different. Christians of different denominations are different. Republicans and Democrats are different. Bostonians and San Diegans are different. Mice and men are different. Even Milli and Vanilli are different—in fact, they aren’t even themselves.

I am not, as my wife is, a woman who was born in San Jose, CA, grew up on a farm in upstate New York, matured in Washington, has six siblings, and is passionate about her family and her faith. I never will be that woman, and while I can understand her, empathize with her, feel pretty in her clothes, and love her deeply, I will never really know the depths of her experiences or the convictions of her beliefs. No one will, except God (if you’re into that sort of thing). I don’t want to be her Savior, I want to be her husband. I want to spend every day getting closer to her and knowing her more, faith and all.

Everyone has faith of some kind, even atheists (we can’t prove there is no God, we simply believe there is no God). By recognizing your own faith, even if it’s belief in mammon—or as Washington Irving called it: “The Almighty Dollar”—you can understand how essential faith is to the core of our being. Everyone has the ability to relate to the fervent wholeness of faith, and to understand how it can permeate every aspect of one’s life. You don’t have to share the same faith to know how your spouse feels about his or her spiritual connection. It’s the universal feelings that come from faith, even if the faiths are different, that are the foundation from which you can connect, share, learn, and grow.

Your marriage won’t fail over differences; there will always be differences. It will fail if you are not honest with each other, and lack respect for one another—spiritually or otherwise.

Marriage is a partnership. Each partner brings the best and the worst parts of themselves to their marriage, and the success or failure of their union depends on how they embrace the good and the bad of it. In a successful marriage, two people, who are different by virtue of being people, find the common ground on which they relate to each other, and use that as a foundation. They grow toward each other by learning about and respecting their differences, and then stay together by willingly meeting each other’s needs, whether they fully understand them or not. That last part, that really hard part—that’s love.

That love is what my interfaith marriage is all about. Rachel would call that the manifestation of God’s love and grace in our marriage. I call it my profound privilege to be able to spend every day of the rest of my life growing a little bit closer to my wife.

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • mindy

    I love this, but I have to say that the part about believing my spouse is ultimately doomed to hell would be problematic for me. Seems as though if that is his wife’s belief system, she’d spend their marriage trying to save him from said fate – as in, convert him. Doesn’t sound like she is doing that, but I can’t imagine believing to my core that my spouse is doomed to hell and not trying to “fix” it. Sounds like she doesn’t do that, but I’d love to hear from her how she has come to terms with that issue.

    • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

      Yeah. But then I understand it quite well. To my husband, its either heaven or hell. To me its either we simply don’t exist or something else, but there is not a hell option…and it really doesn’t matter, as this life is the gift. He’s more structured in his beliefs, having had them all his life, I’m more questioning having had to chuck it all and start over religiously twice, and I’m not finished with redo #2. There are aspects we agree on, and others we do not. I am slowly letting him know what damage religion has done to me, and he gets it, but wishes I would just conform. I did warn him early on that I”m a total nonconformist, so his quest is doomed. But he loves my nonconformist, out of the box mindset, and I love his stability. It makes for a nice balance.

      Yet it is not the only things we differ. He’s the consummate extrovert, I’m an introvert. He’s into sports and guns, southern gospel and country music. I’m into books, creative writing, classical music and am the local poster child for all things pacifist. We make each other laugh all the time, share the household chores, are delighted with how well our blended families get along, and gross out the grown kids with how mushy we are together.

      Being interfaith can work, and work beautifully. Gary and I are proof.

    • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

      Mindy: yeah, that really jumped out at me, too. I thought, “Well, man, that does seem like one giant problem.” Maybe I’ll write my friend’s wife and ask her about this.

    • Sheila Warner

      I would never tell anyone that they are doomed to hell. No one knows for sure what is on the other side, because no one has come back from the grave to tell us. Those visions of life on the other side when someone is near death aren’t concrete proof of anything. Instead, the stories, which are so similar, give us insight into what happens during a dying process. It sounds like death isn’t as bad as we think it is. But the husband in the letter doesn’t seem to mind his wife’s belief about hell. If he doesn’t believe in hell himself, it won’t bother him, because he is certain that there is not such a place. Their marriage seems to be pretty healthy overall.

