One of the things I love most about my Expater friends is their sheer diversity and openness to other cultures. My address book is more multiculti than a Benetton ad. A good deal of them are with partners of other faiths.
Recently a friend living in NYC asked how it was to get with a religious guy. Would the cultural differences become too much? Could a relationship stand such strain?
When I first met my husband, Jose, he didn’t seem that different. A white, university educated guy from Europe. Hardly exotic.
But in truth our cultures are wildly different.
You see, I’m atheist and he’s Catholic.
Different but the same
While we were both brought up in loving, middle class families, our backgrounds are very different.
We could argue until the sun goes down about everything from gay marriage and abortion, from the authenticity of religious texts, to whether it’s rude to cross one’s legs in church.
But the reason that we’re together, like so many of our cross religion couple friends, is that we share the same basic values. We disagree (strongly) about many technicalities, but as for the wider morals, we’re in unison. We disagree about how human life should best be preserved, but not why.
Over the many years of arguing, (‘Let me out of the car now, goddammit!’) I’ve come to understand that he comes from a very different place than I do, but that fundamentally we believe the same.
Like a Muslim Palestinian friend pointed out to me. ‘We’re all basically the same. We all basically believe the same stuff. We’re really not so different. Look, even your Virgin Mary wore the hijab!’
Religion for atheists
Instead of trying to find the differences, to seek out the many technical differences on which to base our (fierce) arguments, I know that we should look to how similar we are, and learn from each other.
That’s not to say we always agree, or even agree to disagree. There is a lot about the Catholic institution which I find deeply unsettling.
But I adore the faith to which he adheres. I marvel at the strength it gave him to get through some seriously challenging moments in his life. I am awed by the comfort it brings to him on a daily basis. I envy all the many joyful religious traditions and rites he has enjoyed.
Expat life can be tough and who am I to look down on anything that might help?
I’ve just finished a book by Alain de Boton, ‘Religion for Atheists’. If you’re in my non religious boat, I’d thoroughly recommend you give it a try. I even pray, albeit not in the same way as others.
My hubby is learning about my (lack of) faith too. I remember one conversation something along the lines of, ‘So when you die, that’s it then? What happens to your soul?… There’s no soul?!’. Umm yep. We die, then worms eat us and that’s it. Then followed a huge debate over why we should do good deeds and all the rest. And then finally ‘Ahh OK I get it. Well I disagree, but I guess I see where you’re coming from’.
Promises and compromises
There are still moments which cause immense grief. Bringing up children in an atheist / religious partnership is not always easy. But when was bringing up children ever easy?
There are times when I understand that I need to back down, that for me it really doesn’t matter. Mass every Sunday is no big deal. I actually rather enjoy the hour of relative quiet. The Catholic church we married in was beautiful and the priest was lovely. I was initially reluctant to get our first child baptised, but then when I gave it a thought, about how it would actually impact my son’s life and how important it was to my husband, I started organising the logistics.
We’re currently looking for a school for my eldest and my husband was adamant – it must be Catholic. For me, it had to be an academically good school with a strong set of moral leadership where my child would be happy and stimulated. After weeks of arguing we actually realised that we were after the same school. The school I like most here in Santiago is a Catholic school, and a very Catholic one at that.
A cross to bear
Somethings you know and sign up to in advance, but other things pop up unexpectedly. Fellow atheist friends warned me ‘You know you’ll have to do a marriage course, right? You’ll have to convert! You’ll have to take sex advice from a guy who’s never done it!’
The bureaucracy of marrying a religious guy can be overwhelming. Document after document, a stamp here, an official signature there. It’s as if the Church does it on purpose to deter heretics like me.
Then the Spanish clergy member of staff whose approval Jose needed in order to marry a heretic asked him, ‘Can’t you just find a Catholic wife?’ Umm, hola?! I’m here and I understand what you’re saying. And then he continued, gazing down in disapproval, ‘So is she even going to convert?’ My husband was furious and ashamed. But I assured him, there are assholes in all walks of like, even religious ones. I reckon he was just a little ignorant, but by no means a reflection of my husband’s faith.
I’m still learning. In difficult times, like when my second child was very, very sick, my closest friends huddled round to help. My best friend drove two hours to make brunch. Another group sent flowers (which would fit through the letter box as I was in the hospital so much), another sent a donation to a children’s charity which supports children sicker than my little boy was.
My husband was away in Nigeria and I’ll be honest, I found it very hard to hear him say, ‘I will pray for you’. Good for you, but what help does that bring me? It’s like offering a vegetarian a larder stocked with meat. You can keep your goddamn prayers. What I need right now is someone to take our kid to ER.
I was a sleep deprived desperate mother. I realise now that you meant only love. We just show it in different ways.
To my NYC friend I’ll say this, it’s not religion you need to worry about. You’ll argue about religion as much as who dumps wet towels on the bathroom floor, who leaves the milk bottle top off, who gets to decide the next holiday destination.
Getting with a religious guy is not such a bad idea. Or as Catholic nun Mother Angelica put it, ‘Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous.’
Amen to that.