Advice for the Unequally Yoked

Advice for the Unequally Yoked February 11, 2014
(Credit: Rod Anderson/CP)

After the kids were in bed, we sat down on the couch like we always did to watch an episode of Friends followed by the local news. I turned to my wife of thirteen years and asked her a question she did not see coming:

“Could you see yourself still being married to me if I were no longer a Christian?” I asked.

After a brief stunned silence, she replied: “Well, I don’t know how to answer that because that wouldn’t be you.”

Gulp. I ventured a little further. “Well, what if it were me? What if I weren’t a believer anymore? Could you still see us together?”

After a long thoughtful pause, she answered: “But that’s not the man I married. That wouldn’t be you.”

I tried pressing the issue a little further but it was late in the evening and tears soon made an appearance so I ended the conversation abruptly and thought of something lighter to discuss.

Hypersensitivity has always been a weakness of mine, and I would much rather shut up than make someone else cry. In fact, in response to my wife’s obvious pain, I shut down about this topic completely, effectively ending that conversation for the next year. I had wrestled with my own questions years before and had stuffed them deep inside for as long as I could. But now they had resurfaced and I wanted to test the waters to see if this was a conversation to which I could invite the person I needed most to join me. What I discovered that night frightened me and led me to shut her out of this journey I was on. I decided to search for answers on my own for fear that the process would completely alienate me from my life partner.

During my year of silent searching, I did what many do when they find themselves in a very different place from their spouses: I developed a double life. On the outside I continued going through the motions of Christian service. I even took on the responsibility of teaching an adult Sunday School class because that was so much more bearable than having to sit and listen to somebody else teach. On the inside, however, I had lost my religion, and the things people around me were saying were starting to make my skin crawl. I kept that to myself, and only shared it with one or two other people who I knew would be non-judgmental, and who would not feel personally threatened by my apostasy. At that time, I had not yet discovered any online communities for people like me, so I felt pretty alone. It was like having a secret life, except mostly in my own head. But the truth came out eventually (as it always does) and a year down the road I found myself standing on the other side of an apparently unbreachable gulf separating me from the woman to whom I had committed my life, and with whom I had helped bring four beautiful daughters into the world. At one point, our marriage had been the envy of others in our church, but now we were in serious need of crisis marriage counseling.

Because our faith had been so central to our lives, and because our common commitments were the very reason we were drawn to each other in the first place, we decided to see a Christian marriage counselor who was on staff at our local Baptist church. In retrospect, I see that this wasn’t exactly a brilliant decision. That’s not to say he’s not a terrific guy; on the contrary, I’ve known him for many years and have the utmost respect for him personally. But a Baptist minister isn’t the best choice to mediate between an atheist spouse and a Christian one. There’s a conflict of interest there because two of the three people in that scenario will necessarily see the third as broken and needing to come back to Jesus. Our complicated situation demanded compromise, but for Evangelicals, compromise is a dirty word. It represents a falling short of what God wants and therefore must be resisted. In a very short time we had developed some deeply painful problems (some of which were my doing) and we needed to find a religiously unbiased third party to help us navigate these very troubled waters. We didn’t do that, and after a year of weekly counseling and countless hours of intense conversation, in the end we decided to divorce.

It was a gut-wrenching decision for both of us and the financial and emotional toll has been pretty tough on us both. This experience has impressed upon me that nobody’s important life decisions can be made by someone else, so you shouldn’t even try. If you haven’t lived another person’s life, you don’t know all the reasons why they do what they do. But for us, we both came to realize that we were on completely different paths. While we share a common passion for the well-being of our children, so many other important trajectories have changed that we no longer live in the same ideological worlds. We continue to be partners in parenting, and I happen to think we still make a pretty good team. Our girls always come first, and they will never see us disrespecting or insulting each other because that’s not who we are. It’s not ideal, no. But we’re doing the best we can, and I think our girls have a pretty good life.

Cries for Help from the Unequally Yoked

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t receive a distress signal from someone who has left the Christian faith but is married to someone still very committed to it. Religious differences within marriage happen all the time but some are far more stressful than others. A Methodist married to a Presbyterian might sometimes fight over predestination, and a Baptist might fight with a Pentecostal over speaking in tongues. But at least all of these people believe in some basic core beliefs like Abrahamic monotheism and the divinity of Jesus. Imagine what it does to a relationship when one spouse doesn’t even subscribe to the very concept of divinity while the other one does. That’s pretty awkward, right? Even that is manageable though, if those differences were there from the start of the relationship. Incidentally, the amount of tension it produces also depends greatly on the exact character and strength of the beliefs over which they disagree. But when both spouses enter the marriage as devout Evangelicals and later one of them deconverts? That is a recipe for marital trouble.

The deconversion part is a key component of this conundrum. See, relationships depend on good communication and in order for communication to work there needs to be some mutual ability to empathize with the other person, to see the world through their eyes. If both partners began as non-believers and one of them later converts to Christianity, the new Christian is less likely to misunderstand the perspective of the non-Christian because she was once one herself. But when both partners grow up thoroughly submerged in a tradition which vilifies unbelievers and then one of them expatriates into that camp, this move will likely make no sense to the still-Christian because he has never been anything else. If the Christian is an Evangelical, in a way the deconvert has now become the enemy (albeit unwittingly) because that tradition views skepticism as a malady to be overcome and it sees non-belief as a fundamental threat. The kind of liberal Christianity you find in mainline denominations (Catholic, Anglican, etc) is less obsessed with “faith” than Evangelical Christianity, so you won’t likely see them display as much angst over whether or not both spouses believe the same things. Liberal Christians care less if your beliefs are all “right” and more about how you conduct yourself in the world. But Evangelical Christianity stresses right belief first and foremost (believing that all else flows from this font), so when one partner quits believing the right things, we now have a major relationship crisis. It compounds the problem that the lifelong Christian cannot possibly conceive of how or why the deconverted spouse would ever stop believing in a religion which has been their frame of reference for everything since the time they were old enough to tie their own shoes. This inability to empathize becomes a source of constant misunderstanding so that communication breaks down every time conversation gets even a little bit deep.


I suspect this happens a lot more now than it used to. Years ago, our world was “smaller” so that you mainly interacted with the people of your own local community. This effectively insulated you from the myriad alternative worldviews and belief systems “out there” in the world. Back then it was a lot easier to spend your whole life in one way of thinking because everyone else around you probably thought the same way about the most important life questions. But today we live in an increasingly globalized world, with opposite cultures connecting to each other wirelessly, mixing and mingling so that you can easily get exposure to people who see the world very differently from you. Thanks to the built-in selectivity of social networking, you can still choose to shut unwanted voices out if you must, but it takes some effort. We also live in an information age in which our knowledge base grows daily and is accessible at the click of a button. With that kind of regular exposure to new ideas and world-shifting paradigms it’s inevitable that some people will change their minds about really important, big-picture issues. And that’s a good thing. Growth is good because everything that’s alive grows. When something stops growing, it’s beginning to die. The only problem here is that a healthy marriage depends on both partners growing together in the same general direction. If one grows out of something which the other sees no need to “grow out of,” now we’ve got a problem.

I’ve seen this go several different ways now. Over the last three years, I’ve interacted with quite a few couples who navigated the treacherous waters of an “unequally yoked” marriage with varying levels of success. I’ve seen couples grow cold toward one another and go their separate ways and I’ve seen couples agree to disagree and get along just fine. I’ve even seen a few couples who transitioned together out of their religious worldview and their marriages are as strong and healthy now as they’ve ever been (incidentally, more often than not, they report a notable improvement in their sex life). I love being around those people because they give me hope. I’d like to believe that most marriages could make this work if they are willing to lay aside some of their differences and find common ground. Divorce always hurts, and I’ll never look back fondly at mine, even if in the end it was the only thing left for us to do. But I will continue to hope for better things for my friends in similar situations. It can work, if both spouses can manage to respect one another as equally responsible agents of their marriage’s success. It takes a lot of patience, a great deal of implicit respect, and some very open and honest conversation. I for one feel highly unqualified to tell anyone else how to successfully navigate this minefield of potential misunderstandings. But I have friends who are working hard at finding solutions and providing advice on how to best approach these emotionally-charged differences.

infaithDale McGowan (author of Parenting Beyond Belief) has spent the last four years researching mismatched marriages in order to find out what has helped those who made it through these challenges successfully. I cannot tell you how eagerly I have anticipated this book, due out in August of this year. It is entitled In Faith and In Doubt, and if you or someone you love is working through a religiously mismatched marriage, I highly recommend you purchase this book in advance. It is the only book of its kind that I am aware of, and I wish it had been written four years earlier. In it, Dale will address some of the things that helped those whose marriages have held together. I didn’t get an advance copy or anything (ahem) but he was gracious enough to forward along a response to a question I had. I asked what advice he has gleaned for couples who find themselves in mismatched marriages and this is what he said:

Sometimes there is no fix — that has to be said firmly. But more often than not, if there is a genuine mutual love and determination to make it work, these nine best practices can make the difference:

1. Never try to convert or de-convert your partner. This is the biggest red flag for tension and conflict and often leads to divorce.

2. Talk about your differences of belief as early as possible in the relationship.

3. Work out agreements for all shared practices, including churchgoing, parenting, and family religious identity, by defining your negotiables and non-negotiables. (This is one of the most important for practical purposes. Some things matter more than others, and many couples find out that some of the things that would have been huge sticking points don’t matter at all to the other person.)

4. Focus on shared values more than different beliefs.

5. Make personal respect non-negotiable, even as you question and challenge each other’s ideas.

6. Engage in and learn about each other’s worldviews — and that must be a two-way street.

7. Remember that the opinions of believers are not always the same as the doctrines of their churches, just as believers must remember that the opinions of nonbelievers are not always the same as those of prominent atheists.

8. Raise children with the freedom to choose their own religious or nonreligious identity. Expose them to many traditions, beliefs, and practices.

9. Support and protect each other from mistreatment or disrespect, especially by those who share your worldview, including extended family.

In talking with friends of mine who have weathered this storm successfully thus far, their advice to me matches Dale’s “best practices” list very closely. Most emphasize a need for open communication and as much honesty as can be managed without hurting or insulting the other person. Wrestling with religious doubts can be an intensely private matter since you have to figure out for yourself what you believe without allowing others to unduly influence your ability to think for yourself. But if you keep it entirely to yourself, you are keeping a major part of who you are from your spouse and thus prevent him or her from ever wrestling with those issues for himself or herself. If I had my own deconversion to do over again, I would have expressed more of my own thoughts to my wife as I was working through them. I let my own fear of upsetting her shut me down, and that led to problems which greatly contributed to our undoing. It’s impossible to say whether more openness from me would have prevented our marriage’s demise. As Dale said above, sometimes there is no fix. Sometimes the ideologies of each person are just too divergent to sustain a healthy ongoing relationship. But you might as well give it all you’ve got and try to find a way to understand one another. Mutual respect and honest communication are your best weapons for this battle.

A Personal Word of Caution

Now I’m going to offer one caveat from my own experience and from my observations of several couples who have handled their differences better than I think I did. How best to handle being “unequally yoked” will depend largely on the personalities of the people involved. If you are the deconvert and you are a naturally pushy, arrogant type, then my strongest word to you is to chill out and realize that you’re only going to make things worse if you act like you know it all and your spouse is a nitwit. That’s a surefire way to mess things up. If you know you naturally lean in that direction, please do yourself and everyone else a favor and temper your own self-confidence and force yourself to listen to others, taking in their viewpoint so that maybe you’ll do a better job of communicating with them instead of lecturing them.

But sometimes the deconvert is just the opposite type. Sometimes when you’re the only person you know who has come to think the way you do, you are deeply unsure of yourself, and you almost wish you could shut off what you think entirely just so you can live in peace with your surrounding environment. You feel no need to impose your unbelief on those around you, and if anything you’re more likely to let others take advantage of your minority status. Perhaps you think being sacrificial and giving up who you’ve become is the more loving way to move forward. Well, I’ve got news for ya. It doesn’t really work that way. You can’t just shut off who you’re becoming; it’s not that easy. At some point, you’re going to have to start standing up for who you’ve become or else the relationship is going to tank anyway, because becoming a doormat is no solution—it only will make matters worse. If you live in a culture which privileges the still-Christian’s viewpoint, you will most likely find yourself and your own emotional and mental needs sidelined in order to maintain the status quo. This may seem at first like a fair concession to make because, hey, you two started out on a Christian foundation, right? Surely it makes sense to keep that going as long as you can, and to keep that as your mutual frame of reference for everything, right? No, that’s not really going to work as well as it sounds. In fact, it’s likely going to backfire and produce deep resentment in the person whose needs and changing identity are being squelched and forced back into the closet.

