Ask Richard: Atheist Husband and Father Continues to Go to Church

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I’m married to a strong (and sweet) Christian woman. Since we’ve been married, I’ve realized that I’m an atheist. I’ve tried explaining this to her a couple times, but her belief in God is so natural to her that it never really sinks in. She thinks I’m “questioning my faith” or “mad at God.” I’m not doing either, I just don’t believe he exists.

I still continue to attend church with her for several reasons. I want to be supportive of her, it makes me feel closer to her, I enjoy the singing, I enjoy the sense of community, and most of my friends are there. I work in a conservative industry in a conservative part of the country, and I think attending church just makes me fit in better.

So now here’s the dilemma… Three months ago, our first daughter was born. I want her to have every advantage possible, and I want to be honest with her. I don’t really want her to believe in God, miracles, or other supernatural phenomena because that would hinder her understanding of science. My wife and I agreed that we’ll be honest with her about issues like Santa Clause and sex, so I feel like I should also be honest with her about God.

I can’t see myself “going against the grain” and living as an open atheist. I don’t really want to give up the church community. Telling my daughter that God isn’t real and then sending her to Sunday school just seems ridiculous. The easiest thing to do would be just go with flow and keep pretending I’m a Christian, but that’s starting to get tiring. Do you have any ideas about what I should do?

Thanks,
William

Dear William,

Every organism living in a hostile environment gradually develops survival strategies. For instance, some become fierce, aggressive fighters. Others use camouflage to blend in to their environment, or mimic other organisms in order to avoid danger. Every survival strategy has its benefits and its drawbacks.

You have chosen to blend in with your environment and to mimic the people around you. You are adopting the appearance of being a Christian in order to get along with your wife, your community, your friends, and your work. You benefit personally, socially and professionally.

It’s important to resist the temptation to attach a moral value to someone else’s survival strategy, as if one is more “courageous” and one more “cowardly,” or one is more “noble” and one more “base.” That is self-righteous nonsense. There is only whatever works, with its benefits and its drawbacks. Just like any other organism, you’re trying to survive and to insure the survival of your offspring.

Being a fierce, aggressive fighter who stands up to society’s pressures might appeal to some people’s fondness for machismo and romantic fantasies of heroism. For some people that works, but no one has any right to condemn the camouflage/mimic strategy. It works very well for many organisms. The extinct don’t get to feel righteously superior.

But you’re more than just an organism, you’re human, with very complex thoughts, feelings and needs, and very complex relationships. The drawback to your strategy is that some of your thoughts, feelings and needs are left frustrated and neglected. The cost of “getting along” in any situation is usually a surrender of some freedom to express oneself. If in the future those inner pressures become more uncomfortable, or if the outside environment becomes less demanding of conformity, you may end up adjusting your strategy.

The important thing at this stage is to work out an explicit agreement with your wife that being honest with your child about issues like Santa Claus and sex will also include both of you being honest about your views about God. Don’t leave that unstated and assume you two have an understanding, only to find that your wife is outraged when she learns that you have been expressing your skepticism to your daughter.

Make it clear to your wife that as your daughter grows, you will try to instill a respect and value of science and critical thinking. As she grows to new levels of understanding, you will share with her your skepticism of the supernatural, and you will explain the reasons why you go along with the religious activities that you do. If you and your wife can agree to simply present your views instead of making it a competition, then your daughter will not have to be torn between loyalty to one parent or the other. She will be able to make her own choices on these matters.

She might become a believer or a nonbeliever, or she might be one and then change to the other, or she might be some kind of blend. Although she will know that you wear camouflage for social and work reasons, she will know your true thoughts. Your daughter will have heard two adults’ viewpoints, and most importantly she will see that even though they disagree, they are able to love each other and love her.

I have received many letters in which young atheists have discovered that one of their parents has quietly been an atheist for many years, going through the motions of the other’s religion in order to preserve harmony with family, community, and work. Sometimes the young person is able to form an alliance with that parent, taking solace and support until they can be on their own.

It will be complicated at times, it will be messy and confusing at times. When is real life not complicated, messy and confusing? There are no neat, clean, simple solutions to life’s problems. Anybody who thinks there are, hasn’t actually tried to apply them. Your daughter will be better able to handle life’s ambiguities and conundrums because she has two parents who are honest about life. Hopefully, as an adult she will live in an environment that is less hostile to nonbelievers, and she’ll be able to understand the compromises you made for your sake and for hers, putting up with the drawbacks for the benefit.

