Ask Richard: Religious Wife Asks How to Raise Kids with her Atheist Husband

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

Hi Richard,

When we married, my husband and I held similar religious beliefs. Through the years, however, we have taken different paths. My husband is atheist and believes that religion and faith are not only limiting to the human experience, but dangerous. I have a deeply rooted belief in God and believe that faith and religious participation are crucial to what it means to be human. Having already been on quite the journey in our relationship, we can now understand and respect the other’s right to their own point of view.

However, we have four children and we cannot agree on how to raise them. Since we started out as a religious family, the children have been and are being raised in my religion. But as you can imagine, my husband takes great issue with this. We want him to have an equal voice in our children’s upbringing, but we do not know how to accomplish this without 1) compromising our separate viewpoints, 2) confusing and upsetting our children (our two oldest at 13 and 10 definitely identify themselves with the religion they have been raised in), and 3) creating more division in our family.

We were once advised by a marriage counselor to find a third solution – not settle for my solution or his solution but find a third solution that both of us agree on. We have not yet been able to find such a thing that works in practical, everyday application. This unresolved issue continues to take a toll on our marriage, our family, and even spills over into effecting our personal and professional goals.

If you have already addressed this issue, please direct me to your previous answer. I noticed a post along similar lines in the forum and although I have read (and admire) much of your Ask Richard blog, I haven’t been able to find an article about parenting from different viewpoints.

Thank you,

Dear Julie,

Firstly, I commend you and your husband for focusing on being fair and inclusive in your relationship, even though it makes things more complicated. It’s probably why you have been able to continue your “quite the journey” together. The two of you must be doing something right, and whatever it is is all too rare in couples who have mixed religious views.

A difference in religious views is the most divisive of all conflicts. Couples sometimes split up over issues about money, sex, politics, in-laws, and dozens of other things, but religion is the biggest deal breaker. Even if a couple finds ways to adjust to their religious differences through each successive stage, from friendship, through courtship, and into marriage, the crisis that will severely test all of their ability to adjust, the breaker of all those previous deals is how to raise the kids.

The “third solution” I would recommend is not some kind of hybrid of your and your husband’s differing beliefs, or some kind of watered-down religion or watered-down atheism. The third solution is not something for both of you to cook up and then present to your kids.

The third solution is whatever your kids themselves will come up with.

In the end, as they grow into adulthood they’re going to make their own decisions about religion anyway, whether they’re raised as religiously as you might prefer, or as non-religiously as your husband might prefer. All you can do is to make that process one filled with pain, guilt, and resentment, or make it a process filled with love, respect, and acceptance.

This will require something that might be very difficult at first for either or both of you in your roles as parents: You’ll have to trust and accept your children’s judgment. You’ll have to let them find the way that is right for them.

You, Julie, will need to decide what is your primary goal. Is it that the kids adhere to your religious beliefs, or that they are free to make their own well-informed decisions about religion?

Similarly, your husband will have to decide if his primary goal is that they reject religious beliefs, or that they are free to make their own well-informed decisions about religion.

If your and his goals are the polar opposites, your children will become ropes in a tug-of-war, in a double bind similar to that faced by children with divorced parents, even if you don’t divorce. They have natural loyalties to both of you, but they will have to choose, or at least pretend to choose between your opposing views. This compels them to go against their loyalty to one of you. Since they will want to avoid that, the bind will encourage them to lie, to equivocate, to evade, to hedge, to people-please. It’s a double bind because no matter what they do, even their attempts to get along with both, they’re in the wrong. They will be more likely to let their thoughts about religion remain a muddled, unresolved mess that they will associate with guilt, resentment, conflict, and sadness.

If both of your goals are to let them make their own well-informed decision, then I don’t think you need to worry about “confusing or upsetting” them. You and your husband do not need to present a seamless, unified response to their questions about religion. You can present your view, and he can present his, without any tone of disrespect. Your kids are capable of understanding, in terms according to their different ages, that people can have contrary beliefs and opinions, and yet those differences do not have to result in a loss of love, or respect, or support.

They will definitely be confused and upset if you and your husband adamantly demand or imply that they must either agree with you or with him, and they sense that love will be given or taken away according to what they choose.

