My husband and I agreed to disagree about religion. He was agnostic, and I was Christian, and neither one of us seemed inclined to change our beliefs.
Our stalemate worked fine until an unplanned pregnancy forced us to confront the issue of faith all over again. What would we teach the children?
After we had two kids who were old enough to toddle around, I was eager to take them to church. My husband considered church to be something akin to brainwashing. He wanted our children to decide for themselves what they believed.
He argued that children shouldn’t be made to believe a certain way. I pointed out that kids didn’t know what was best for them, so parents needed to make that decision.
“I make them wash their hands before dinner even though they don’t want to because it’s good for them,” I reasoned. “Taking them to church will be good for them until they can decide for themselves.”
He wasn’t convinced, and the debate continued.
In my own family, my parents reached a religious compromise. They were both churchgoers, but they didn’t attend the same church. They agreed we children would alternate, going back and forth between churches.
Finding grounds for compromise
My background is probably what gave me the idea that my husband and I could compromise, even though our belief systems were entirely different. First, we needed to consider the things we agreed on.
We both wanted our children to make up their own minds about faith when they were old enough to reach a thoughtful decision. We wanted to teach them values such as integrity, generosity, and compassion. And we agreed that creating a loving environment at home was the best thing we could do for them.
Eventually, my husband and I reached a compromise. I had grown up with certain southern customs, such as teaching kids to address adults as “ma’am” and “sir.” This was a big deal in the South, but foreign to my husband’s background. I told him I would ditch all southern customs he disliked if he would agree to my taking the children to church until they were old enough to decide for themselves.
Maybe you and your partner can find some grounds for compromise. What if you alternated Sundays, taking them to church with you every other week? This would be a fair division of time, exposing the children to both points of view.
If attending Sunday services generates too much controversy, your partner might agree to other church-related activities. Church is more than a weekly sermon. There is also a sense of community. Dinners, softball leagues, mission trips, outreach groups, and a myriad of other church activities might be more acceptable to an unbeliever.
But if your partner agrees to associate with your believing friends, don’t shun his unbelieving ones. Try to be a part of each other’s lives. Spending quality time together is crucial to building and maintaining a healthy relationship.
“Similarly, if one member of the couple isn’t religious, it’s important to participate in activities or non-religious traditions that are important to them. You can’t expect your atheist partner to respect your religion if you can’t respect or honour their decision not to practice a religion; that’s a breeding ground for resentment.” April Masini, relationship advice expert
I had been attending a church in a mainstream denomination, but when my husband mentioned his willingness to try out a Unitarian Universalist Church, I agreed. We ultimately didn’t attend that church, but he appreciated my flexibility.
When compromise is impossible
What if you can’t reach a compromise? What if your partner is adamant about not wanting the kids to attend church or any church-related activities?
There are still ways you can expose your children to both belief systems. The most important thing to remember is not to allow your home to become a battleground over religion.
Author Ronit Baras writes, “If both parents are dogmatic in their attitudes and have different, or worse, conflicting beliefs, this can be super confusing for kids. Conflict over religious beliefs, or any other values for that matter, will prevent kids from developing the confidence they need to navigate the world and confusion will take over certainty and peace.”
She goes on to say, “ Remember that your religious beliefs are yours and no one can take them away from you. You do not have to convert anyone to your religion in order for it to be right for you. If you try to convert them, kids will think you don’t fully believe in what you are preaching and that will make them shy away from what you are teaching. Think about it for a second. If we know that you transfer beliefs through modeling, all you have to do is talk less, be true to your religion and your kids will be inspired!”
Children respond to what we do more than to what we say. If they experience a loving, caring home environment, they are more likely to grow into loving, caring adults. How you interact with your partner is more important than any sermon they could hear in church. Let your life be a walking sermon.
What if, instead of worrying, you looked forward to showing your child what you love about your religion, and letting the man you love express why he doesn’t need it? If you’re respectful of each other’s perspectives, your child will learn to think for herself and be considerate of others’ beliefs. Paul Fidalgo
Church doesn’t make a person a Christian
Remember that bringing children up in church is not what makes them Christians. Some people have had negative experiences in church and have turned away from Christianity as a result.
Not being part of a church family makes it more important than ever that you model your faith at home. This means expressing joy, love, forgiveness, and faith in everyday life. Reveal God as a source of joy and comfort. Your children will see you living your faith.
Teach your children about your religion. Read them the Bible stories you grew up with, but welcome your partner’s stories as well. Explain that people don’t all believe the same way. Welcome their questions, and be ready to answer them without criticizing their other parent.
Religious differences led me to explore my reasons for believing more thoroughly. Instead of diminishing or faltering beneath the scrutiny of closer examination, my faith was strengthened.
Attempting to answer my family’s questions inspired me to read widely and deeply, examining both scripture and other historical and religious writings. In a world with many different belief systems, it’s important to be able to explain our reasons for believing the way we do.
Don’t worry about your children’s exposure to your partner’s unbelief. They will be exposed to many different beliefs in their lifetime, and they will eventually make up their own minds. Let them see the firmness and fruits of your own faith.
Love your partner, love your children, create a stable, respectful, and loving home environment, and strive to instill the foundational values that will help your children navigate a diverse and challenging world.
You can read about my husband’s faith journey here: