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.
I really loved this piece! I, like you am an atheist, but I have studied religious history, I’m so fascinated by how people can BELIEVE, you know? My husband is also atheist, and I really respect your patience and view points with regards to your husband’s beliefs. Great read!
Thank you for your lovely comments! We certainly disagree on a lot of things and discussions can get rather heated, but taking a step back I think the atheist / religious mix is really beneficial for both us and our kids.
Thank you for taking the time share your experiences and perspective. My Catholic partner and I (atheist) are planning on marrying, and I’ve been a bit concerned about how our differences in religion/faith will interfere with our lives together, especially with the actual wedding and then with kids. You hit on a lot of things that I’ve worried about, and you’ve provided nothing but reassurance. Previously, I’d only been able to find forums that exclaim that Catholics and non-Catholics, especially atheists, should not be together! Thank you, and best wishes for you and your family!
Ohh that’s lovely to hear. Congratulations on your engagement! x
My Husband is a staunch Atheist and I have always respected that. I wanted to baptize our daughter (I’m Episcopalian), he said no… so we didn’t. I wanted a priest to marry us. He said no, so we didn’t. When we began dating I was at odds with God and that worked for him, but now I have a strong desire to return to my place of faith. The church I plan to attend is extremely liberal, as most Episcopal churches are. They support the LGBTQ community, they give to the poor, they teach love and acceptance. All values we both share. He is so hateful to ALL religion. It claims they are all cults and they are rooted the same. He says I can believe in God and go to church, but I am not to take my children with me. It’s tearing our marriage apart. He claims our children will be indoctrinated and when I ask him “how? And to what end?” He says the institution it’s self is abhorrent and a virus for the world. I’m at my wits end. Our core values are the same. I would never allow my children or myself to be part of something full of hate. Suggestions?! Thoughts?! Prayers?! Anything?! Please help.
Thank you for reaching out. I’m not a therapist or a counsellor, so I can only talk from personal perspective…
Personally I’ve found it good to just really listen to the other person. So no judging, no talking back, just pure listening (and believe me I find this VERY hard!) No doubt there is some reason why your husband feels the way he does.
Why does your husband feels the way he does? His concerns are valid, and pushing them away could make it worse. I’d really take some time to just listen and make a point of just being curious and not answering back. So I’d only bring up this type of conversation when you’re both in a calm state and take time out if things escalate by accident.
I also think that in my case, control had a lot to do with it. I didn’t like the feeling of someone else imposing their views on me. If I choose to bring my kids up Catholic that’s great, but if I was ordered to, I would have issues. I am not saying either of you are ordering, but you may both feel that you are being pushed around. And no one wins.
I was brought up atheist and I didn’t know many practising Catholics (just as I imagine my husband didn’t know too many atheists in his youth). Once I met his family and friends and realised yes, they hold some beliefs which are very alien to me, but actually yes, they’re also really good people. They had a totally different education to mine, but we hold similar values. We are programmed differently, but hardwired the same 🙂
I say this only to ask if you know many mixed faith couples you can hang out with. It might be useful for your husband to talk over his concerns with someone who can empathise.
For me at least it’s been useful to talk and keep talking about our red lines. So, I am happy for our kids to be educated in a Catholic church, provided it is in the kids’ best interests. So, our kids would not be sent to a rubbish school just because it is Catholic, for example. Also, if our kids turn around as adults and declare they want to belong to another faith, that is their decision.
Personally, I choose my battles. I don’t mind whether the kids go to church or not. I think it’s good for them, in fact. There are other things I feel more strongly about – animal welfare for one. My husband doesn’t mind about this, so in this case he goes along with my ‘rules’ (No zoos!)
It’s also been good for me to see the good side of religion. Yes, religion + politics = war, but religion also brings so much joy and comfort. My husband is a shining example of this. He is tolerant, loving, generous, supportive, resilient and dedicated… and I’m sure that religion plays a big part in this for him. If you can show the good side of religion, that’s a wonderful example for your husband to learn by.