Begin to share with your children the “quite the journey” that you and your husband have already been on for several years. Involve them, in age-appropriate ways, in the processes that you and he have used to allow for your differences while still preserving your mutual respect, trust, and affection. Tell them how the two of you adjusted to each other as your views diverged. Be candid about your feelings, letting the kids know that emotions are to be felt and acknowledged, but you don’t have to take destructive action on them. Show them that when the preservation of mutual love and respect is always the central goal, the rest can be worked out.

Let your children walk with you on this journey as fellow explorers rather than being entirely and passively guided by only one of you. This will not be quick; it will take years. As they go through different stages of development, they will lean one way for a while, and then the other. Whatever path they later blaze for themselves, let them take with them the best of what both you and your husband have to offer. That would be the lesson both taught and demonstrated, that love can transcend this conflict. With that, I think they’ll become fine, wonderful human beings on either path.

It’s quite possible that some of your four children will end up tending toward your views, and some of them will go toward your husband’s views. Observing so many of these families, I’m beginning to think that it’s not entirely about early training. I think we may eventually see that genetically determined traits play a role as well.

My brother and I had exactly the same upbringing, yet we’re polar opposites on religion. Fortunately, we have plenty of love and respect for each other. This is because neither of us were forced to choose between a parent’s love and what we saw as true for ourselves. I think that’s why neither of us have made agreeing with our religious views a requirement for loving each other.

You have not specified the particulars of your religion, so I can only respond in general terms. Different religions and sub-sects might present different challenges, and extended family influences and pressures might pose their own challenges as well. The thing to focus on is to keep your relationship with your husband healthy, open, safe to be honest, frank yet gentle, proactively problem-solving, loving, and respectful. Also add large doses of humor. When your core relationship is strong, the strength will spread to your children.

I wish you and your family a shared life of joy and satisfaction. I think all of you have everything it takes just as you are.


Related posts:
Ask Richard: Atheist Ex-husband, Christian Ex-wife, Kids in the Middle
Ask Richard: Atheists’ Freethinking Children Are Considering Religion
Ask Richard: One Spouse Became an Atheist After a Few Years of Marriage

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.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Wallace Finch

    One neat thing my own family did was to explain their own views, and also to explain the other person’s views with honesty and respect. For example, my dad would explain a situation from his (atheist) point of view, and also explain that my gran would see that same situation as a lesson from god, and his explanation would be so thorough and respectful that he’d use the exact same words if she were in the room with us. To this day my gran loves me as the atheist I am, and says it’s not her place to judge me–she knows I’m a good person and loves me exactly as I am. My brother is a believer. Interesting, isn’t it?

  • Dwayne_Windham

    I’d encourage Julie to attend a Unitarian Universalist church / congregational fellowship and see if there perhaps can be a workable solution worked through there. I’ve personally attended the one locally here in Austin for several years, and can share the stories of several mixed-religion families that have found a home with the UU congregation. Even if you choose not to join or attend religious services there, I guarantee you can get in contact with people in similar situations and working through those challenges. 

  • rlrose63

    What a perfect answer, Richard.  I completely agree.  I do this as a rough ride for this family, especially as she paints her husband as “vocal,” which could mean he is not entirely respectful of her beliefs.  We atheists tend to be that way sometimes.  But if her beliefs/religion will allow her the leeway to let her kids think for themselves and they can both refrain from taking shots at the other’s beliefs, this could work out well for them. 

    While we do believe that each person should make up their own mind, we have raised our son with a healthy dose of active atheism.  As a parent, you do kinda make it up as you go along, and sometimes, we just couldn’t stop a rant, which brought questions that we then answered honestly. 

    Oh well… a good atheist friend of mine, raised by an agnostic and an atheist, acted out in college by joining a church.  LOL!  It didn’t work… her parents were understanding and gracious, asking her about her newfound beliefs with honest curiosity.  She didn’t stay more than 6 months with the church as then, both the church AND her parents were driving her nuts.  Our kids will always find something to do that bugs us, be it behavior or belief systems.

  • rlrose63

    I actively looked for a UU church in my general area (Portland, OR) to attend with my son for fellowship, comaraderie, social support, etc.  ALL were on the more active religious side than I felt comfortable with.

