Maggie’s Story

Maggie’s Story September 20, 2013

woman-alone-at-lakeI’d like to tell you a story about a woman named Maggie. Maggie is a very warm-hearted, loving, self-giving woman who poured herself into her faith, her family, and her church for many years. Maggie’s marriage was the envy of her church friends because she and her husband Josh made an excellent team, and they often led by inspirational example. Her career as an addiction therapist didn’t make them rich by any stretch, nor did Josh’s part-time maintenance job. But they were happy, and they shared a common vision for their place in the world according to God’s plan, as best as they understood it. Together they had three beautiful children who were already well on their way to following in their parents’ spiritual footsteps.

But Maggie was also a curious woman. She always loved to ask “how” and “why” questions and no answer ever seemed completely off the table to her. Josh could only identify with this hunger for understanding up to a point, after which he always encouraged Maggie to trust that some things will simply be beyond our understanding and to trust that God is good and that he is ultimately in control. She wanted to accept these things, and she wanted to be as free from concern as Josh seemed to be, but she couldn’t override or suppress her own curiosity. About the time their youngest son reached school age, she began to rekindle her childhood interest in the sciences: biology, astronomy, physics, psychology and sociology. She dove into reading books and articles about the deluge of new discoveries which modern science has yielded, and she began to question some of the beliefs which she and Josh had always accepted and had already begun passing on to their children.

This presented a major problem in Maggie’s marriage. The deeper Maggie got into her quest for knowledge, the more uneasy Josh became. They had always believed that spiritual pursuits were more valuable than intellectual ones, but now Maggie was becoming more enamored with the latter than with the former. She began to lose interest in church activities, and the preacher’s sermons were beginning to upset her for reasons that she couldn’t always articulate. Josh offered to pray with her about her concerns but somehow this only made matters worse. What Maggie couldn’t articulate and Josh couldn’t conceive was that Maggie was beginning to lose her faith in God completely. So much of what she was taught to expect from him had turned out at last to be a pipe dream, and reading the Bible only made her doubts more severe. She tried to find people around her to sympathize with her questions but everyone she turned to seemed to see her situation as a problem to fix, as if the real problem were with her and not with the religion into which she had been indoctrinated. After months of searching, studying, thinking, and praying, Maggie finally realized that she no longer believed in supernatural things at all. She tried telling Josh this one night but the subject upset him so deeply that she decided she couldn’t talk to him about it anymore for fear that her marriage might not survive this revelation. She clammed up and determined to keep this development from him in hopes that some day in the future they would be able to revisit the subject and have a more calm, sympathetic discussion of her new-found skepticism.

But that day never came. Maggie retreated into a double life in which she went through the motions of her religious duties and traditions on the outside while secretly hating the whole enterprise and longing to be free of it. She found friends online with whom she could vent and discuss her questions, using them as both sounding boards and confidants in her quest for intellectual understanding and authenticity. Josh and Maggie continued to be intimate but for Maggie the deeper connection was beginning to fade. Fear for the future of their relationship hounded her because she knew that what Josh wanted most was a spiritual partner, and she knew that she would no longer be able to walk alongside him in that endeavor. She was headed in a very different direction from him and she knew it would only be a matter of time before the truth would come out: She had become an atheist. Even the word itself made her shudder because decades of indoctrination had taught her to despise the word and what it stood for. Nothing good can come of atheism—or so she had been taught. And while she had begun to question the validity of that notion, she knew good and well that her friends and family would never be able to accept her or trust her if she became one of those.

Finally, one day the truth did come out when Maggie let it slip out during a session with one of her clients. Her client wanted a list of Bible verses dealing with addiction and Maggie sarcastically laughed out loud, quickly covering her mouth with her hand, unable to hide the look of sudden alarm on her own face. When asked about her response, she admitted honestly that she didn’t think a list of Bible verses would really help with anything. Her client was horrified and after she left Maggie’s little office she began telling everyone that Maggie no longer believed in Jesus. It was true that she didn’t, but Maggie had no intention of publicizing that because where she lived you had to be a Christian to be trusted. Anyone who wasn’t one kept that to herself for fear of ostracism or even professional ruin. She hoped the rumor would die down quickly, but it didn’t. Before long she found herself in her supervisor’s office, answering prying questions about her personal beliefs. Technically speaking, this kind of interrogation was against the law, but then again all the law enforcers and judges in Maggie’s vicinity are devout Christians, and they’ve never felt that enforcing this particular rule matters as much as spreading their faith to their community in every way they can. God first; country second. So Maggie lost her job.