      • mindy

        I agree, Sheila, which is why I said that I loved it except for that one point. I can see why it wouldn’t bother the husband – if he doesn’t believe in hell, he isn’t going to worry about going there. It’s the wife I wonder about – how does her belief in hell manifest itself? If she believes it is real, does she also believe all who do not believe in Christianity will go there? Because if that were the case for me, if I really believed that, I’d go a little crazy worrying about the spouse I love and adore burning for eternity. Or does she believe that there are many paths to God, and only the truly evil are doomed to hell? I’m mostly just curious, Sheila. I have no doubt that interfaith relationships can work, and since I don’t believe in hell, it’s a moot question for me, personally. The belief in a hell for anyone who doesn’t find God through Jesus, though, seems like it would be a dealbreaker for most.

        • Sheila Warner

          I wasn’t criticizing what you wrote. I am curious, too. I hadn’t thought about living a lifetime with a spouse believing that he or she would end up in hell. Sure makes you want to be a fly on that wall, doesn’t it?

      • Dave

        I would challenge the assumption that no one knows for sure what is on the other side. Jesus tells us in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. I belief the Bible also clearly teaches that there is a second death for unrighteous, with only those regenerated by faith in Jesus declared as righteous. I don’t think the Bible teaches that hell is an eternal, conscious suffering. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus the rich man was taken to hades, where he was very aware of his environment and condition. However, we are also taught of the resurrection of both righteous and unrighteous. The former will inherit a new earth and a new heaven and the latter will be judged and thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death. Is it an uncomfortable discussion? Yes, but loving people requires us to have these and be humble and graceful.

        • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

          The story of Lazarus and the rich man is a fable, not a true version of the afterlife. The bible is pretty quiet on all things afterlife in the old testament. Even in the new it is not a big focus with much of it able to be read meaning something else. And if I remember correctly, there was a major branch of Judaism during Jesus, day that did not believe in hell. There is no record of jesus soending time refutting that mondset.. They read the sAME scriptures Jesus did. So its not all that clear.

          • Dave

            I think if you read the parables of Jesus you will find much conversation about the afterlife. The OT does mention Sheol quiet often as well. Many choose not to believe in the reality of hell, but that doesn’t change its existence. It is not a fun topic, but either is cancer, yet do we just ignore it, in hopes that it will go away?

          • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

            What the word Sheol means would vary according to whom was asked in jesus’s day, and its origins predate jewish religious thought, as well as existing variations of the theme found in religious concepts throughout the near east and mediteranian basin. The link provided gives a good, yet basic understanding of the word in question, which shows that its not at all about hell, but simply a place where the dead go…all dead. Whether they had a conscious existence was of course debated, even then, as no one could prove one way or the other. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Sheol

            Much has been researched, studied and debated about the translations of certain words, along with their meanings from original languages, (Greek, Hebrew) and what the English variations were. Of course meaning also got implied by later editors. As zero copies of any Biblical texts exist, we don’t know for certain what the original authors were actually saying, or intending to convey.

          • Dave

            Sheol is a temporary holding place until the resurrection. But I asked, why do you reject the notion of hell? What would be the point of Jesus coming to earth if not to provide Himself as a sacrifice for atonement for man’s sins?

          • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

            I reject it for the same reason many Christians reject it. It doesn’t represent the love of God. It doesn’t represent the purpose that Jesus came to earth for which was to show us in a very unique, very revolutionary way, practical and lasting ways to demonstrate the act of loving God and loving our neighbors, and then to do the ultimate act of love, by dying willingly for all humanity regardless of their faith, beliefs, connection to the divine..to give action to the words, there is no better love than to lay down one’s life for their friends. Yes, friends, you and I.

            yeah sin is part of it, but the cross was not to keep some from some horrible afterlife, but so that we no longer had to jump through the hoops of religious dogma and tenets to attempt to gain God’s favor or to absolve any wrongs we may have committed. Jesus’s last act as a human was to remove that barrier, that guilt, that endless loop of trying to be good enough for God.

            Hell is a man made ideal, a means to make ourselves the arbitrators of someone else’s guilt, or sins, to determine who we think deserves to suffer. To use it as the fear and pride based method to get people to “get yourself Christianed already” is extortion, not love.

