What Do You Do When Your Spouse Believes in God?

Morning Edition on NPR is running a weeklong series on “Losing Our Religion” and today’s story focuses on relationships in which one person is an atheist and the other is not. Looks like they picked a perfect couple to profile, too:

Mike Bixby is an atheist, while his wife Maria Peyer is Lutheran (Leah Nash – NPR)

So how does the relationship work? Even though they have different beliefs, they share common values:

“I hear it a lot from Maria, ‘You’re very spiritual in this way,’ and ‘You’re very spiritual in that way.’ And a couple days ago, I kind of joked with her, ‘That is a very secular humanist attitude, and that shows a lot of growth, a lot of not faith,’ ” Bixby says.

Bixby and Peyer may disagree about faith but they share common values…

“I can love you and think you’re wrong, and you can love me and think I’m wrong,” Peyer says. “So I appreciate this opportunity to grapple with it, and I appreciate you for being the one I get to grapple with it with.”

[This is where everyone lets out a collective "Awwwwwwwwww"]

For what it’s worth, the couple got together later in life, so deciding how to raise kids was never an issue for them. That can often be a dealbreaker in a relationship, since you almost have to pick a side and compromise may be even more confusing for the children.

Incidentally, five years ago, I wrote about a younger couple in a mixed-faith relationship. Update: They’re still together and doing very well!

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.

  • Achron Timeless

    Actually, a baptist preacher solved the problem for me and the love of my life. I was basically being forced to go to their church, but after seeing the darwin fish on my car, the preacher did and off the cuff sermon ranting and raving about wolves in with the sheep and snakes poisoning the well and other nonsense. Of course, he was staring right at me during most of it and I just smiled back.

    Seeing that behavior, it kicked open the door to asking “what the hell is wrong with this church?”, and we know where that road leads. Haven’t gotten her all the way to atheist, but vague wishywashy deist is close enough for me.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “So I appreciate this opportunity to grapple with it, and I appreciate you for being the one I get to grapple with it with.”

    Yes, grappling can be good in a marriage. ;>

  • Jasper

    Is it odd for husband and wife to think each other are wrong about things?

  • C Peterson

    How is this different from a million other examples where spouses have different interests or beliefs?

    It all comes down to how important the issues are to the individuals. A typical atheist spends very little time thinking about atheism, and a typical theist spends very little time thinking about gods. A couple like this is unlikely to experience much friction over the matter. But if one of them is a militant anti-religionist, and the other a gung-ho missionary… well, that marriage is probably headed for trouble! Or not.

  • Randomfactor

    My spouse was generic Christian when we met; she became agnostic over the years partly because of the awful health problems she faced in spite of being one of the best people I’ve ever met.

  • Lee Eddy

    I’m an atheist married to a Christian. My story started out a little bit differently as we were both evangelical Christians when we married and I deconverted after we had been married eight or nine years. We ended up at the same place as the couple in this NPR piece, for the most part. As they said, it probably doesn’t work for every couple, but we found a way to make it work.

  • mo

    I never intended to convert my wife, but like the couple in the article, used humor whenever appropriate to point out the fallacies, impracticalities and even the insidiousness of organized religion. Eventually, it seems to have made an impact and it surprised me to learn she is now about a half step further away from religion than “vague wishywashy deist”. With regards to our children, I had made an agreement before we got married to concede to her on matters of religious upbringing, however, I’ve since moved from possible-higher-power-ist myself to overt anti theist, and I think if she hadn’t moved in the same direction as me, our kids’ religiosity, which in reality never came to be, would have caused problems.

  • TiltedHorizon

    I’m an atheist, my Wife is Catholic. I love Mythbusters, she does not. She loves American Idol, I can’t stand it. I love chocolate, she loves vanilla. I’m introverted, she is extroverted. She is into romance movies, I prefer action. Basically, we are polar opposites, two halves of the same whole and we would not have it any other way. 20 years strong.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I’d love to hear David Silverman’s story some day. I’m assuming he has a strict rule about “don’t go there” so I’m not holding my breath, but if they ever do come out with it, I’d give it a read.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    I’m an atheist married to a “vague wishywashy deist”. It has worked for us mainly because we have both compromised at key times in our relationship. When we first got married, we didn’t go to church. After the kids got to a certain age, she felt compelled to take them to a church. I went along with them. After about 2 years of this, I had had enough and stopped going. The kids begged not to have to go either. My wife gave in and we all stopped going. None of us have gone since. Every now and then, she comments that she might like to go to some other church somewhere but she hasn’t pushed the issue enough or even picked one out. My older son is a self-proclaimed atheist now. My younger son is probably a “vague wishywashy deist” at the moment. At this point in our lives, going to church would be nothing but an inconvenience to each of us. I don’t really need to be told I’m going to hell by a sermon any more. I’ve heard that enough.