But that was only the beginning of Maggie’s troubles. Josh asked why she lost her job and Maggie decided to tell him everything. She admitted that she hadn’t had an active faith in God for at least a couple of years. He felt utterly betrayed and fearful for their children. What would they think if they learned their mother no longer believes in the God they were taught to follow? How would this impact their own spiritual lives? What would the church think about Josh? What will happen to his reputation as a leader of the church when they find out that he couldn’t even lead his own wife in to a deeper faith? He suddenly felt his spiritual aspirations hanging in the balance. It was time to see a marriage counselor. Maggie requested a secular therapist but Josh was unwilling to comply. He simply couldn’t entrust their marriage crisis into the hands of a godless counselor, so instead he arranged for a member of the church staff to advise them in their struggles. For a solid year, Josh and Maggie went through weekly therapy sessions in which the minister bombarded Maggie with biblical platitudes and principles for the strengthening of their marriage, but none of this was helpful to Maggie. Each concept the minister threw her way struck her differently from how he intended it. And after a year of enduring this weekly ritual, Maggie finally asked for a break from counseling. She asked one more time if they could change therapists, but Josh was unyielding on this matter.

What she didn’t know at the time was that their therapist was so gravely concerned for the future of Josh and Maggie’s family that he had begun to suggest separation or even divorce as a means of scaring Maggie back into the faith. Maybe if she were “let go” to be on her own for a while, away from her family, she would wake up and realize that her intellectual preoccupations were a hazard to her soul. Josh at last decided to tell Maggie to move out of the house. Because his schedule was part-time and more flexible, he would keep the children and Maggie could continue to help support him and them as well as covering her own separate living expenses through her new counseling job she had acquired at a local hospital. Maggie was devastated, and at first she had nowhere to go. It was true that she made the bulk of the family’s income, but it was barely enough to make ends meet as it already was. Living separately would make that much harder to do. She moved around for a few weeks, staying with relatives and friends, and even staying for a while in a cheap motel on the other side of town. Finally she found a room to rent which she could afford while still supporting Josh and the children. In time she learned to live on very little sleep and very little food, and she lost ten pounds in the first two months.

The next few months of Maggie life were dark and traumatic. Every day she would work all day, adding second and third jobs to her schedule in order to cover the two separate sets of living expenses. Most of her friends either interrogated her about her loss of faith and her broken marriage or else they quit talking to her altogether. Her family members began tag-team lecturing her about where her life was headed if she didn’t wake up and come to her senses and regain her faith in God. Some threatened her with Hell and guilted her about everything she had ever done wrong (no one can do that better than family, for they know all your worst flaws). They began to exclude her from their conversations and their get-togethers for the simple reason that church was their life and clearly Maggie wasn’t a helpful presence in that world.

In time, Josh eventually presented Maggie with an ultimatum: Either put aside this atheism business or have the guts to say she wanted out of her marriage. Maggie didn’t want to break up her family, but Josh would no longer entertain any more options. Repent or divorce. But Maggie couldn’t pretend to believe; it would be a lie. She told him the truth. She couldn’t return to the faith she had left. It just wasn’t in her anymore. So they decided to divorce. In the process of the settlement, Maggie asked if Josh could take up a bit more of the financial slack so that she could have more time with the children. While Josh acknowledged that children need their mother as much as their father, friends and family warned that Maggie really was a dangerous influence on the impressionable young children, so perhaps it was a good thing that she was so tied up with the work demands. Josh applied for a full-time job anyway but didn’t pursue any other prospects because he was still ambivalent towards the whole decision. In the end, he prayed and asked God to either provide this one dream job for him or else he would take a “closed door” as a sign that God didn’t want him to have a full-time job anyway. He didn’t get the job, so Maggie was left giving up most of her income for the foreseeable future.

