One of the common struggles of a newly de-converted believer is his/her relationship with their believing spouse. So I asked Limey from the Confessions of a Y.E.C. Blog to give a little of his background, experiences, and advise for one who is going through a similar situation.
My wife and I were both brought up in Christian households and developed our own personal faith as teens and young adults. My wife grew up in an average UK Town while I was brought up in a missionary environment in Central Africa. When we met and eventually married, my wife is what would be called a liberal Anglican while I was a Creationist, taking the bible literally.
Creationism in the UK has never been the big issue that it is in America and the public battle between vocal Creationists and strident Atheists that has been getting noisier in America for decades is still something that most people in the UK are largely ignorant of.
Through many years of marriage our relative Christian positions changed little. We moved from an Anglican Church of England church to a Baptist Church. Baptist Churches in the UK are more liberal than American readers would expect from what I read of American Baptist Churches. They are certainly nothing like the Southern Baptist Churches that I hear much about. We did the usual thing that young (ish) couples do in churches, help out in the youth and related areas. My wife being musically gifted puts much effort into the worship, often leading.
Change and Challenge
My journey away from Christianity started when I began to seriously question my creationist beliefs and actually investigate evolution for myself. I started reading what the scientists said and comparing those claims with the apologetic counter arguments. Time and time again I found that the creationist arguments were no more than objections. The weight of argument, evidence and reason is firmly on the side of the scientists. It wasn’t long before I found myself facing the very real truth that my creationist belief had crumbled and I was an acceptor of evolution. Three years later I gave up on Christianity entirely and no longer accepted any form of deity.
The hardest part by far was what to do with my change of belief.
I knew I should come clean and have an honest conversation with those nearest me; especially my wife.
The thing was, by this stage in our lives, while we lived as Christians, we no longer shared our faith intimately. We didn’t pray before meals, we didn’t study the bible together and we didn’t pray together. Our Christian lives were independent of our married life and had been for some time. This meant that discussing something as intimate as doubts over faith was not something that came naturally between us. As a result I had absolutely no idea how to tell my wife about my change or even how to drop a hint or raise a question. This realisation scared me because it became apparent that I wasn’t actually sure how she would respond.
By now I’d been following several blogs and stories about people who had made similar journeys and a common theme was the breaking up of a marriage. Of those that survived a number of spouses also followed in leaving Christianity. So whatever happened next, I knew there would be uncertainty and tears. I knew I didn’t want my marriage to end and I also didn’t want to be in a situation where I was unwittingly forcing her to question her faith because for as long as we’ve known each other it has been very important to her.
So I kept my status a secret as best I could. It helped that we had other issues at church, which allowed me to stay at home Sunday mornings. However, she had noted a change in me and she kept it to herself while she worked out what was likely going on.
Moving house, and therefore church, meant that we were forced into a conversation because I had reached a point where I simply could not make the declaration of faith required in order to enter into membership of our new church. So I hesitantly admitted to having doubts; she’d already worked it out. It was a great relief, but then out came all those insecurities that had been built up. In the end she took it better than me.
The full coming out took a year and now she accepts my atheism, but (she) has to qualify it as, I’m ‘Intellectually Atheist’. I think that is Christian for “he thought about it lots and has studied so be careful about challenging him on it”.
Conversations About Religion
We occasionally talk about matters of faith but it is not always easy. We come from different directions now and I don’t want to say anything controversial and start an argument and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t either. The conversations never last long and neither of us raises objections to what the other says. It’s like we have a kind of unspoken truce on the subject.
We’re definitely still feeling our way around the subject of religion. It’s important to her that I continue to support her church activities, which I am happy to do. She accepts that I don’t want to go but I will attend some special services. It works for now and doesn’t cause any issues.
At some point I know we’ll likely have a much deeper conversation about religion. Who knows how that will go!
The thing is; I know she wishes I would return to faith. It’s likely that she prays about it with friends. On her bedside table is a book about wanting a miracle, it was lent to her within weeks of me finally admitting to atheism. I’ve been lent a heavy apologetics book by a pleasant and well-meaning member of the congregation who now makes a point of welcoming me when he sees me at church. I’m a marked man, my secret is spreading and I’m now a project for some people. I know the drill, I’ve been in the church scene for long enough to know how it works and I can spot the signs from a mile off. I’m okay with that for the moment. One day someone will be more direct with me, we’ll see what happens then, but until that point, I can deal with what’s going on.
It’s where my wife and I meet that is the more important issue, everyone else can wait.