I don’t think I could put it better than my friend, Captain Cassidy, who blogs over at Roll to Disbelieve. She has an entire series on being “unequally yoked” and if you’ve got some time I’d recommend moseying on over there to check out what she’s got to say about this. For my purposes today, I want to leave you with her exhortation about standing up for who you are. I wish I had read this post back when I myself first deconverted. I would have approached a number of things so differently. Here’s what she has to say:

…a dominant faction does not willingly give up its power or peel back its own privilege…make no mistake: these marginalized and downtrodden people have to force progress to happen. If we wait until the dominant faction is damned well good and ready to give up its power and peel back its own privilege, we will be waiting a very, very long time. It takes being uppity and being absolutely positive of one thing and one thing only: that we are worthy of these same considerations…everybody deserves a home where they can feel safe and welcome.

May I respectfully submit the following?

A need that can only be fulfilled if one’s mate sacrifices some integral dignity and sense of self-respect is not a need that is legitimate or one that deserves fulfilling. There is simply nothing in a marriage that is worth sacrificing one’s dignity and self-respect. There is nothing anybody could ever want that should ever be achieved only on someone else’s reluctant back. There is nothing that could be asked legitimately that would require someone to live a lie or to deny some essential feature of his or her life or personality. If someone needs something like that, chances are that person needs to step back and really look at what is being demanded here.

I refuse to believe that love–true love, real honest-to-goodness Buttercup-and-Westley love–would ever want to hurt its target. I refuse to believe that real love would ever be content making someone else live a lie or sacrifice so much of themselves just to make someone else happy…

The house is for everybody, be that house our society or our personal homes. It shouldn’t just be one person’s personal playground at the exclusion and at the expense of the other people in the house. They get to have a house to relax in too. They get to have a house that feels like home to them too. They get a place where they can feel safe and welcome too. We all deserve that.

And ex-Christians deserve that as well in their own personal homes.

Well said. I’ll leave you with that.


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  • First, let me say there’s a lot to take in and consider. I’ve arrived, recently, at an interested place. I am as Catholic as I can possible be. I am a product of a great Catholic education however it cames with a price. The church has a different point of view about me being gay. I am an ordinary man that has been in a relationship with the same person for 14 years. He is a Baptist and has very little appreciation for organized religion. Until recently I never quested my faith although I will admit that I do not always agree with the church’s rules but then I started to research all the various things we do to celebrate during Christmas and slowly discovered that all of these things were endorsed by the church to win converts not because people found God. I’m now in a state of question. I have always been deeply spiritual. There is clearly a right and a wrong and how to treat people so perhaps my questioning will lead me there but I understand how you feel.

  • Lee

    Good stuff Neil. I find it extremely difficult to withhold the overwhelming urge to “enlighten” my wife and yet I refrain. I do fear that any perceived attempt to deconvert would end disastrously so I am content to answer carefully, but honestly when situations/questions arise. Maybe the culmination of these brief conversations and the continual observation that I am still the same man she married, just without faith in a deity will convince her one day, but I’m not holding my breath.

    I will say that I draw a clear line in the living room carpet when it comes to indoctrination of the kids. I refuse to allow her or our extended family to stifle their innate curiosity, burgeoning appreciation for science and right understanding of our natural universe. I find it odd that you did not address this topic in the post (you may have in an earlier post or plan to later), but the gravity of importance in my opinion far outweighs any differences between the spouses . I’ve used this tactic with my spouse (quite successfully) in justifying alternative worldview exposure for our kids. She can appreciate the importance of a strong grasp of science and its methods and trusts me to steer the kid’s interest in these areas. As non-believers this seems paramount to successfully discouraging the proliferation of religion in the future and yet many shy away (not accusing you) from the issue. I think we all realize that deconversion of adults through proselytizing is rare, but I can think of no more powerful method of eradicating irrational faith based fundamentalism than through insulation of our children from indoctrination and steadfast encouragement of critical thought at a very young age. It was the catalyst that flash-panned my closeted unbelief to the table and has ultimately allowed me to share my stance with the kids. Equipping them with the tools to challenge any truth claims I hope will steer them towards an honest search for truth their entire lives. I am curious as to how you and others handle these issues with your kids. Full disclosure, I have not read Parenting Beyond Belief or any other non-believer parenting guide (unless The Magic of Reality counts).