  • A3Kr0n

    What to do when your spouse believes in God? Why didn’t you discuss this before you got married?

  • rovinrockhound

    One of my very good friends, an agnostic jew, just broke up with her boyfriend of 4 years because of religious differences. He’s a fantastic, sweet, brilliant guy who will do anything to help his friends. It turns out, though, that he is a True Believing Christian, is really concerned that people who haven’t “found Jesus” are going to hell, and that it is his duty to make sure it does not happen. His friends all thought that the was mainly culturally christian and believed in god and went to church as a default. His now ex-girlfriend had to deal with the attempts to convert her (and others!), the rejection by his family, his subtle antifeminism, deeply engrained sexual guilt, and serious passion for guns (and the paranoia that he really needed them for self defense).

    It’s been painful to hear the details of what was going on, knowing that it is all a product of religious brainwashing. He’s still a great guy, but lacks the self-awareness to notice what he was doing – and why -. They tried to make it work, but it became clear that the differences were irreconcilable. He couldn’t be the one to end it, though – since they had premarital sex, the relationship was, in his eyes, sealed before god.

    Religion just f*cks everything up.

  • http://twitter.com/verawishes Vera

    I deconverted several years after marrying my husband–he’s a church employee and a devout Christian. It’s not always easy, but so far we’ve made it work.

    The part I dislike the most is staying in the closet, for his sake, his job, and the rest of the family.

  • http://twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    Like I’ve said a bazillionty times… it is my Christian husband who introduced me to being skeptical and getting myself out of the clutches of woo. He’s got his personal reasons for still identifying as a Christian, but we can enjoy many skeptical things together, such as listening to SGU or watching JREF videos, etc.

  • popeyoni

    I’m an Atheist married to a “Catholic” for 20 years. I use quotes because she has very secular values and doesn’t agree with the church in a lot of things.

  • baal

    My wife stopped believing.
    My wife was originally a bible quiz master evangelical. I didn’t make it a point to convert her to atheism but pointing out an odd belief or two here and there over time gave her an opportunity to consider what she believed. I also used to point out where her brand of protestantism had specifically anti-catholic teachings rather than a neutral “we got that from the bible” basis. After ~ 5 years she more or less decided to junk all the religious crap. She was also in undergrad around then and learning about the role of the church in Europe.

  • busterggi

    I was a pantheist/deist/almost-neopagan way back in 1980 when I married by then wife who was RCC. I suppose I should have expected trouble when during the marriage ceremony the officiating priest gave a hell-fire sermon against me in front of everyone. Some thirteen years later she divorced me partly, she said, because I was not allowing her to worship (I don’t understand why my not going to church prevented her from doing so as she drove & the nearest church was only two blocks away). It was not pleasant – I still reflexively say, “yes, dear” when I hear someone shout, “fucking asshole.”

    After the divorce she converted to some sort of born-again Baptist and began attending church with her former sister-in-law. This lasted for about four or five years when she quit because she decided her fellow parishioners were more into fashion, job one-up-manship and didn’t really care about the working poor like her.

    No we haven’t gotten back together, I’m not that crazy – we work very well as friends but not as a couple and we’d kill one another within weeks if we tried. But we do things together, help each other out and that sort of thing. Her former sister-in-law and fellow parishioners? They never even tried to stay in touch with her let alone stay as friends. I however even occassionally accompany her to confession (I don’t participate) at a local RCC church although I have to warn her each time that this might the time I burst into flame as I go through the doorway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=123400843 Stu Minnis

    Wow…you are me. In fact, if my wife read that post, she’d assume I wrote it. The only difference is that your 20 years is our 19 years. Kismet! (…which I also don’t believe in)

  • Maddie

    I am in awe of those of you whose marriages are working out fine even with a difference in religion belief. I came out as an atheist to my husband over a year ago. That conversation turned out uglier that I imagined it would. He’s a cultural Catholic, one who hasn’t gone to church in years and never cracks open a Bible (much less say grace before meals or bedtime prayers with our kids), so I didn’t expect such a hateful reaction. We both changed our political views (going from conservative Republican to progressive Democrat), so I’m still hopeful that one day there’ll be a lightbulb moment where he realizes that Christianity is too nonsensical to take seriously. Until then, it’s like walking on eggshells around him. Hard to understand how the God belief has such a hold on seemingly unreligious people like my husband. Any advice for making this marriage work (without me having to hide my atheism forever) is welcomed.