Of course, it’s still a learning process, and there will always be bumps in the road. Sometimes something will pop up out of the blue and catch us out. We are human!
It can take time, so try to be patient.
Good luck. I’m wishing you all the love,
My boyfriend and I have been together a year and half, but have known each other through work almost three years. I knew before I met him that he was catholic; our manager told me I’d be “training the new guy. He’ll never be here sundays as he goes to MASSES” she said with heavy disdain and an exaggerated eye roll. I’ve known I was an atheist since I was about 20 years old, so 12 years now. I was raised an American mixture of christian denominations, but never felt at home in the church. When I allowed myself to admit that I no longer believed in god, it was the first time I felt like I was being true to myself. I have been through may hardships between dealing with the severity of Crohn’s disease, to most recently losing my father to leukemia. Not once have I ever felt the need to rely or reach out to god/a higher power. I found my own strength in some of my darkest hours and am proud of the person I became through it all.
My boyfriend has been effortlessly supportive of everything I’ve been through the last year and a half. I have, over the last several year, become more open to the idea of a soul and a higher power, but catholicism just doesn’t make sense to me. The deeper our conversations go, the more questions I have. I try to be practical about every thing in my life, especially when it comes to my Crohn’s; it’s one of the few coping mechanisms that helped push me through the “why me” moments when my quality of life was very low.
He accepts me for who I am, he has from the very start. I accept and appreciate his faith as well. I love that his religion has shaped the gentle, compassionate man he is today. He has had some very difficult obstacles to overcome in his life as well. I know his past struggles are still weighing on him and he still focuses that pain toward god for relief. I find his resilience inspiring and I know this makes him “husband material.” Trying not to sound cliche, but he is the love of my life. I am divorced and was in a two year relationship before dating him; neither ended particularly bad (in fact, I am still friendly with my ex-husband), but both offered me opportunities to grow “spiritually” and what I found is, that I’m comfortable and content in the not knowing. The uncertainty of what happens after death does not scare me. (Side note, when I was a child, I was afraid to sleep at night because I had this fear that I wasn’t a very good christian and if I died in my sleep, I’d go straight to hell. These fears plagued me into my early teens.)
Through everything I’ve been through, I have found peace in solitude and contentment in the midst of my own presence. I feel “complete,” but when I’m with my boyfriend, the happiness and love just overflows. I do not need him to make me feel complete, but he completes my life, if that makes sense.
We are close to the point in our relationship where the inevitability of marriage is apparent. We both feel this relationship is meant to be, meant to last, that we are each other’s “soulmate” inasmuch as the joy we bring to one another and feel peaceful in each other’s company. I love my alone time, but I love being with him equally. This is a clear sign to me, that I am in the right relationship. He makes me “smile big” and says I do the same. He told his mother early in our relationship that I don’t believe in god and could that be a problem. She is a devout catholic. She asked him “does she make you happy? if yes, that’s a good place to start.” Our love, admiration, and respect for one another has only grown and continues to grow.
I want to spend the rest of my life with him, even if that means “giving in” sometimes. If being married by a priest is what he wants, I will agree to that, as long as the priest and his family understands I am not willing to convert. My willingness to concede in certain aspects is based solely in my love for him as a person and a partner. I’m inclined to make these concessions, rather than asking him to, say be married by a justice of the peace, because being married by a priest is important to him; I’m just concerned over the legality of the contract of marriage. His desire to do things in a godly way has no bearing on what I believe in my life, whereas introducing more secular aspects into his life may make him uncomfortable.
I apologize for the rambling, I’ve never actually expressed these thoughts to anyone, but I found your blog inspiring and gives me hope for the future of my own relationship. I don’t know what this life holds for me, but I want to make the journey with someone who loves me and accepts me for who I am and nobody has ever made me feel more loved and accepted than he has.
Thank you so much for this beautiful comment. Not at all rambling. This resonates with me so much! I wish you both continued happiness together. Again, thank you – this is so inspiring to read!
All the best