Last week I introduced you to Jason and Alise Wright, a mixed faith couple who agreed to be interviewed (by you!) as part of our ongoing “Ask a…” series. To my surprise, “Ask a mixed faith couple…” became one of our most popular installments in the series, with hundreds of questions coming in.
Jason and Alise met in 1992 at a Christian music festival, and that set the stage for a relationship that revolved around the church. For nearly 13 years of marriage, they shared the same Christian faith. Jason attended Bible college, they played together on worship teams, and Jason led various church Bible studies. Then in October 2009, Jason revealed that he no longer believed in God, rattling one of the foundations of their marriage.
As they worked through this change, Jason and Alise discovered that there was much more holding their marriage together than pulling it apart, and they began to work in their faith communities to bring about a greater understanding of what the others actually believe and to bring about a better dialog between atheists and Christians.
Offline, Jason works as a software trainer for electronic medical records and plays drums with another local musician. Alise teaches the piano and plays in a cover band. They are raising four children together and they both love to watch a nice, loud sci-fi movie in their free time.
Online, you can find Jason’s thoughts about leaving Christianity and living as an atheist in a primarily Christian family and community at TokenAtheist. Alise is currently writing a series on her blog called The Christian Guide to Atheistswhere each week she examines a misconception that some Christians hold about atheists. She will be speaking at the Wild Goose Festival this August on this topic as well. And because Alise is far more addicted to social media than her husband, you can also connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.
I think you will be happy with the honesty, insight, and grace with which Jason and Alise responded to your questions. I certainly was. Enjoy!
From Steph: What do you do when one of your kids asks a question about either atheism or Christianity? Does it default to one perspective, or are both sides presented?
Jason: It really hasn’t come up much. The kids know that each of them has a choice as to when and whether to attend church or youth group. Alise’s church is pretty far away, so usually those that go get a ride with my parents to a local church at which my brother is one of the pastors. They are all good critical thinkers, and most have expressed disagreement with common Evangelical positions on issues such as evolution and the age of the earth, and, as one put it “crazy stuff that happened in the Bible.” Mostly we just try to avoid giving simple answers to complex questions, whether the issue is political, sociological, or religious.
Alise: I don’t know if our kids ask specifically about Christianity or atheism, but they might ask about our takes on various issues that they encounter, and when that happens, we try to give all sides (including views that we don’t hold). At this point, our kids have varying levels of faith and we simply try to engage them in asking questions about why they feel the way that they do, reminding them that they are loved regardless of where they fall on the faith spectrum, and teaching them that treating others with dignity and love is always important.
I will say that the way that we parent our kids changed long before Jason’s deconversion. We watched the documentary "Jesus Camp" when it released on DVD. We knew that a lot of things in the film would be manipulated to tell one particular story, but the truth is, I saw a lot of stuff that looked very normal and that didn’t sit well with me. It wasn’t that I was concerned about some of the more obvious things that might look like indoctrination, but even some of the smaller things struck me as potential for concern. I want my children to make decisions for themselves about faith and some of what was presented in that film made me question if I was really allowing that. I would say at that point, we became more intentional about presenting multiple viewpoints to our children as they would talk about different lessons that they were studying in church. It also required us to spend more time explaining why we believed certain things and I think that helped us clarify our own views.
I recognize that this might be considered by some to be a bit of a gamble with our children’s faith, but I feel like it allowed our children to accept Jason’s loss of faith with less anxiety. Already knowing that people can hold different views and still be loving, kind, and compassionate allowed them to recognize that in their father.
From Deb: After 18 years at a large Evangelical church, including five years on the Kids' Ministry staff, my husband and I have recently returned to a small United Methodist Church we attended years ago. At the big, evangelical church it was almost unheard of to have children in our classes who didn't attend church with both parents. Even in the case of divorce, the other parent almost always "believed in God" and went to church somewhere. At our current church it is common to have kids who have been brought to church by one parent ( usually mom) their entire lives. In some cases the other parent just doesn't come to church but in other cases the child knows that Daddy or Mommy "doesn't believe in God" and the child will mention this in Sunday School. My question is: If I was your child's Sunday School teacher and your child announced to the class: 'My daddy doesn't believe in God" how can I best show the love of Jesus to your child in that moment? Is there anything else you would ask of me or like me to know, as an adult who is invested in the spiritual development of your child?
Alise: First, I just want to say that I love this question, because it already indicates a deeper understanding than we often see when talking about mixed faith relationships. One of the biggest frustrations that I encounter when speaking with people about Jason’s deconversion is that a number of people often come to me with ideas on how they can help rather than asking what would be helpful. So please know that the first thing is to do exactly what you’ve done here, which is to show an interest in the parents. That already communicates a level of caring for the child and the rest of the family that is sadly missing in some instances.
