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Religious Diversity and Tolerance at Home
by Pete Wernick
Contributing author, Parenting Beyond Belief

joan and pete
Pete and Joan Wernick in performance

I’m the lone humanist in my household. My wife Joan is a committed Catholic, and our teenaged son Will, though not formally aligned with any religion, does believe there’s a God. People are understandably curious, wondering, “How do you make it work?” Here’s the story:

Joan and I met and became a couple thirty years ago this summer. I was then, as now, an atheist—hadn’t yet discovered the term “humanist”—and she was in “searching” mode, having made a break from her Catholic upbringing. While not an atheist, she supported my penchant for collecting and writing non-theistic life-affirming meditations and philosophies. At our wedding five years later, the ceremony we wrote and read to our family and friends was full of heart and free of theism.

Several years later, Joan started reconnecting with her Catholic roots. Though this shook our shared foundation, our long-term commitment and our new parenthood motivated us to make it work. Without realizing it, we followed mediation guidelines: Make a mutually agreeable “plan of practices” to follow, and stick with it. Limit philosophical debates that divide and irritate.

One of our first positive steps was to agree on how to raise our son re religion. We would each let him know our outlook and eventually encourage him to make his own choices. (Lo these seventeen years later, it’s now pretty obvious that he’d have done that anyway.) We would phrase our beliefs not as certainties (e.g. “God wants you to…” or “There is no God”), but as beliefs (“I believe that God wants you to…”, or “I don’t believe in God”). We asked our relatives to respect this style, not stating opinions as “truths” to Will, but only as their beliefs, if at all. Understanding that their cooperation was a way to support our marriage, thank goodness, they complied. As for the moral code we’ve tried to teach, we don’t disagree: Caring and respect for others is the guide.

Naturally, when discussing religion with Will, I would try my best to be convincing. Along with discussing why it’s important to be a good person, I would tell him that the idea of an invisible father who controls everything just doesn’t make sense to me. Though he never bought church doctrine, since he was small he has maintained: “Then how did all this get here?” To me, the only answer to that is “No one knows”—but “God did it” works for him.

Despite Joan’s and my cooperation, the increasing differences created a painful sense of loss for me. While she still appreciated my positive philosophy, she was now regularly going to church and embracing beliefs and practices for which I had little feeling or respect. I sometimes felt I just couldn’t handle it. I went to a counselor and did a lot of complaining. The counselor’s refrain was, “What are you going to do?” I took a hard look at ending the marriage, and realized how much I had, and how precious it was. Joan is a wonderful person with a big heart and a great deal that I can learn from. We still agreed on so many things, and we had all that shared history. I decided to find more ways to make it work.

There will always be differences between people. Even small differences can cause friction, even between otherwise like-minded people. The key is keeping control of the friction, not eradicating the differences. Some of our understandings:

• Agree to disagree when possible.
• Emphasize common ground.
• Don’t unnecessarily put something hard-to-take right in the other’s face.
• Leave the door open to respect as much as possible of the other person’s outlook and practices.

All of the above have helped.

From the start, I was relieved that we agreed to avoid children’s books and movies with religious themes. Joan was glad for the chance to share Christmas and Easter services with Will and didn’t mind my occasionally taking him to Unitarian church. Either of us talking religion with others is best done away from common areas where it might get on the other’s nerves. Family activities, even the art and pictures we display on the walls of our home, reflect the things we both love: nature, music, togetherness, good memories. Atheist cartoons and pictures of the pope go in our respective rooms.

This isn’t to say we avoid discussing our beliefs. But when we do, we take care to be respectful and to back off when it is going nowhere (as it often does). Agreeing to disagree actually provides some relief. As we abandon the conversation, I feel that we are affirming peace in our house, which I appreciate and cherish. And we can go right from there into some more harmonious part of our common ground. It’s a choice I’m happy to make.

There’s a bright side to this in-home diversity – the benefit to a kid of seeing parents and kids coexist and be loving despite disagreements, or even a different set of core beliefs. Learning to accept some dissonance is good practice for later life. Good people can disagree and still love.

Beyond that, this family harmony suggests that the real core beliefs have more to do with “what is good behavior” than with what’s up in the sky or after death, or what happened 2000 years ago. Absence or presence of mythology needn’t necessarily lead to disharmony any more than a difference in hobbies or in favored sports teams. Why should a spouse’s dedication to something I find uninteresting – be it the Detroit Tigers, NASCAR, 19th century English novels, or the Catholic Church – unsettle me? (Well okay, it’s not really that simple – but I gladly take private comfort in this construct.)

Joan is from a large family, and their occasions are often infused with religion, which at times makes me squirm. But I have also cultivated an appreciation of the benefits her family derives from Catholicism – their deep sense of charity that fuels an ongoing penchant to do for others, their ability to forgive and go on from upsets, their ability to accept and include, refraining from judgment. When their religion calls on them to embrace supernaturalistic myths or ideas I’m at odds with, I can at least try to tie the pieces together as part of one cloth, as varied as the entire human condition. And I can also just literally look the other way, or even flat out leave the room if I can’t take it. Joan is more at ease with my views, and even reads my Family of Humanists columns with interest and some good suggestions.

The above set of practices and guidelines is far from perfect. It has been a stretch for me, a person with perfectionist tendencies, to learn these ropes. But that’s all the more reason to do it: learning flexibility, learning to accept. And religious diversity will not be the hardest challenge to accept as I grow older.

Having made progress in this area has given me some deep satisfaction. At first I wasn’t sure it was possible. How could I put up with the pain? It turns out to be quite possible. I find myself thinking, if we can learn to do this in our house, maybe there’s hope for the Israelis and Palestinians, the Indians and the Pakistanis. Peace is a wonderful thing. I work at it because it’s worth it, and I’m still at it. This past June we celebrated our 25th anniversary.


Bronx-born Coloradoan Pete Wernick earned a PhD in Sociology from Columbia University while developing a career in music on the side. His bestselling instruction book Bluegrass Banjo allowed “Dr. Banjo” to leave his sociology research job at Cornell to form Hot Rize, a classic bluegrass band that traveled worldwide. Pete served as president of the International Bluegrass Music Association for fifteen years.

Pete, his wife and son survived the disastrous crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City in 1989. A Life magazine article following the crash identified Pete as a humanist and noted that he didn’t see a supernatural factor in his survival. An atheist since age fifteen, Pete was president of the Family of Humanists from 1997 to 2006. Today he continues to perform, run music camps nationwide, and produce instructional videos for banjo and bluegrass.

This essay first appeared as the President’s Column in the Family of Humanists newsletter, Aug/Sept 1999.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.