  • guest

    I was brought up roman catholic but was always subjected to other religions (in school, as part of church work etc). I did moved on to atheism but I have plenty of friends with the same (similar) upbringing of open discussions of other religions (and no crazy talk about how people of other religions will go to hell) who have remained christian. I know I’ll bring up my children that way, teaching religion like an anthropologist ;)

  • Cris

    This is good. I was raised in a secular household, and when my brother and I were older, he chose to be a Christian and I am currently a quasi-Buddhist Atheist. But, I appreciated that my parents let us choose, and were encouraging of us growing up to study all philosophies and sciences.

  • Ubi Dubium

    UU’s tend to be pretty variable on how religious they are.  It’s too bad that the ones in your area are so religious. Have you checked out Ethical Societies?

    (Of course, the UU’s that are too religious are likely to stay that way unless we join them in some numbers.)

  • witchgawd

    Indoctrination is child abuse.
    /end thread.

  • Jeff P

    Dear Julie,

    I can tell you a little of how my wife and I managed a similar (but slightly different) situation.

    My wife was raised mainline protestant (Presbyterian) where the church provided good youth-group activities and she was brought up to believe that all good people where “church-going people”.  She wasn’t evangelical, though, and had little interest in actually studying the bible or learning about the details of Christianity.  She even somewhat resented the patriarchal roles religion demanded on society. 

    I was raised without any religious upbringing and became an atheist pretty much by default.  She knew I was an atheist from the start of our relationship and when we had kids, we had not been going to church.  After a while, though, she wanted the kids to be part of a church so started taking them to a church one of her friends was suggesting she join. The kids were about 4 and 9.   For sake of family unity, I went along.  I was a bit curious what church was all about.  It was an evangelical Baptist church that was trying hard to tailor its message for the “unchurched” so the sermons were fairly moderate. 

    We went regularly for about two years, volunteered for several ministries within the church, and  were part of a weekly bible study small group.   Even though I never stopped being an atheist, I was very fascinated about what the congregation believed about the supernatural.  All this time, we leveled with our kids that their mom believed in God but their dad did not. 

    After a while, though, I had heard pretty much all the sermons (they started to repeat somewhat) and I had pretty much figured out what everybody actually believed within the congregation.  They church was pushing for greater and greater tithing and evangelical  commitments.  I was viewing it more as an anthropology study that was coming to an end.  My older son was already declaring himself an atheist.   I finally just said that I wasn’t going any more.  Both my kids threw a fit that they didn’t want to go any more either.  My wife simply gave up and stopped going herself.   She talks about possibly wanting to join an UU church (that might be more palatable to me) every now and then but when push comes to shove, I think everybody likes having Sundays off.  The kids sure do.  I do.  And I’m pretty sure my wife does too.  Over time she has just learned that non-church-going people can also be good people too.  
    But who know, perhaps in a couple years, we will find ourselves going to a UU church.  It is hard to say.

    I would recommend to stay committed to your marriage and family and just find a way to make things work out.  The path your family takes doesn’t have to be the path that you took while growing up.

  • Wren Combs

    I went here for a few years when I lived in PDX.  I loved it and it wasn’t very religious at all.  It has been 5-6 years, so it might have changed, of course.

  • pagansister

    You beat me to the suggestion of looking for a UU Church, Dwayne.   I was raised a Methodist, and my husband raised a UU.    Found (before I met my future husband) that I had many doubts about Christianity in general.   When we had our 2 children, we raised them in the UU tradition and now grown, they have made up their own minds.    Neither attend an organized faith, nor do their spouses.    Worked for us.  We don’t attend anywhere either now. 

  • Sunny Day

    This is easy to answer.
    SUBMIT to your husband as your magic book commands.

    If you don’t want to do that, then make a list of your reasons, read them over and apply the same thinking to the rest of the things your book commands.

  • Mark

    I had a childhood that was as Julie described. The advice Richard has given I can totally agree with and wish that that was the situation I was brought up in.

