Friday, August 17, 2007

"He has his faults, such as being a perverted-democrat-atheist, but

altogether he's one of the nicest people I know."
-- authentic quote from the journal of a fifteen-year-old Mormon girl.

Actually, that's a quote from my own journal (as you might have guessed): December 6, 1986. It's kind of hilarious to think that once upon a time I saw virtues such as "perverted," "Democrat," and "atheist" as faults. But I think that having met nice (and intelligent and otherwise virtuous) liberals and atheists -- none of whom attempted to convert me -- affected my willingness to question my own position. So for blog friends who have called "witness by example" a passive-aggressive tactic: If your position has merit, "Let your light so shine" really works!

A lot of atheists recount stories about how people of faith are horrified by atheism -- that the faithful see other religions as merely wrong but regard atheism as shocking or unthinkable. Yet back when I was a believing Mormon, I didn't perceive it that way at all (and I have my journals to back me up on this). A number of my friends self-identified as atheists, thus I saw it as a common worldview (even a reasonable one, as I explained in my post If the church weren't true I'd be an atheist). Was my high school (or my circle of friends) that unusual?

The one thing I remember being surprised by was learning that my first real boyfriend's parents were atheists and that he'd been raised as an atheist. And they seemed like perfectly ordinary people, unlike the parents of the guy in the above quote who appeared (to the teenage Republican version of me) to be hippie weirdos. Of course the most shocking aspect (to the sheltered Mormon me) was that his parents let him drink coffee and beer! This was completely contrary to my usual assumptions about parenting (that it normally should involve a great deal of making the kids do odious things for their own good such as enforcing church attendance).

I don't know if this is unusual or not, but I've never had a serious (romantic) relationship with someone who believes in the existence of God. I've had a number of different boyfriends in my life (including a few minor flings with believers), but all of the real relationships have been with atheists.

Some of you may be wondering if that means that this guy was an atheist. Indeed he was (or is? I haven't kept in touch as you might imagine...). I had one conversation with him that illustrates the kind of atheist he was: after a long tirade about how incredibly stupid it is to believe in astrology, he turned around and said, "but Chinese astrology -- there's really something to that..." And he was serious!!! It just goes to show that most people just go along with whatever they've heard other people say, so in a country like France where atheism is basically the default position, even stupid people are atheists.

When I met my (now) husband, one of the first things I did was "test the waters" on this question. Since I thought he was cute and everything. He was a new arrival in grad school from on of those decadent countries in Europe (France), thus probably an atheist, but you can never be sure. So in one conversation at a party I made some sort of line involving the Pope and condoms to see how he'd react. I don't remember exactly what I said -- it probably wasn't even funny, but of course that's not really the point. There are things you can get away with saying as a joke that can help you determine what sorts of things might be appropriate to say in more serious discussions later. I'm not sure if that sounds cynical or Machiavellian, but honestly I think it's one of the reasons for the existence of humor in our species.

(Note: if the chronology of these stories is confusing, I actually met my current husband before I ever started learning to speak French, but even though I liked him from the beginning, I didn't get together with him romantically until several years later.)

I know a lot of you out there in blog space are in mixed-faith marriages and making it work, but -- inspiring as the stories often are -- I'm really glad I don't have to deal with that in my life. One non-trivial point is this cute little blog. I'm doing this for fun and love doing it, and I'd hate for my sweetheart to view this hobby as working for the bad guys' team. As it is, my husband views my Internet habit as kind of a strange hobby, but he understands that this is important to me and is basically supportive. He sometimes even takes photos for my blog and will read my articles and give his opinion when I ask him to.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my apartment-mates back when I was at BYU (this friend currently blogs as Floating in the Milk). She'd read a study that same-faith marriages are more successful than mixed-faith marriages (I guess in length or marital satisfaction or something). The topic came up because she'd been in a mixed-faith relationship back then and had chosen to go with her LDS suitor, but in the long run that didn't keep her from being in mixed-faith marriage since she no longer believes. Anyway, I protested (back then) that probably having a matching activity level is as important as having matching beliefs, but she said the study didn't show that at all -- activity level was found to be irrelevant.