When Maggie’s story is told now, it often serves as a cautionary tale to the wayward and overly intellectual, warning them to never let their philosophical or scientific questions get the best of them, taking them away from their faith. “Such a shame what happened to Maggie,” they often say. “The Enemy is a clever one. He turned her away from her God and her family and ruined her life. Such a tragic story. She was once such an inspirational leader! Let that be a lesson to you. All of you.”

Today Maggie is working to pick up the pieces of her life, making ends meet as much as she can, and seeing her children as often as she can in the midst of her demanding work schedule. She has found new friends, mostly online, and she is doing the best she can to make the most of what she has. Her outlook is positive, because her passion for living is strong. Armed with the knowledge that this one life is the only one she has to live, she stubbornly refuses to let the misfortunes of the preceding years keep her from pursuing the best life she can make for herself now. She’s grown much stronger from these experiences, and she’s done her best to avoid becoming bitter. She knows her loved ones are doing what they are doing because they honestly believe it’s what their Creator wants them to do. But her willingness to accommodate their faith isn’t what it once was. Over time, she is learning to address the issues she sees head-on, calling them as she sees them. She is developing a backbone, and very soon she may begin to speak out about what she sees as the potential harm that comes from religious dogma.


Do you have any idea how many Maggies I have met in the last three years? I seriously have lost count. Her story is the story of thousands of people around the USA (with minor changes here and there). The details vary, but the underlying themes recur again and again. I have so much to say about what went wrong in Maggie’s life, and what role religion played in the unfolding of events in her story. But I’ll save that for my next post entitled “Your Religion May Be Harmful If…”

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  • Brian

    Another fine post, I really enjoy your writing Neil. It’s a shame that people like Maggie, who find reason and science more compelling than mythology, are ostracized by people who are supposed to love them unconditionally.

  • Beautifully written. My heart goes out to Maggie.

  • Tony

    Hard, hard, hard to read. But necessary.

  • Holy crap. What happened to the live-by-the-feud South I grew up in? You’d fight like hell with family and friends, but if some outsider said you’d be better off ditching, that outsider would be lucky not to get his ass kicked. That was about the only part of my Southern heritage I still felt a little bit of pride in. Is it just a bunch of mega-church zombies and whining tea-baggers now?

  • Preston Jackson Jr.

    Every “out of the closet” Atheist in Mississippi is a “Maggie” to a certain degree especially if they were raised in a Christian home and their family and friends remain Christian. Great article.

  • Donald Butts

    Excellent post. All of us who “become” atheists after years of thinking, reading, and questioning our religion would have similar stories. Well written.

  • Largely, yes. This is not the first time I’ve heard of a Christian spouse told by a pastor to ditch a non-believing spouse in total contradiction of Jesus’ command that believers stay with unbelieving spouses in the absence of adultery. Not even by a longshot is it not the first time. Maggie’s story happens constantly.

  • I was a Maggie too in a lot of ways. I’m glad she found peace, and didn’t let the cruel actions of her family and church break her will. She is stronger than that. She will abide.

  • Thinker1121

    I wonder if marriage problems like this one that result from a “conversion” experience on the part of one spouse come primarily from couples who marry young. Personally, I have the following hypothesis: with the exception of the actively rebellious ones, most children accept the values and beliefs of their parents without question. It is only when they enter adulthood and move outside of their home environment and learn about new ideas without the parental lens of interpretation do they discover what values they hold themselves. Thus, a person who is raised as a Christian who doesn’t really believe won’t discover this about themselves until potentially their early to mid 20s, perhaps later. If, however, they marry at 22, they won’t yet have made their self discovery and thus will likely have married a Christian. I don’t have data to back it up, but I would guess that adults who have marriage problems because one spouse had an adult conversion probably marry, on average, at a younger age. The adult conversion is really just an adult discovering that the values he holds is different than how he was raised. But until something is there to prompt it, there’s no way to know in advance whether a 20 year old who holds his parents’ values is really committed to those values or only holds them because he is unaware of alternatives.