    Not only does it address the religious question, but it also addresses issues such as love, respect, conflict, acceptance (of each other(awesome example for kids)), humour, and speaking the truth. This can do nothing but help our future leaders in dealing with these issues, and more, from a perspective that is truly one which is their own. This is important because I believe that human beings are inherently good and want to help others, and with a balanced upbringing, as described, the World can only improve so that all human beings are treated as each one of us would like to be treated, with respect.

  • Kim

    The letter writer says that she sees religion as crucial for human life.  Not just good or beneficial, but CRUCIAL.  Therefore, it is unlikely that she will be willing to compromise.

    It does sound like her husband is willing to compromise.  She says that both of them want him to have an “equal voice”- not a superior voice, but an equal one.  Then she comes up with a bunch of reasons why her husband having an equal voice would be a bad idea.

    I am no expert, but I think that kids should be taught about different world views and allowed to choose their own path.  It’s only natural that this mother wants to shelter her kids from things she sees as “confusing and upsetting”, but the kids are going to learn about atheism sooner or later.  Her oldest child is a teenager and cannot be sheltered forever.

  • sailor

    Lessons the kids might hopefully learn
    Religion is something people they love can disagree on, while maintaining love for each other and being cool and rational about it.
    Each person has a point of view, the kids should learn about  be open to both until they are ready to make up their own minds (This includes going to church). They should be told they not to try and make up their minds till they are almost adults.

    I think Anne Tyler once had a novel with a religious father and atheist mother, the kid ended up choosing Sunday school treats and heaven or some such…


  • Gib

    Richard, good response, but I want to expand on your words ”
    Different religions and sub-sects might present different challenges… ”

    Julie, I think the one deal-breaker here is what you teach your kids about hell, and who goes there. It’s going to be very difficult to keep a respectful, harmonious relationship if you let the kids think that their atheist father might be going to hell because of his lack of belief….

    You need to come up with a good answer to that if they ever ask it (perhaps you already have), and if you personally think he’s going to hell you need to hide that from your kids. Although, I don’t know how you’re still together with your husband if you think that anyway, so hopefully you don’t….

  • Rich Wilson

    I think the biggest step is

    We want him to have an equal voice in our children’s upbringing

    I really like everything Richard has to say, but anything that doesn’t include on parent hiding their beliefs I think will eventually work itself out.  The children will have examples of both kinds of people- those who believe in God and those who don’t.  This may seem obvious, but I know of a situation where the husband is ‘not allowed’ to tell the kids that he doesn’t believe in God.  That, IMO, is untenable.

  • Red

     Define indoctrination? By default, lack of indoctrination would also have to be child abuse. Teaching values to your children is important. If you decide not to teach your child anything someone else will. I’d rather teach my child than have Dora or Spongebob teach them.

    Besides, if you decide not to teach your child values (because it’s indoctrination), that in and of itself is a value. In the end you are indoctrinating your child with that value and are therefore a child abuser by your own indictment.

  • Bruce Long

    Indoctrination is not the same thing as the teaching of values. The latter can happen against the background of critical thinking, and critical thinking is usually antithetical to indoctrination. It does not follow that someone averse to indoctrinating their children is not teaching them values and to say as much is just equivocating and a basic category error: failing to acknowledge relevant distinctions where they exist and matter.

    Teaching children the value of critical thinking is not tantamount to indoctrination, but a proof against it. Regarding the rejection of religious value systems on the basis that their foundations to not properly stand up to critical or scientific scrutiny as a religion is simply a confused position and again fails to identify distinctions and differences that matter. It’s like saying that the refusal to drive any vehicles is a way of being a driver of vehicles.

    Personally – I’d rather have my children learn something from Spongebob than something from church as I think the former is generally  more intelligent (the juxtaposition of absurdism, postmodern and surrealist arts forms against a background of sophisticated dialogue and jokes is quite clever and at the very least it will teach children to identify when something does not make sense on a rational basis), but that’s because I do not value the kind of indoctrination that religionists think everyone needs (presumably because they can’t think of any other way to be good, that everyone is like them, or are they are just very controlling). Indoctrination usually involves dogma, and the rejection of dogma on the basis of critical thought is a value that protects one against indotrination. 

