Why Can’t This Atheist Accept Her Husband’s Loss of Faith?

There’s an article in today’s New York Times by Colleen Oakley that’s supposed to be cute and lovey-dovey… yet it made me angrier the more I read.

Here’s the summary: She’s not religious. Her husband is. She never knew that until they were planning their wedding and he asked that the Lord’s Prayer be included in the ceremony:

“Is the Lord’s Prayer really necessary?” I asked Fred.

“Yeah,” he said, in his quiet way. “It’s important to me.”

“So you believe in God?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he said.

“You know I don’t, right?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“And that’s cool with you?”


Fortunately, I didn’t love him for his verbosity.

Alright, I don’t understand how religion didn’t come up at all in the three years they were together. But maybe that’s just me because talking about religion is such a big part of my life. It’s not like Fred went to church or anything; he was just culturally Christian. So I guess it’s possible that it just slipped under the radar…

Anyway, she caved in and allowed the prayer to be a part of the ceremony.

And then it stopped being an issue again until some time into their marriage…

So it was quite a surprise when two years ago — two years after we married — Fred announced over a Saturday breakfast of blueberry pancakes and turkey sausage that he didn’t believe in God anymore.

My jaw dropped. “What?”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately and I don’t know that I ever truly believed.”

Go Fred! He did what a lot of nominally religious people do: accepted the fact that it was all silly. He had “been a Christian” because his family was, too, but when he actually thought about it, he realized it was all just ridiculous.

But Colleen’s reaction is hardly one of gleeful dancing:

why did his revelation make me so uncomfortable?

Christians and religious zealots might say that deep down I was searching for a sense of peace that only the Lord can provide. Maybe, but I doubt it. I know myself enough to know that I can’t fuse my intellectual knowledge with a blind faith in a supreme deity. It just won’t ever happen.

But I did realize I liked the comfort of other people believing, especially my other half. It made me feel safe. Not believing in something, or not being steadfast in what you’re told to believe, can be frightening. It makes those pesky existential questions in life more difficult to answer, particularly when you wake up at 4 a.m., short of breath from contemplating the finality of death.

Fred’s faith was my safety net, just in case this whole God thing really was the way. With him, there was always the chance that when I got to the bouncer at Heaven’s door and my name wasn’t on the list, I could say: “Hey! I know someone inside.”

Ugh… an atheist who accepts Pascal’s Wager. That’s gotta be just one level above S.E. Cupp.

Throughout the rest of the article, her husband just accepts that there’s nothing supernatural out there and isn’t afraid to admit it. Meanwhile, Colleen can’t seem to deal with that. She gets upset when he admits there’s no such thing as a soulmate (because you don’t have a soul and because there’s no one “up there” to designate one special person just for you)… even though she doesn’t believe in them either. She’s mad at him because he’s “as cynical” as she is.

Gotta love those kinds of arguments…

Her: Baby, do I look good in this dress?

Him: Yeah, you look great.

Her: Wrong answer! I look fat! *Cries*

You can’t win.

Then there’s the birth of their son and the inevitable question of whether they should take him to church (correct answer: No) just so he has a “spiritual base,” even though both parents reject it. It’s Fred to the rescue:

“Wouldn’t it be hypocritical for us to make church a priority when neither one of us believe in the philosophies taught there?” he asked. “I feel like I would be lying to him.”

“Well, we believe in being kind to one another and not lying and not killing people and not committing adultery,” I said.

“Do you believe that Jesus died on a cross for your sins?” he asked me.

“Well, no.”

“That’s my point,” he said. Then, after a beat of silence: “If you want to go to church, I’m in full support of that. I think it’s great for Henry to learn about religion and spirituality. But I think in our family we should always be honest with him about our beliefs.

The whole article reeks of someone who thinks she’d probably be better off if only she could just get her mind to stop thinking so damn logically.

Speaking of which, this is how Colleen describes her own beliefs:

Even at a young age, I thought God and heaven were pacifying ideas to keep people from being afraid of death. Though my judgments of Christianity and belief have evolved to a more nuanced understanding, my lack of faith has not changed.