  • Highschool-Atheist

    Well if my future spouse belives in God or Allah or whatever,she has a right to belie what she wants and as long as she doesnt try to push her religion on me i dont care.

  • Tony

    How about: What do you do when your spouse is ordained, devout clergy? That’s my situation.

  • http://bookevangelist.typepad.com/ Michelle

    I am an atheist, and my husband is Christian. We’ve been married 10 years and are about to have our third child. Our oldest is 8, and we’ve even had the VERY TOUGH experience of going through multiple deaths in the family in a short amount of time. We handled it in a way that neither of us had to lie, and our children didn’t and don’t seem to have any confusion. Sharing common values is the key — we both value personal choice in belief. Surprisingly, whether or not God exists is about all we do disagree on — abortion, equal rights, etc all fall under common values.

  • rlrose328

    I think it definitely depends on the temperaments of the individuals. Neither my husband nor I could be in a relationship with someone religious. We believe that belief in any type of superstition or myth is ridiculous and indicates some form of denying reality. We are realists, so dealing with that on a daily basis would be impossible. Even if religion didn’t come up on a daily or even weekly basis, we would know it’s still THERE, driving the person’s beliefs and actions.
    I congratulate people who can make it work, though… more power to you. I believe in personal choice of faith and belief. I just know I couldn’t deal with that difference in my spouse.

  • J-Rex

    Some couples are both religious and one deconverts. Some might not be very religious and one becomes very religious later. Or some might know going into it that they disagree, but they might not think it will cause as much problems as it does, especially when they have kids.

  • Tom_Nightingale

    “How is this different from a million other examples where spouses have different interests or beliefs?”

    Because many individuals believe being right on this issue is important. Not sure why you are implying this article isn’t relevant. I know you have qualms with the popular misappropriation of the word “atheist,” and I’m venturing a guess that’s why you write unfavorably about this article. But if that’s the issue, why not hit that rather than poo-poo the article? Am I off base here? Would you rather see NPR frame this as a secular vs. religious challenge?

  • C Peterson

    I’m not suggesting the article isn’t relevant, only that differences in religious opinion are only one of many things that can occur in a marriage. In most cases, I doubt that religious differences are likely to be as divisive as political differences, for example.

    In fact, I think that the majority of people do not hold very strong religious views (and I include atheism here), and therefore most marriages can rather easily weather things when the spouses have different views.

    It was not my intent that my comment be taken as unfavorable towards the article at all, merely as an observation about the question posed in the post title.

  • Jouleswane

    I’m an atheist, hubby is a lutheran, married less than a year and keeping it that way by just not arguing about religion. We’ve debated it, as we’ve done a lot of things (interracial, interfaith, raised in different parts of the country, raised in different religions than we practice, completely different lifestyles prior to meeting), but we now have a safe word that ends all debates before they turn into mud-slinging.

    Also, realizing a divorce is imminent if we do have children went a long way towards convincing him that we shouldn’t.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Oh wow. I wish you well.

  • Liz

    Coming to agreement on what action to take often requires agreement on some fundamental values. I’ve had some discussions with theist friends that are very productive, and some that just had to stop when we couldn’t agree on a basic value. “We can’t usefully discuss this further because you think it’s acceptable to base beliefs on faith, and I don’t.” “We can’t agree on this because you’re a consequentialist, and I’m not.”

  • Nox

    I could see religious beliefs (or religious rules) being an issue. Doesn’t seem like just believing in god should be a source of that many problems.

  • Tobias27

    I don’t think i would have a problem with the idea of one or the other of us being wrong, but in this case one of us is fundamentally irrational. I am not sure how well I could deal with that.