  • Bruce Long

    (I am working with the assumption you may be a Christian theist – but the arguments are similar for most theist faiths). A significant difficulty is that your doctrines are rigorously constrictive about many things and include within them classifications of unbelievers that are inherently devaluing (the fool has said in their heart that there is no god), duplicitous (you can avoid hellfire but only if you buy the doctrine and submit, the god fiction loves everyone but only if they have faith are they saved etc.), negative (hell-bound without the god character, unbelief is hated by the god character), and marginalising (although you claim to love him – your doctrine says he is of the devil. This has tangible outcomes for unbelievers among large numbers of believers – the opinions of the former are largely devalued and ignored in my experience since they are under the influence of the satan character that you also think is real). All of this is worse if one understands that the god character does not corespond to anything real in the world aside from the wishes and attitudes of the persons that constructed it for various purposes.

    Your husband’s thinking framework does not require that any such impositions be made upon anyone else: it is the absence of requirements based doctrine and dogma. The playing field is not level – your heavy positive and narrow doctrinal and dogmatic values are far more control and parameter orientated than his – and you are either with the Jesus character or against them. Moreover, your doctrine openly says that the Messiah character came to bring a sword of division and not unity – to separate family members from each other on the basis of belief. I think that if you really loved your husband and children for the people that they naturally are, you would ditch faith requirements altogether. Perhaps you love the doctrine and the god character that you believe in more than you love them (who cares that the doctrine doesn’t give you a choice – it’s YOUR doctrine – not his, and there is very little reason to believe it other than being pushed or coerced into doing so on the basis of the threat of losing one’s family or being limited in social relations.)

    I have fear for your husband and children, since your faith institutions will ultimately seek to enforce through you its established frameworks and mechanisms to radically limit his influence on the children. It’s written into the schema already.

  • Slavek

    Dear Julie, 
    I have somewhat similar experience. I’m atheist and my wife is catholic. We have 5 year old son. He quite often asks question about reality. About existence of angels and so on. 

    I always try to explain my view, and at the same time say with respect, that my wife view is different. To my surprise, he is able to understand that without any hassle.

    Good luck on your journey.


  • David McNerney

    I’m in the same boat but a little further on.

    We are both totally honest about our religious views – though I did originally commit that we would encourage the children to go through the rites of my wife’s religion (and I actually don’t regret that).

    My daughter (13) now calls herself an atheist, and my son (11) walks around the house with a wooden cross around his neck.  But they’re happy – and religion is something that we rarely have an issue with.

  • ctcss

    As a Sunday School teacher, I have no problems with students wanting to explore (on their own) other religious beliefs or non-belief. I am certainly not qualified to teach them about the details of other’s beliefs, but I can certainly offer them an understanding of how the beliefs of our religion fit into one’s life. It is ultimately up to them what they make of such teaching and how it fits in with how they would like to approach things in their own lives.

    In my understanding of such things, a well reasoned approach to one’s religion is no different from a well reasoned approach to any set of guiding principles. Mental discipline, as well as intelligence, wisdom, and compassion are going to be required in order to live life in a principled way.Everyone needs to figure out what they will use as a means to navigate their way through life. Personally, I have found my religion to be a great help in my own life. If someone finds another approach to helping them make useful life decisions, more power to them. Thinking must be used in all such endeavors.

    I don’t indoctrinate my students, I simply teach them the basics of our religion and the reasoning behind its practice. If what I convey strikes them as being flawed or lacking, and I cannot answer their serious, thoughtful questions, then I have let them down and they should look for a different approach that has better answers for them. As far as I am concerned, they are always free to make up their own minds.

  • ReadsInTrees

    I was also going to suggest a UU church (depending on the church). Their kids will be exposed to religion (for Julie), but will get a more balanced view of religion or being not religious (for the husband). They may also be exposed to OTHER religious viewpoints so that they can really, truly decide for themselves.

  • ReadsInTrees

    For some reason the way you phrased, “walks around the house with a wooden cross around his neck” made me picture him literally just dubbing around in the house with a three foot cross dangling from his neck, banging him on the knees from time to time…

  • Pedro Lemos

    She didn´t even mention her religion. Why the assumption that her magic book has this or any command, without any evidence to this fact? Don´t make the same mistake that many religious people do: generalize without considering the facts.