    In my experience, I’ve seen it go both ways. In particular, I have a friend who’s entire extended family is Christian, but his parents are atheists. My friend was an atheist until his mid 20s, then he became a Christian. I think he was genetically predisposed to be religious since most of his family was Christian, but he didn’t realize he was a believer until he left home. (As an aside, there is a actual evidence showing that your political and religious values are just as heritable as things like eye color. So much for free will…but that’s a discussion for another day.)

  • Tim Wolf

    A very moving and well-written story. What really struck me is the cult aspect of the story. It seems like a story that would be associated with a group like the Branch Davidians or People’s Temple. But then it becomes clear that “regular” Christian churches are not so different. Reason is rejected and lives shattered in order to keep people “in the fold.”

  • That’s just it, isn’t it? I’ll write more about this tomorrow, but Maggie’s kind of church would be routinely horrified by stories of cults and their controlling behavior. What they cannot see, however, is that their brand of control is more subtle an sophisticated, yet just as harmful as the kinds they condemn. They truly cannot see it.

  • bonnie

    My husband and I married young (19 & 24). We left the religion of our youth three years later. He had a lot of questions and we argued a lot about it at first. I didn’t want to have those talks, it was very painful and a lot of them ended in ‘well that’s why we have faith!’. At the same time, the more we talked, the more I saw how illogical it all was. So we at least, fall into your hypothesis. We married before we really decided what we believed for ourselves, outside of our parents. Most Christians I know marry young. It’s the whole no sex thing combined with the importance the faith puts on starting a family asap.

    We were VERY fortunate in that we discussed our doubts and traveled the path to atheism together. I could not imagine functioning and raising children with someone who was a devout Christian and my heart goes out to those people.

  • bonnie

    I lost my job when I became a public atheist. I worked for a religious university though.

  • bonnie

    Oh! And I learned in my college genetics class that scientist have actually identified a gene for being ‘religious’. It’s interesting because my mother’s family is not religious and my father’s is to the extreme. Of my parents’ children 3 out of 6 are still active in church we were brainwashed into. I think the ‘need’ for supernatural is just not there for some genetically.

  • JakeR

    Despite being a western atheist, I have always financially supported my first wife, my second wife, and wife #1’s children. Wife #2 (also an atheist) and I offered the children a full ride to college; sadly only the younger took us up on it.

    This sorry excuse for a husband is violating the manly code I and presumably he was raised in as a Southerner. Time for mom to move back into her home with the kids and continue to work a single job, and for dad to support his family with a full-time job and a part-time job or two while living in a rented room.

  • bonnie

    Seriously! Manliness used to mean providing for your wife and children. Putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads used to mean something. Thanks for being that kind of guy. We need more.

  • Tim Wolf

    With the two churches I mentioned, the danger was so apparent that for right or wrong; outside forces stepped in to stop the abuse. I can see how this can make a “mainstream” church even more dangerous. There is no one to step in and help the abused.

  • Thinker1121

    “I could not imagine functioning and raising children with someone who was a devout Christian and my heart goes out to those people.”

    I think most people probably agree with your sentiment here (including me!) and I think this is one of the biggest problems our society faces. We have to find a way to bridge the divide between believer and unbeliever that you express in this statement. The fact that Josh had to divorce Maggie because she became an atheist is totally absurd. Similarly, I don’t see what’s wrong with marrying someone with a different worldview. I think that refusing to marry someone because they don’t share your religion or politics should be viewed the same way as refusing to marry someone of a different race. Sure, it’s ok if that’s your thing, but doesn’t it say something bad about us as a society if that’s the way most people think?

  • The book which the therapist recommended to Josh didn’t require adultery as a part of the mix. Its thesis was that apostasy was just as lethal to the family bond, so that was the focus of the book.

  • Thats why they call Christianity the religion of love and compassion.

    Its a horrible story and why I am so happy I can live an out life with none of this stuff affecting me. Perks of been a scientist I suppose.

