God found my wife, now what do I do?
April 20, 2005 8:54 PM   Subscribe

God found my wife, now what do I do?

I have been married for less than a year, but have known/dated my wife for almost ten. Our personalities differ quite drastically. I'm patient, thoughtful, slightly emotionally frigid ;) and a staunch skeptic. She's passionate, outspoken, and empathetic. Despite this, we share most of our core moral ideas, and we've always been able to discuss those things about which we disagree. I deeply respect her.

Last month she recognized she couldn't control herself when it came to alcohol, and joined A.A. I'm thankful she was self-aware enough to make this choice before the consequences of her addiction became too severe. A.A. initially gave me a lot of hope, as they have helped thousands of people and their serenity prayer is singularly wise.

However the path AA has asked her to take makes me very uncomfortable. As a theistic organization, they demand that she surrender her judgement to (a) God, or face returning to drink. My wife has thrown herself whole-heartedly into this, and has confessed to me that she now believes in a personally-interested god. This is a bit of a shocker, as she's never been particularly "spiritual" as long as I've known her.

Recent discussions on the matter have ended with both of us upset. I am not so much concerned with her conclusions, as I am with her integrity in reaching them. She feels that her confidence in God's existance doesn't need to be justified. I have an almost gutteral feeling that this impass will lead to a weakening of my respect for her, and jeapordizes our relationship.

How do I learn to respect, or at least stop worrying about, her new faith?
posted by Popular Ethics to Religion & Philosophy (49 answers total)
Jeez, just give her a little time to sort her mind out. This is a rough time for her, a month sober is really really early in the recovery process. If she needs to believe in the higher power stuff to get her through it, let her have that. Suck it up and give her the support she needs and wait six months to start arguing theology with her.
posted by octothorpe at 9:13 PM on April 20, 2005

Since neither of you can convince the other about the existence of God, maybe you should just accept it. It serves you no good to try and change her beliefs. If believing in God gets her off the drink, don't ruin a good thing. Faith in God isn't going to make her a bad person. And in respect to the Rules of AskMe, I'll end there.
posted by BradNelson at 9:14 PM on April 20, 2005

Is she just using a belief in a god entity to sort out her personal problems, or is she turning that belief into a crusade to convert or to manage other people's lives and decisions? My understanding of AA is not a theistic organisation in the Bill Frist or Tom DeLay lets-legislate-our-morality-down-your-throat sense.

I think the "integrity" comes from her realizing her addictive behavior and trying to do something relatively harmless (in the grand scheme of things) to manage it.
posted by AlexReynolds at 9:15 PM on April 20, 2005

I'd say relax. Is she trying to rope you into her new viewpoint? I'd guess not; A.A. isn't big on proselytizing, it's more about your personal adherence to a set of rules. Some people see A.A.'s references to God as meaning their own subconscious, or whatever. It's a mechanism, a method, not a cult. If you held on to your respect for her before this, what with any side-effects from her drinking, why not now when she's trying to do something about it?

On preview, what Alex said.
posted by atchafalaya at 9:22 PM on April 20, 2005

Pure out-of-my-ass opinion here:

I think the only way to make it work is if you each acknowledge the other person's position and accept it for that person. You and she each has to let the other person be at peace with their position and never try to impose it on the other.

"I'm going to church."
"See you later, honey."

I have had to relationships break over religion, one nascent and one involved. For the the involved one, it wasn't that we couldn't accept each other's beliefs, but that it was such a central part of her activities that she felt she had two parallel lives that she wouldn't be able to bring together since she had no intention of imposing her religion and religious activities on me. So, if religion becomes a core part of her life, it might still end up as a problem even if you two resolve not to impose your beliefs on each other.
posted by NortonDC at 9:22 PM on April 20, 2005

My mother married my father even though she thought his fervent Catholicism was utter hogwash and couldn't understand why such a brilliant man could believe such primitive nonsense. Eventually, she convinced him to really read the Bible and he did, and though it took a few years, he eventually became a rabid athiest, far more strident than my wishy washy agnostic mom.
Cut your wife some slack. If she becomes a pentacostal who speaks in tongues or something, you can start worrying, but for right now, let her do whatever she needs to get off the booze and assume her native intelligence will win out in the end. Try not to discuss God with her and avoid the arguments and agita.

For what it's worth, I know several athiests who got sober through AA by making their own personal definition of a "higher power."

also, I think you meant visceral.

On preview, what NortonDC said too.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:24 PM on April 20, 2005

I can understand your feelings here, but it sounds a little like you're trying to make her justify her belief to you, which is perhaps an unwise strategy for you to take. Unless she's trying to convince you, you should not cast yourself as judge and jury on her beliefs. Honestly, your question here sounds a little paternalistic -- like she has to vet her logical process with you, or her feelings aren't valid.

Otherwise, though, I agree with octothorpe. This is giong to be a really emotional and unstable time for her. She's going to need your understanding and support if you two are going to get through this. Shelve the judgment for now -- there will be plenty of time to discuss her theology when she's though this, if she even ends up with theology at all.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 9:30 PM on April 20, 2005

My strong recommendation is that you find some local Al-Anon meetings and attend them. Keep looking until you find one that you feel comfortable with. I am an Atheist, and I was in Al-Anon for a while, and I found it completely helpful. There was, of course, a lot of grappling with what it means to let go of outcomes. For me, it was never a matter of surrending my will to God, but a matter of accepting that *I* am not God, in other words, there are other forces at work than me. AA, Al-Anon brought out the skeptic in me, but at the time I joined, I needed support, so I decided to stick with it for a while and to turn of my judgemental nature for a bit to see if I could find anything useful within the program, and I'm really glad I did.

