Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
Hi. I frequently read your advice through the Friendly Atheist blog and would like to thank you for all your thoughtful insights. I am writing to you to see if you can help me with a situation. I could use your advice or advice from others because I am not sure what to do.
I am a recent Bible college graduate who started to question my faith in my junior year. My wife was upset at first but is now very supportive. I decided that I would spend the next year or two to decide where I stand, either as a Christian or as an atheist. My wife supports that (she hopes I will return to faith.) However, it’s been almost 2 years since I first started having doubts, and I am positive that I am and will be an atheist.
My wife and I are expecting our first child soon. I have a B.A. (although I feel that the degree is more B.S.) in Preaching and Bible. When I found out about her pregnancy, I took a job at a local church where I have great health insurance benefits and decent pay to provide for her and the baby. However, the position is being a minister to youth and children. Although I love the job, I don’t like knowing that I am perpetuating a system of superstition and ignorance, especially to young children. The church is fundamentalist so I can’t just get away with teaching moral principles under the guise of Christianity for too long. I would like to leave the position as soon as possible. It just doesn’t feel right living out a lie especially for a cause that I no longer support.
My wife is very supportive of me. However, I know she wants to be a stay-at-home mother. She has a B.S. to teach elementary school kids. With my degree, I can’t really provide for her and my child unless I am working for some kind of church organization.
I am planning on going back to college to focus on a career in Nanotechnology and Bioengineering. My original plan was to wait until my youngest child is in kindergarten (about 10 years since we’d like to have 4 kids) to go back to school.
So I guess my question is, what should I do? Do I stick with the original plan and wait it out since that is what my wife would like the best? Do I go back to school even though this would force my wife of giving up her dream of being a stay-at-home mom? Is there any way I could afford to go back to school and still provide for my family while still being able to see my family and keep my sanity? If you have any advice, I’d really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
With a baby on the way, it’s important for you to reliably provide for your family, but there are some problems with your original ten year plan.
From the impression I get from your letter, I don’t think you’ll last for ten years as a secret atheist preaching to kids at a fundamentalist church. I wouldn’t expect you to last two years. Atheists often don’t have much tolerance for hypocrisy in others, and they can get very, very uncomfortable when they sense it in themselves. Either you’ll go nuts, or your employers will sense that you’re not suitable for the job, or both.
The two paths you are considering are the most extreme, either you work for several years at a job that is going to increasingly bring you guilt and tension for being a fraud selling out your principles, or your wife has a child and works full time while you go back to school. One person gets all that they want while the other person gets nothing of what they want.
The two of you can discuss the pros and cons of these options, but I would like to suggest a middle way that you don’t seem to have fully considered. This would be where neither of you get all that you want, but neither of you get nothing of what you want. You both make some sacrifices, but neither makes all the sacrifices.
Perhaps you should treat this the way you would if the field you were in suddenly became obsolete. Many people have been faced with that situation. The first thing they do is to look for work that is as closely related as possible to their education and training. If they don’t find anything right away, they gradually look further afield, for work that uses as much of their marketable skills as possible. They may not really like the work they end up getting, so the wiser ones take education or training while they work, to build a new career while they pay the bills.
Just for the present, grit your teeth while you work where you are, and actively, diligently look for a different job. The first place to look for would be a less fundamentalist church or school where you could, as you say, “get away with teaching moral principles under the guise of Christianity.” You might be able to pull that off for a while. However, you might still have a nagging sense of hypocrisy, and the mental and verbal gymnastics you’d be constantly doing might wear you down, and if so you’d need to move on again. Perhaps a Unitarian Universalist church would hire you. The pay and benefits might not be as good, but you would not have to lie and fake things.
If that doesn’t work out, then there’s the going further afield stage. Your B.A. must have given you some secular marketable skills, such as the ability to write, to do research, perhaps some basic math skills, computer skills, and most importantly, people skills. As a youth minister you have the ability to talk with people, to help them feel comfortable, to explain something to them clearly, and to convince them to try something. These are the skills of consultants, agents, salespersons, trainers and teachers. Depending on the state requirements, with just a little supplementary education perhaps you could be a schoolteacher. Your wife may be able to help coach you. It may not be exactly the work you wanted, but hey, it’s work. Think imaginatively and visualize new ways you could use your skills.
When you find work, any work, immediately start studying for your later career. Take night classes for nanotechnology and bioengineering now, not ten years from now. I worked full time and went to night school to get my second M.A. It took longer than the usual two years, but I wasn’t in a race. I took care of what was immediately needed, and I also built for the future. It will take you longer than the full-time student route to get the education that you need, but as your situation changes you can shift your work and study mixture.
I know you’ll be tired, and I know you’ll have less time with your wife and child. I know that it will be tough. I’ve been there. You’ll cherish and savor the family time you have, and you’ll not squander a minute of it. But you will be moving forward, and you won’t have to do it by being a complete fraud.
Now there’s the issue of your wife’s dream of being a stay-at-home mom. Even if you keep your present job, raising your planned four children on your income alone is likely to be very challenging. You and she may be willing to sacrifice having convenient and pleasurable things, but your kids will need things not even invented yet, in order to make their way in a world not even dreamed of yet. They will need an education that will give them the ability to be flexible and adaptable in a world where change is accelerating. That will cost.
Look at the numbers honestly and realistically, income versus expenses, and then try to do the impossible: Add on the expenses of things you can’t predict. If you and your wife can anticipate the need for a second income instead of waiting until all the utility bills are printed in red, it will be easier. If it looks like it will be necessary, your wife may be able to find work that she can perform at home, or after the first child is a toddler, you may have to use a day care service, or get help with child care from a family member or neighbor.
One of the most important problems I can foresee is the possibility of resentment growing between the two of you. You will need to be continually openly and lovingly sharing your thoughts, hopes, fears, and disappointments. Disappointment left to itself breeds resentment.
Despite your wife being supportive of you examining your beliefs, she may be disappointed about your loss of faith, the consequent eventual leaving of your present ministry job, and the consequent need for her to work at least part time. That last consequence, as I said, may be necessary anyway, but she may see it as a direct result of your atheism.
Resentment is not always instantly swept away by logical examination of the facts, so the two of you will need to discuss these things at length several times, focusing on long-term goals that aim for the best possible benefit for all concerned, not just your or her short-term needs and desires.
Thomas, you are lucky to have a wife who is supportive and understanding, and she is lucky to have a husband who has integrity, even if right now that’s causing a snag in your original plan. While being a man who holds on to your principles may cause the two of you some difficulty now, it may preserve your marriage in the long run. Men who too easily compromise their principles can also too easily compromise their vows. Aim for the long goal. In the end, you’ll be a good professional, a good provider, a good husband, and a good role model for your kids.
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