A House Divided…

In my community, like much of the South, one’s allegiance is judged based on two categories: where you go to church, and which sports team you support.

Given my “promiscuity” with Project Conversion and the fact that I’m not a huge sports fan, I’m not too much fun at social gatherings. Despite my social black sheep status, there are some distinctions in our household. For one, my wife and I met at East Carolina University and so are big supporters (her more than me) of the football program there. The other distinction is the religious one. My wife is a staunch, though very liberal, Christian. Because we (mostly she) home school our two daughters, the Bible is a tool through which she teaches the kids both a spiritual tradition and a base for character development. Each month, I teach the kids a little about the faith I am studying, usually via the holidays. So my daughters are getting a nice dose of interfaith education. What’s not to like?

The month of May.

The first four months of this experiment had at least some focus on God or some deity. I prayed to someone/thing, and in general I had a theistic outlook even before Project Conversion began. Buddhism, in most cases, is non-theistic. In some circles, it’s atheistic altogether.

Buddhism is my wife’s least favorite religion thus far for that very reason.

Because I empty myself at the beginning of every month so that I can fully absorb the next, I had to let go of my theistic tendencies in order to embrace Buddhism. That’s the special part of Project Conversion: I’m not just experimenting, I am becoming someone new every month. I expose myself to and shortly after “catch” the new bug.

As fate would have it, as difficult as Buddhism is…it’s probably my favorite month because there is no dependence on or belief in an all-powerful deity. This isn’t to say I haven’t enjoyed the other months. Sometimes, things just fit.

No, I am not converting and calling Project Conversion off early. Come the end of May, I will shed Buddhism like I’ve done with every faith in order to put on the garments of another, but this aspect of Buddhism has caused a challenge for our family because my wife isn’t comfortable with atheistic thought in general and especially when I start thinking/acting like one.

For May, I switched teams.

Wife: “How can you not believe in God? You believed before you started Buddhism…”

Andrew: “As a Buddhist, belief isn’t important. Only direct experience and testing of one’s effort toward Enlightenment is. There’s no room for blind belief.”

Wife: “But I’m not talking about Andrew the Buddhist, I’m talking about Andrew before Project Conversion.”

Awkward silence.

Andrew: “He no longer exists.”

We live in a house divided. I am convinced that my wife would have great difficulty living with a Buddhist. What happens if at the end of the year I actually pick a tradition? I can’t say with any certainty that such a thing will happen. In all likelihood I’ll play hard-to-get for the rest of my life, but just knowing the line is basically drawn in the sand with Buddhism is unnerving. I’ve struggled with this all month. I never thought something like this would become a discomfort–a line in the sand–in our home.

So I started thinking about other multi-religious homes. Do you belong to one? What religions (or maybe one is religious and the other isn’t) are represented in your home? Are there any conflicts? How do you live in peace? Where is the line drawn? What are the dynamics with your kids?

In the mean time, my wife is counting down the days to the end with enthusiasm. As for me, I’m a free agent and trying to detach from Team Buddhism…just like the Buddha taught me to do.

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  • Pagolesher

    I am sorry that this has been your experience.

    Why is she so frightened?
    Were your religious beliefs before Project Conversion completely congruent with hers? Is that what your relationship is based upon? 
    As for the mixed-religion family. Ex-husband was raised So. Baptist; I was raised without religion. He “strayed” from the church’s teachings, but when we were first married, forbade me from having any “religious” materials in the house that were not Biblically-based. I found ways to study non-Biblically-based religions by using history books; I was thrilled to discover the religions of the Native Americans, so congruent with my own beliefs. He now claims Christianity, but also uses Reiki, does Yoga, meditates, and goes to a non-denominational church up in Asheville (Jubilee). Oh, and his girlfriend is Jewish, go figure!