I don’t know how “belief in nonsense” needs more nuance, but it seems pretty obvious that she’s an atheist. A nominal atheist? Maybe. But an atheist nonetheless. At the very least, she’s made up her mind on the issue of God.

But the title of the article?

An Agnostic’s Guide to Marriage

How is she agnostic? She’s clearly taken a stance on the God issue, which nullifies the word (at least the way I tend to hear it used). The article should’ve been called “The Self-Loathing Atheist’s Guide to Marriage.”

(image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • 69ingchipmunks

    “That’s gotta be just one level above S.E. Cupp.”
    You take that back, Hemant! Cupp is always at the top!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=789325083 Melissa Glasscock

    Good commentary! 

  • Doctor Jen

    What?  She sounds like a moron.  Since when do Atheists not believe in “anything?”  I don’t believe in a magic sky fairy.  I do believe that this is the only life we will ever have and that it is worth our best efforts to minimize pain and suffering while increasing pleasure and joy.  Why be distracted by an ancient book with rules on what to eat, what to wear and who to screw?  I hardly think religion can take credit for inventing good behavior, credit that this bride seems prepared to give them.  At least her husband has his head screwed on right!

  • 3lemenope

    The whole article reeks of someone who thinks she’d probably be better off if only she could just get her mind to stop thinking so damn logically.

    Not for nothing, but oftentimes having an active and logical mind does lead to misery, depression, and despair. It is psychologically easier in many ways to not know or pretend not to, than to seek and find answers you might not like at all.

  • Sunda

    Egads, one of the most common, most irksome arguments out there:  atheist = amoral.  I find this particular fallacy frustrating and irritating, particularly so here, when it is promulgated by a person who herself represents its inaccuracy.  Blech.

  • RobMcCune

    Ugh. This is match made in facepalm heaven.

  • Vivian

    It reads like a fraudulent religious person. It just doesn’t make sense.

  • C Peterson

    People have real beliefs, not just programmed ones, when they’ve made the effort to reflect on their views. When programmed theists reflect, they often become atheists. It sounds like that’s what the husband did. But I’m thinking the wife has never done much self-reflection. She thinks she’s an atheist, but her actual philosophy is shallow and largely unconsidered. So when her environment shifts, she finds herself a bit adrift.

  • GregFromCos

    She sounds like myself the first couple years after I’d become an Atheist (although I would not have called myself that at that time). This is why its so important for people to dig into the big questions. Because if you don’t, your likely going to carry over what you’d learned prior to becoming an Atheist, and live your life always judging yourself through what you were taught as a child, even if you don’t believe in God.

  • http://www.atheistliving.com/ Susan

    While there are certainly things that upset me about this, her story reads like that of someone struggling through uncertainty about her changing roles in life (wife, then mother) and how to reconcile her own nonbelief with the messages in our society about what a “good” wife and mother “should” believe. 

    It’s frustrating, but I think it’s an honest confusion that many people struggle with when we live in a society with a religious majority. I hope that the last sentence of her story is an indication that she’ll be able to find the support she needs within her own developing family–without falling back on religious superstitions. 

  • onamission5

    I was thinking along those lines, too. It sounds to me like she’s accepted/internalised a lot of religious memes that are part of her cultural surroundings, without giving much thought to where those memes came from or why they are so prevalent.

    This was me for years, adamant that I didn’t believe in any deities, but claiming agnosticism on things like souls and universal energy and collective consciousness and karma. It’s a messy process sometimes, the shedding of woo based cultural memes, and it’s not always rational because the memes themselves aren’t rational.

  • Chas

    I could see myself writing something similar in year’s past. Between college to about 40  I considered my inability of having faith indicated a failing on my part. I found it hard to reconcile that I had family, friends and colleagues that I respected continue to practice their faith, that they perhaps could understand something I could not.  So I assigned religious belief a value that I did not feel myself. It was only after reading blogs such as this that beliefs or not valuable without legitimate foundations. 

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    Well, that’s just weird.

    I didn’t get angry reading it.  I just laughed at the weirdness.  There are lots of weird people, and a  great variety of ways of being weird.

