I wrote a post on the scientific understanding of a personal God. Both of my posts about God in this doubt series generated a lot of questions, but the questions following the personal God piece really surprised me. Most of these questions didn't have anything to do with a personal God, at least not directly. These questions were from husbands, wives, parents, and children who weren't sure that God was real anymore and didn't know how to tell their families.
Or, they'd told a few people close to them and it went poorly. I received messages from wives who were tired of fighting with their husbands, husbands afraid their wives were going to leave them, and parents who no longer knew how to answers their children's questions about God, the afterlife, and other grand themes. Just as troubling were messages from people who felt their connection to community and extended family was unraveling because they don't believe anything about God that they used to.
Since issues like these are the driving force behind this series, I thought it best to take a break from my outline and address how we deal with others while questioning our most basic assumptions about God and the Universe.
Q: What happened between you and Jenny between the time you told her you didn't believe any more and your return to faith?
A: The best and worst months of our marriage. If you've heard me talk about telling Jenny I was an atheist, you know that was a tough conversation that tested our marriage in ways it had never been tested. You also know that for a short time, Jenny questioned the foundations of our relationship and our ability to stay married.
I stuck to a pretty consistent approach. First, I affirmed and reaffirmed my love for her. I let her know I was committed to her and to our family. I let her know that my morality hadn't changed, and that I valued her faith. It wasn't easy. I was never sure when I should give her space for her own thoughts, and when I should pursue her.
When in doubt, I would hold her. Even so, we had weeks and months where most of our conversations were dark and intense. It was a strain on both of us. That may sound crazy if you didn't grow up in church, but changes in belief about God can be shocking for people who are deeply steeped in an organized religion.
Basically, even as I admitted my questions about God, heaven and hell, and the supernatural, I repeatedly shared my commitment and love for my wife and family. I answered any question she had without ever going on the offensive. My goal was always to protect Jenny's faith, not win her over to secularism.
Jenny didn't have to deal with my doubt all that long. I found my way home a few months after admitting my loss of faith. Far from a relief, that started an even tougher time in our marriage. My time as an atheist who teaches Sunday School made me suspect that there were others in my predicament. I started writing about atheism, morality, and other hot point issues.
A lot of people who were close to us couldn't handle my new take on things. Many even viewed my words and actions as a betrayal, a violation of some unspoken social contract. Those were difficult times for both of us. There were many times that Jenny wished that things could go back to the way they were before.
The key thing is I was completely committed to her and she was completely committed to me. There was never any doubt about that for either of us. That commitment covered the times when our patience wore thin, or the pain of our community unraveling was too much.
Q: How do you deal with family and friends that do not share your beliefs? My in-laws just found out that we now support homosexuality and gay marriage and they flipped out!
A: I just love people. There's no set of beliefs that are required to by my friend. I don't waste energy trying to change other people. Everything I learn, and every issue I wrestle with is an exercise in trying to live a better life and help other people more. I live with a constant awareness that I could be wrong about anything, so I generally don't think it's worth it to fight over things.
That's not to say I don't have opinions. I do. I'm happy to discuss them with anyone who is interested, and I love hearing from people who thoughtfully disagree with me. I won't debate or argue though. People don't learn anything while they are in a combative state. Once you start fighting about a topic, you're basically a monkey flinging poo--more concerned with smearing your opponent than rational dialog.
Some people can't handle holding opposing positions with their close friends. I've found that over time those people exit my life. I try to make it clear that they are always welcome, but I won't just rehash the same disagreements over and over.
Let's talk specifically about the marriage equality issue. I strongly believe an adult should be able to marry a person of their choosing, regardless of the gender of either person. Many of my friends disagree with me on this point, and do so based on the way they interpret the Bible. I can both lobby for the full and equal treatment of gay Americans under the law, and have friends who lobby against that.
That doesn't mean I don't support my gay friends. I do, and vocally. But life is full of issues of great importance that people disagree over. If I slice my social setting down to people who agree with me on every issue that's important to me, I suspect the only company I'd have is my reflection.
I don't need resolution on almost any issue in the context of friendship. I confront suffering and injustice whenever I see it, but I do so with patience and as much humility as I am capable of.
Now, there are some people who can't handle my stance on a given issue. They decide that a difference of opinion on such a matter determines who they will be friends with. That is their choice, and I don't force my friendship on anyone. In fact, one of my greatest regrets is staying in the Baptist Church too long.
That's not because I think the Baptists are wrong, or that I'm better than Baptists. It's because as my understanding of God changed, I was no longer able to grow in the Baptist Church, and my presence there served as a focal point for controversy. Sometimes the wisest, most graceful path is walking away.
Q: How do you approach the topic of God with your young children?
A: I tell my children what I believe in a way that is developmentally appropriate. Man, easy answer.
Q: Seriously? That's your answer? That's not really helpful.
A: I'm always hesitant to talk about parenting. I'm a good parent, but my skills at parenting only apply to two children: my daughters. I'm always wary of anyone who makes blanket statements about how to raise kids, because nothing seems to apply to all children. All children need food, water, clothing, shelter, and love, but after that their needs are highly individual.
Some generalities can be drawn based on brain development. Very young children only understand the world through nouns, verbs, and adjectives. God tends to be a natural part of how they view the world, but God is anthropomorphized. Kids at this stage can't understand conceptual themes like peace or democracy.
Experiments support this. Ask a very young child to draw God, and they'll generally draw a face. As they grow, that face will develop into a person. That person will stand on the clouds, or in a castle. He or she may wear a crown, or some other symbol of authority.
As children continue to grow, their pictures of God will start to denote higher concepts. Kids growing up in Christian households may draw a cross to denote sacrifice or love. Or they'll draw a heart to represent God's love. Especially neurologically advanced images of God are spirals, lights, or other images to denote all or completion.
Based on that insight, a discussion on the historicity of Old Testament flood accounts isn't helpful or educational for young children, while simplistic interpretations of Genesis probably aren't helpful for spiritually advanced high school students. I tell my children what I believe, but I do so in a way that is most helpful from their reference point.
My oldest daughter and I have had in-depth talks about all the different beliefs about God, the afterlife, and moral issues. To date, my youngest daughter and I have mainly talked about God's love and loving others. I let them lead, and I do a lot more listening to what they believe than telling them what they should believe.
My goal is to equip my children to find out about the world, not to tell them what to think about it. I tell my children that I could be wrong about anything, and I'm giving them the best insight I have.