          • Dave

            I can understand that. God is love, that is true, what about His holiness and justice? I agree with the hoop jumping and that is the beauty of the cross. It is a complete believe/trust in Jesus that saves us! He tore the veil and allowed us to be back in fellowship with God the Father. How do you reconcile Jesus’s statements such as “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, rather fear him who can destroy both the soul and body in hell”?

          • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

            I am dubious of the concept of an eternal soul, or if there is life after death period. It is really a non-issue for me personally. For that matter, I am not wanting this life to end, but neither do I find any idea coming to that point or of what may or may not happen afterwards fearful. I’m grateful for this life and all it has held…even the horrid parts. (well not so much, but they have proven to be sources where I’ve found courage and tenacity)

            I also am dubious that we were ever without access to a “fellowship” with God, its always been there, its always been accessible; its been us who have tended to balk at the idea, or to put caveats or boundaries on how to do so. That being said, I clearly do not buy into the concept that only the christian way is the accessible path to God…aka caveats and boundaries.

            My husband is aware of my beliefs. Even though he sees things differently, he can understand my reasoning. He’s still trying to get used to my idealistic optimism, that all people matter enough to be worthy of love and respect, that all people have goodness in them, that all people are adored by God so much that s/he wouldn’t dream of putting them into eternal torment. We see the divine through individual lenses, but then so do we all.

          • Dave

            I do appreciate your optimism,but with all things we should search the Scriptures to see if what we are thinking or saying is aligned with God’s truth, like the Bereans (Acts 17:11). The Bible states we are enemies of God before regeneration (Romans 5:10) that our hearts are wicked (Jeremiah 17:9) and we are all born sinners (Psalm 51:5, Romans 5:12, Romans 3:10). Jesus, Himself confirms this in two passages that come to mind, (Matthew 7:11, Mark 10:18). I fought this for awhile too believe me.

          • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

            Are you assuming that we haven’t? That we haven’t taken time to seriously consider the matter, ask questions of others, mediate on it, read everything we could on the topic? Just because a different conclusion is drawn, doesn’t mean that it is wrong. Its just different.
            Here’s something else. To many Christians,The Bible is not the only, exhaustive, exclusive source of anything God. Its a tool, a wonderful one offering a lot of insight into the good bad and ugly that is humanity, and humanity’s attempt to understand the divine. Its thousands of years old, written by people who were often decades or centuries or even supposed milliniea after the events they wrote about. They wrote in a time and a culture foreign to us, with a mindset about life, humanity, the planet we live on, and God that is foreign to us, with purposes that we can only guess at.

          • Dave

            Would you agree that either there is a hell or there isn’t? it can’t be both?

          • Dave

            and no I wasn’t suggesting that, i was pointing out that I am not merely following “religious dogma”

          • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

            Dave, I agree with Allegro about hell, and I addressed your question about Jesus and hell in an earlier post: http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/jesus-and-old-testament-imagery/.

            This post is followed by a second post that deals with Jesus’ specific passages including the one you mention.

          • Dave

            I am not suggesting an eternal torment either. God is just and righteous, He will judge and execute the judgement fairly. I believe, though I am still praying and reading over the Scriptures, that the second death (i.e. thrown into the lake of fire) is just that, a second death. The soul will be destroyed (Matthew 10:28)

            That does not mean there is not judgement or punishment. Hell does exist, it was built for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 20:10). I think the idea of God without judgement appeases many people, unfortunately it is a false Gospel.

          • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

            I grew up with that theology, and ended up rejecting it as well as more mainstream versions of hell. Why? Because of the assumption of what God’s judgement is…and in almost every single case its negative towards anyone who is not following the accepted theology of the group in question. Its used to control, to instill fear and obedience to religious dogma. Its used as coercion to propel people into a sense of saving their own skins, or as a mean of writing off people who aren’t willing or able to conform.

            The second death theory…killing people off twice? I’m not sure which is the more cruel, telling people you are going to burn forever, or telling people, well, you are going to die, only to put back into your old body then get offed again if you don’t do this and this and this. With this theory, at least in what I grew up with, the ones that got to by-pass this unfortunate version of reincarnation was a tiny minority of all humanity. Rather makes the human experiment a collosal failure, if that is the case.