Yes, there is a lot of God talk, but it isn't the kind you might find in a church. It's much more about spirituality and a willingness to not be right all the time.

I didn't go to Al-Anon for the longest time because I thought it would be rooms full of whiners complaining about themselves and their lives. It isn't like that. I really got so much out of my experience.

One thing I will suggest is that you try and find meetings in a more urban setting. If you're in the burbs, drive into the closest city or university town. My mom is also an Atheist in Al-Anon, and she's been very disappointed in the high levels of Christianity, dogma, and religiosity of the meetings outside of the big cities.

It may not help, but it might, and it would certainly be a great show of support. When people first get sober, they really have a hard time doing it casually. She may act like it's a real conversion for her, and for a while, she may be real avoidant of the kinds of settings and places she used to frequent. There are people who really live an AA lifestyle for a while, and it's definitely a bit obsessive, but if that's what they need to get sober, then I say good for them. That kind of obsessiveness about the program usually dissipates over time.

I think going to Al-Anon would show your wife you support her, and it would also be a bit of an education in what she's going through. If you stay out of the loop, it could really jeapardize the closeness you have with her.

I know you feel resistent. Of course you do, but if you love her, I'd try and work out what she's up to.
posted by abbyladybug at 9:35 PM on April 20, 2005

I can understand your discomfort. Having grown up with a zelous new-ager who told me that Catholics were people who thought it was okay to murder people as long as you said sorry before you die, I spent much of my early adulthood feeling very uncomfortable around people who expressed any kind of faith, Christian or otherwise.

What enabled me to get beyond that feeling was learning about how faith is wrapped up with being human. Faith is an intrinsic part of humanity: it shows up archeologically with the first homo sapiens sapiens and has been one of the few human universals ever since. It is at the very least a by-product of our highly evolved brains, but quite possibly it has had an important role in how we think and is actually a part of our evolutionary advantage.

All people have the ability to believe in things that are not "rational" in the strictest sense. Even those of us who are not religious often have forms of secular faith. We believe that certain political systems are intrinsically better than others even though we may not have direct experience. We believe in moral codes and economics.

The comment that most struck me in your statement was this:

She feels that her confidence in God's existance doesn't need to be justified.

She is right. She can believe in God for no particular reason because she is human. It doesn't make her crazy or stupid (I don't know if that's your unspoken worry here, but it was how I used to feel about religious people), it makes her a regular person.

The great thing about being able to have irrational beliefs is that it can allow us to believe a seemingly impossible problem can be solved. It sounds like this faith your wife has aquired is helping her solve the seemingly impossible problem of addiction. Forcing her to pick at it logically may undermine the good that it's doing for her at the moment.
posted by carmen at 9:52 PM on April 20, 2005

I say let it go, especially if she's still recovering. Faith is simply that--faith. It is not science. Faith cannot be proven the same way we cannot make up a scientific equation and trust it will work out. It's a personal choice. Unless she engages you in a conversation about it or it changes her views to the point where you are having serious trouble reconciling anything with her I say leave it be.

And if you must discuss it, let her stabilize a bit first, eh? Give her time. This is not the best point in her life for trying to remove what her support base.
posted by schroedinger at 9:54 PM on April 20, 2005

I want to expand a bit on the same basic theme of what others are saying. My own experience, as a theist, currently and throughout most of my life, is that faith in a higher power (however you interpret it) generally begins and remains rooted in personal experiences of perceived connection with/apprehension of that power. This kind of thing isn't provable in a conventional sense, and while I understand and respect that those who do not share these experiences will discount them as some sort of biochemical event unconnected to the influence of any actual entity, the experiences remains and I have no choice but to conduct my life in the context of these experiences. And in that sense, no, I cannot "justify" my beliefs further.

Beyond that, for myself at least I believe that it is correct, and I have always strived, to jive this fact of my life with my rationality and an intellectually honest, humble, and compassionate relationship with a world where there is a huge diversity of experience and understanding of the putative transcendent.

However, right now (if my experience with a recovered alcoholic father, recovered alcoholic brother, two dead alcoholic grandfathers is any indication) what your wife is experiencing is an apprehension of what she interprets as a divine power which is enabling her to do something that she felt otherwise powerless to do. This is probably enough for her to deal with without working through all the intellectual and moral and philosophical issues of belief just this moment. I think you have an obligation to give her experience the benefit of the doubt and allow her the time and space to connect it to the rest of her intellectual, rational, and ethical life. Right now quitting and staying sober really is the most important thing.

But it also seems right to me that you should feel it is okay to express, in a respectful and non-judgemental way, your own concerns and conflicts over this new element in her life. From my perspective, for example, if I expect people to respect that I base my life and worldview on experiences of what I interpret as divine, I feel I must respect people who have experiences that lead them to an alternate interpretation of the divine or the interpretation that the divine does not exist. If you respect your wife's experience I think you have a right to ask that she respect your skepticism.
posted by nanojath at 9:55 PM on April 20, 2005

I am not so much concerned with her conclusions, as I am with her integrity in reaching them.