In the moment that it happened, I would mostly want my child to know that he or she was safe. Depending on the age of the child, this may not be something that they fully understand. They may have heard that unbelievers go to hell and some of their peers may have heard the same, and may echo that back to them. Elementary children in the Church can sometimes embrace their parents views and be much more dogmatic about them, so I would be very on guard for a potential negative comments from classmates and would want the leader to cut off any kind of negative peer response as quickly as possible. One of our children experienced a pile-on from peers and it was incredibly hurtful to them, so I would want to see that stopped before it had a chance to happen.
I would also want you to affirm that the child is exhibiting strength and courage in sharing this, and let them know that you want to honor that. I think that students often take their cues from the adults in leadership, so by pointing back to the student rather than the unbelieving parent, it can help keep the discussion from turning into one about something that may be confusing and upsetting for the child, but is instead an encouragement to them.
And as a parent, I would want to know that this happened. I think it can be easy for parents and Sunday School teachers or youth leaders to live in two different worlds, but I would want to know if my child was talking about this in his or her class. The way that each family is dealing with this will be really unique, so involving the parents (and I would include the unbelieving parent in the discussion as much as possible) would be really beneficial.
I would also discourage any kind of in-depth discussion at that time. I wouldn’t want my child’s concerns to be ignored, but I also think it would be better to take time to prepare some thoughts with the parents and maybe talk to the child individually. Are they talking about it because they just want their peers to know? Are they talking about it because of something they’ve heard in church? Because of something a relative said? I expect there is likely a catalyst for this and I would want to know what that is because that might shape the direction of the conversation. So let them know that you want to talk about this, but that you will do it in two weeks (or whatever) and that in the meantime, you are available to them to talk individually whenever they need to.
And seriously, thank you for caring about your students in this way. It is a beautiful thing.
From Arni: I guess this one is specifically for Alise - How has Jason becoming an atheist affected your views on the afterlife, especially hell?
Alise: Jason was probably the first person that I knew intimately who was firmly in the Not-A-Christian camp. I had irreligious acquaintances before, but none who were close to me. I had always believed in hell, but in more of an abstract way, and it wasn’t something that I was very focused on because I’m far more motivated by messages of love than by messages of fear. Hell always struck me as a poor reason to believe in God. I never bought Pascal’s Wager. So I had never examined what “believing in hell” really meant.
But following Jason’s deconversion, I was forced to do that examination. I had often heard “God’s ways are not like ours” to describe the problem of eternal torture for temporal sins, but I didn’t understand how hell was indicative of a higher way when it was something that struck me as abhorrent. How could I possibly love my husband more than God does? But eternal punishment for lack of belief certainly seemed cruel and unjust, two things that did not reconcile with a God who IS love.
I don’t know what kind of label you could give me at this point when it comes to the issue of hell. What I do know is that I fully embrace 1 John 4:7. I know that my husband and many of the irreligious people that I have met over the past three years know and exhibit love. And I know that an inclusive God certainly seems higher than a God who creates people to live for a moment and suffer eternal torture.
If anything, Jason’s deconversion has made me less afraid of God and has convinced me all the more of the fullness of God’s love.
From Claire: Alise - how did you deal with reactions from church/Christian friends to Jason's change of beliefs? Was there pressure to try to "re-convert" him, and how did you respond to that?
Alise: When Jason told me that he no longer believed in God, I asked him not to tell anyone for a while, in large part because I was worried about how people would react to me about his deconversion. I didn’t feel ready to answer questions about Jason’s eternal soul and how I was trying to win him back to God, so I just ignored it.
But one of the things that I’ve always loved about Jason is his honesty, and watching him have to hide that wasn’t fair to him and was killing one of his most admirable traits. So about six months after he told me, he made a public announcement with my support.
And the first response that I received when I got to church the following Sunday was a hug. No words, just a hug.
For the most part, this has been my experience. There have been some negative reactions, to be sure. We’ve been told that we’re both going to hell, and some of that has come from our family. I’ve had some unhelpful suggestions shared on how I can win him back to the Christian faith. We have both had to confront misconceptions about Christians and atheists in our respective communities. But overwhelmingly, people have been loving and accepting of both of us.
I am so thankful that Jason chose to trust me with his honest self and I want to continue to offer the people the chance to show their trustworthiness. Not all have proven trustworthy and it is very hurtful when that happens, but far more have shown that they are, and that gives me great hope.