Taking Religion out of the Marriage
The effects of my atheism are still hard to quantify. I don’t feel like I’ve got enough experience yet to speak with great authority on the subject. One thing that is clear though is that our faith was the biggest thing that we shared. It was because if it that we met and it formed an integral part of our early relationship and most of our years of marriage. We may not have lived and breathed it as much as we might have in the last decade, but it was still a large part of our relationship. Being Christians wasn’t all there was though, it was also the social aspect of church and the meeting and greeting and reinforcing friendships on a Sunday. I have removed all of that from our marriage. It’s now her on her own at church most Sundays and I only exist as an occasional subject of conversation.
We no longer share those moments and we can’t discuss sermon points over Sunday lunch anymore. It may sound small, but it actually makes a significant and noticeable impact on the dynamic of our relationship and we’re still finding our feet on that. It’s not caused any direct problems, it’s simply noticeable that discussions once enjoyed now simply can’t happen, so there is in effect a hole in the relationship, a God shaped hole if you like.
I think this is one of the biggest risks to a marriage in this situation. The main feature of that marriage and the focal point of the closest friends occur in and around church. If I continue to not attend I run the risk of being increasingly irrelevant in those friendships as I am no longer taking as active a part as I can. If I go for the sake of those friendships I run the risk of being that grumpy man who has nothing good to say about what goes on in church. Okay, I’m being a bit over dramatic there, however the point is that whichever way I swing, I am at risk of incomplete social fulfilment simply because I am an atheist in a circle of Christians. Seeking that fulfilment elsewhere will only increase the social segregation between my wife and I, which is counterproductive in this specific instance.
I’m sure it’s a challenge many couples have had to face; maybe this is one reason why I’ve read about so many failed marriages when one partner deconverts.
Talking about experiences, events and facts brings on a new set of challenges too.
I can argue that nature and evolution are fully explained through natural processes and there is nothing that suggests any god is required. That’ll be accepted as a scientific standpoint but I feel that I am not free to push that subject. I know how I would feel if it was the other way round and my role as a husband does not include making my wife feel put upon. I have no desire to have that argument with her. Likewise I am sure she feels similarly, if she has a good experience of God or an answered prayer, she knows that I no longer appreciate that on a spiritual level, so why should she share it with me? I know that’s how I would feel.
Clearly these are issues that need working through and I doubt they are unique to us. We’re both still new to this situation and we’re both still feeling our way through it.
Respecting Each Other
One very good point my wife has raised to me is that she worries that I now view her as a silly Christian believing in superstition and not the rational and intelligent adult she is. She has a point; after all, don’t all us atheists look down on Christians that way? If I criticize any Christian for their ignorant beliefs, I am also criticizing her. This means I have to hold my tongue at times and be mindful of what I say. At times it is not easy, but it does not have to be a bad thing because being considerate in how things are said is a good attribute.
Likewise I feel patronized knowing there are now Christians praying for my conversion. I know how I used to feel about atheist husbands of godly wives. I’ve been around enough churches to know they exist and to feel sorry for the wife having to cope with an unbelieving husband. I’ve seen the way they get treated and I don’t want to be that man. Why should it bother me if my wife decides to pray for me? After all I don’t believe in the power of prayer do I? Its more than that, I feel disrespected, yet as a loving Christian wife, why would she not want to pray for me?
Loving each other and respecting each other needs to include acceptance of choices. If that can’t be done then there is a problem. It’s a balance that is very difficult and I keep finding out that its far more difficult than I imagined.
Standing up against Nonsense
On the flip side, if my wife had said she didn’t want our daughter to be vaccinated I would be blunt and tell her to stop being silly; similarly if she wanted to use homeopathy to treat an illness. We would have an argument but I would stand my ground. If she were to get involved in a cult I would do the same. Should Christianity be treated the same?
I keep asking myself that question and ending back at the respect point. In this case it is absolutely not a fight worth picking; the cost would be too great.
My wife has said she is happy to engage is religious discussion with me. At this stage it’s not something I am prepared to do. I have had some discussion with our pastor friend and that we managed amicably, though he didn’t get many of my arguments. He understood the point but not the flow of logic. I don’t want to have the same unsatisfactory discussion with my wife.
At this stage I think that the issue of a marriage of mixed religious status like this is more complex than I ever imagined it would be. I also think that it is also a very personal experience and different couples will face different challenges. Some will find it easier and some harder.
For my wife and I, I am confident we’ll be okay in the end, we just need to find out own way of working through and around the various issues. Talking honestly will obviously be only way to achieve that. If only that had started sooner, we might have found the whole thing a bit easier.