I’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…”