  • A3Kr0n

    I agree with all your points. As an atheist, I would be very apprehensive to become involved with someone who is an assisting minister, and her father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all pastors

  • http://twitter.com/verawishes Vera

    Commiserate? I”m in a similar situation.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    I don’t think it would bother me if my spouse had some vague supernatural beliefs, but I’m not sure how comfortable I would be if he had an active religious or spiritual life. If he kept it separate from the family, then maybe it would be all right, but I wouldn’t like to expose our children to that. Fortunately, my boyfriend’s an atheist, so I don’t have to worry!

  • Jan Kafka

    I’m an atheist, my wife a nominal Lutheran. In twenty years together, religious differences have been a problem not once. In my opinion, people who allow religious differences to come between them have problems that go way beyond religion.

  • Miss_Beara


    I had a friend who was a True Believing Christian who tried to convert me under false pretenses. I cannot imagine dating a guy who thought these things. It is rather insulting when supposed friends or boy/girlfriends try to convert you. It makes it feel like that was the only reason why they were your friend in the first place.

  • Sindigo

    Wow. What do you do? Besides get the bed all to yourself on a Sunday morning, I mean.

    Edit: Now I think about it that sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

  • Sindigo

    All I had to “deconvert” my wife from was hippy-dippy, vaguely Buddhist, vaguely spiritual bullshit. Think crystals and Reiki and all that rubbish. After I discovered reality I just, very slowly and very patiently (a huge stretch for me) and in as loving a way as possible, drip-fed her information about science until she came round to my way of thinking by herself. Now she’s at least as sceptical as I am.

  • eonL5

    Uh… no! Oh wait. That was a joke, right?

  • Thackerie

    Would you care if she tried to push her religion on your children?

  • Birdie1986

    I’ve responded to posts about this topic before. I am an atheist. My husband is a lazy Methodist. By that, I mean that even though he was raised Methodist in the South by a father who has a PhD in Theology, was a pastor for a while, and then, a Religious Studies professor at a small liberal arts college for many, many years, and a proper Methodis mom, he is somewhat lazy about going to church or practicing his religion. His parents also are very intelligent and open-minded and interested in other people’s points of view.
    When we got married, I was still in somewhat of an agnostic-leaning, seeking mode with regard to religion. I had rejected the Catholic church in which I was somewhat laxly raised, and most recently was trying Unitarian Universalism. I found the UU church to still be a little too open to supernatural beliefs for my taste. While dating my future husband, we attended a very liberal Methodist church in a large city. The pastor was smart and political, and the religious aspects of his sermons didn’t bother me – I genuinely enjoyed listening to them. So, I joined the Methodist church to see if I could find a spiritual home. We also got married in the church, but I still found myself very uncomfortable with just not believing in God even though the fellowship and singing were nice. Finally, I have come to be very comfortable with my atheism, and I really finally feel a sense of freedom by giving up my seeking. I finally know that really there is nothing to find in theism.
    Anyway, I decided to let my husband take my son to church and Sunday school, partly because I knew he would do it half-assed, anyway, and when my son got old enough, I would explain to him what I believe, and he would also know what Daddy and his grandparents believe. My son asks a lot of questions, and I answer them honestly, without belittling his father’s and his grandparents’ beliefs. I have confidence that my son is intelligent enough to figure out what is true on his own without my harping on it. The only thing that bothers me, occasionally, is that my husband doesn’t like to talk to me about religion because he thinks I’m an “angry atheist” – which I sometimes am after a few cocktails. So, we pretty much avoid the subject. It also bothers me that my father-in-law is constantly nagging my husband to make sure he takes my son to church. My in-laws know I am an atheist, so I won’t do it, and they fear that my son will be brought up “wrong” if he doesn’t go to church. That’s their problem, and, luckily, the more my husband’s parents nag him to do something, the less likely he is to do it, so they can nag away.
    It works for us.

  • ruth

    I’ve been married since the 1970s. I drifted into atheism. My husband over the years became more religious, especially after a serious illness. Now we live apart because I cannot stand walking on eggshells. And, after a time together he will most certainly say something nasty about my lack of depth and what he considers a simplistic view of the world. Good luck to you.

  • ruth

    Oops, I meant this message in reply to Maddie. Michelle, you seem to be working it out well.

  • VRW

    I have a friend who is a leader in the local atheist community. His wife is in seminary.