Love in Difference: Faith, Boundaries, and Moral Autonomy

Tim Sledge’s October 4th blog post “You Don’t Have to Love Someone if You Don’t Want To,” touched on something that I think deserves more exploration, especially as we enter the winter holiday season. There are many people in our lives we do love, who are less disposable than friends and acquaintances we can ignore: our biological family. Many of these people who we share a history, as well as DNA with, hold differing beliefs than we do. Especially if we come from a religious background that we may not hold to as adults or, even if we do, hold them in different ways. While no one is required to engage their family, those who wish to may still need some guardrails to build a foundation outside of faith systems.

A lot of work has been done by former evangelicals on how we can make boundaries while engaging in meaningful relationships with those who hold to different beliefs. Chrissy Stroop is notable in the way she graphically represents those things she calls “Prophylactic Protection Against Evangelical Aggression”. She asserts ways in her article that secular people may live well within a culture that often values religious agreement over authentic relationships.

Boundaries are far from a hindrance to healthy relationships. They are invitations. They exist already in relationships we enjoy, but do not often need to be stated. If we do not offer boundaries to those who need them then how will they know to respond? If we want to encourage engagement and expressions of love, care, and concern outside of religious agreement then asking for what we need is a gift, not a burden. And it is best framed in terms of value:

“I appreciate your concern, but telling me how much you pray for me does not make me any more likely to go back to church or believe in God. If you want me to be more open to conversation in the future, please do not lecture me about faith, my need of it, or lack thereof. I love you. I'm interested in your life, and what you are doing but not how you feel I may be spiritually deficient. I am able to make my own moral decisions without input from any faith system if I wish, including yours, and you need to respect that or I will be less available in the future.”

One of the biggest myths around secular belief is a lack of morals. We need to be able to assert moral autonomy. Moral autonomy is the ability to make our own decisions which, in many Humanist cases, is outside of the influence or justification of faith systems. A lack of belief in God or one faith’s image of God, does not mean we are incapable of making moral decisions that value ourselves and others. If this basic boundary cannot be met, future relationships will be hard to maintain. If instead our religious family members can stick to concrete needs, concerns, understandings and meanings then we will be able to relate to them, and they will love us better in the process. Even if sometimes they or we need to bite our tongue or insert a foot in their mouth. Boundaries are a process, so it will take time, but if they can be managed, maintained, and held as needed greater relationships can be had during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and any other time of year.