Why? The "integrity" of her thought processes is her business, not yours. It's hard to imagine anything more private, even in a marriage, than your own mental state. So long as she's not breaking your leg or picking your pocket, why would you mind that she believes in God any more than you'd mind that she believes in Duke over Carolina?

She feels that her confidence in God's existance doesn't need to be justified.

It doesn't. She's under no obligation to anyone under the sun to offer the slightest justification for her belief, any more than someone can be required to objectively demonstrate that Carolina is more worthy of their sports-devotion than Duke is and that they have arrived at that conclusion with their cognitive integrity intact.

Let it go. If she's pestering you to go to church, don't if you don't want to, and tell her clearly that you won't tolerate that -- but give her the room to do it, as you'd give her the room to indulge another distasteful but basically harmless hobby. The only reason for this to be any more harmful than a difference over favored sports teams is if one of you decides to be a nasty bigot about it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:25 PM on April 20, 2005

How do I learn to respect, or at least stop worrying about, her new faith?

Just remember that it's a basically harmless, perfectly normal human foible (at least from your point of view); at least, as long as she's not trying to send your life savings to Benny Hinn or similar or drag you to abortion protests.

There's no need for you to particularly actively "respect" it, any more than you'd have to respect someone who rooted for Michael Schumacher; you just have to not be nasty about it -- and so does she.

She has a hobby you don't care for and that you think only somewhat silly people would think was worthwhile; so? That also describes a lot of people's attitudes about their spouse's golf habit.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:35 PM on April 20, 2005

If it helps, all the people I know who joined AA and had sudden spiritual feelings (and it's been a few) have backed off after a while to the kind of "I'm not all-powerful" view that abbyladybug mentions. Give her time.
posted by cali at 10:38 PM on April 20, 2005

Not wanting to sound too harsh, but maybe you're not being as "patient and thoughtful" as you could be here. I think being patient in this instance means... well... being patient. One month sober is an EXTREMELY short time for an addict. She's going through a whole bunch of shit already, there's a whole lot more shit to go through, too and, while the partner of an addict must NEVER forget to look after their own emotional needs, I don't think it's too much to ask for you to hold off on questioning "the integrity" of her new-found belief.
I think it's perfectly reasonable to end a relationship because of a shift in spiritual ideas. I also think it's perfectly reasonable to leave someone who's struggling with an addiction. But if you don't want things to be over and you want a wife who's long-term sober, you've got to accept that her way to deal with her addiction is (for better or for worse) a belief in God.
Just try to give her some time. And, speaking from experience, be warned that whether God's in the house or not, the sober person who emerges from an addiction-treatment program can be VERY different from the using addict that you married.
posted by bunglin jones at 10:49 PM on April 20, 2005

Bunglin Jones said:
the sober person who emerges from an addiction-treatment program can be VERY different from the using addict that you married.

This is a very basic concept in AA/Al-anon. It is very true. Al-anon is there to support you, the spouse. Go, take what you find useful, leave what you find rubbish. Its a long road to recovery. A month without drink is not a month of sobriety, but a month on the way to the goal.
posted by Goofyy at 12:06 AM on April 21, 2005

Yes, there is a lot of God talk, but it isn't the kind you might find in a church. It's much more about spirituality and a willingness to not be right all the time. abbyladybug

Good points. Addiction is a disease of self. 'god' is a tool, at the thin edge of the wedge, that allows a member of AA to change their way of thinking such that they realize that they can't do everything, that they are not responsible for everything and that it's ok to let go. In any event, there's at least equal emphasis placed on finding a 'higher power' - whether it is a door handle or a wave - that may or may not be titled 'god'.

Some become zealots, some change their style after a while. But in these early days, I think, as many here have said, that you owe it to your wife to be there for support, but that delving into spirituophilosophical debate may sever the no doubt tenuous grip your wife presently holds onto a way back. Either go with her to a few meetings yourself to watch some magic happen or go along to Al Anon so you have a better handle on the important assistance that the wonderful fellowship of AA is providing. AA only gets bad press from some quarters because of ignorance.
It ought to be writ large as one of the marvels of the 20th century.
posted by peacay at 12:44 AM on April 21, 2005

Let it go. From a selfish perspective, if you can't accept her faith, then you're opening the doors for her to not accept your lack of faith further on down the line.
posted by seanyboy at 3:16 AM on April 21, 2005

I have an almost gutteral feeling that this impass will lead to a weakening of my respect for her,

She has thirty days. You should respect that she went and got help for drinking. Early sobriety sucks ass. She doesn't need you nitpicking it right now. She doesn't need you to play debate team with her.

See also. Email in profile.
posted by pieoverdone at 4:42 AM on April 21, 2005

i don't know if this is relevant, and even if it is, i'm not sure you'll recognise it as such (because i'm not sure i would have in your position), but what you write reminds me a lot of my own relationship. for various reasons that i don't want to get into in a public forum it was very unstable for many years. as a result of that, and my general tendency to be very analytic (which sounds like you), logical, planning things, etc i found i became very controlling. i believed i was the one that understood what was happening, that the responsibility to keep the relationship going was mine, and that i should be the one making the decisions.

i was wrong, but it was very hard to understand that. the hardest part was understanding what i was doing, because if you had asked me, i would have said i was in favour of complete equality in the relationship. yet this clearly wasn't a balanced, equal relationship - i was forcing my own conditions and approach to life on us both.

i'm afraid you seem to be doing the same. and i can imagine that you're making excuses that parallel the ones i used. i respect and love this woman, but she's an alcoholic, out of control, needs my help etc etc.

you've got to back off. not only is what you're doing morally wrong, it's also storing up trouble for later. at some point she's going to start fighting back. she wants her own life, no matter how much she loves you. and for you it may be quite terrifying, to let go, because you may have convinced yourself that you're the one keeping things together. in my experience, at least, you're wrong, and things will work out, and it will be much better.

maybe i'm talking about me and not you. i can only guess, but you sound so much like me in places that it seemed worth saying this. good luck.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:57 AM on April 21, 2005

If you are concerned that she will become an insufferable fundy, might I suggest that you go to church with her?

