Holidays can be hard for atheists, particularly if they were once religious themselves. Once you were an insider, comfortable and at home in the rituals and traditions of your family’s faith, but now you no longer identify with those symbols so you’re more like a foreigner looking in from the outside. What’s more, around the holidays the culture wars have come to dramatize and sensationalize the animosity between faith and skepticism, turning our ideological differences into fodder for partisan media. Every year they happily drive a wedge between the many faith (and non-faith) communities in our culture because it makes for good television. The angrier they make everyone, the better it is for their ratings. This game can really take its toll on former believers like myself.
This holiday season in particular has been an emotional one for me because I’ve been on the receiving end of a fresh wave of shunning from some people who were formerly like family to me. For at least a couple of years, I was warmly received by the family of the woman I am dating, but a few months ago they discovered my blog and since then I’ve become a persona non grata to them. I once enjoyed Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at their home, but now I’m not even allowed to set foot on their property. Since the two of us are kind of a package deal, that means they didn’t even get to see their own daughter or grandson on either holiday this year. I suppose Jesus was right after all when he said:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.
Things are hard enough for a couple experiencing this kind of disapproval from extended family when both partners are on the same page. Now imagine what it would be like if one partner were a Christian and the other were not? In that circumstance, you’ve got a recipe for significant stress on the relationship.
Sometimes Support Networks Aren’t So Supportive
I’ve written before how much it means to me that Dale McGowan spent four years researching and writing about how couples in “mixed faith” marriages can make their relationships work. In Faith and In Doubt released in August of last year, and hardly a week goes by that I don’t recommend that book to someone who has written me for advice about how to navigate the differences between partners who don’t share the same religious commitments. The book is full of so much helpful discussion that I plan on writing a good deal more about it just as soon as I can make the time to do it.
Early in the book, Dale hints at one of the greatest sources of conflict those couples face as a result of their religious differences: The disapproval of the religious community. While In Faith and In Doubt aims to equip interfaith couples with the resources they need to successfully reach compromises and strengthen their relationship, Dale notes that much of the literature on the subject seems to go the opposite direction. Books by many religious groups tend to paint a more grim picture of the couple’s future, indicating that something bad will happen as a result of any compromises on matters of faith. One such book warns that:
[Interfaith marriages] tend to diminish the strength of religious communities, as the devout are pulled away from the bonds of tradition and orthodoxy by their nonmember spouses. (p.6)
And that right there is the biggest problem for them. In those traditions wherein the religious commitments are seen as more important than the health of the relationships affected by these loyalties, the religion trumps the marriage every time. As Dale goes on to say:
Much of the interfaith literature [remains] concerned not about individuals and their marriages, but about the effect interfaith marriage has on religious institutions.
Often those communities don’t realize this is what they’re doing. They believe that maintaining the priority of the religious commitments will strengthen the marriages instead of harm them, but too often the pressures they place on the couples make things worse, not better.
One of the friends who wrote me seeking advice about his mixed faith marriage noticed that he and his wife always seemed to work through their differences best when they had time to talk together without frequent insertions of disapproval from her religious community. They would be getting along well for a while, but then she would go away to a women’s retreat with her church group and come back all upset again. He wrote me:
She reacted very harshly in the beginning, but has cooled off considerably… Normally she does well and we even joke about it, but….dumb ladies from church say some stupid sh** and screw it up again. “You’re SO strong, [name withheld]! If my husband did that I don’t think I could stay with him.” It is catastrophic language to say to my wife.
Some people aren’t greatly affected by the opinions of their extended families and religious communities. But for the ones who are, this kind of pressure can be devastating to the relationship. As long as the couple talk openly and honestly with each other, allowing themselves to be vulnerable with their significant other, real connection can be maintained. But it greatly hinders the bonding process for well-meaning friends and family to keep insisting that something bad is going to happen to them if the devout partner accepts the unbelieving one without reservation or condition. “He’ll just drag you down,” they’ll say. They have no idea that when they say things like this they’re making things worse between them, not better.
My hunch is that if couples in mixed faith relationships would trust their own relational instincts a little more, they could work through their differences with fewer hiccups and threats to their unity. Speaking personally, I felt as if there were times that my then-wife and I were making some progress toward reconnecting after we found ourselves on opposite sides of this divide, but somehow something would always come along to cast a shadow of doubt on those instincts. I have a strong suspicion that the doubts came in from the outside, from well-meaning people who thought they were helping us by standing firm over doctrinal matters instead of trusting us to follow our own hearts. I suppose that was consistent with their theology, which teaches that we humans are too fallen to determine for ourselves what we really need, so we don’t need to trust our instincts. We should instead trust the advice of those religious authorities and spiritual mentors who are there to guide us. Obviously I see things differently, but then again, why would they listen to me? I’m just a godless heathen. What do I know?
I’ll tell you this, though: Evangelicalism has a major problem in the area of acceptance and inclusivity, even withholding relationships as a means of trying to coerce people into compliance with their sacred beliefs. I know I’m not alone in this diagnosis because Benjamin Corey over at Formerly Fundie has noted the same thing. In a recent post that’s been shared and reshared more than 20,000 times, Corey says:
Today’s Evangelicalism does this to folks who think outside Evangelical lines– it strips them of relationships, cuts them off, and severs ties. I can’t count the number of emails I get with folks sharing their stories in this regard– it is sadly all too commonplace. Relationships should never be theological tools that are withed to gain theological conformity– and this is the top reason why I’ll never return even if I still share some of their theological beliefs. Stripping people of relationships is abusive, and I’m not interested in being part of any movement that does this.
He’s right, and clearly a lot of people have noticed the same thing. Far too often, tribe even trumps family for evangelicals. Maybe Jesus would be proud. I dunno. Either way, I’m not interested in what they’re selling.