I’m teaching a class in ethics and recently showed students a debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan on the topic “Is God Necessary for Morality?” After class, a nontraditional student, a woman of about 30, came to talk to me. She was raised Christian and for most of her life assumed what she’d been taught was true. Now she’s seeing inconsistencies in her faith and has begun to really think about things. She has, in short, become an atheist.
Her conundrum is she’s married to a hardcore Pentecostal. She’s afraid if she “comes out” to him, their marriage will fall apart. She worries about the consequences for their son. I told her I couldn’t keep such a secret from an intimate partner, but that she would have to decide for herself. Help? — BVD
Dan Barker, FFRF co-president:
My advice is “be yourself.” There is no magic bullet, no “one size fits all” tactic or strategy. Every family has its own dynamic, with an infinite number of variations of personalities and histories. Every person has to pick their own path, timing and intensity of communication.
But if you can’t “be yourself,” then what is the friendship and and relationship all about? Who are the “we” if one of them can’t be an “I?”
A loving marriage and family thrive on openness and honesty. If those are lacking, then the family is in trouble. It happened with me. I came out openly as an atheist to my Christian wife of 13 years. She tried to understand, made some attempts at bending but said she could only bend so far without breaking.
We both ultimately agreed that things had changed so much between us that the original commitment was no longer applicable. She could not be “unequally yoked with an unbeliever,” and I agreed. She saw her life as a “helpmeet to a man of God.” She later married a Baptist minister, and they seem happy now.
But I know of other situations where their love and respect for each other is truly mutual, and they prefer to stay together even with such radical differences of belief. I don’t know if there is a way to predict which families that can happen to, but it does happen.
If your student is uncertain and values keeping the family together at all costs, she may decide to keep her head down or keep the volume to a minimum if she can live with that. If she can’t live with that, she will have to carefully weigh the cost of integrity in regard to the relationship and family.
If she does admire and respect her husband, she will let him know that she assumes he is big enough to let her be who she is, that the relationship will be stronger with honesty and integrity. That is what he should want as an equal loving partner.
If she feels he doesn’t want that, she may know they are in serious trouble. If she’s afraid of her husband, in any way, then that is serious trouble.
My suggestion is to give honesty a test and see what happens. For me, it turned out to be the perfect test. We didn’t necessarily like the results of the test, but it was a good test. It clarified who we were, and what we wanted.
The four kids had some problems with our divorce, but that happens in all divorces. At least it wasn’t over infidelity or spousal abuse or alcoholism or anything like that. Today, the kids are just fine. Most kids are resilient, and they can grow and adjust.
Philosophically, she can tell her husband that they both ultimately want the same thing: love, understanding, morality, family, openness and integrity, but that she doesn’t think those things are necessarily found in the bible or Christianity. She thinks there’s a better way to get to those shared values.
Those shared human values ought to be the glue that bring people together.
Joan Reisman-Brill, “The Ethical Dilemma” columnist:
Ultimately, the woman will have to decide for herself. If she decides to keep her secret, she will suffer from being false to everyone, including the most important people in her life. In the interest of hoping to save her marriage and protect her child (and perhaps additional children that come along), she will be repressing her true self and essentially lying to everyone.
This is not healthy for her, her marriage, her family or society. It also means she will have to participate in indoctrinating her child with the same crap she can no longer accept. Taking this path to save the marriage and family may still lead to its demise, since she will be bottling up bad feelings that are bound to manifest in some destructive way.
If she decides to tell her husband, there can be a range of possible reactions: At one extreme, he could throw her out and try to bar her from contact with their child. At the other extreme, he would understand and accept, and even come around to share her views.
Most likely would be a combination somewhere in between — perhaps dismay at first, followed by some level of understanding over time. Or an initial effort to accept that fails, in which case the marriage might also fail.
Only she can even guess what her husband’s reaction would be, and she could be wrong in either direction. I would suggest that she prepare to tell him, but first do a bit of preparation if she might find herself instantly rejected and banished.
She should figure out what friends or relatives would support her (emotionally and perhaps financially) if she has to suddenly transition to a new home and life. I’m hoping there’s no fear of physical violence, but that’s also something to be considered and prepared for, perhaps by having a friendly witness in the next room or a public setting for the big reveal.
She should think hard about continuing to spend her life living a lie. Why should her husband control the family’s beliefs? If he loves her, won’t he want to try to understand and accommodate her? If not, wouldn’t it be better for her to move on ASAP, even if it means sharing custody of their child? Won’t it be just as harmful for the child to be raised as a hardcore Pentecostal as to have him deal with the parents’ conflicting worldviews?
I would lean toward giving her husband the benefit of the doubt that he might be capable of living with her views, while being prepared to live without him.
She has to bear in mind that she’s doing nothing wrong and has nothing to feel guilty about. She’s just looking at the world honestly. Unfortunately, we can’t be sure even those we love and who love us will do the same.
Bill Dunn, Freethought Today editor:
I went through this 16 years ago when our unbaptized children were 12 and 9, although our differences weren’t about religion. If only adults could be as resilient as adults claim children are!
Dan nailed it with “If she’s afraid of her husband, in any way, then that is serious trouble.” No person, male or female, should fear their partner. It’s also pretty easy to smell when they don’t respect you, even though you may want to deny it.