Before you knee-jerk away, consider this: if she is emotionally needy with resepect to her alcoholism, and a particularly hard-core church gets a hold of her, they could suck her into the whole "Jesus is everything" culture and you could end up losing her through the "unevenly yoked" clause (where Christians are advised not to marry unbelievers).

But if you you express an interest in finding a church you can both attend, you may be able to steer her toward a more moderate church. For instance, I don't think my own church (Presbyterian Church USA) would be particularly pushing about converting the non-believing husband of a member. And even though we believe in all that God and Jesus stuff, we tend to be pretty rational about it, accept ideas of science such as evolution, and tend to be more morally progressive than the right-wing of Christianity.

And you may be able to learn enough to support her recovery through her faith, to understand where she's coming from, without getting pressured to change your own beliefs. I don't expect you to agree enthusiastically with my suggestion, but consider it as an alternative. You're looking for ideas, right?

If you want to see what people in AA have to say, try clicking on this thread on BeliefNet I started to solicit advice from that crowd.
posted by Doohickie at 5:30 AM on April 21, 2005

2 more thoughts from the Atheist Al-Anon-er:

1. I had a friend who was in AA, had been going for 15 years, and her "higher power" was a toaster. She would say, "Hey, it can make bread into toast!" She meant that there were things in this world over which she had no control.

2. Letting go is hard as hell, and it's doubly so for an Atheist. Seriously. We want to use reason to get around so many things, but time has shown that reason and exerting one's will doesn't tend to get people sober. You think you can make your wife see the light with reason, but you're wrong. When it comes down to it, it's only your opinion vs. hers. You think you are right has no bearing on her. The truth is, being right doesn't matter here. For her, it's being sober, and she's doing what she needs to do to get there. So go to Al-Anon and try not to roll your eyes. If they say the Lord's prayer, go to another meeting!
posted by abbyladybug at 5:32 AM on April 21, 2005

The link in my post above is to a thread on BNet's 12-Step Spirituality board; I also posted the same thread to their Atheism board to get the another perspective.
posted by Doohickie at 5:35 AM on April 21, 2005

It can be very difficult for people who have not experienced faith in their daily lives to grapple with it. The primary thing to understand about it is that real faith has little to do with the rational justification of assertions about a deity. Throw that concept away. Faith is not something that's arrived at via logical propositions but rather a response to something that's felt at a gut level. We have, as a culture, done a fairly good job of shutting ourselves off from that feeling: the experience of a "more", a something that transcends our physical reality and underpins it in a meaningful way. You can argue against it, disprove it, ridicule it, but what you can't to is make it go away because it is, in some ineffable sense, a fundamental part of what it means to be human.

I think what scares people is that they think (and this has accompanied my own experience) that because you have "come out of the closet" as acknowledging this "more", that your next step will be to apply to Bob Jones university and become a zombie for the religious right, or become a new age wacko, or you name it. I can assure you that there are plenty of perfectly (otherwise) sane individuals who are in touch with God and lead lives that are not only OKAY, but deeply and powerfully intensified by their experience of the divine.

Books to read: Why Religion Matters by Huston Smith, author of The World's Religions, the title says it all; Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott, who is hilarious and scabrous and deeply honest; and The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg, which even though it focuses on Christianity per se is also an excellent book about faith in general; what is is, is not, and could be.

All of the people listed above are "faith" people; none of them is a whack-job (with the exception of Lamott, who's a total whack-job, but in a great way).

The most important thing that you need to open yourself up to--and I am dead serious about this--is that maybe she knows something you don't know.
posted by vraxoin at 5:55 AM on April 21, 2005

If she's interested, there are several secular alternatives to AA. A quick search turns up Save Our Selves, SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Rational Recovery Center, and so on.
posted by glibhamdreck at 5:59 AM on April 21, 2005

Response by poster: CunningLinguist: also, I think you meant visceral.
Right, thanks

LittleMissCranky, ROU_Xenophobe, Andrew Cooke: Stop being paternalistic
I fear I've misrepresented myself. I'm not trying to make her believe the same things I do, I'm just trying to understand her beliefs. Unfortunately my normal process for developing that understanding can be too aggressive. I recognize that "picking-away" at her faith risks stalling her healing process, but that only makes me doubly frustrated, as AA has now tied her sobriety to her spirituality.

Abbyladybug: My strong recommendation is that you find some local Al-Anon meetings and attend them.
I've been, and I might go again. Unfortunately I don't think it has much to offer in my case. The problem with Al-Anon (and AA) is that discussion is discouraged in favour of "sharing". This is agreat technique for getting people to think without fear of being judged, but it doesn't help me much.

As for showing my support, I have walked her to meetings every night, helped rid our house of booze, and until recently I've been a compassionate, but silent ear. I asked this question because I want to find a way out of my ideological block so that I could be even more helpful.