  • Kirkland_kathy

    She’s a dumb ass.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    I’m sure he meant that Cupp is at the bottom, and the writer is one step above that. ;)

  • Fuzz

    My thought as well. Many people call themselves atheist when they’re really more apathetic and haven’t given it any thought. I was reminded of this recently while trying to read “The Year of Living Biblically” where the author professes to be secular (was not brought up with religion) but then is afraid of bringing his kid up without religion because he might “descend into moral anarchy.”

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I hesitate to pass summary and negative judgment on her from the bits and pieces of her life that the article may or may not accurately reflect. So my initial impression could be inaccurate. Nevertheless, here it is:

    She seems to be taking the role of a child in this relationship. She does not fully accept the responsibility that her atheism implies. For instance:

    If she believes that we are orphans in a dangerous and uncaring universe with no protective parent hovering magically above us, then it is her responsibility to be an adult and fully take care of herself, her loved ones, and her fellow humans as best as she can, and to encourage everyone around her to be grownups too.

    Instead, she seems to be relying on her husband to play the role of the protective parent, and she was assuming that he would at least be modeling his role after the Security Guard in the Sky.

    If she believes that we don’t have our morals beamed into us from outer space, and we don’t have an absolute, divine authority’s dictation of what is moral, but instead we must ponder and clarify our own ethical principles as best we can, working with our own conscience and with the society around us, then she should fully acknowledge that, and work with other adults, especially her chosen life partner to continue that clarification.

    Instead, learning that he too is being a good person according to his own best
    clarity and effort instead of relying on the imaginary Parent’s authority for what is good has made her feel insecure, just as children
    will feel when they discover that their mom and dad are not immortal, not
    invulnerable, and not infallible. If her husband is stumbling along, doing the best he can just like she is, then the responsibility to be a fully responsible adult comes toward her, and she’d rather avoid that.

    Again, I must reiterate that these characterizations are probably not entirely fair or accurate, and might be grossly unfair and inaccurate.  They come from my observations of people who tend to remain childish on various levels due to their belief in a parental god who will give them their safety, their rules of conduct, and their meaning.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

    That’s what I meant! :)

  • http://snigsfoot.blogspot.in/ Rob Crompton

    This sounds just a little bit similar to the position of some families where only one member of the family actually goes to church. The rest have no interest. but when Grandma pops her clogs, the next in line has to take over and start going to church. Doesn’t matter if they don’t really believe it because the minister does that for them.

  • Taxihorn

    I’d like to believe in Santa Claus but I don’t. Would I like others to believe? Would I be upset if someone I loved stopped believing? Well, quite frankly, a belief in Santa gets kind of creepy with each passing decade. But that doesn’t mean the story of Santa has no value; I’m quite happy with myself and my loved ones approaching it as a story, and nothing more.

  • onamission5

    She may very well have been counting on him as a proxy and not even realised that is what she was doing. I felt like I was hearing a complementarian “husband as spiritual head” sort of background noise behind the type, one that a lot of people carry in their brains without thinking where it came from, or if it really holds weight in reality. Now that she’s been confronted with this particular thinking error I can see why one would find it unsettling.  Hopefully the discomfort she is experiencing will move her toward clearer thinking rather than familar retreat to old habits.

  • Michael Brice

    The only thing we are guaranteed is change, odd how most people dislike change.

  • Jggaudia

    Dear Ms. Oakley,
    Your amusingly thoughtful article on agnosticism and marriage prompts me to make a suggestion to  you regarding your understanding of the issues surrounding metaphysics.  For one thing, when you say to Fred (as you did) “You know I don’t, right”? (believe in God), you have labeled yourself as an atheist (although you apparently choose to avoid the term.)  As such, (an atheist), you immediately deserve (and get) my admiration, because in my opinion, only atheists like us have the intellectual honesty and courage to openly admit that we find the fairy-tale of a savior-in-the-sky fit only for inclusion along with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy in children’s books.  I applaud your willingness to openly discuss your doubts and rejection of God, religion and the Bible, but the atheist community would be better served if we come out of the closet and join the ranks of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and (the late) Christopher Hitchens in adopting, with pride, the term “atheist” as a description of our philosophy.
    Secondly, my wife and I made the same mistake as you 56 years ago when our first daughter was born, in thinking that “we should start looking at
    churches . . . to give (her) some kind of spiritual base.”  We chose a Unitarian Church so fortunately there was minimal “collateral damage.” Today both our daughters are atheists and wonderful human beings.
    Many freethinkers choose the terms “agnostic,” “skeptic,” “Secular Humanist,” and the currently fashionable “none” out of fear of being tarred with a pejorative term akin to “communist” or “homosexual,” but “atheist” is a description to be proud of and we need more articles like yours along with the truth and courage of the acceptance of a long and noble tradition that goes back over two-and-a-half millenia.
    For reason,
    Gil Gaudia, Ph.D.