After just a few minutes reflection it hit me that it was perfectly obvious that that should be the case. If you do anything at all related to your beliefs and traditions -- from simply celebrating the same events to church activity or belief-related volunteer work -- whether your spouse is physically there with you doesn't matter as much as whether your spouse is with you in spirit, supporting and agreeing with what you're doing.

That's not to say that mixed-faith marriages are inferior, but rather the people in them have that much more work to do to try to be understanding of one another. Personally I think that would be very, very hard for me to do. I've said this before, but I am ridiculously possessive of my private space and thus have a terrible time getting along with roommates. I've never had a roommate that I've gotten along with (just ask FITM -- she and I got along fairly well, but it helped that we weren't actually sharing a bedroom). I try to make an effort to get along with roommates, but I'm just not good at it. This is one of the many reasons that back when I was a Mormon I never had the remotest desire to go on a mission and thought that any girl who would choose to do it (since it's not a requirement for girls) must be crazy. There is absolutely no way I could tolerate having to be within sight of a particular person twenty-four-seven for months on end. If my companion were the nicest, most easygoing person on the planet I'd still be ready to strangle her by the end of the first week, and if she failed to be the nicest person on the planet, it would probably be more like the end of the first day...

Yet weirdly I've lived with various boyfriends, and I've never had a problem getting along with them on a day-to-day basis. I think it's largely psychological: a boyfriend is like family -- mentally absorbed into my intimate space -- whereas a roommate is an outsider limiting my privacy.

And this is the main reason why I'm glad I'm not in a mixed-faith marriage: I'm sincerely interested in trying to understand the perspective of people who believe differently, and I can see that believing differently than I do is not a manifestation of being crazy or stupid or unreasonable or anything like that. But it takes effort to try to see things from another's perspective, and I think it's an effort that would be hard for me to make on a daily basis in my intimate space.

In concrete terms, when I get home from a hard day at work, I want to be able to kick off my shoes, grab a beer, and relax. I don't want to hear my husband telling me that he's praying about this or that or about the progress he's making in trying to get intelligent design taught in schools, etc. At the same time, I wouldn't want to be married to someone and have him feel like he can't tell me about things that are important to him because I wouldn't agree or be supportive. That's not to say that we have to agree on everything, but at least on the fundamentals and basic values...


hm-uk said...

I think that when even 'stupid people are atheists', it's probably because the foundation has been laid for them to see it as a common-sense position, much like 'it makes sense to pay more in taxes if your health care is taken care of', etc. Not everyone agrees with this position outside of France but, perhaps, even most morons in France do agree with this position, too, because they've had the benefit of it. The foundation is laid, it makes sense to most and even the stupid people agree...

Three things I remember:

1. An atheist telling me how lovely it would be to sincerely believe in God and that he envied my faith - little did he know!

2. A teacher of mine telling off a fellow (Mormon, of all things) student for freaking out over the word 'homo sapiens' being used in a seventh grade science class. The teacher said to the student in response to the student's leap between homo sapiens and homosexual, "Don't knock it until you've tried it".

3. My own statement to my locker room buddies, "I'd be gay if I wasn't so horny". How appalling and, yet, so ominous a statement...

Maybe you sewed your own atheistic seed back in 1986?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Hm-Uk!!!

That's a good way of putting it: it doesn't take any particuar cleverness to believe things which are common sense, and what you see as being "common sense" depends both on your own experiences and on what you hear from others.

Back in 1986 I was a sincere and fervent believer, but every time I encountered things that were contrary to what Mormonism taught me to expect (such as nice, normal people who are democrats or atheists), I had to re-evaluate what I believed until I finally hit the tipping point. Then it's funny how these little exchanges (like the ones you mention that didn't seem like such a big deal at the time) all come back...

hm-uk said...