From Jo: Alise, did you / do you experience Jason's rejection of Christianity as a rejection of you, or was it easy to separate these two things? Do you hope that Jason will someday regain his faith, and if so, how do you find the balance between accepting him where he's at and hoping/praying for change?
Alise: I don’t think I ever saw Jason’s rejection of Christianity as a rejection of me personally. I mistakenly thought that he thought that I was stupid for continuing to believe, so I worried for a time that he might reject me as a result of his unbelief, but I never saw unbelief itself as a rejection of me.
The second part of this is difficult for me to answer. I miss us both being on the same page spiritually. It has caused me to reexamine much of the way that I frame discussions. Before, if I was going through something particularly emotionally difficult, I might have asked Jason to hold me and pray for me. Now, I will simply ask for him to hold me. I still am comforted by that action, because I know that it’s rooted in the same love for me that he felt when prayer would accompany that embrace. Remembering that love is what compelled much of our spiritual interactions helps me when I want things to be different than what they are. Some days I want more, but for the most part, I’m content knowing that our love for one another is still strong.
From Jo (continued): Jason, do you / would you experience that kind of hope as a rejection of you, or a denial, or something else? To sum up, how do the two of you work through issues of acceptance/rejection and have you found it easy to separate acceptance/rejection of faith/atheism from acceptance/rejection of the person?
Jason: I certainly don’t take Alise’s faith as a rejection of me. In many ways, I admire it, as I know it can’t be easy to maintain faith without spousal support. I guess I’m a mild enough atheist and she’s a liberal enough Christian that neither of us take the other’s stand personally. I wouldn’t say that it has been easy on either of us (especially at first), but honestly it hasn’t been that hard, either. I don’t think of Alise’s belief as denial so much as a difference of opinion, akin to taking opposite sides on a political issue. We can’t both be right, but neither is overly interested in bringing to other to our side, either.
From Jeanette: Jason - what were your thoughts/feelings/fears (if any) when it came to the point of talking about your change of faith with Alise? I married a Christian man who has changed a lot over the last 14 years, and now does not attend church with our kids and me, since about five years ago or so. I am not opposed to the ways he has changed - his changes constantly make me grow and stretch myself along with him, which is good! What does bother me is that he will not (cannot?) talk to me about what, if anything, he does believe now; what his opinions/feelings about MY beliefs are; what he wants our children to learn and believe in the future; etc. He supports me in raising them within my very open, liberal church community, and participates in prayer around the dinner table and at bedtime; but that's about it. I guess this is a long way of asking, how do I figure him out? What made it okay for you to talk to Alise and "come out" (as I've seen it described here)? Thanks!
Jason: I suffered from an extraordinary amount of anxiety about telling Alise about my atheism outright. I dropped hints here and there that my worldview was changing, and that I was increasingly unsatisfied by some of the apologetics that I once embraced and wielded, and I was less and less comfortable serving at church. It took the first of many counseling sessions for me to gain enough courage to just say it. In the past, our world had been built around church activities, praise music, and shared belief in general. While I hoped that she would stay with me, I did offer to leave if she just could not handle being “unequally yoked.” Fortunately, while there were tearful moments, we were able to talk through it and continue on with marriage, and for that I am forever grateful.
Other than asking directly while reassuring your husband that you will not think less of him for revealing his true feelings, there is not much insight I can offer with respect to your question. Nothing in particular made it okay to come out; I just could not continue to pretend otherwise, at least not with my wife (I stayed quiet about it with everyone else for some months afterward). If your husband cannot answer as to his faith,it may well be that he doesn’t exactly know what it is, or how to describe his beliefs accurately..That was the state I lived in before fully embracing secularism. Even after I was “out” as a non-believer in God as I knew him, I clung to religious language and heritage through a form of pantheism for a while. Hopefully, since your relationship has already endured substantial changes in faith, your husband will open up soon enough.
From Hemant: It seems like you've both managed to make this relationship work, which is great, but I wonder what arguments get the most contentious due to your religious differences.
Alise: So we’re one of those couples who really just don’t argue very often. I KNOW. Sorry.
I didn’t handle Jason’s deconversion with the most grace, so when he told me that he no longer believed in God, I asked him not to tell anyone for a while, but I was never really clear with him that when I was okay with it being public knowledge that I meant that I wanted to be public about it as well. I wrote some things that were unintentionally hurtful to him in those early days and while they didn’t result in any arguments, there were hurt feelings that could have been avoided simply by being more forthright.