    Anyway, excellent post as always and here here for standing up…I’m sure little eyes are taking notice.

  • bonnie

    I sympathize with your story colin. My parents raised all six of us kids LDS (mormon). It defined who we were as a family and individuals. My brother recently came out as gay and has struggled a great deal with his faith (eventually giving it up), identity and family. Lucky for him I’m already an evil agnostic and so have been able to offer some support.

  • Rolindadice

    Don’t know if you ever found time to read the account that I sent to you. Many facets of this post can be found in my story, from a distinctly different position :-). Greg

  • Esther O’Reilly

    So what happens if they learn critical thinking skills and decide Christianity is reasonable? ;-)

  • Personally I’ve never been terribly concerned what “worldview” my girls adopt once they’ve had a chance to truly critically analyze their religion. What matters more to me is that they grow to be compassionate women who know how to think for themselves. If that’s in place I could care less which deity (if any) they worship.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I know, but Lee’s use of phrases like “discouraging the proliferation of religion” has a whiff of Dawkins/Boghossian about it, so I wondered if he might be alarmed to find his daughters coming to positive conclusions about Christianity rationally.

  • dave warnock

    Thanks for the post, godless. I am sure rehashing those times stirs up some unpleasant memories. I came to my freedom from Christianity after 35 years in it. I am now into my 35th year with my wife and she remains steadfast in her faith- as much as ever. She has changed her view on some things- like LBGT issues and the concept of hell; which I am thankful for, but largely remains the faithful believer she was when we married. We have had many difficult discussions about it all; especially given the fact that our two grown daughters have distanced themselves from us due to my apostasy. That keeps my wife from getting to enjoy her long-awaited season of being a grandmother to our four granddaughters. That is a painful development for us both.

    She remains committed to the marriage- as do I. But I have wondered, and wonder still, if it would be better for all concerned if we parted ways and I let her be the grandmother she is so perfectly suited to be. We have talked about it and she says that is not what she wants- but I wonder still. As your ex said to you that time- “but that’s not the man I married”. That is so true of us. I am not the man she married. Our faith is what we had in common. Maybe the only thing we had in common. So we are now “unequally yoked”. And it is not an easy road.

  • Gra*ma Banana

    I am truly a lucky woman to have been married for 30 years to a man who loves me for who I am AND who I have become. In the beginning, he was a non-practicing Jew and I was an ex-Catholic. We were married in our home, that we shared for a year and a half, by our next door neighbor who was a Presbyterian Minister and a good friend. (Talk about a convoluted plot.) Anyway, I knew I was agnostic and had been since the age of 17 but I was in survival mode and wanted to keep my family close so I stayed closeted for 20 years. (Now I know how my brother, who is gay, felt when he had to pretend that he was interested in girls.) Today my husband and I have slightly different views of how the earth was formed. He still thinks there is some ‘plan’ but doesn’t attribute it to any god(s) and I don’t know or care one way or the other. Being happy is most important to us both and there are so many things we enjoy together that make our differences just another interesting discussion where we agree to disagree. His children are VERY religious Catholics and my son is atheist. (How’s that for a twist?) It’s a weird family situation but it works for all of us. I am convinced that “accommodation” is the best way to preserve family ties and it requires an open-mind on everyone’s part. My step-children accept my husband and me just like we are. I have had some really deep discussions with my step-son about all this and although he is extremely committed to his Catholic faith he doesn’t push me in either direction and vice-versa. Respectfully, I observe a moment of silence for him to pray before we eat. My son and I don’t really talk too much about atheism because we are not defined only by our atheism. There is so much more to talk about. Often people will accommodate each other out of love. This has been my experience.

  • Thinker1121

    Neil, out of curiosity, did your political views change significantly when you deconverted? The only unequally yoked couple I know that have made their marriage work still have the same political views (both conservative). I’d be interested in the extent to which you think politics also plays a role, since I would assume (perhaps incorrectly) that most unequally yoked couples are also unequally yoked politically.

  • Lee

    Even one with a fundamentalist lean? One based on irrationality?