    Me, I have found that nature is my church, and that there is a connectedness we share among all things. I am raising my girls to be aware of the cycles of nature, and to believe in that connectedness, recognize that small spark that is within all things, that makes us who we are, and brings us all together as one; and that above all, we have free will and choose our paths. When I “pray”, I address the Universe, which is both inside and outside of me. I have no script, no dogma. On any given day, I may say I am “Pagan” or “Buddhist” (used this one yesterday to chase away some Jehovahs) or even “Pastafarian”……

    Religion did not play a part in our divorce. My youngest likes to go to Jubilee with them when she has visitation, my older two would rather drive toothpicks under their fingernails, LOL. I offer to take the girls to the Unitarian church, and they look at me as if I have grown a second head, “Why go somewhere that will tell us how to believe or worship, when we can go outside and listen to the trees, birds, and feel the sun on our faces?”

    That makes me smile!

    • Anonymous

      No, our relationship was not based on faith, but our friendship. Her reasons are hers but she is simply uncomfortable with the idea that someone does not see at least some idea of the divine in the universe.

      What it all comes down to is not a matter of personal conviction, but how to bring up the kids. I’m cool with her teaching the kids whatever. I will provide an objective view on all. Hopefully that will sideline any issue.

      • Kelly

        Read Thich Nhat Hahn’s “Living Buddha Living Christ.”  Great book that gives insight to being both Christian and Buddhist.   I use Buddhist practices in my faith.   I haven’t found the right  church yet (grew up Catholic).  I’m enjoying your experiment immensely.

        • Anonymous

          You know Kelly, you are the 4th or 5th person to recommend this book. I just might have to pick that sucker up now ; )

  • Liz Mc.

    My boyfriend is a religion hating atheist, though he hates the label because he feels it implies belief in the non-existence of a deity.  I am a spiritual shopper (and former religion major!) with tendencies towards Hinduism and Buddhism.  Even as open and unattached as I am to any particular set of rituals and beliefs, it can be tough in our house.  I’ve come to view my spiritual life as a metaphorical altar cabinet, which generally remains closed to him.  If I want to share my spiritual leanings and thoughts, there are plenty of interested people with whom I can do that.  So my bf and I connect on other levels and have other shared interests that don’t involve spiritual things.  It works for us, though I don’t know that it could work for everyone.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Liz. I think you’re right in that, not everything in a relationship can be shared. The best anyone can do, especially with kids involved, is to be open and offer views without trying to push those beliefs on them.

  • Anonymous

    A ball of irony, we are.

  • Karen

    First of all, Andrew, Buddhism is not necessarily atheistic; it’s a lot more complicated than that, depending on which branch of Buddhism you’re dealing with.  One Buddhist scholar said “Vajrayana (I.e. Tibetan) Buddhism, Vedanta, and Neoplatonic Christianity have so much in common that they could almost be regarded as varying interpretations of the same theory.” (from Wikipedia’s article on God in Buddhism).  Buddha doesn’t demand his followers not believe in God; he asks them to follow the Dharma. 

    My husband, a non-churgoing Christian, has patiently allowed me to do my own thing spiritually throughout our 26 years of marriage — and I’ve gone through some major changes during that time. He thinks I’m crazy, but doesn’t complain.  Your soul’s your own — it, quite bluntly, isn’t anybody’s business what you do when you go into your private space and pray, meditate, or whatever.  Not even the business of your nearest and dearest. 

    Now, things that affect the household do have to be negotiated — how you raise the children, dietary issues, etc.  In those things, I’d bend over backwards to avoid stepping on your wife’s toes, but when it comes to your own beliefs and spiritual practice, that’s sacred territory, not to be imposed upon.

    I’m enjoying your experiment here, Andrew.  The best of wishes to you.  May all beings be happy!

    • Anonymous

      Hey there Karen.

      I never said Buddhism was wholly atheistic. Check out the 4th paragraph and, well, all the posts from this month. You are right in that one’s spiritual orientation/business is their own. Negotiation is key, indeed. My position is to raise the kids from the lowest common denominator: compassion and objective reasoning. My wife can add on whatever she likes. In the end it comes to mutual respect; live and let live. This is why I wanted to learn about other homes with multi-faith members. You gave us a great example. Thanks so much!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashleysandvoss Ashley Sandvoss Okamoto

    Hi Andrew,

    Personally, as someone who very much believes in the Divine and studies Buddhism as well, I don’t consider Buddhism even a little bit atheistic. Non-theistic even is a confusing way of talking about it; the Buddha, a lot like Baha’u'llah, says that we simply cannot understand the spiritual realm or God. So perhaps it might be a solace to your wife to know that Buddha at no point said anything about there not being a God. In fact, He sort of says there must be:

    “There is, O monks, an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unformed. Were
    there not, O monks, this unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, unformed,
    there would be no escape from the world of the born, originated,
    created, formed.” (from the Udana, 8.3)

    What I feel that the Buddha was getting at in His ministry was that we spend too much time trying to understand God and define God, while it is something completely beyond comprehension. I’m sure you know the blind men and the elephant story, right? In the Udana, when Buddha told this story, it was in response to questions about the nature of existence and the afterlife. His point seems to be that it is beyond our ability to understand because we have a limited perspective in this life, in this cage of flesh and confined consciousness.

    Anyway, just some food for spirit. Here in my Baha’i household (my husband and I are both Baha’i), we study Buddhism and practice the teachings of the Dharma in our daily lives, and I’m finding my belief in God isn’t getting in the way one bit. In fact, Buddhism helps me hold my views with humility and open-heartedness. It reminds me to never, ever think I know what God is all about or to lay claim to some superior knowledge of life after death. Through my mindfulness and metta practice, I find my wonderment at the beyond terms and words beauty of this world increases day by day. It enriches my faith and gives life deeper focus and purpose. What’s not to love!

    • Anonymous

      Thank you Ashley.

      This is why one can certainly be an atheist, theist, or “not sure” and still practice Buddhism. Indeed, the Buddha taught that his mission was not to bring a truth as to the nature of the divine, but in how to end suffering. In effect he was saying, “I teach History, not Biology. Why would I comment on what I do not teach?”

      On the other hand, we are taught by the Buddha that liberation is not in the hands of a divine being (the Buddha is said to teach even the gods), but by one’s own effort. This is why the system may accomidate any background simply because the idea of God(s) is almost a dressing to the method. Enlightenment and Nirvana may be reached with or without the notion of God.

  • Bart Everson

    I can see where this would be a sticking point for your wife. But, by way of contrast, Buddhism’s lack of insistence on theistic dogma resonates with to me. Of all the religions you’ve practiced so far, this is the only one I could begin to imagine embracing myself.

    So… maybe you should have married me for the month of May. Except oops, I’m already married, plus I’m a man. And straight. So we would have had a few other minor obstacles.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Bart. It’s the thought that counts…and makes me nervous.

  • Kora Kaos

    Yeah, I live in a very religiously mixed home.  Since you asked, I’ll try to explain… hope it’s not too wordy.  Firstly, both my boyfriend and I grew up in Catholic households, though we seem to have had very different experiences.  I was told that the Bible is a collection of many varied types of stories, some poetic metaphor, some politically satirical, and that one could find one’s way in absolutely any religion, among other things.  My boyfriend did not feel any of these ideas were given to him but rather that he was told to believe these stories were all literally true and written by the hand of God.  So when he was a teenager he became Evangelical and also Pentecostal, wherein he was a Bible-thumper and also danced ecstatically and spoke in tongues.  Me, I looked around myself (I lived in a rural area, so there weren’t many to whom I could look.  There was only one other Catholic my age; the other thirty some were Protestant) and saw that all those who claimed to follow God in my neighborhood were absolutely mean-spirited folk who would abuse anyone different from themselves, and so I somehow ended up an atheist for several years.  (I kick myself over this like one might do after cheating on their lover, but I guess all things happen for a reason.)

    Fast forward, and now we absolutely cannot deny the existence of “God”.  But see, it’s so hard to use a word when it’s been treated like it can possibly encapsulate the uncontainable.  My boyfriend no longer calls himself Christian, and wouldn’t go to church, but I actually like attending Mass on holidays.  We also each practice absolutely whatever religion we feel like at any time and combine the practices however we want.  We have both practiced yoga for years (I learned it while I was an “atheist”, no less).  Yoga is more than exercises, of course, and I realized that I have been practicing at least meditation since I was a child.  (My mother just thought I was weird.)  I practice certain activities others would concsider “Occult”, “New Age”, “Vodun”, or even “Satanic” although I never thought myself any of these labels.  We both have a church in theatre (a great many of the world’s religious traditions descend from theatrical ritual).  It is a sacred healing process- I like to say that I worship Dionysos as such.  My lover likes Taoism quite a lot because he feels it is great about not having a “deity”, so to speak.  I am comfortable using form identities and invoking or evoking their energy, and using names, but he prefers to go straight to the “source/reality/now/way”.  All more labels for God.  I saw in your comments that Ashley said “we spend too much time trying to understand God and define God, while it is something completely beyond comprehension”, and I agree that this is so.  Although a little time spent trying to understand and define… I rather enjoy as I would a game :)  There is no conflict regarding religion in my household, and we have no children.  The only conflict stems from ego and denying the present moment.