  • http://www.processdiary.com Paul Caggegi

    Wow. I can actually relate to this woman. I’m open about my atheism; my family and friends are all aware, but when my wife (identifies as Catholic) stopped wearing her cross, I felt a little sad, cos it was as if she was giving up part of her identity. I didn’t know if it was to please me, or if it was her own decision. She’s still a “deist”, and writes “christian” when filling out forms asking her to specify her religion, but identifies more agnostic. Either way, I didn’t feel the elation or “yes! Let’s not believe in that stupid sky fairy together” You’re all describing. I felt sad. And truthfully, I had nothing to give her to fill the gap that didn’t sound cheap, or wise. But I never felt it was my place to tell her what to believe and what not to believe in.

  • http://www.facebook.com/NateHevens Nathan Hevenstone

    She sounds like a pretty big fan of SE Cupp, actually…

  • http://twitter.com/cr0sh Andrew Ayers

     Have you ever thought that /maybe/ it’s not all about you…?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, who listens

    crap like this is exactly why i don’t read the old grey hoor anymore. that and the moustache of understanding, and bobo. what bunk. to think that it passes as ‘paper of record’ in this country is a sign of just how doomed we are. 

  • http://www.processdiary.com Paul Caggegi

    I don’t follow…? How is what I said all about me?

  • Brett Newton

    Among many things, the one that makes me squirm the most (OK – besides Pascal’s Wager) is the incredible condescension that her beliefs lead her to. Religion is good for the sheep, in her view.

    I think she enjoyed have that “mental superiority from not believing” that she thought she possessed. And when it was taken from her, she had an emotional response that was poorly reasoned (and that’s being kind).

    Basically, what I’m saying is this: bitch needs to seek a therapist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.gwinn Don Gwinn

    I’m not angry at her, but I do read this differently than you did, Hemant.  As I read it, she’s not an atheist; she does not lack a belief in a god or gods.  She thinks something out there is passing judgment on her “spiritual” development and that she may have to face its judgment after death.  What she really means when she says that Fred’s belief made it safe to be an atheist is that his belief made it safe to CLAIM atheism.

    I think the reality is that neither she nor Fred have made it a priority to think or talk about their positions on faith or spirituality.  That’s why Fred went along with Christianity without either really practicing it OR rejecting it, as a “cultural Christian.”   When the marriage planning brought up the topic, they both fell back on their defaults, so he wanted the prayer and she wanted to know whether he was OK with her “atheism.”  Over the next two years, he put more thought into his position and decided that he hadn’t really thought it through–and that he now agreed with her stated position.

    It does sound crazy for her to reject that, but it makes sense if her stated position wasn’t her real belief, because like him, she’d sort of taken her beliefs for granted without much examination (but unlike him, she hadn’t put in the time after the marriage, so his revelation was a shock.) 

    Her writing here makes me think that her position is actually much more like my own wife’s point of view.  My wife is NOT an atheist, but she is “not religious.”  She “believes there’s probably something there,” but she doesn’t identify with any church or organization.  
    So when any specific issue with religion is discussed, she’ll almost always identify with the position an atheist would usually take, and she disagrees with religious believers on almost every specific issue (except the existence of a deity.)  She knows that she can’t defend that belief intellectually, so she doesn’t try . . . but she does acknowledge it.  I don’t think Oakley has done that yet.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see her views on this continue to change.

  • ruth

    She says:  “I do tend to also accept the notion of paranormal energy.”

    I wish atheists would say those kinds of silly things.  

  • ruth

    Duh.  I meant to say “wouldn’t” say those kinds of silly things. 