  • Lee

    Honestly it largely depends on the specifics of their beliefs. I was specific about which flavor I had issue with. If they employ a critical method and give due diligence to other views and arrive at a religious conclusion I will be ok with that. It is the indoctrination into irrational belief systems wherein they will have to deny overwhelming widely accepted evidence that I take serious issue with. In my opinion, that is very damaging to our young people and can become justification for some very nasty “creeds” later in life.

  • Can they arrive at comfortability with such a tradition while remaining both compassionate and committed to critical thinking? It’s not impossible, but it’s also not likely.

  • Our political views diverged along with the rest because (as I have contended) current political alignments for most Evangelicals fall within certain tribal boundaries. Abortion and gay marriage have successfully united Evangelicals into a monolithic voting bloc.

    I should add here that there is great variety among skeptics where politics is concerned. I have quite a few libertarian friends who want the government to take less responsibility for social conditions rather than more, even though I’d say more seem to have fallen farther to the left on that spectrum.

    But FWIW political differences were not central to my marital difficulties. And as for those couples who are unequally yoked but doing well, more often than not, the liberal theological leaning of the still-believing spouse usually coincides with an equally liberal political leaning. Those believing spouses who are very politically conservative are typically theologically conservative as well, and both sets of issues cause tension within those marriages.

  • I can identify with your story but mine happened with my girlfriend. She also said I changed, that me was not me anymore. There is very few changes that will lead to a comment like this. In the Evangelical world belief is so associated with identity. Which is very dangerous. There are not many who think that views on tax cuts is worth divorcing for but over their religion its quite clear cut.

    One thing that I got was also the “you are pushy” thing. I did at first talk to my church clique. My girlfriend was from the clique. We all grew up from young in the church. I also talked to her. Judging from the response I stopped talking about it. Even though I stopped for a period of time, she still could say that I was pushy. Well there are people who are really pushy, jerks. I am quite particular about this because this comment shocked me. It was as if my presence itself was pushy. Needless to say being evangelicals its an irony they say that others are pushy. She was the one who kept asking me to go back to church and asked me to read books. Till this day I doubt she had read any book on Atheism.

    There was also the ‘Baptist Pastor’ figure. He was the youth leader. Well, he fucked up the whole thing because he did a broadcast to the pastoral team, which included my girlfriend’s mom, about my doubts. Tada, she probably got nagged on and probed at home. It’s very hard to see how the other party will be willing to see a secular counselor unless he/she is already liberal. Like you said, disbelief was itself a problem to be solved. The solution to this problem was supposed to be pastors. Obviously he tried to persuade me back into the fold. But I was no fool. He isn’t even trained in a seminary. It was one of those amateurish moronic approach to non-believers.

    Not all couples react to apostasy in the same way. I wished mine was better. My girlfriend was adopted. She really cares about her parents. She probably viewed our relationship as some kind of disappointment and betrayal. Her extended families – maternal and paternal – are all Christians. She was brought up in the church. We served in the worship team together. She teaches in Sunday School. There is immense pressure for her not to reconsider her beliefs. Its most likely her relatives will ask a lot of questions also.

    I always blamed myself a little. I was never an orthodox person. I read widely, had opinions. Listened to metalcore. Knew a bit of politics. Not like the people around me. I never anticipated such a huge change in my life that could also affect my relationship. I wished I became an atheist before I got into the relationship. I was over a year too late.

    My own experience and stories like yours will always be a reminder to the importance of belief. Beliefs do hurt. It is not an abstract entity. Can’t do much if the truth hurts. But there are some beliefs which are clearly unjustified and hurts. It hurts people emotionally and physically. People do die because of other people’s beliefs.

    Thanks for writing this post. It’s great to read a story that is close to my heart. <3

  • Great job, I enjoyed reading that.

    I personally de-converted a few years ago, and my evangelical Pentecostal wife did not. While my wife and I have managed to stay together, the process has been a bit like navigating a minefield.

    As you point out, a big part of the problem is the empathy gap. She sees me as having been “deceived by lies from the pit of hell,” and I see her as a bit naive and stubbornly unwilling to question her religious assumptions. So we agree to disagree, and find other things to talk about.

