My husband is Christian. Not the I-was-raised-Christian-but-I-don’t-really-care Christian, but the kind who studies and reads the Bible, believes in and contemplates Jesus, and values his church as a community of like-minded souls.
I am an atheist Jew, raised by atheist Jews. What does that mean? It means I feel a stronger connection to Mel Brooks, gefilte fish, and a mild, nagging feeling of persecution than I do to any sort of religious beliefs. I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I didn’t go to temple. I didn’t miss school on Jewish holidays. I did go to Passover dinner at my grandparents, and we did have a menorah, but that was that.
I called myself agnostic for years, until I read Penn Jillette’s book God, No! and realized I was really an atheist hiding behind gentler language. I do believe in something beyond the material world, in some sort of rhythm and mysticality to the universe, but definitely not in some deity who looks down upon us and requires our worship.
I only had three rules for the guy I fell in love with, and one of them was that he couldn’t be religious in any way. I have friends who are religious, but I couldn’t imagine being in a serious relationship with someone whose belief system was so fundamentally different from mine. And then I met Dave, who broke all three of my rules, and I fell head over heels in love with him anyway.
We dealt with the religion issue early on. He’s a very open person, willing to discuss anything, and his conviction didn’t present any conflict with my atheist (then agnostic) leanings, my gay father, or my extremely liberal family. His parents are a lot more relaxed about religion than he is, and there’s no conflict there either. They’re lovely. To me, they embody what a “good Christian” is supposed to be: They’re open and welcoming, they do service for others, they don’t judge, and they’re generally good people. They set an example by doing, not by telling other people what they’re supposed to do, and their hearts are big.
Then we had children, the children everybody warned us about, the potential sources of marital discord because of our conflicting beliefs.
You know what happened?
Were there arguments?
Are the kids confused?
Is there awkwardness around holidays, or on Sunday mornings?
Do we hide things from the kids, and keep our feelings about each other’s beliefs a secret?
What happens on Sundays? Dave goes to church, most of the time. Sometimes one of the kids will go too, sometimes both. I wince internally a little when they come home with Sunday school materials, I admit, and then I forget about it. When they don’t want to go on Sundays, they don’t go. I try not to tempt them with super exciting Sunday morning outings, but occasionally I must, and we survive it and move on.
Christmas is easy. I’ve loved celebrating it since I was a kid. Now I’m legit, with my house full of Christians, so we can even hang Christmas lights outside the house. I’m The Jew Who Loves Christmas, and I always have been. (One day, that’ll be the title of my first children’s book.)
Hanukkah is simple: The menorah gets lit, with no prayers, because I don’t know them. But I like the menorah. I even have the same one we used growing up.
The other Jewish holidays go unobserved, except that these days, the schools close anyway.
My son likes to read Bible stories and talk to my husband about the people in them and the meanings behind them. He also asks me about what I believe, or don’t, and tries to wrap his head around it.
My daughter, at 7, is both less interested and less clear. She rarely goes to church, and sometimes gets confused about where I stand on the issue, once telling her friends, “Mommy hates God” until I corrected her and suggested to her—with some panic about the future status of her friendships—that she not say such things to her friends anymore.
You may not believe me, but my husband and I have never had a fight about religion, or how to handle it with the kids. We’ve had many lively discussions about our respective points of view, but even when we come at it from completely opposite places, we still don’t get mad, and we still keep trying to understand each other, which we likely never will. I can’t wrap my head around his beliefs, and he can’t wrap his around mine, but here we are.
Early on in our relationship, when we started talking about these things, we were most surprised by these two things:
1. We were both major fans of The Chronicles of Narnia book series by C.S. Lewis, and we both consider it a literary foundation of our childhoods. I had no idea at the time that they were rooted in Christian theology, but finding out didn’t change a thing. I love those books.
2. Before me, he hadn’t met anyone with a strong moral center who didn’t get it from religion. He didn’t know anyone could have a strong moral center without God, and I didn’t know anyone could have one and still believe in the Church.
He used to be more fundamental, and he admits he learned from that experience. He went to a church that rotated around the strong, magnetic personality of its pastor. Not too long before that all collapsed in on itself, as those things tend to do, he’d already left, disillusioned with their “Christianity” when they decided he was no longer an appropriate choice to work with the youth group because he was “unequally yoked.” Yes, that’s the expression they used, and yes, that was me they were talking about. When he left, a few of his friends left too, just as dismayed.
So my survival guide, really, is short: Respect each other. My husband believes that it’s God’s job to tap us on the shoulder, and in his heart, he is hoping that will happen to me. I know in mine that it won’t. But I see the strength and the happiness he gets from his church and his beliefs, and I would never get in the way of that. I’ve met a few of his church friends, and they’re good, warm people. Easy to talk with. Intelligent, nonjudgmental people. Not what I expected, just as, I’m sure, I was not what they expected.
We both have open minds and open hearts. That is the secret to our survival and our success. The kids will get older and have more questions, and we’ll just go ahead and answer them, no holds barred. When it works, it works.