Thursday, July 22, 2010

Religion in Relationships

I have been reading a book lately called Parenting Beyond Belief.  It is a collection of essays, letters and columns by a variety of authors talking about raising children as an atheist/agnostic.  In it I found a story about dealing with differences in religious opinion within a marriage that really brought me back to a particular relationship I had in university.  The essays were from the perspective of an atheist who married a former Catholic.  Initially in their relationship the former Catholic was either against or indifferent to religion but eventually went back wholeheartedly to religion and they struggled to maintain their marriage and to raise their child but did prevail with much difficulty.

My religious relationship experience started out similar but ended up very differently.  Initially the girl involved seemed pretty indifferent to religion and gave me the impression of being some sort of agnostic or perhaps a believer in non religious spirituality.  I was an atheist then as now but back then I was much more sold on the side benefits of religion and felt it to be more of a mistaken curiosity than a menace.  I was also overconfident and felt sure that eventually I could bring her around to my point of view.  I was wrong.  Eventually through the course of 3 years her attitude swung around to being much more traditionally religious and eventually it became a major factor in our breakup.  We never attempted to convert or enforce values on each other but it was certainly clear from my perspective that religion was an insurmountable problem.

Certainly children figure very heavily in my doubts about having two very different religious views within a marriage.  It is entirely possible to be very laissez-faire religious and essentially do nothing different from an atheist when no children are involved and to have a fine relationship that ignores that topic for many people.  I am not those people mind you, as I would always challenge my partner to justify their beliefs when those beliefs are supporting groups that have committed and continue to commit terrible crimes.  However, when children are involved these issues immediately come to the fore because the child has to be told what to believe and people find it very hard to watch someone they care about be imprinted with beliefs they find abhorrent or even just incorrect.

My experience with Wendy is much different.  She had a religious upbringing and occasionally has moments of spirituality but they never stay for long.  Inevitably I end up talking with her about what exactly she believes and the precise reasons for it and eventually we come around to the fact that it is "a nice thing to think because it makes me happy but it isn't really true."  I have no problem with that - I have plenty of my own little mental tics that cause me to do strange and foolish things.  The crux of the issue for me is the ability to step back from a position, evaluate the reasons for it logically and objectively and then choose an action.  I might decide that walking over specific patterns of tiles on particular bits of my feet every time is fun but I don't try to insist that it is right, useful or important.

I got very lucky to end up in the situation I did I think.  It is easy to end up with a tiny person standing in front of you asking "Where do people go when they die?" and look at your partner and realize that answering that question is going to create tremendous friction no matter what the answer is.  I am not one to pander to "There are many paths to truth" or any other such nonsense that pretends that people can base their lives around destructive lies with no consequences and I suspect that I would end up divorced quickly had I ended up married to someone with strong religious views.  My answer to the above question is as follows:

When people die their bodies eventually break down into tiny pieces that end up being part of new plants, animals, buildings, air and everything we see around us.  A big part of who we are is in other people, in their feelings and memories of the things we did and how we lived.  We can change people's minds in positive ways and give them memories of us so that a big part of who we are goes on long after we die.

1 comment:

  1. Any couple that feels the drive to have children really needs to start working on those things before the children enter the picture.

    When I was with LitPhD, I spent a good deal of time wrestling with the idea that very idea, even though at that stage of the relationship, things seemed to be great.

    We ended up having some great conversations that challenged each other's beliefs in constructive ways. I particularly remember a conversation that we had that started out with the abuse of women in Africa through the use of a process referred to as 'Female Circumcision'. She explained how abhorrent she found the whole notion. I didn't even play devil's advocate, I just let her make her case.

    When the conversation I had wound down a bit, I asked her about male circumcision. She claimed she felt it was necessary in order for her sons to have a proper relationship with G*d, although she admitted that she saw the conflict in her two positions. Since I'm opposed to the idea of circumcision of either gender, it was certainly a point of contention between us, but it was something that on it's own I suspect we could've worked through.

    The problematic bits came when we started talking about other things. I'll use food as an example: I love bacon. (Let me tell you about it!) She wanted a strictly kosher house. Every compromise ended up with the house being kosher, and me not being able to bring in any dishes with non-kosher meats in them. I realized that she wasn't being malicious, but she simply thought that her being religious trumped my being agnostic. That was really what ended the relationship.