Everyone: Cut your wife some slack.
You are all right, of course. Her spirituality is not harmful, and it's helping her to become sober. I know that it's part of being human, and ordinarily I am much more gracious with other people's religion. However I'm new at being married, and I have to get over the notion that our shared destiny raises the stakes.

In any case, thank you all for your insights. Don't let this comment stop them coming.
posted by Popular Ethics at 6:05 AM on April 21, 2005

Perhaps you included the apropos suggestion in your own question:

"God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference."
posted by OmieWise at 6:06 AM on April 21, 2005

I'm an atheist who dated a devout Christian for years. I found the most important thing was to trust what she said about her own experience. I didn't believe in God, but I believed that she believed. I didn't have any feelings that felt like an experience of God's love, but I believed that she had those feelings. However much we disagreed, I never accused her of faking it.

(As seanyboy points out, that sort of trust is a two-way street. How would you feel if she accused you of faking your experience of atheism? — if she told you you must have felt God's love and were just denying it to spite her?)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:09 AM on April 21, 2005

I heartily second everything AbbyLadyBug has said, and it mirrors my own experience. I am an agnostic, but Al-Anon really helped me clear my head. The single most valuable thing it does? Gradually drills it through it your head that you have no business dictating the parameters of someone else's life -- spiritual or otherwise -- and that to try to do so will make you frustrated and miserable and can lead to the destruction of the relationship. Recognizing that other people are beyond your control -- that in fact, they are not required to live by your rules -- is a profound shift for many of us who do live by reason and carry the stubborn conviction that we are always right. This is what is meant by the deceptively simple phrase 'letting go'.

Al-Anon also focuses the heat of your attention exactly where it belongs: on you. What choices are you making that led to this situation? How does your behavior contribute to negative interactions? Who are you, anyway? What do you need to be happy? What is it that you like about getting into tangled emotional situations with the alcoholic? Are there other ways you can invent to relate to them?

I've been, and I might go again. Unfortunately I don't think it has much to offer in my case. The problem with Al-Anon (and AA) is that discussion is discouraged in favour of "sharing". This is agreat technique for getting people to think without fear of being judged, but it doesn't help me much.

I strongly suggest you do go again, as it does seem very odd after the first few. Also, try a different meeting time/location if you didn't like the tenor of that one; they all have a different character. The format for successive sharing is built on decades of experience. Imagine how unhelpful a meeting posed as 'discussion' could become -- particularly in a room full of people with a history of getting into other people's business. The sharing format insures that no one else will attempt to correct/fix/rephrase/recast/critique your statements. It also gives each person an equal chance to speak. It also requires that everyone else will just listen, rather than (as in so many discussion meetings) wait for the person's mouth to stop moving, and then leap in with their own contribution. The value of Al-Anon is in listening, not in speaking or arguing. You may listen to hours of unfocused rambling, but then here the one gem of rare price drop from someone's mouth -- something you really needed to hear -- something you will think of again and again for weeks.

I don't attend any more since I ended an alcoholic relationship. But I am still in awe of what happens in these meetings: that regular, innocuous-looking people have the courage and humility to sit in a room and talk about their struggles and challenges openly, in a way that helps those who listen. It really is about accepting that we're not always the smartest person in the room. Not about everything. And that our efforts to think and reason our way out of problems are sometimes a fruitless waste of energy, when the work we should really be doing is emotional.
posted by Miko at 6:23 AM on April 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

How do I learn to respect, or at least stop worrying about, her new faith?

Here is how I have come to interpret faith from an atheistic point of view: I think of it essentially as the "source of the self". When you really think about it, it is quite impossible to make sense of what it is that adds up to 'the self' - I mean, sure, it's neurons and chemicals and dna and environment yadda yadda, but how does an idea happen? what holds all my chemicals together so that they respond to things so specifically? I've read a lot of science, evolutionary theory, emergent theory, etc, but the process is always mysterious, because all these processes are descriptive - things keep happening because they keep working: but what is this force that makes things motivated toward "working" to begin with? This theme, the "will" of the universe or the "lifeforce" or "intelligence" (in terms of being organized toward its own continuance) is what philosophers have meant by "god" throughout history...

Now, I know plenty of people who are religious don't conceive of god this way; theirs is personal and involved, etc - but I really think it stems from the same fascination and mystery. People anthropomorphize the order of the world, and they project their own internal 'source' as ultimately pulling from a universal and divine source. But the essence is not so different: it is amazing that the world is so ordered, and it is hard to understand where 'you' come from - where strength you didn't know you had comes from, where ideas you didn't have yesterday come from, how you learn & develop.

Sometimes being too rigidly rationalistic makes us think we understand things better than we really do. It's not that there's some 'other' realm where 'spiritual' stuff happens. It's just that the first cause & the source of the self are really hard to determine, and maybe worth some reverence. That doesn't mean rejecting science at all - understanding scientific process just makes nature more awesome in my opinion. The point is just recognizing that the fact that anything exists at all is beyond our capacity to really make sense of.

