I saw of your recent conversations with the man who s girlfriend was a Christian and he believed he was an agnostic. It got me thinking. I have a somewhat similar situation. At least from the relational perspective.
My wife and I were married last year. We are very much in love and I cannot imagine my live without her. When we met one of the first things I did was tell her that I wasn’t a Christian. During that time I wasn’t sure what I was. I had been raised in a Catholic family. It was fairly conservative as Catholics go but I had a pretty good education at a Catholic high school an some of the more archaic believes were no longer being taught. They were hard-line on things like abortion, euthanasia, no women priests, etc but also taught that while they believed the bible contained inherent truth that many of the stories in the Old Testament were not meant to be taken literally. I appreciated this very much. I did believe in God and in Catholic teachings and this willingness to acknowledge that some of the old miracle stories were not literal made a lot of sense to me.
During my time in college I continued to attend church every Sunday but this was an extremely progressive Catholic church. They encouraged me to think outside the box and be accepting of other religions and faiths. These new teachings coupled with my philosophy courses pushed me toward agnostism. I realized that his existence wasn’t scientifically justifiable so all I had was faith and quite frankly that just wasn’t enough for me.
Since that time I’ve found that I am very happy with my life and do not feel like I’m missing anything by not believing in God. But back to reason I’m writing you. Like I said, I told my soon to be wife when we met that I wasn’t Christian/Catholic. I felt it was important to reveal that to her right away because I knew she came from a Catholic family like mine. Well we jumped in with both feet and are happily married. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about how our differences will affect us later. She says that she does believe in God and the Christian belief that Jesus is the son of God. But she is also fairly progressive. She doesn’t believe that Catholics are 100% right and all the (insert your religion of choice) are wrong. In fact the only groups that do bug her are the extremists from any religion who shout that they re right and everyone else will burn or suffer or whatever because they don’t believe in the right god.
She s never said she wanted to convert me back to being Catholic or forced me to attend church with her. She asks me to go with her and most of the time I do because it doesn’t really bother me and I know she appreciates having me there with her. And probably in her heart she wishes I did believe. But (and here’s the part that gives me pause) we don’t talk about it. I will occasionally broach the subject. Just trying to see why she believes or whatever. I try to be delicate with it. I don’t want to strip her of something that does make her feel good inside or give her life direction. But I guess part of me expects that if she tried to vocalize why she believed it more often then it would cause her to think about it and maybe start asking herself those questions. But she usually avoids the subject. She doesn’t like to bring it up or talk about it because I think it makes her uncomfortable and she doesn’t like to make waves.
What bothers me is that one day we may have children. If we choose to have children then we’ll reach a point where we HAVE to talk about it. The question will come up about where to send them to school? Do they attend just Catholic church, do we expose them to multiple faiths, or expose them to none? I personally want my children to be free to decide for themselves. But of course children at a very young age don’t have the cognitive skill to make those choices. I’m afraid that sending them to a Catholic school will imprint on them while they are impressionable and that will be that. Could I undermine what they learn in school? Of course I could but that would probably just confuse them more and make my wife unhappy.
I could go ON AND ON about how having children will complicate things but the root of all of it right now is that we don’t talk about or differences. I don’t know if I’m seeking your advice or just venting. But it does worry me. Because I do love her so much I don’t want this to become a problem. I know every marriage has problems of varying degrees but as always, issues of religion tend to have their own especially high level of complexity. It’s not a regular argument over where to live or what car to buy. It’s an issue that’s deeply tied to who people are and they will fight to protect and may be deeply hurt of you take it from them.
I’ll stop now because I could go on and on but I think I’ve said all that needs to be said for you to get my drift. Lastly I want to thank you for putting together your website. I do appreciate that you always give respect where it deserved and that you can carry on civil debate and conversations with theists and atheists alike.
I am flattered that you chose to write to me about this very personal subject, and I will offer what advice and support I can. I think you are absolutely correct to want to work this out with your wife now, before children are on the scene and the issue is forced. I also would like to complement you on your attitude toward your wife’s beliefs — you are supportive and realize that she may have different needs than you do, which is something some atheists and agnostics have a hard time doing.
Obviously you need to discuss religion with your wife, but this is difficult because she is uncomfortable with the subject. Is it possible that she thinks you think less of her for being religious? Many non-religious people have a condescending attitude toward religious people, so it’s important that your wife know you are not like that.
If you have read some of my past conversations, you may have noticed that I believe some people have an emotional need for religion and that I don’t condemn them for this. You seem to think along the same lines. So I’d say that the first thing you need to do, if you haven’t already, is make sure that you wife knows you understand that the two of you have different emotional needs in this area and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Fortunately, because your wife is Catholic, she does not believe that you will be sent to damnation for not being a Christian, so you don’t have to worry about her fearing for your soul (assuming that you’re living a moral life, of course
I think it’s nice that you go to church with your wife if it makes her happy. I see no reason not to continue to do this. There is a sticky point, though, about whether or not you should receive communion. You did not bring up this subject, but as a non-Catholic I do not believe that you should receive communion. If there is any doubt on this subject, your wife should speak with her priest about it.
The reason the communion point is important is that you want to make sure your wife isn’t basing her future on the hope that you will return to Catholicism. By the same token, I don’t think you should worry about whether your wife will some day lose the need for God. You guys can live happily with the beliefs you have right now. If those beliefs change, fine. If the don’t, fine. There is nothing insurmountable here.
But what about when you have children?
That’s a tough one, but I don’t think it’s as tough as you might think. I think the key thing here is that your children understand that Mommy and Daddy have a difference of opinion, that the difference is based on how you feel (as opposed to on objective proof of whether God exists), and that you all love each other anyway. Your wife can help your children learn about Catholicism, and you both can help them learn about asking questions and thinking rationally. I’d say, don’t worry so much about trying to “undo” any learning, just make sure your kids have the tools to undo it themselves when they get older, if necessary.
I wouldn’t worry too much about Catholic school. Choose a school that is best for your child from an education standpoint and help your child see religious education from both your and your wife’s perspective. There’s actually plenty of important cultural information in religion, so there can be a benefit to learning such things even for an atheist. I also think that knowing a bit about religion can make a person a better (or, at least, more tolerant) atheist.
Now, I will hasten to point out that there are plenty of atheists who are going to disagree with me on all of this. They will see the difference of religion as a war to be won through your children. They will see it as evil to give children religious education. I don’t see how a marriage can be anything but a time bomb with that kind of thinking. Don’t go there.
I also should point out that I would feel very differently if you were an atheist or agnostic and your wife was a fundamentalist Christian. There is a big difference between fundamentalism and Catholicism. Modern Catholicism actually gives a lot of leeway for freedom of thought and doesn’t condemn people for asking questions. Those are both factors in your favor.
So, to sum up: You love each other. Talk it over. It’s not a war. Nobody has to change to make things work.
I hope some of this has been useful to you. Please feel free to write again if the mood strikes you.