My Reaction to “In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families”

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I picked up Dale McGowan’s book hoping for strategies that would help a mixed-belief marriage work. I have very mixed feelings about it.  This is not a full review, just my thoughts (I skipped a chapter, more on that later).

McGowan is an atheist, and has had a very successful marriage to a believing Christian. To write this book, in addition to using his own experiences, he ran a study of people in mixed belief marriages to find out what made them work and what made them fail. He shares some encouraging results- mixed belief marriages are not necessarily more likely to fail.

Unfortunately for me, it was a somewhat painful read, and I think many couples in a situation like mine will have a similar experience. As I read the worst failure stories, I could see many of my own experiences and emotions mirrored. For example, when one partner in a fundamentalist Baptist couple became atheist, the believing spouse felt betrayed, felt that a covenant was broken, and feared the family was in danger of hell. The anger and frustration described by the non-believing spouse was painfully familiar, too. McGowan shows that intense experiences like these, where spouses feel betrayed or trapped, or where spouses have strong negative feelings about each others’ beliefs, are strongly correlated with divorce.  This couple was NOT able to work through their differences, and they eventually did ed their marriage. Even though a lot of the pain associated with my initial crisis has now passed for both my wife and I, this part was still difficult and unhelpful to read.

McGowan gives examples of marriages that worked well, too, but these felt foreign to me in most cases. Usually, the believing spouse interpreted their faith in a very non-literal, non-fundamentalist way. They had faith in God, but usually weren’t strongly connected to a specific set of doctrines or practices.  Obviously, this would make it easier to compromise.  My spouse is a deep thinker, open-minded, and nuanced in her religious views, and I consider her a thoughtful believer, but she’s not a “non-literal” believer (I think she’d agree with my assessment). She has very specific beliefs and practices related to her religion, and she values them highly. So, many of the compromises he suggests, like going to a Unitarian Universalist church where specific beliefs aren’t that important, just won’t work for us.

McGowan does make a very helpful point about the need for both partners to be non-dogmatic. He shows how both believers and non-believers can be dogmatic, and why that is a problem. He also gives useful criteria to evaluate your own level of dogmatism.  His criteria really helped me to examine my own thought processes, and it gently encouraged me to be more open-minded.  A word of caution- please use his criteria to evaluate your OWN level of dogmatism.  It won’t be helpful to use it to criticize your spouse.

McGowan has a few more pieces of very important advice, especially regarding not wanting to convert your spouse.  A strong desire to convert the other is a major failure factor, so it’s incredibly important that each spouse is respectful of the other’s faith journey, no matter how it turns out.  It’s so important that you learn to really accept your spouse as they are! You have to come to a point of mutual respect, even when you disagree on some big issues. This has been critical in my marriage. When you read this section, make sure you apply it to YOU. YOU need to be non-dogmatic, whether you are the believer or non-believer. I also loved his idea about accepting “the ultimate compliment”.  That is, if your spouse thinks that you are a good, worthy person despite your differences of belief, then that is a great compliment indeed! You still support and validate each other, even if you disagree on religion.  You can still be accepted and accepting of your spouse.

The book’s best chapter is the one about raising kids. It’s excellent, especially since I’ve had no other examples to look at of mixed belief marriages with kids. His advice to keep hell and other scare tactics out of a child’s teaching is so important! McGowan gives useful strategies to encourage a child’s search for truth, and for letting kids know that they will be fully loved and accepted by the family.  They can pick beliefs without having to pick a parent!  Love is not contingent upon beliefs!  They should know that beliefs can evolve as we learn and grow, and that’s OK.

He also emphasizes the need to be on the same page with your spouse on how kids should be raised and gives practical suggestions to accomplish this. I hadn’t previously thought through most of these issues. My wife even liked a lot of his ideas when I talked to her about them.  This was the most encouraging section I read.

The tone is very important to mention. Lots of amazon reviewers say that their believing spouses enjoyed and found the book helpful. I believe them, but I imagine those spouses are very liberal, non-literal believers. A small number believing reviewers found the book offensive. I think a believing Mormon who is still hurting from feelings of loss and betrayal will likewise be offended. McGowan really does try to be inclusive, but he just can’t see his own bias creeping into his writing. He spends too much time telling faith crisis stories, and doesn’t give equal time to conversion stories. He never portrays believers as deep thinkers. The worst part of all is that toward the end of the book, he reveals that his wife eventually de-converted, too. That felt like an ambush, and I felt mislead, since he used his own mixed faith marriage as an example of success.  The bias is subtle, but I could not recommend the book to my wife. Instead, I told her a lot about the useful parts, and warned her that she would likely find the book alienating. We talked about things I liked and didn’t like, which I think that was the best approach for us.

Sadly, I found a lot of this book pretty depressing. When he talked about the factors that brought success, I saw only a few of them in my marriage (though there are more now- that can be changed with effort!). When he talked about the factors that brought failure, I felt I could relate with lots of them. It was hard to get through. I had to stop and start a couple of times because it was a little overwhelming. In fact, I totally skipped the chapter about divorce (that’s why this isn’t a real review). It was just too painful to read about, and besides, I was looking for something encouraging! To be honest, I got into a pretty bad emotional state while reading parts of this book. At times it actually reduced my hope for a happy family. Other parts, though, did give great, positive advice for having respectful family relations, honoring each person’s journey, including everyone, and being non-judgmental and non-dogmatic. This stuff is, like I said, critical.

Overall, it was a mix of good and bad for me, personally.  Even though he had some useful advice, I had to grit my teeth at much of his data and anecdotes in order to get through this book. I had to remember that my marriage is NOT like any of the stories, and I don’t HAVE to be like any of the people in the book. In truth, I’m pretty lucky, because my wife is a believer who really listens to me and thinks I’m a good person, despite our differing beliefs. She’s got my back. And I think she’s perfectly intelligent, moral, and a good human being. I’ve got her back, too. It was hard to get to this point, though, and sometimes things are still hard. I think if I had read this book earlier in my faith crisis it might have been extremely discouraging. It could possibly have made me feel like there was no way to make things good.

So, there you have it! It might be useful for some of you, especially if you have already settled into a stable, fairly happy situation and just want strategies for raising kids or other specific issues.  It would also be very useful for a mixed faith couple who are not yet married and want to evaluate their relationship.  If your marriage is currently in crisis because of faith differences, though, I would not recommend it. To be honest, I think this book would be more useful to someone who is CONSIDERING a mixed faith marriage, rather than someone who has unexpectedly ended up in one.

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