    But also, we both still believe in God.  The thing is, it’s not that we believe in an old man floating around in the sky.  It is not an anthropomorphic deity.  He is not some armed and legged individual, or separate from anything at all.  Of course, I’m just using more words.  Other words people try to use are omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, Atman, the ultimate reality, Supreme Deity, Lord of all that is seen and unseen, everything, the all… and those are all correct, but still.  None of these are God.

    So like, I guess I’m saying if you want to be atheistic go for it; it worked for me and works for some of my friends.  Keep doing it if you think that’s part of your path.  Being a-theist as in a-limited-anthropomorphic-guy works great.  But being a-theist about the real “God” would be like being a-universe.  Clearly the universe exists, and to deny that is a bit insane.  Of course, it could all be a hallucination… that’s fine =)  Any resistance you meet from others is a reaction of their ego.  (I have one of those egos, too; I hear I can be an angry-rude-type, so, I’ll cut others some slack.)  Hope your life situation doesn’t make you “suffer” too much.  ;) 

    Have you read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha yet?  I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ll just say that the main character, Siddhartha, knows all these things of God too, and there is a moment wherein he pulls away from a “human” god.  I love that book period.  Oh, and just imo from personal experience, I agree with those who say that through seeking one shall never find.  One already has it.  But lots of Buddhists are seeking, too.

  • Anonymous

    Stacey,

    Thanks for sharing this. I can imagine the pain of not being completely open with your husband. Your conclusion, and your continued efforts for peace, are inspiring. I wish you the best.

  • World Wonderer

    My husband was raised in an observant Shiite Moslem home in Iran. Raised in a culturally Chrisitan home in the US, I became interested in the Baha’i Faith because its Founder, Baha’u'llah was Persian and the Faith began there. Although the largest religious minority in Iran, my husband knew little about Baha’is only that his grandmother warned him not to drink Pepsi as the bottling company there was owned by Baha’is. After studying the Faith for a year, I told him that I believed Baha’u'llah was the latest Manifestation of God and I wanted to join the Faith. He said he didn’t have a problem with that, but asked that I wait till our first child was born, I was pregnant at the time. He also said he did not want our children raised in the Baha’i Faith; that was fine with me because the Baha’i Faith teaches that every individual must make an independent investigation of the truth, even the children of Baha’i parents.
    However although my husband and I agreed initially, it became obvious as our children grew that he was operating from an ingrained prejudice that could not be dispelled despite demonstrable logic to the contrary. If I took our children to a Baha’i function, he instructed them never to say prayers or participate in anyway. He would quiz them again when they got home to make sure they hadn’t. I believe this gave them the impression there was something inherently “bad” about the Faith. On the other hand, as Baha’i believe in the divinity of the Manifestations that preceeded Baha’u'llah, I took the children to classes at a Mosque. However, my oldest had a negative experience there when the instructor slapped a boy in class. I discontinued their Moslem instruction when the pre-school teacher started frightening the children by telling them about  Jinn (evil spirits). My husband and I are still married, 33+ years now, though sometimes he still criticizes my Faith. Our oldest son considers himself an agnostic wanting nothing to do with religion while the younger considers himself a Moslem, though he does not follow the “rules.”
    I later learned of the extreme prejudice that the Muslim majority propagates against it’s Baha’i minority in Iran. You covered that very ably in your February piece. Even my own sweet mother-in-law, with whom I get along with better than her own daughters, said to my husband that the only thing she wished was different about me was that I was not Baha’i!

    • Anonymous

      Amazing what unitive and devisive power religion can have on a family. It takes great faith and humility to raise your children then way you did.