  • Oh, my heart goes out to Maggie… to be told that one’s deconversion was just as bad as adultery… that is just heartbreaking and infuriating to me as an ex-Christian who was married at the time of her own deconversion. Many ex-Christians hear something like that–like their believing spouses would rather the new ex-Christian be an alcoholic, or beat them, or something horrible, rather than simply not believe in the illusion anymore. Like if you at least still were marching in the parade, the other person could at least work with that if you suddenly turn around and beat up the people around you, but if you up and leave the parade entirely, everybody else looks silly. I wonder if that cruel book is part of the cause of that absolutely abhorrent idea that simple disbelief is somehow the worst thing that could happen to a couple–I never got that talk; a lot of things changed between my deconversion and the modern fundagelical age. Talk about a manufactured need, huh? If it weren’t for evangelicals telling people toxic abusive things like that, nobody’d think it. It’s the ultimate thought policing–nothing you *do* matters, only what you *think*–and the facade of the Happy Christian Family, of course. My preacher ex-husband was more upset about his standing as a minister and “what it’d look like” than anything else, I think. Ugh! Infuriating.

    Sweet strong Maggie. You write about her story so beautifully and in such spare details make her spring to life. I’m glad she’s doing all right now. It’s a testament to the human spirit that, despite everything evil and cruel thing that fearful and hateful people do to try to bury us, we somehow grow wings and fly out of the muck and rebuild our lives.

  • mikespeir

    I was wondering why Maggie was the one who had to move out and leave the kids. That’s not the way it usually works. But, actually, I suspect this story is a kind of composite of many people’s stories.

  • Gra*ma Banana

    Sometimes I think of Christianity as a cult. And it might be so labeled if people really took a look at it’s structure. Maggie’s story certainly illustrates many cult like scenarios. But living in MS has taught me to keep my mouth shut about my non-beliefs. I had a neighbor visit a few years back to interrogate me about what I truly believe, in my own home. I never revealed my agnosticism to her but she hasn’t been quite as neighborly as before that day so I assume she didn’t like my answer. It IS NOT fun to have to avoid these religious pitfalls where I live 24/7/365.

  • Mike, believe it or not, this story is mostly one person’s story. I left out a few details of her story to keep it from being any longer than it already is, but this all happened to one person.

    I am curious, however, if each of you would have responded differently to this scenario if it had been Josh, instead of Maggie, who lost his faith and was kicked out of his own home? Would you judge this situation differently in that case? Would it have been as much of a travesty of justice if the genders had been reversed?

  • mikespeir

    I would have seen it as a travesty of justice, for sure, but I don’t deny that I do more feel the sting of a woman having been separated from her children than a man from his. I’m not going to apologize for that, either. I’m much, much more the feminist than I used to be, but, no, I don’t think I could ever see men and women as just the same except for the “trivial” matter of “cosmetics.”

  • It’s a problem if the folks involved make it a problem. I know many inter-religion couples who do just fine. They don’t make a lot of noise, so we don’t hear about them. For some people, being very religious would be a sticking point; for others, it isn’t at all. I’d have trouble marrying a very religious person depending on the religion and how seriously the other person took the penalties for disbelief.

  • Doesn’t seem to me that you’d have to think men and women are “just the same except for…cosmetics” in order to feel just as much for Josh if it had been him. But I can’t say that I’m surprised to hear that a man in this situation would receive less sympathy.

  • mikespeir

    Usually, a woman has more invested in her children than a man does.

  • bonnie

    Like Cassidy said it depends how devout/extreme the religious person in question is. I would not be okay with my children being taught that there is a Hell, that evolution/dinosaurs do not exist, sexual urges are evil, they are evil etc. etc. There are enough conflicts when deciding how to teach/discipline your children without throwing these major fundamental differences into the mix. I suppose if you openly go into a marriage as atheist/christian and have decided ahead of time how you will raise your children, if you want children, it might work. As far as hypothetically marrying a devout Christian …. I personally would have a hard time being attracted to and wanting to make life decisions with someone I basically felt was in denial/brainwashed/addicted.

    In the story, the issue for me isn’t that their marriage ended because of their differing religious beliefs. The issue is that Josh divorced Maggie in spite of the children they were raising and their precarious financial situation. Then to make matters worse, he refused to step up to the plate, get a job and allow Maggie fair time with the kids. All the while vilifying her and using religion to justify his actions. So yea the problem I have with this story isn’t so much the divorce over irreconcilable differences but the way the people in this story used religion to justify selfish bullying actions.