This is a very long term change we are participating in, longer than any of our lifetimes. We all try to do our small part, and there are many parts to play. We need the fierce, aggressive fighters, and we need the quiet, patient ones blending in, all the while nurturing better ways of thinking in the minds of the next generation.

You’re a good husband and a good father. I wish you and your family a wonderful journey.
Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Nathalie

    What solid advice! I hope this man takes everything you said into consideration. I definitely will when it’s my turn to have children.

  • Shay

    This is super great advice! What I am learning is that the people who truly care about me do not care at all about me being an atheist because they truly know me.
    I do have a friend who was raised a devout christian and was raised in the same mega church from infancy, who left her husband after realizing she was gay. She has maybe 1 or 2 of those “friends” left now. The others think she is a sinner and are scared to be around her. The experience was horrible because she thought that the church community were her friends. Your friends aren’t always who you think they are until it’s put to the test.

  • mike

    I have 1 scruple with that advice. The husband will never be able to assert his non-belief successfully. If he is going through all the motions of being a christian, of course his wife thinks that he is confused or insincere. Seriously, if someone tells you that they don’t think X, but they exhibit all of the behaviour of X, then what are the natural conclusions?

    There are many ways that he can go about this, but wearing his perfect camouflage is not one of them. I don’t recommend brutal honesty, but some greater measure of honesty would be preferred to his mixed signals.

  • Similar boat though I’m married 15 years and have 3 children. All our children were raised as fully fledged members of my wife’s church and I support her 100% in that – though I am always honest about where I disagree. (And we really haven’t had any disagreements about religion).

    My daughter (12) recently told me that she doesn’t believe in “God”. It was her own free choice.

    I disagree with the Santa Claus thing though: (1) it’s a bit of fun and (2) the truth about Santa Claus is very effective for demonstrating why you should question even your most deeply held beliefs.

    I fear, however, that my son (9) will be an Archbishop or something.

  • Luther

    There are many ways that he can go about this, but wearing his perfect camouflage is not one of them. I don’t recommend brutal honesty, but some greater measure of honesty would be preferred to his mixed signals.

    If feel the same way. At some level he is lying to the congregation. He will be teaching his daughter to lie to get along. There is a heavy price eventually to pay for this, whether it is lying about religion, cheating on your spouse, about your opposition to war, or going along with an employer doing wrong for profit.

    Sometimes going along is worth the price, but sometimes not.

  • I fear, however, that my son (9) will be an Archbishop or something.

    *Chuckles*

    Similar story here. Married 12 years to a Christian, have always been an atheist. My kids (6 and 4) know that daddy doesn’t believe in god, and that it’s their choice whether or not they wish to believe when they grow up. They have gone through a Christian daycare and go to church with mom, all things that I did growing up as well, I simply never was able to believe any of the things I was being told.

    I am coming to the idea that belief may be genetic; some may simply be more disposed to ‘belief’ in general, while others are more skeptical. ‘What’ a person believes in may be entirely a matter of chance of location of birth and environment. I’d like to see some study done on that.

    Back on topic, I partake in a Sunday service now and again, holidays and such, but generally, I’m not to be found in the church. The wife and I are making our way through, yeah, there are rough spots, but I didn’t marry her because of what she believes happens after we die. I try to keep that in mind as we go through our journey. Good luck!

  • Red

    To echo mike and Luther, I don’t think I’d want to part of a community where I had to lie to maintain my membership, and, were I to tell the truth, would be immediately ostracized and vilified.

    If the people of the social group are real friends, they’ll stay your friend even after finding out you’re an atheist. If they dismiss you from their lives, they weren’t actually friends to begin with and you’re better off not associating with them.

    At least that was my experience when I publicly proclaimed my non belief.

    The lesson I’d like to leave my daughters with is that real friends are people who accept you for who you are, even if they disagree with some of your ideas.

  • FunnierOnPaper

    Thank you for this. I’m going through this personal struggle myself. I’m the atheist, my husband the believer. Fortunately he’s not too interested in church.

    My reasons for considering going is because of the sense of community. Unfortunately in my neck of the woods, even though it’s the south with all it’s “family values” and such, there’s not too much to do with a 4yo who tends to be active. I can’t listen to a seminar that does interest me without having to keep him quiet so much that I miss the entire thing, and distracting with coloring books or toys doesn’t help. He’s bored. At least in a church setting there’s some sort of kid’s activity to keep him occupied while I can converse with other adults afterward. This service alone is invaluable to a stay at home mom.