If you're up for it, you could try reading some emerson, or maybe spinoza... Allow yourself to think about "god" poetically rather than literally, and remember that sometimes it's difficult for people to explain in words what they feel deeply, and it may come across sounding like silly stories to you, but what they ultimately mean may be closer to things you also feel, but just categorize differently...
posted by mdn at 6:45 AM on April 21, 2005

It's so common for people in AA, especially at first, to go completely and totally gung-ho. The meetings and program will, literally, replace her old addiction. It's not uncommon for people in the first month or two to go to half a dozen meetings a day, and talk about nothing else.
And that's fine. If that's what she needs to get better, as her husband you really should be 100% behind her.
Odds are her newfound love of religion will fade as she becomes more confidant of her sobriety, but right now she needs something in her life to replace the alcohol.

Addiction is a scary, scary thing. It's horrifying to realize an inanimate substance is stronger than you. For a lot of people saying that it is in God's hands makes things a little easier. They know the drug or alcohol is stronger than them, if that wasn't the case there would be no addicts and alcoholics. That's why many people need a crutch that's stronger than the substance. If you look at it that way, it's not an unreasonable concept.

Don't worry too much about this, she's not going to turn into a bible-beater and start sending money to TV preachers when your back is turned. She's in transition right now, and a belief in a deity is how she's getting through it.

On preview:
The secular groups are great, but small in comparison to the 10,000 pound gorilla that is AA. A medium-sized city may have one or two of the secular group meetings for every thirty or more AA meetings.

Also, Al-Anon is not for everyone. IME, was a disgusting pity party. Everyone there bitching about how their life was ruined by someone else, and finding a way to blame the addict in their life for every single problem they've ever had.
Obviously YMMV, but I tried a few different ones and found each filled with the most codependant, judgmental, whiny human beings I've ever encountered. Other groups may be great, I think I found all the duds, though.

(wow... lot longer than I thought it would be)
posted by Kellydamnit at 6:53 AM on April 21, 2005

the most codependant, judgmental, whiny human beings I've ever encountered.

This is more common in meetings with a lot of 'beginners' --fairly new attendees who have not really absorbed the ideas of Al-Anon yet. A meeting with seasoned practicers of the 12 steps does not sound like this; indeed you can almost feel the patient tolerance being called upon when an angry codependent whiner (read: new attendee) shows up. Sorry you could not seem to find a more evolved meeting, but they are out there. You should see people in the room who display a sense of calm and comfort, and look happy to be there. That is a good sign. There will always be a few people in the throes of angst, and of course, these meetings are partly about understanding that all of our experiences are different. Not everyone has had the kind of life that creates emotional equilibrium. Many people don't even have the most basic tools for dealing with problems, which is how they became codependent in the first place.

In the spirit of AskMe being helpful, I can only keep reiterating that Al-Anon has already invented the wheel. No, it hasn't worked for everyone, but it's really a best bet and worth an honest try. Without getting personal, Popular Ethics, I think you would find it really helpful if you give it a fair chance. My experience was that some of what I most resisted intellectually was what I most needed. And I'll also say that as a result of attending, I am no dumber; no more gullible; and did not drink any Kool-Aid; but I am more sympathetic to others, more aware of what I can and can't control, and more humble about my own abilities. These are valuable tools in life as well as in relationships.
posted by Miko at 7:03 AM on April 21, 2005

and I have to get over the notion that our shared destiny raises the stakes.

it is hard. and in a way it does raise the stakes. but giving space to the other person can be one of the tools that helps you deal with this - something you can use to help you. in management speak: learn to delegate, instead of micro-managing; love smarter, not harder :o) etc etc.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:21 AM on April 21, 2005

Yeah, I'd say that there are many gradations of people's faith, and belief does not automatically mean you are going to wake up next to Jesse Helms tomorrow morning [shudder].

You can also tell yourself, "This is just the metaphor that she has to use to describe a series of complex processes that are helping her not slowly kill herself."

You also might want to consider if you ever do anything irrational and not be self-righteous about this. Because it's the self-righteousness, whether it be attached to atheism/theism/liberalism/fascism that is the real PITA here.

Awesome: I think what scares people is that they think (and this has accompanied my own experience) that because you have "come out of the closet" as acknowledging this "more", that your next step will be to apply to Bob Jones university and become a zombie for the religious right, or become a new age wacko, or you name it. I can assure you that there are plenty of perfectly (otherwise) sane individuals who are in touch with God and lead lives that are not only OKAY, but deeply and powerfully intensified by their experience of the divine.
posted by craniac at 7:22 AM on April 21, 2005

I'm in a long term relationship with a Christian and I'm pretty agnostic leaning towards atheistic. Once we realized that neither one of us was going to try to change the others' spiritual beliefs, and this took some time, we could calm down and talk about things a bit more rationally. In our lives it comes up fairly rarely, but we do have some firm guidelines that help make it not a problem [I don't go to church, I don't trash Christians indiscriminately, he tries not to be defensive, we both ask a lot more questions] I know it's hard to accept your wife as a believer, but I bet it's scads better than accepting her as someone with a drinking problem that affects your relationship.

One of the tricks to any long-term relationship is [or can be] letting go of some tightly-held beliefs in the name of love or tolerance. So, if someone you care about believes something you think is crazy, you have sort of two choices: re-examine the person, or re-examine your own beliefs. In this case, you are worried about the former, but you may need to do a little bit of both. In my case, I've become a bit more understanding of Christianity as I've lived with someone I deeply care about whose perspective varies from mine.