    The reason my heart goes out to those new found atheist’s still in marriages with Christians is because I’ve known many of them and their stories are often like Maggie’s.

  • bonnie

    I thought the same thing when I read this. I wondered perhaps if Godless in Dixie had switched the genders to make us more sympathetic. I actually have seen this story played out with the male being the one who left the faith and was cosequently demonized and divorced. If the roles were reversed and a devoted father was denied access to his children I would be just as outraged. As far as him moving out and working multiple jobs so the mother could continue to stay at home with the kids…. it just depends on so many factors, mostly what is best for the kids.

  • Lee

    I’m currently figuring out how to avoid Maggie’s plight. Ten year struggle with the faith, recent limited profession of deconversion, most of family including wife are believers, etc., but…

    I have taken a little different approach (not consciously) with my family. I think too often we lose sight of an ultimate goal as non-believers. My ultimate goal is to pass on to my kids the gift of critical thought, a skeptic mind, and the humanistic traits shared by humanism and certain religions. These qualities have served the human race well and will continue to provide the things that truly make a difference in this world. My goal is to provide them with a critical thinking tool kit protected by a sturdy skeptic tool box which they can use to size up any claim presented to them along their life path. Now, believer or non-believer, if you argue with teaching critical thinking skills to our children, then I’m afraid there’s no hope for you in the furthering of humanity. If you agree that these skills are critical in a child’s development, then we have a key piece of common ground…not often found between these two positions. Ah, common ground…yes, I can work with this. And so I have, my wife and I agree that these traits are of utmost importance in our children’s intellectual development and will serve them well into adulthood. This agreement has created a stronghold for my position in the family as she values these qualities and knows I will be the best suited at passing these traits along to the kids.

    Now, to tackle the difference in our beliefs. Why? Do they need tackling? Another trait my wife and I agree on is tolerance and genuine care for our fellow humans. If two adults can’t agree to disagree on the subject of God in an effort to sustain an otherwise happy marriage and more importantly parenting team, SHAME on them. Consider what you’re teaching your kids through this selfish and petty defense. Though, we’re not quite there yet (still trying to figure out appropriate communication and timing), my wife and I intend to be honest with our kids about our differences in religious beliefs and teach them that the world has thousands of different faith based belief systems, all with as much support as the other. Why wouldn’t we? Why lie to your children about something that will be so painfully obvious as they age.

    Critical thinking, a skeptic mind, and tolerance for fellow humans are critical traits worth passing along to your children, but guess what…these are “dangerous” to most faith based religions. I’ve communicated to my wife a refusal to “indoctrinate” our kids into any belief system, instead, we explain, expose, and entertain whatever they’re curious about to the best of our ability (aided by unlimited resources at our fingertips) and then let them use those wonderful thinking skills mentioned above to make their own decision. I’ve committed to be accepting if they choose belief over non-belief just as she’s done the opposite. Parents should arm their children with these skills and let their untainted brains figure it out. Let the goal be oriented towards TEACHING your kids how to be good thinkers as opposed to selfishly protecting your dogmas or faith and watch what happens. What better legacy to leave behind than children that have a thirst for truth, wherever that may lead them?

  • From what denominational background is your wife? There are some Christian traditions (like Josh and Maggie’s) which view the word “tolerance” negatively. Compromise is frowned upon. Southern Baptists, for example, are not high on “tolerance,” which is ironic, considering how it was the Baptists who pioneered religious tolerance in our country’s earliest days.

  • That is, of course, a sweeping generalization.

  • It’s a generalization, yes. It’s one that bears out in my experience as I said, “usually.”

  • Lee

    Yea, pretty easy guess. We were both raised Southern Baptist.

  • Just wanted to drop in and remind everyone that while there ARE Christians out there who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge any goodness in any other faith (or lack thereof), there are plenty of those who do recognize goodness in others, no matter how they view the “supernatural” or whether they believe in a particular deity or not. The “goodness market” is not owned solely by people of faith (as we know), but by those who do good and desire to see good done in the world. We are all humans with our own strengths, weaknesses, talents and foibles. Whether one believes in a particular god out of the thousands contrived throughout history means nothing, it is whether the person actively pursues good actions that determines whether that person is “good”.

