I am an atheist, my husband a practising Catholic. I went through an agonising annulment so my husband could be married in his church, and when we first went to see the priest we wanted to marry us, his first words were ‘Well, that’s a chasm’.
It is the tyranny of small difference that is often the most bitter, demonstrated by the Catholic/Protestant hatred and bigotry of my childhood in regional Victoria. Atheist writer and philosopher Alain de Botton claims that the strongest relationships are where a couple has a great deal in common, but also one major difference. It is in those relationships that people have to embrace the bravery of vulnerability, and take a huge risk for love.
I am not the only good person who happens to be an atheist, who is married to a good person who happens to be a Catholic. Yes we have vigorous debates over the reproductive rights of women, the male headship of the Church, same sex marriage, taxes on non-charitable religious businesses, voluntary euthanasia, Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell. And yes there are times when we both feel a gap. But so do most couples. Far more importantly we are both committed to the politics of opportunity over privilege, that inequality is socially constructed, that greed and consequential ethics (what’s in it for me) are as treacherous to humanity as climate change, that tribalism is not always fetching and there can be no victory over someone you love.
What prompted me to write this article was that it is too easy too often to ignore the good in what does not chime in harmony with our own views. Fear is the greatest threat to understanding and ignorance is where ideas go to get murdered. Atheists hold nothing in common except the belief that there is no credible evidence for the existence of deities. Therefore I can often have more in common with people of like-minded social justice views, rather than whether they believe in an afterlife or not.
But there are two perpetuated myths hugely offensive to me. That morality was invented by Western religion and that I believe in nothing.
Humans would long ago have ceased to exist without rules for living as a community that most abided by. And the irony of people we believe worship the non existent, telling us we believe in nothing, seems to get lost. I believe in the radiance of reality, the power of reason, our duty to look after each other, and to never be greedy by owning more than one house. I accept that sometimes the most beautiful is that which we cannot yet explain, and maybe never should. I understand the eternal existence of my atoms that will continue on in the universe after I die, and maybe even adorn the stars.
So when I am driving my husband to Mass, or reminding him to say his morning and evening prayer, or typing the Legion of Mary Minutes after my own Skype meeting for the Atheist Foundation or the National Secular Lobby, I smile at the word ‘chasm’. And I think warmly of the wise priest who used it and then engaged in our difference with equality and inclusiveness for our concerns and feelings prior to our marriage.
Because we both could have succumbed to the fears and obstacles flagged by concerned family and friends. We could have believed that differences in what we believed in were insurmountable, and more important than the people we are, and the love people can feel for each other. And I could have missed out on being married to a truly wonderful man.
Janine Gosbell Gebert