    I’ve been torn all last & this week because of sending my son to VBS, but on the other hand having 4 hours a day to do whatever I want is a true vacation for me and has done wonders for the depression I’ve slowly had setting in for months. Yeah, I might be sitting alone in a coffee shop, but I’m also not chasing after a child who, rightfully so, isn’t interested in doing worksheets for a 4 hour stretch.

    I’m definitely bookmarking this Q&A to remind myself that it’s OK to be human and cater to my own needs occasionally even if that means allowing a church to help me along.

  • Red

    And what’s stopping William from admitting he doesn’t believe, but still attending the church and its functions? Why can’t he just tell his friends there that he doesn’t believe the supernatural stuff, but he really likes the people and the community?

    Maybe the church will surprise all of us and keep treating him as a friend.

  • Otto

    That’s a very difficult position. What I think may be the most important part of it is not that baby girl is being told different beliefs, but that she is going to be spending a lot of time in church doing what Mom wants to do. I was raised by very faithful Christian parents, and, while I never liked church very much, singing hymns with my mother is a really important memory for me.

    I think it would be appropriate – and important – to have Dad arrange outings that don’t involve faith. If taking baby girl to church and spending time together that way is Mom’s thing, Dad should have a thing too. Even if it’s just hanging out at Dunkin’ Doughnuts for half an hour on Saturday mornings. Once baby girl gets old enough, she can ask about why they do it.

  • I would like to add for the letter writer that he might want to check out Dale McGowan’s website “The Meming of Life” and his books on parenting without religion. I’m pretty sure his first book (“Parenting Beyond Belief”) addresses families where one parent is religious.

  • Red

    @Otto,

    How about the family visiting a buddhist temple or synagogue or mosque every once in a while too?

  • Claudia

    I think the advice is fine, but I disagree with this:

    It’s important to resist the temptation to attach a moral value to someone else’s survival strategy, as if one is more “courageous” and one more “cowardly,” or one is more “noble” and one more “base.”

    I’m afraid I must disagree with this. It is manifestly more courageous to live your life openly and honestly, aware that this could bring negative consequences to yourself. The very fact that it is riskier and more difficult makes following that path courageous. There’s a reason why we praise people who find the courage to come out in extremely religious families and communities. Likewise it is more noble to live through truth than through lies, especially if you’re lying to someone who has trusted your word. It is manifestly more noble to tell a religious fiancé that you are an atheist than to lie to him/her till the wedding is over so that it’s harder for them to let go.

    Having said that I don’t think situations are black and white and I do defend the idea that people should be allowed to come out on their own terms according to their own needs. This man also has to contend with the wellbeing of a completely dependent, trusting human being. In that sense, I fully agree with the advice given, though I might add that further communication with the wife is needed and that the letter writer might like to think about changing locations and/or professions at some point in the future so that living openly becomes an option.

  • Otto

    How about the family visiting a buddhist temple or synagogue or mosque every once in a while too?

    I guess my short answer would be, “Sure, go nuts.” But it seems like kind of a silly thing to do if nobody has any kind of emotional investment in what’s going on. Unless . . . did I just completely fail at recognizing that someone was trolling me?

  • Red

    No, I wasn’t trolling. I was simply offering additional ideas for family outings that weren’t ‘the things that mom wants to do’.

    I guess I shouldn’t have directed the comment at you specifically, I just thought that it dovetailed nicely with the points you made.

    Carry on.

  • T-Rex

    My wife is not very religious, I’d say more agnostic than anything but she has taken our children to a friend’s church a few times, although not recently. I don’t have a problem with that because it’s a pretty progressive church. They have a band and it sounds like it’s more about community and the teachings of Jesus than hard core Xian theology. My kids know I don’t beleive in superstitions or gawds but I haven’t forced them to believe one way or the other. Only to question these claims, use their critical thinking skills and demand evidence or proof for fantastic claims. My daughter(12) has told me she doesn’t beleive in gawd and my sons, both 9, are pretty much on their way to being atheists as well.

    My daughter knows there is no Santa but my sons have not really questioned it yet. Although they may just be pretending to believe at this point. I’m not sure yet. IMO the Santa myth is nothing more than fun and fantasy to children. My daughter wasn’t crushed when I had to confirm I was Santa. As long as she’s still getting gifts. lol.

    I’d have a hard time keeping up the charade this guy does, but if he’s stuck in Religious Town, USA, I guess I’d go with Richard’s advice…or move the fuck out of there.

  • William,

    If daddy believes X and mommy believes Y there is nothing wrong with telling the kids that daddy believes X and mommy believes Y. In your case, you just have to also add that daddy goes to church just so he can fit in better with everybody.