    My wife is a Christian, but also allows for each person to find whatever path suits the individual person best to pursue ‘goodness’. I consider her faith to have a net-positive effect on her (although I really have nothing else to compare it to, since she’s never been non-religious). While she maintains belief in things that non-theists generally don’t accept, she doesn’t try to force her beliefs onto others or look down on anyone for holding different beliefs. While we may see things differently on matters of science, the supernatural, etc, we both realize that good is best promoted by actually DOING good, not just claiming dogmatic rights to the truth and expecting those beliefs to make us a good person all by themself.

  • Thinker1121

    I’ve never been a big fan of the term “tolerance” myself. Tolerance is almost always used conversationally in a negative connotation, as in, “His sister-in-law really annoys him, but he tolerates her for the sake of keeping peace within the family.” “Tolerate” seems to equate to “put up with.” Maybe tolerance is all we can expect among people with religious differences, but it seems so…shallow. What’s better? For a person to “tolerate” his sister-in-law, or for him to move beyond his annoyance and learn to genuinely love her and understand her for who she is?

    Whenever I hear that tolerance is a virtue, it always makes me laugh. I picture a group of people in a social setting who all hate each other and are interacting and pretending to be nice and “tolerating” each other, while an outside observer looks on and says, “Now this is how an evolved society lives in peace!”

  • bonnie

    It’s so interesting to hear from people who are making an inter-faith relationship work. You’re wife sounds like a wonderful genuine person.

  • Lee

    What is the alternative? As you say, “move beyond his annoyance and learn to genuinely love her and understand her for who she is”. Is that virtuous?

    That seems to be a slippery slope. Where do we draw the line? Should I be expected to move beyond a difference of opinion on something like racial or gender equality and love those individuals for what they are or even tolerate their opinion? Love and understanding require many prerequisites that are necessary to protect one’s own well being. We’re not supposed to go around giving out our “genuine” love to just anybody…love like trust must be earned. Now, I can “tolerate” much easier than I can “genuinely love” and so long as that tolerance is not discordant with my humanistic obligations (does not cause harm to others, etc.) then I believe it should be granted where reasonable.

    And yes, that is exactly how evolved societies exist in peace.

  • Lee

    Clearly there are exceptions Matt, your wife (and thankfully mine) are great examples of how believers “should” behave. However, my post was in context of the blog. Generally, fundamentalists like Maggie’s husband are largely intolerant of anyone that holds beliefs in contradiction to theirs, regardless of what they claim. My post may have been too generalizing. But, “generally”, with respect to the more conservative or fundamental believers this lack of tolerance is indoctrinated at a very young age, perpetuated into adulthood and in my opinion creates great hurdles towards that individual becoming the best member of society they can be.

  • Thinker1121

    “That seems to be a slippery slope. Where do we draw the line?” That’s the whole point. There shouldn’t be a line.

    Yes, you should be expected to move beyond a difference on racial or gender equality. You shouldn’t ignore your morality that focuses on those issues important to you by any means, but you should be expected to recognize that people who oppose you are not immoral or evil. They are focused on different moral concerns – moral concerns that you probably share too – but moral concerns that are hard to grasp if your default position is to see their positions as evil. I think this is the fundamental problem with morality in general. Once you see racial and gender equality (or anything else) as a moral issue, it’s hard to see anyone who opposes you as anything other than immoral. But they’re not immoral. If you see someone who opposes your moral concerns as immoral, then you are a fundamentalist. The moral concern in question is irrelevant. And we have to get past fundamentalism of every stripe.

    For example, one reason people oppose gender equality is because they view the basic unit of society as the family, not the individual. Families provide love and support to individuals and are intensely interdependent. Parents have a duty to care for their children, and children have a duty to obey their parents’ instructions. This is done to benefit the family as a whole and make sure it functions well. From this point of view, gender equality is seen as a threat because it teaches women (and men) that they are not obligated to (among other things) start their own families and that they should have complete personal autonomy independent of any family if that is what they wish. If your highest moral concern is promoting families, the creation of families, and the preservations of families, gender equality just isn’t going to be very important to you. On the other hand, if your highest moral concern is promoting individual rights and social justice, then preserving family structures, particularly traditional family structures, just isn’t going to be very important to you. But BOTH sets of concerns ARE important. We don’t have to abandon our own moral concerns. We just have to recognize that the people who oppose us have moral concerns of their own, and that they are probably right about their concerns, and that we probably would share their concerns if they articulated them better or if our goal was to really listen to what they were saying.