I had a friend who was in AA whose higher power was the ocean. Your wife may ease out of the capital-g God thing over time, or it may become a permanent part of her life. In either case, you are under no obligation to share her beliefs, though this may become trickier if/when you decide to have kids. In any case, it's no giant crisis now and what you are describing -- both your wife's new beliefs and your reactions to them -- are not too unusual.
posted by jessamyn at 7:23 AM on April 21, 2005

What everyone said, especially ROU_Xenophobe and Andrew Cooke (and, on preview, craniac). I want to emphasize the idea that you should drop, and if possible forget, the whole subject of her "integrity" and "justification." The thing that irritates me most about the kind of analytical, logical, rational people (usually male) who are so common here at MeFi is their gut belief (which is what it is, not some sort of logically arrived at conclusion) that they are uniquely equipped to make sense of the universe and are in a position to see through the pathetic rationalizations of other, lesser beings (I'm obviously putting it in a contentious way, but I want to make clear how it often comes across to others). We all feel that we see things the way they should be seen, and we are all full of irrational, unjustifiable beliefs and attitudes derived from evolution or our parents or kindergarten or some damn thing that we can't remember or analyze. Other kinds of people have some sense of this and thus are willing to make allowances for others ("Judge not, lest ye be judged"); hyperrational people have a much harder time grasping the idea that their own positions may have irrational roots, and thus are all too ready to judge others. I hope this doesn't sound too off-topic; I really think it may be a big part of your problem with your wife, and confronting it may help with other situations as well. (And yes, I have tendencies in that direction as well -- why do you think I've thought so much about it?)

I hope your wife comes down from the God high before long (as an atheist myself, I can imagine how you must feel), but if she doesn't, you'll just have to accept it as something you differ about. It pains me that my wife doesn't like yogurt and most old movies (how can anyone not like The Philadelphia Story?), but we work around it, and you can too.
posted by languagehat at 7:26 AM on April 21, 2005

>>>In the spirit of AskMe being helpful, I can only keep reiterating that Al-Anon has already invented the wheel. No, it hasn't worked for everyone, but it's really a best bet and worth an honest try.

Don't get me wrong, I agree with you completely on that. I'm just saying that it isn't necessarily the best solution for everyone since groups vary, and if you're in an area with only one or two, you may just happen to hit a bad one. It was pretty upsetting for me to get nothing out of the meetings and to, in fact, come out of them feeling worse. Had I known at the time that the people there were just angry people, and not at all indicative of the general Al-Anon experience, I would have felt better. Instead I felt like the problem was with me since everyone talked about how great this group was and I came away annoyed and discouraged.
posted by Kellydamnit at 8:01 AM on April 21, 2005

Perhaps going to an Al-Anon Family meeting would help you. It might be a space to bring up both your experience with the alcoholism and your fears with AA. It could be a space to talk about this without your wife present in order to allow you to communicate with her better. I think there is some very amazing advice in this thread; just remember that recovering from alcoholism is a major, life-long event. It's not a 30 day special. I know the most rawking tough atheist guy who has been helped by AA and NA; his higher power is the concept of music. The notion that they're just notes on a scale, legible and identifiable, but that they come together in the most amazing and powerful way is his way of acknowledging that not everything is reducible to pure logic; that that's a good thing, and that it will help him both acknowledge and begin to recover from all-encompassing addictions. It was a long time coming, and I think if you find someone in your community that can help guide you through this process, you'll be a better person, a better spouse, and more able to help your wife through this process. Here is some information on Al-Anon family meetings in Ontario; if there isn't one listed there, please do some research on other ways of how to help you parallel your wife's healing process. Here's some background info on Al-Anon. Even on their website, there is a FAQ that lists: "Q: Is this a religious fellowship? A: Al-Anon Family Groups is a spiritual fellowship, not a religious one. We avoid discussion of specific religious doctrine, and members of all faiths (or of none) are welcome. Our Twelve Steps ask us to find a "Power greater then ourselves" who can help us solve our problems and find serenity. Each member is free to define that power in his or her own way." If you go to a meeting that helps you come to terms with your own definition of this, that can be part of your communication and journey with your wife. You may not end up at the exact same definition, but the conversation - without you reacting instantaneously to the idea of it - will be a good thing. Neither of you will be served by doubt, lack of communication or trying to control the other person. Good luck, take a breath, and look for support yourself.
posted by fionab at 8:02 AM on April 21, 2005

I have to say, this thread is worth it for the relationship advice alone.
posted by craniac at 8:07 AM on April 21, 2005

God, I love AskMe and all you folk. What sensible, straight-talking, honest, and caring people y'all are.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:23 AM on April 21, 2005

Very good advice upthread.

- Relax. She is only a month sober.

- Agree to disagree (even if only in your head). Obviously, at this point, you can't really discuss the god stuff. Just let her talk with appropriate agreeing noises at the right time or times that you're comfortable with.

- Al-Anon Al-Anon Al-Anon. It will really help you to know where she is at this point in her life. It will really help you to deal with where she is at this point in her life.

- Although AA is theist based, not everyone who participates is a theist (my step-grandfather was agnostic leaning towards atheist). She's all wrapped up in this new phase of her life. Her "higher power" could change at any point.

- Use the serenity prayer yourself. Change the words to suit yourself. Turn it into a mantra:

I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
I have the courage to change the things I can,
And I have the wisdom to know the difference.

- Be happy for her. She's made the decision to better herself.