    Sometimes just stating the truth is the best policy. There is probably a wide standard deviation of intensity of belief among those people attending your particular church. Perhaps you are at one of the ends of the curve. Perhaps there is a person or two with even more disbelief than you (who are also kind-of faking it to fit in). Anyway, this is were you are right now in life. Just say it like it is to your family and why you go to church. You don’t need to broadcast it to your church community. Although, kids have a way of talking so you will need to present it to her in such a way that you will be comfortable in having it expressed should (and when) she talks to others about it.

    In my case, I did just this. “Daddy believes X and mommy believes Y”. After a while, I stopped going to church. The kids quickly followed suit. My wife followed suit as well. Every now and then she hints that maybe we should try the local Unitarian church, but so far I’ve been able to avoid that as well. 🙂

  • MaryLynne

    Hi, william,

    Usually I read all the comments first, but I am eager to reply to this – is is almost my exact situation, except I was still questioning when my daughter was born and didn’t identify as an atheist until she was 8 or so. And it’s worked out great.

    I lost certainty about faith before she came along, so from the time she could understand, whenever it came up she heard, “Some people believe this. Some believe that. We are Catholics and Catholics believe . . ” I could never say, “This is the truth.”

    As she got older and I shed faith, the compromise with my husband was the kids could continue to be raised Catholic, but I couldn’t do it and he had to step up. I would not undermine him but I would not lie. So it became, “People believe this or that. You are being raised Catholic and they believe this. I don’t really believe this, I think this is true because of this. When you are older you can decide for yourself.” I also asked questions and provided experiences to encourage her thinking in all areas, not just faith. It was a touchy subject with hubby and with my marriage involved I was careful to not appear pushy.

    She lost faith early on. I think being told from the beginning “there are different beliefs and it is OK, and some people don’t have faith” gave her the ability to think about faith critically. Even though it was sometimes frustrating to me to have her being raised in faith, it’s a lot more open then I was raised with and I figured it out!

    When my daughter was Confirmation age (7th grade), my husband agreed and I backed him up that she would go through all the preparation but when the time came for the actual sacrament she was considered an adult in the church and could decide for herself. She choose not to and stopped going to church with him that week. It was hard for him, but he saw I supported him and it was her decision so it was easier to for him to take and respect her decision.

    I thought the funny part was that, especially at the beginning, I could not say ANYTHING about no god because it would undermine the faith he was trying hard to instill. Faith can be a very fragile thing; as Richard said do what supports you as far as attending, you don’t owe anyone anything. But just plant those seeds; especially as our kids are growing up in a world that will become more secular because of our work they will figure it out.

  • Oldguyatheist

    I’m proud but also bemused at atheists claiming the moral high ground of honesty re proclaiming our views/beliefs/conclusions. When I still used to attend church with my evangelical/believer wife, I came to the conclusion that the vast number of people sitting there with me were “lying” in some way. Either they were “lying” about their beliefs (they’re in the closet with me). Or they were lying about having studied the Bible and Christian claims (spent half my life as an ordained minister; I can tell). The only “honest” ones based their faith on feelings and made no claims to propositional truth.

  • katharine

    as the child of an athiest and a lutheran, i might be able to help you out, william! the situation is a bit different since my dad is openly athiest and my mom recognizes and respects that about him, but hopefully i can still help.

    when i was born, my parents agreed to teach me about both god and science. my dad was always full of awesome science facts to tell me, and my mom and i had a wonderful time going to church.

    the fact that god existed and that evolution/science also existed was never a problem for me. it always made perfect sense! i’ve become an atheist now, but that’s due to circumstances outside of my parent’s control because i’ve made my own decisions as an adult.

    i guess it’s important for both you and your wife to remember that science and christianity are not actually enemies. they can hold equal importance in a child’s brain without diminishing each other. in fact, it may be better for the kid. it was definitely the best for me because it armed me with both knowledge and faith for the times when i needed them.

    it’s important for you to really “come out” to your wife as athiest, mr. william! you guys are a couple, you need to respect, support, and be honest with each other. it may seem impossible now, but believe me when i say that all it takes for spouses of different religions to get along is love and respect! judging on how my mom acted when i told her about me, your wife may feel sad when you tell her. this is normal, and you need to respect this just as much as she needs to support you!

    so remember! science and christianity can go hand in hand for a kid! you need to be honest with your wife and she needs to respect your beliefs! and most of all, your kid really really needs to be taught about evolution, so don’t sacrifice your kid’s knowledge to keep the peace with your wife! it’s totally possible for all three of you to be happy.

    i hope this was at all helpful.