    People concerned about gender equality have problems accepting that there are biological differences between genders. We have empirical evidence that shows that women are better caretakers of children. People who’s highest moral concern is gender equality, however, have trouble accepting this fact. Similarly, people concerned about preserving the authority and structures of families have trouble accepting the fact that sometimes this leads to oppression of women, particularly if the men are corrupt and abusive. Personal autonomy concerns are vitally important, but you have a harder time seeing it if preserving families is your highest moral concern.

    My original point was that “tolerance” implies not trying to understand other people’s moral concerns. It’s the lazy man’s way to get to a false sense of peace. Rather than realizing that other people have valid moral concerns too and doing the hard work of taking off our own “moral glasses,” we just decide that they are immoral or stupid or brainwashed or whatever and “tolerate” them.

    But think about this. If you just tolerate people who disagree with you (but deep down you think that there’s something wrong with them), then you won’t want your children to be influenced by their ideas, or want your children to marry them, socialize with them, etc… You’ll want your world to be as segregated from theirs as possible. That’s not a peaceful brotherhood of man.

  • bonnie

    I have to say I’m with Lee here. Tolerance is a good thing. Their will always be people I strongly disagree with and think have a few screws loose and yes I will keep my children segregated from them and their harmful ideas as much as I can. But because I believe in tolerance I will behave like a civilized human being and grant them the same rights and freedoms my own family enjoys. Tolerance is a wonderful principle and the idea that because it equates a lack of “love” it is wrong is just illogical. Like Lee said who we grant our respect, love, and trust to is valuable not just a free commodity that should be given because you’re a living breathing human.

    Maybe thinker is advocating better understanding of the opposition with the idea that you will magically feel warm and fuzzies for them if you get where they’re coming from. This is sometimes the case but not always and even when understanding brings empathy it’s often that this is still a person who I don’t respect love our trust. So tolerance is still key.

  • EarBucket

    That’s horrifying, and directly contradicts Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:

    “To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you.”

  • Pofarmer

    Do you or will you have kids? That is where the real stumbling blocks are. My wife has gotten more religious as shes aged, and not in a good way.

  • Kenn

    I am greatful my wife was always agnostic and unsure. I has made the journey to being an atheist much easier with her. My heart goes out to others that have a much rougher road than I did. If needed, I hope I am in a position to offer support to someone searching the truth one day.

  • Adam

    My wife and I get into fights constantly about having children and how we would raise them in relation to religion. My wife is very much like Matt’s wife above. She is tolerant of others beliefs, and doesn’t try to force her beliefs onto others, but she was raised Christian and its very difficult for her to think outside of that world view. I am on the other hand an atheist. I was not born into any religion and have never had a belief in the super natural. I have gone to church with my wife, and even tried to just go along with things, but every fiber of my being screams out when I just go along and try not to think about the supernatural gibberish being presented by the pastor. Even though I think the pastor is trying to make valid points on some things, the constant throwback to Jesus and God on everything is to much. I am very concerned that when we have kids, she is going to want to take them to church often and I am of the belief that kids shouldn’t go to church until they have a mind that can process what is being told to them. Have any of you had any experience in how you handled this divide. I love my wife and I don’t want this to become a canyon in our marriage. I want my kids to understand that religion exists and how it functions in our civilization, but I don’t want them to be indoctrinated into one before they are capable or making that choice on their own. If later in their lives they decide to take up a religion, it will at least have been their choice and not one they were forced into by their parents.

  • I don’t have any suggestions beyond checking out secular parenting support groups–but let me please say that your position sounds very difficult and I truly hope you and your wife find some way to resolve this dispute before things get out of hand. Your children are very fortunate to have parents who both care about them so much they are willing to fight to do right by them. Best wishes–