There's a saying in AA - Drop the Rock. Do that for your wife. Support her, love her, listen to her without judgement. Just be there for her.
posted by deborah at 9:35 AM on April 21, 2005

Maybe you simply have the same problem I had (and surely still have to some degree) - a hard time having acceptance over understanding. I had a particularly rough period in my life where I went and got my head shrunk for a while. Much of that time was spend on my talking and analyzing a situation that involved another person and after a while my psychologist said perhaps you're never going to -understand-, but you don't have much choice other than to -accept-.

I think I babbled something along the lines of being better able to accept if I understood and she said she was sure that was true. ie, yeah, so?

So perhaps you need to do as I did and start addressing this personality trait. Work on being accepting of some things before you work on understanding them. When I did that I discovered that I sometimes (not always) was engaging in discussions "to understand" where I was, without realizing it, actually attempting to debate things around to my way so it was a very useful thing in my dealings with others.
posted by phearlez at 9:38 AM on April 21, 2005

To anyone wrestling with the problems of addiction I recommend the book A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. In rehab Frey staunchly refused AA's 12 steps but found a system that worked for him in Taoism. A Toaster, The Ocean, Taoism, God... whatever works for you.

Here's another take on the serenity prayer:

"As the dawn began to break
I had to surrender
The universe will have its way
too powerful to master.'

---The Flaming Lips
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 9:40 AM on April 21, 2005

AA groups vary wildly. I've gone to groups where I was told I couldn't stay sober without becoming a born again Christian. I've gone to groups that suggested that all that was necessary was beliving there might be something out there more powerful than me. And I've attended groups that suggested I just use a doorknob until something better comes up. Some of this seems to be geographic, although I found nutball Christian groups in really liberal areas.

When I was newly sober, I was a real whackjob. I got better, but it took some time. I'd suggest that it is likely your wife will change in many ways, some for the better, some, possibly, for the worse (from your perspective). Just take care of yourself. Let her sort herself out. After about a year or so, it should be more clear who she is becoming, and if that is someone you can deal with.
posted by QIbHom at 10:06 AM on April 21, 2005

She feels that her confidence in God's existence doesn't need to be justified.
One cannot justify faith, for *is* believing in what cannot be proven, demonstrated or observed. First you applaud her choice to attend AA, then you question the reason it works.

Your question, how do you learn to respect..., seems selfish to me. You want her fixed, but on your terms and without changing her. Ain't gonna work that way.

So the answer to your question is to step back and study her for a while. Learn what is both good for her and what she enjoys and participate in those with her. Learn what is bad for her, and what is displeasing and accommodate as best you can.

You need to know that the girl you fell in love with is an alcoholic. If you don't want to be with an alcoholic you either have to find another girl or let this one change. Those are the only two choices here. I suspect you'll love who she becomes.
posted by kc0dxh at 10:20 AM on April 21, 2005

Like you, I consider myself patient, reasonably unemotional and naturally skeptical. Nevertheless, I was brought around to understanding the religious beliefs of others by reading and carefully working through the arguments presented in the following works:

The Trouble with Principle, by Professor Fish, dean emeritus at the University of Illinois. For a flavor of Fish's argument, start with this online article: Why We Can't All Just Get Along and it's follow-up, A Reply to Richard John Neuhaus. These arguments are a little difficult to wrap your mind around, but if you are really as logical as you claim, then stick with it and track his reasoning.

Next, read the tremendously influential paper The Two Dogmas of Empiricism by Quine. This will be hard to read unless you have a background in philosophy (or are willing to acquire one on the fly). But this is the paper that more-or-less killed empiricism (as most people think of it) for many professional philosophers. So while the arguments here are hard to understand, they're airtight, and once you see them, you'll look at "reason" and it's relationship to truth in a whole new light.

Finally, if you just want an overview of some arguments that might make your wife's new beliefs more intellectually credible, I suggest Does God Exist? An Answer for Today, by Hans Kung. This is an accessible but scholarly evaluation of the historical and philosphical debates about the existance of God. You may disagree with it's ultimate conclusion, but if your objection is really logical (rather than an emotional rejection of religion) you probably will not be able to read the whole book without learning to at least a minimal level of respect your wife's committment.

If you read both books and Quine's paper, I guarantee that you will learn to accept your wife's beliefs, even if you don't agree with them yourself.
posted by gd779 at 1:09 PM on April 21, 2005

You know what, on reflection, skip Fish's book. Read the two online articles I linked, and that'll give you most of his argument. You can read the rest of the book if your interest is aroused. Otherwise, I'd suggest turning next to Kung's book (if you don't think belief in God is "rational") or to Quine's paper (if you're a hard-core empiricist willing to work a lot and have your beliefs challenged).
posted by gd779 at 1:12 PM on April 21, 2005

My wife is devout though not a fundy (I joke that she is the only born-again Episcopalian I know). I am an atheist since I knew what the word meant, and was a pretty aggressive, nasty one for a long while. My wife's faith is one of the best things ever to happen to me. I will never share her beliefs, but I have been given a window into a community of thoughtful believers who try and use revealed wisdom to become better human beings.

Just go with it. Don't question her beliefs, not ever. Go to church with her at least a few times to demonstrate respect. Tell her that you love her no matter what.
posted by LarryC at 7:54 PM on April 21, 2005

Strong agreement with LarryC.

You can also tell yourself, "This is just the metaphor that she has to use to describe a series of complex processes that are helping her not slowly kill herself."

You can do that, but don't let her catch you saying it out loud; it will sound terribly condescending to a believer.
posted by Doohickie at 10:03 AM on April 28, 2005

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