Blessed Are the Nones: Book Review

The most common, and the fastest-growing, type of interfaith marriage in the US is a marriage between a Christian and a “religious none.” (The “nones” are a catch-all for anyone who doesn’t check one religion box–whether an atheist, an agnostic, spiritual but not religious, or someone with many religious heritages). Whenever I give a talk on interfaith families, I always get questions from families navigating differences between religious and non-religious beliefs. Now, a lively, original, and moving new memoir describes just such a marriage for the first time, from the inside. Blessed Are the Nones: Mixed-Faith Marriage and My Search for Spiritual Community, is a deeply Christian book in many ways, but it touches on many of the emotional and practical hurdles faced by interfaith families of all types.

Stina Kielsmeier-Cook and her husband Josh, the son of a missionary, met at an evangelical Christian college, married, and spent time living off the land together in a Christian farming community. But a few years into their marriage, Josh announces that he has stopped believing in God. This book charts Stina’s journey through adjusting to this new asymmetry in their relationship to Christianity. Seeking spiritual support and community, she engages with an order of Catholic nuns in their neighborhood in downtown Minneapolis, in an attempt to learn what it is like to be “spiritually single.” But the nuns reject this term, and instead help Stina to feel connected to multiple communities, and to feel less alone by the end of the book.

The memoir follows a chronology through the seasons and the liturgical calendar of that first year after Josh leaves Christianity. Their two small children serve as minor characters, illustrating the universally messy reality and comic relief of parenting. But the focus of this memoir is Stina’s struggles: to reimagine life without a Christian partner, to face her own doubts on religion and marriage, to find community, and to forge new relationships and religious growth with the nuns. Josh, rather than being the antagonist, is depicted as a mensch, often coming to the rescue to pick up Stina and the kids at church, and patient and considerate with his wife as she works to process his revelation. By the end of the book, she has traveled through shock and fear and grief at Josh’s loss of religion, to an eventual sense of trust and peace and acceptance.

Stina is a seeker, ecumenical by nature, willing to learn from others, but with a perspective deeply rooted in the Protestant world. She describes her experiences as part of Presbyterian, evangelical, Mennonite, Episcopalian, and Baptist communities, and her enrichment through discovering Catholic liturgies, saints, and monastic life. For interfaith families who are not Christian, the language of believers versus nonbelievers, of being unequally yoked, of heaven and hell and salvation–may not resonate. By definition, this book will be most relevant for practicing Christians who have spouses who have left Christianity. And there are many.

Nevertheless, the book describes challenges that are common for interfaith couples, whether they are Christian and Jewish, or Pagan and atheist. What does it feel like to sit alone (or alone with children) in a place of worship, feeling that everyone else is sitting with a spouse? What does it feel like to feel exhausted by the burden of trying to transmit your religious heritage to children without a partner’s participation? What does it feel like to realize your children may not go to your beloved childhood religious school or camp?

I admire the author’s determination to capture this pivotal year while the experience was still fresh. As such, it will be most useful to other couples at the start of an interfaith relationship. On the other hand, those who have been in interfaith relationships for many years or decades may need to search their memories to recall some of the feelings described. The desire for a spouse to convert (or in this case, re-convert), expressed frequently in this book, may not be as familiar to those from non-proselytizing religions. And it is a feeling that has been faced and firmly put aside in many mature interfaith relationships. The strict binary of “faith” or “no faith,” (again, a traditionally Christian-centric way of considering the concept of religious identity), often shifts in longtime interfaith relationships into a more complicated conversation. And many of us eventually shift away from the undue influence of societal insistence that interfaith families are problematic, to an appreciation for the benefits and richness that interfaith families can bring.

So I hope that Stina will report back some years from now on her fascinating journey with a sequel to this spiritual memoir. We have precious few books written from inside interfaith families, and even fewer by writers aspiring to literary non-fiction. In the meantime, I will be adding this book to my list of resources for interfaith families. It pairs nicely with Duane McGowan’s more journalistic book In Faith and in Doubt, written from the point of view of an atheist married to a Christian, describing many such families. I am grateful to Stina Kielsmeyer-Cook for adding to the growing roster of authors from interfaith families who are chronicling our myriad experiences, and creating a new category in the world of books.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Millennials: A Pagan and Atheist Couple

Pagan and Atheist Couple

Today, we feature a guest post by writer Camille Mellin, on her perspective as a Pagan married to an atheist. You can follow Camille on twitter @Camille_Mellin. For more on religious and atheist interfaith relationships, I highly recommend the recent book In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families, by Dale McGowan.

I am a Pagan married to an atheist living in New England. We are a young couple and were both stunned at how much an interfaith relationship can affect the relationship, and especially planning for parenthood. My husband was inexperienced when it came to Paganism, and so from the start, I needed to clear up several common misconceptions, including what takes place during rituals, rites, and ceremonies. The frequency of these activities were perhaps a bit of a shock to him as well. As a Pagan, there are eight sabbats throughout the year that require a great deal of my attention, as well as daily, weekly, and even monthly blocks of time devoted to worship and reflection. As I am not a part of a coven, and worship independently, I found that I needed my own space dedicated for my religious practice, in our home. It took some time, but eventually we came up with a schedule that met both of our needs.

Luckily, my husband is an open-minded person, but of course there have been some tense moments that blossomed from my religion and his lack of one. Perhaps the biggest argument took place while discussing future children. Neither of us are interested in forcing our children to believe in (or not believe in) anything. However, I would be open to involving my children in some kid-friendly activities, crafts, recipes, and more every now and then. In contrast, he expressed his concerns with ‘cornering’ our children into one religion instead of letting them choose for themselves whether they wanted to go the religious route or not.

I understand his concern. Growing up, I was never taught any other religion but Christianity, and was in fact told that all other religions were false and were not worth learning. Conversely, my husband was brought up in an open atmosphere as pertains to religion. He learned about all the major religions and in the end decided he did not believe in any of them, however, at least he knew of them. Likewise, I would like to teach my children about as many religions as possible. I do not want my children to feel they are cornered into believing anything. They will of course see their mother practicing Paganism, and their father practicing atheism, and will therefore have more knowledge about these paths.

My husband and I are an interfaith, interracial couple, and my husband is transgender. Each one of these comes with a fair amount of culture shock. I believe religion to be extremely private, and so I don’t usually discuss it with people whom I know find it uncomfortable, including many family members. When it came to the wedding, my husband was adamant that we incorporate a Pagan handfasting ceremony, because he knew how important it was to me. And while I was grateful that my husband respected my religious beliefs so much that he wanted to merge my beliefs with a standard ceremony, I found it difficult to imagine participating in something so intimate in front of my family. In the end, we decided to have the handfasting separately, by ourselves.

Interfaith relationships, including Pagan interfaith relationships, aren’t all that uncommon these days. Some of the issues we face are specific to Pagan interfaith relationships. But regardless of the faiths involved, all relationships require open discussion and compromise.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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