The truth is, despite our differences in faith, our worldview is very similar. I think what I experience more than anger is sadness. Because so much of our relationship revolved around the Church, religious holidays are often times of grief for me to one degree or another. I miss our shared faith when it comes to those seasons and often feel very torn between wanting to create new traditions and celebrating some of the things that still resonate most strongly with me in my faith. That is a tension that I still struggle with often, and while it is primarily an internal conflict, of course it bleeds into our interactions to some degree.
One of the things that I think is beneficial in our case is that we’re coming from a similar faith background, so Jason is more likely to know what I mean if I say something using church-y language and can help me communicate in a better way both with him and other people of no faith. Additionally, we had the benefit of 13 years of marriage under our belt when this change occurred. Because of our shared history, there were a lot of good reasons to work through this.
Jason: Our relationship did not take the hit that I feared it might. and Alise is right, we hardly ever argue about anything (other than perhaps the correct way to load a dishwasher, or whether Bach is interesting music). The length and strength of our relationship, coupled with the relatively gradual change of my worldview to one more grounded in science and skepticism probably softened the blow a bit. It also didn’t hurt that I was properly diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder over the same period that I was losing my faith.. That does not mean that I equate faith with mental illness, but rather that I personally had taken some of the euphoric feelings and attributed them to spiritual visions and had likewise attributed the lows to demonic forces. Without the experiential aspects of religion, I was left with little internal reinforcement and belief just withered away. I am a genuinely more reasonable and happy person than I was before, which has to make me a better husband who is easier to get along with. Religious, bipolar Jason probably would not have lived much longer, so irreligious, medicated Jason will have to suffice.
From Heather: My husband questioned his faith seriously a few years ago. I was sad, but never thought it would break our marriage. He ended up coming back to faith, and is more solid than ever. I, on the other hand, have had several long bouts with doubt and am going through another. Alise, have you ever doubted? If so, how have you continued to believe when living with an atheist? Sometimes I wonder exactly what I'm hanging on to...
Alise: I’m pretty sure I’ve been a doubter to one degree or another since I was able to start to reason some things out. I remember sitting in my pastor’s office when I was going through our confirmation classes, tears streaming down my cheeks, wondering how we could really be sure that we were following the right religion. So doubt is interwoven in my belief.
When Jason told me that he no longer believed in God, it was when I was going through a long season of pain from a church hurt. It was probably the closest I’ve ever come to abandoning my own faith. I was just starting to put the pieces of my own faith back together when Jason revealed his deconversion to me. I think part of me didn’t even hear what he was saying at first because I thought that it was just a continuation of a conversation about not believing in the God that we had accepted for a long time. This deconstruction of God had been going on with us for a while, so I thought this was simply a stronger statement of something we had been discussing for a while. When I realized that he meant that he simply didn’t believe, that definitely threw me. I think I just wanted him to go through the doubt with me and seeing him come to some kind of stasis in his belief journey was at least as difficult for me as the actual deconversion.
As to how I continue to believe while living with an atheist, it’s not always easy. Some days I don’t believe. When I see my faith being used to bully people, I don’t want to be a part of any of it any more. I know that morality can exist apart from belief, so I don’t think that it’s necessary for that. And I also accept that when it comes to proof, I simply don’t have any to offer.
Jason’s faith was always much stronger than my own. He was sure about things that caused me to question, so I think for a long time, I relied on his faith to carry me through. When he deconverted, I had to examine my faith for the first time in a long time. Part of that examination led me to Rachel’s blog, where I was able to find others who were struggling with doubt in the midst of their faith.
For me, recognizing and accepting that doubt is a part of my faith has been the key to maintaining it. It means that sometimes I believe fervently and sometimes I am a skeptic. I ultimately still find enough of God in things like music and beauty and relationships to compel me to maintain belief, but it is not the same kind of belief that I had before Jason’s deconversion. I do think that examination of why we believe is something that every person of faith should do, and I am grateful that Jason’s deconversion afforded me the opportunity to do that.
Be sure to thank Alise for her participation via Twitter or Facebook. You can find more of Jason’s thoughts about leaving Christianity and living as an atheist in a primarily Christian family and community at TokenAtheist. Alise is currently writing a series on
her blog called The Christian Guide to Atheists, where each week she examines a misconception that some Christians hold about atheists.
You can check out every installment of our interview series—which includes “Ask an atheist,” “Ask a nun,” “Ask a pacifist,” “Ask a Calvinist,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a gay Christian,” “Ask a Pentecostal” “Ask an environmentalist,” “Ask a funeral director,” "Ask a Liberation Theologian," "Ask Shane Claiborne," "Ask Jennifer Knapp," and many more— here.
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