            Thankfully, don’t buy any of it. I believe that these forms of judgement are completely earthbound in origin.

        • Sheila Warner

          There is no conversation with Lazarus after he comes out of the tomb. The story of the rich man is a parable. We don’t know. We can believe there will be a final reckoning, but the image of fire is based on the dump outside of the city, which burnt continuously. It was built on the site of a judgment by God against Israel, where bodies lay unburied. Check out the blog “Jesus Without Baggage” and peruse Tim’s take on hell. We take what the Bible says by faith, but we really don’t know until we are on the other side. Do you think the Lazarus in the parable is the same Lazarus who was raised from the dead? Just curious. If that is the case, that Jesus chose the name “Lazarus” in that parable, was he doing so because he knew what was going to happen? That would make a difference in my mind. I’ve never heard it taught that way. I know that some fundamentalists, including my childhood pastor, believe that the story is not a parable because Jesus inserted a name. I don’t accept that premise.

          • Dave

            I don’t think the Lazarus in the parable of the rich man is the same as the Lazarus, Jesus raised from the dead. The Bible does not say. Either way, Jesus spoke on multiple parables about tares being collected and burned, trees that don’t bear fruit being burned etc. I believe the Bible clearly teaches that there is a resurrection of the righteous and unrighteous, with the unrighteous being destroyed on the second death in the lake of fire. Jesus was clear on the afterlife, that there are consequences to our words, actions, and thoughts here on earth.

          • Sheila Warner

            I believe we will give an account of our actions here on Earth after we die, for sure. I’m trusting in Jesus to keep me from straying. But for those who reject hell, there is no threat in their own minds. For those who fear hell, it must be difficult to be married to one who doesn’t believe. There are some Christians who doubt there is an eternal hell, but only annihilation. Either way, it’s not pretty. But we accept these things on faith, having not seen. We don’t know for certain, but we can have beliefs. Does that make sense? I never walk around in complete certainty about anything, but I follow Jesus because of the eyewitness testimony of those who were with him. These men gave their lives as testimony. I don’t believe they made things up.

          • Dave

            You summed it up well, all we can do it trust in Jesus! It is hard to fear hell and have family/children who have not placed their full trust in Christ. I pray daily God will save them, but I understand there is also human responsibility. Yes those men surrendered it all and I believe and trust their words. Well said.

  • Charles

    Successful couples relationships are more about emotional intelligence, and the ability to connect and bond. It sounds like both partners here have that, and the difference in spirituality is just like any difference a couple has to negotiate. Their relationship sounds like its bathed in humor, mutual respect, consideration, mutual liking, etc. Of course they’re successful, if that’s the case.

  • Eve Fisher

    Sounds like a VERY good marriage to me.

  • Sheila Warner

    This is a wonderful letter. I am a former Protestant who converted to Catholicism nearly 10 years ago. My husband says he believes in God and the Bible, but he never goes to church. Not even at Christmas or Easter. He is honest about his desire to stay out of church. He was a faithful attender for some years, and was hurt badly by his experiences. It does not impact our marriage. I would never try to convert him or to pressure him in any way. His beliefs are his own, his conscience is between him and God. I can see how a marriage such as the one described in the letter can work.

    • Mark Fischer

      “…hurt badly by the experiences.” The church is excellent at hurting people. And I’m speaking as a pastor of that very creature.

  • BarbaraR

    I loved this. I would marry this guy just for his writing skills (but my husband – and this guy’s wife – might have an objection to this).

    My husband is agnostic. According to the churches I *used* to attend, I am supposed to convert him because otherwise he will go to hell, we are unequally yoked, and our marriage will fail.

    I’m pretty sure those churches wouldn’t approve of my evolved thoughts on hell and who’s going to wind up there (or not). Our yokes haven’t fit us for years so we threw them out. And we are still married.

    • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

      You threw out your yokes! Good for you! I’ll have to borrow that thought some day.

      • BarbaraR

        Well, we’ve both gained weight and you just can’t get yoke stretchers any more.

        • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

          You so funny!

      • Sheila Warner

        I suggested your blog to Dave.

        • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

          I see that. Thanks. If he comments there on specifics we can both interact with him further.


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