Thanks for your tipping point link back to the 'deconversion' page. I really enjoy your site and am slowly, slowly catching up. I am in Internet terms what I am in life: "Last to arrive to the party, first one to leave". I do look forward to reading your posts - they've been quite helpful, and it's nice to know you're a neighbour just across the Channel.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks, glad you like it!!!

Actually, this week I'm planning to go back and add subject tags to all of my old posts so that it will be easier to see at a glance everything I've written on a given topic...

beatdad said...

As any good Mormon would, I expecterd that I would end up marrying another Mormon. That dream ended when I left the church then a few years later married a witch; wiccan that is.

I stopped caring so much about being with someone whose beliefs and practices were the same as mine.

Ironically though my wife has since joined begun to practice Zen also.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree sis. I have no idea what I am (athiest, deist, spiritualist, humanist) but I'm quite certain that whatever it is, it isn't compatible with someone who has strong religious beliefs and/or leanings.

As always, your reflections are so clearly placed that it's a treat reading them. Thank you!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wayne!!!

I think it depends on temperament -- some people have an easier time than others in a mixed-faith marriage. That's funny that your wife has started to study Zen, though. A lot of times married couples' habits and even their attitudes start to converge.

Thanks Tom!!!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I recently enjoyed a fun conversation with my MIL where we both got to talk out loud to another human about how religious people drive us nuts. :-) Really, you're just not supposed to do that at work or in polite american society generally, so DH and I spent a whole car trip of about an hour talking about the topic. Probably because of not usually getting to be more open about being non-believers in god/christianism, we were a bit more emphatic than we would normally have been. But it did us both the world of good to let off some steam.

And also, she raised a good son I must say.

I didn't know that you and FITM were college roommates - that is so cool!

Anonymous said...

I want to own up to my snarky comment about passive-aggressive Mormon behavior. I'm not above trying to be visible for the sake of raising awareness, so I shouldn't be too harsh.

But what chafes me is when people try to "set an example". They try to show how happy they are, how wonderful their life is, all with the implicit message "Don't you want to be like me?"

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wry Catcher!!!

That's cool that you have some common ground and a good relationship with your MIL. Regarding FITM: it's funny what a small world blogspace is, isn't it?

Hey Jonathan!!!

It's a bit of a subtle distinction, but I think I know what you're talking about...

King Aardvark said...

You're very right about it being much more work in a mixed-faith marriage. Your last paragraph just about sums up my experience of being married to a Christian. It is workable though, it just takes a lot more effort to be rewarding.

I don't know how long your average mixed faith marriage is supposed to last, but for us it's 2 years today. Happy anniversary to me :-)

Eric said...

I share your perspective regarding mixed-faith marriages. Having deconverted from Mormonism and then told my believing spouse, our marriage has gone through a tremendous strain.

In one sense, this can be good for a marriage, because it allows a couple to focus on the most important aspects of a marriage: love, faithfulness (to each other!), and shared moments of happiness now. But a huge part of what we shared in common has now disappeared forever. I think my wife's profound sense of sorrow at my change will never really go away.

I am curious to know more about mixed-faith marriages in which the couples start their marriage agreeing to disagree. Are these marriages more happy or long-lived than marriages in which one spouse changes mid-course? If so, are there insights that could be transferred from the former to the latter?

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey King Aardvark!!!

I've read some of the stories on your blog, and it's cool that you guys are making it work.

Hey Eric!!!

I imagine that things are easier at first for couples who have started out agreeing to disagree but that in the long run it evens out. In the case of people who were already of different faiths before agreeing to marriage, it's probably common to underestimate the difficulites they'll face (in terms of family and support systems as much as daily interactions) once the honeymoon glow wears off.

In a marriage where one partner's beliefs change, generally one or both partners have to go through a period of mourning for their planned/imagined future before being able to make a positive effort to construct their new, alternate future. Some couples never make it past this stage even if both partners leave the church, others take the challenge and succeed.