  • Thegoodman

    Both her and her husband should compile evidence to support the claims they wish to teach their children. Beyond that let the chips fall where they may…May the best logic win!

    I will never understand how an atheist and a theist could stay together as a couple. It seems like such a fundamental difference in worldviews that they would be incompatible in even the most basic parenting techniques. I would honestly prefer my wife become a republican heroin addict than a Christian. I am not comparing a republican heroin addicts to Christians, I would just rather be married to the former than the latter.

  • Thegoodman

     Given that the post is in English, it stands to reason that the author of the letter is Christian.

    Also, since 51% of the world is either Christian or Muslim, it is not such a bad guess.

  • Devient Genie

    Lets not sugar coat it anymore. Enough is enough.

    CryBabies 8:11–We make all these claims that humans are weak and humans are not smart enough and strong enough to live in a world without the belief in a holy binky or savior :)

    CaptainObvious 11:38–Either god made childbirth painful for women because eve ate the apple, or childbirth is naturally painful. Believing the latter is your logic and reason speaking, believing the former is what makes you delusional :)

    SHAMEFUL 7:2–Polluting  young children with religious doctrine while simultaneously avoiding the inspirational, and beautiful understandings of the magic of nature and human life, is corrosive to a healthy, free thinking conciousness. Science is either the devil or a conspiracy, once you agree its NOT, its game over for religious doctine across the board. Government and University websites understand evolution is a process that, like rotation and revolution, do not require belief, these processes are understood to be:)

    TRICKS 7:2–Disrespecting women is the oldest trick in the book. Its practically engraved in our DNA, its been hammered home for thousands of years. Theres all kinds of awesome books, one of them is an all time bestseller, the holy binky :)

    WAKEUP 16:4–Never fear learning and education, such fear is contagious and harmful to children :) 

  • Devient Genie

    BINGO :)

  • Daneerfuture

    Hi Julie.  I suggest ur husband is on the right track on what he believes is wrong and religion is there to divide people not to bring them together.So join won’t be disaponted.

  • tsahpina

    hello richard. i read the beginning bit of yr answer until i reached yr third solution being that parents say nothing to the child. easier said than done. even if the religious mum,and my daughter in law in my case,would obey to this,which i think is almost impossible for her,the husband in both case,this one,and my son,would,but the child would ask questions,seen almost all children around going to church. maybe u gave answer to this too,but i didnt read it cos i know it is impossible in the case of my son and his toddler son. my son has already given up. he intends,as far as i can see,to be mute dumb and blind to everything his wife will do to their child religion wise. and this is much,cos she herself is doing much. more church than cooking and doing the house. my son says he will do it,or rather do nothing about it,cos he thinks its better for the child to be religious in a very religious society as ours is. i think he is deluding himself. the real reason why he says this is that he is afraid not to lose his wife. he is the second party in his marriage. so,in my opinion it all comes to strength. to who is stronger. he is a foreigner in the country,ans so his wife does the command… and,when the child starts asking me about why i dont go to church,i am not sure what to tell him. i dont want to jeopardize my sons interests in his marriage. what do u suggest? maybe,u are too young to understand,ill tell u on yr fifteenth birthday?

  • tsahpina

    u are being a zenon. no good.

  • Kbh40blue

    This is a bad marriage for sure. But we marry for better or for worse. Religion is one of the top reasons marriages dissolve. Both of these people seem lukewarm in their faith and their their children are caught in the middle. If they were Christian, they would be obligated to raise their children as Christian. For the objective in this life is to get to the next. And the salvation of their children is at stake. Itis truly sad to see people today who get married have no alignment on something so vital as our to raise children. I feel very fortunate that my parents raised us in a loving household where faith was at the core of how we lived. Mom, Dad, and Grandparents all stuck together as one. It is sad to read many of these comments from such a self-absorbed generation who seem to be only concerned about their own happiness and not the good of the children.

  • Sarina

    I hope your struggle has gotten easier. I can’t fathom that it will ever be easy for you, but I can definitely say one thing to those who aren’t in this situation – don’t marry somebody you’d be unequally yoked to. JUST as the bible says. That will save all of this from even happening.