  • snoozn

    Whether or not that analysis applies to this situation, it is interesting and certainly could fit from the information given. Made me think of a Qualiasoup video I just watched yesterday called “Religion – The Bad Parent.”

  • Agnostic

    We do not label ourselves skeptics and agnostics due to any fear. We describe ourselves that way because we are not arrogant enough to say that we know for sure. We, or as far as I am concerned, am not into any anti religion crusade. There is nothing wrong with people having faith that helps them to become better people and helps others along the way. I do not keep harping and harping over the same few bad things that some religious people do while ignoring the good things that religious people do.

    There is this feeling of intellectual superiority of many atheists who align themselves with science which is regarded as cerebral. The corporate chiefs, bankers, top government officials and policy makers have equally high intelligence but look at what they have done. I happily remain skeptical.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Thank you snoozn, for that excellent link. The model he describes is very useful for understanding human interactions. 

  • JoFro

    Join the Unitarian Church and everyone can shut up about all this silliness!

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    That it’s not your responsibility to give your wife something to “fill the gap.”  That unless you told her that the cross offended you, you are not responsible for her choosing to wear it nor for her decision to stop.

    That despite the fact that you are married, your wife is an independent autonomous person whose beliefs, thoughts, and actions are not dependent upon you, and, honestly, shouldn’t be.

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    Michael Shermer wrote a book about how many, many religious people see religion the same way.  “I’m a rational person who does these things for the sense of connection and community, but these other people truly believe in God and this faith.”

  • Blacksheep

    I’m confused as to why someone’s genuine feelings would cause anger, even if you see them as misguided…

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    Why is it considered “arrogant” to dismiss the notion of gods? Aside from cultural acceptance, what makes gods any different from other supernatural creatures like fairies or unicorns? We know fairies and unicorns aren’t real. There’s no need to be agnostic about them. We also know that ancient gods and goddesses aren’t real. There’s no need to be agnostic about Zeus. He’s not real, and never was.

    So what’s the problem with dismissing the rest of the gods? People aren’t born believing in them. You would never have even entertained the notion of gods being real if you hadn’t been born into a culture that believes they exist. If our culture believed in fairies, then would you also be agnostic about fairies? I just don’t understand viewing gods as a special case, when it’s obvious that no one views those other imaginary supernatural creatures in the same way.

  • Heidi

     Atheism does not mean knowing for sure. Nobody knows anything “for sure.” I just find gods about as likely as leprechauns. (See Richard Dawkins’s belief scale.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.gwinn Don Gwinn

    Wow!  I missed that!  Nothing to do with atheism directly, of course, but . . . yes, I think she’ll be going through more changes and learning more things.  And that’ll be good for her, no need to be angry about it.  She’s not done changing yet by a long shot.

  • dwasifar karalahishipoor

    “Why Can’t This Atheist Accept Her Husband’s Loss of Faith?”

    Because she’s not an atheist.

    Don’t know if trolling, or just confused.  To be gentlemanly, I’m assuming the latter.  So you guys who are calling her names, cut it out.  She has as much right to be confused as anyone, and at least she’s being forthright about her struggle.

  • http://www.processdiary.com Paul Caggegi

    Kinda what I meant. :) But hey: quibble on the semantics, O voices on the interwebz. Me – I’m going back to my happy wife and happy life.

  • Drew M.

    You do realize that if you don’t think there is a god, that makes you atheist, right? “Agnostic” only means you don’t think that it is possible to know for sure.

  • Drew M.

    I think anyone who has been in love will know exactly why Paul wrote that.

  • Aaron Scoggin

    To me, she’s just not taking full responsibility for her beliefs. She wants to be an atheist, but she wants to have someone else there that’s not an atheist “just in case”. Her take on god is wishy-washy at best and confusing at worst. It seems like she views atheism as fundies often do – A belief in nothing, by which a person can have  no moral standards or moral support, which is absolutely false. This is evidenced by her wanting to send her children to church, despite not being religious – thinking that without the church’s guiding hand, her child won’t learn not to lie, steal, murder, etc. Another common fundie argument against us, so I’m confused as to why a so-called “atheist” is employing it.

  • Thorny264

    Seeing as you deny evolution and believe in magical sky fairies (just look at your other comments) I would hardly say you were a skeptic or agnostic.