In your case, your discussion with your wife is still quite recent, so I would guess your marriage is still going through the redefining phase and our wife is still working through her feelings about the fact that she won't have precisely the future she imagined with you. But feeling sad and disappointed about that is natural and doesn't mean she won't come to treasure the alternate future and family life that is coming.

I noticed you haven't been blogging about your feelings and experiences surrounding this transition, and I imagine that perhaps it's because you don't want to upset or annoy your family by writing on your personal blog, which they read. You might consider becoming a permablogger on MSP. Feel free to contact me for details (chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com).

woundedhart said...

...I'm sincerely interested in trying to understand the perspective of people who believe differently, and I can see that believing differently than I do is not a manifestation of being crazy or stupid or unreasonable or anything like that.

This sentence is so awesome. I've always had the problem of thinking people who don't agree with me are stupid and/or ignorant. I'm so ashamed. I loved your post.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Woundedhart!!!

Don't feel bad -- I think most people feel the same way. After coming to one's own conclusions about the big questions of existence, naturally you have to figure out why so many people disagree with you. And the standard conclusion is "they disagree with me because there's something wrong with them."

Atheists tend to attribute theists' beliefs to stupidity and brainwashing whereas theists often explain others' beliefs as the result of sin, moral/spiritual failings, the influence of evil forces, etc., but it all traces back to the same need to explain the existence of people who disagree with you.

It actually takes some effort to avoid seeking these excuses but rather recognize that the hard questions of life are hard thus different people reach different conclusions...

Paul Sunstone said...

Hi C.L.! I think another couple of reasons people reach different conclusions about things like deity is first because we all have different experiences of life on which we base our conclusions, and second because it seems there are several different kinds of human intelligence, and thus people think in fundamentally different ways about deity and such.

By the way, every time I read the title of this article, I laugh out loud. :D

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Paul!!!

I think you're right about why people reach different conclusions about God -- different ways of thinking and of analyzing one's experiences.

Eric said...

Thanks for your personal comments. Your mourning phase observation nails it on the head. That is precisely the difficulty. What makes Mormon marriages so wonderful (for believers) is their vision of a shared eternity and shared religious family moments in this life. So losing these hopes is not an easy task... We are making progress, however. Both of us are focusing more on being happy together now, without worrying too much about tomorrow. And it's working.

I will begin blogging about my transition later this fall. I need to tell the rest of my family about my change in person first. I love MSP and would like to become a contributor but want to cross-post on my own blog. I'll contact you then.


C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Eric!!!

It's true that Mormonism encourages a particular vision of what marriage and family should be like. Still, I don't think that the idea of having to mourn a lost dream before building a new dream is unique to Mormonism. It's just that with the Mormon eternal family dream this mourning phase can be particularly hard on the no-longer-believing partner because you're made to feel like you're the one that killed your sweetheart's dream.

I would say that in order to be there to support her through this transition, it's important to always keep in mind that it isn't your fault that it isn't true and that you certainly didn't set out to hurt her. Also, I would be wary of being angry with her for blaming you in moments of weakness. Remember that she's been conditioned to see your change of belief as a willful choice due to selfishness and callous indifference. It's hard to tolerate being thought of that way while you're trying to demonstrate that it isn't the case, so it's a job for a whole lot of patience and understanding...

It's good to hear that you're making progress!!!

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

It's funny, for such a long time I tried to get my husband to convert to Catholicism before we got married. Now that we are married, I'm pulling away from Catholicism more and more, and Joe's even more committed to not joining any organized religion. So we started as an inter-faith marriage, and we're moving toward being the same faith (almost none). But the only problem we ever had was that I thought he needed to be Catholic. Once I gave that up, even though I'm still Catholic, we stopped having problems there.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Carla!!!

I hadn't thought about it before, but your situation is quite similar to my younger brother and his wife. My younger brother is an exmo, and his wife is Catholic. I think she has some reservations about the institutional church these days, but she's more than just culturally Catholic. If you haven't seen her blog, it's here.