    I think my wife was most concerned when I first de-converted, because it was such an unknown. My advice to others would be: try to understand that this is also going to be difficult for your spouse, ESPECIALLY at first. You need to show them that your change in views does not mean that you’ve stopped loving them, or that you’ve lost your moral compass (you just make decisions based on logic and reason instead of the Bible). Even “deceived” spouses can be great people. (And I would disagree with the author’s ex-wife, YOU are still very much YOU, even if you don’t believe.)

    And, if that doesn’t work, remind them that 1 Cor. 7:13 says, “If a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.” (Kidding!)

    We’ve since seen leaders in our Christian circles get divorced; evidence that it takes more than mere Christianity to sustain a marriage. (It’s also worth noting that Evangelicals have a higher divorce rate than just about any other group, while atheists have one of the lowest. So there ARE some advantages to an atheist husband, like being treated as an actual equal, and not always subservient to the authority of your husband.)

    Dealing with children is the other big crisis. Because my wife’s religion was so important to her, and because she entered into our marriage with the expectation that I would raise our children as Christian, it didn’t seem fair for me to deny her that, as much as I hate the idea of our children being indoctrinated. Still, the way I see it, between the both of us at least our children are getting both sides of the story, which is more than I can say for children two Christian parents.

    Warmest regards,


  • “Sometimes there is no fix”

    A major impediment, of course, is that a certain stripe of Christian values his or her “relationship with Jesus” more than the spousal relationship. We often tell ourselves that we can love the sinner while hating his sin. However, when that “sin” (in this case, simple unbelief) is part of what defines the person, when the sin is part and parcel of who the person is, it becomes impossible to separate the two. When one is dogmatic, one cannot allow that it’s okay to not be dogmatic. And yet, at an intuitive level the dogmatic marriage partner realizes that to continue in the relationship he or she will have to relax that dogmatism to some degree. This can set up a situation that induces intense dissonance.

    “Sometimes when you’re the only person you know who has come to think the way you do, you are deeply unsure of yourself….”

    I’ve seen ex-ministers criticized for having continued in ministry after having stopped believing. But it’s not so simple an issue as one of being honest. I can personally attest to the fact that we can have stopped believing without even having realized it. In other words, it’s possible to still believe you believe without actually believing. (A big part of the reason is that it’s too easy to mistake what we want to have true for what we actually believe is true.) Furthermore, the new unbeliever in ministry is torn by doubts about his newly acquired conclusions. He’s battered with the question, “What if I’m wrong?” He swallows hard at the possibility and gasps, “I have souls in my care!” So he keeps on flying, hoping for some kind of miraculous resolution that never comes.

  • do you ever deal with unchurched christians? cause that’s what i am—i still believe in the gospel but i refuse to go to church because i see it as hopelessly corrupt–my mother is unhappy about it, especially since my decision involves my teenage daughter

  • Gra*ma Banana

    I know this is small consolation, but consider that all this happened before you were married and had children. Trying to navigate that scenario would have been much more emotionally devastating. Good luck to you in future.

  • That verse you mentioned–it always blows my mind how fundagelicals will say they take the whole Bible literally, except when it becomes really inconvenient to do so. I hope you two are finding things easier now than when your deconversion happened… she’s very lucky for the exact reasons you’ve noted. She’ll realize that at some point, I’m sure.

  • I have many friends who are in that camp. Discovering that church tradition isn’t sacrosanct was a step along my path out of Christianity.

  • Great post. We are still navigating these waters but I am grateful the sailing has gotten much smoother over the past couple of years. I deconverted quietly and intended to never say anything to anyone about it. That came to an end when my then high school daughter told my wife she no longer believed. My wife came to me expecting me to fix it and I was stuck with a crisis of conscious. I told my wife I agreed with our daughter (it was several years before I told my daughter I agreed with her, though).

    The initial reaction was pretty rough and I was pretty scared for awhile my marriage was in trouble. I had always known I could not follow the evangelical teaching of putting God before my wife, not actually believing in him made it even easier to realize she was the most important thing in my life. It has now been four or five years since that revelation.

    Until very recently we continued to attend church together, mainly our Sunday School class, which I actually enjoyed. We still say grace at every meal and I still take my turn. Faith is not a topic she wants to talk about, therefore we almost never do. She has indicated she no longer believes the Bible is inerrant but not much more than that. When our son’s youth group did a lesson on homosexuality, I explained to him how I disagreed and supported marriage equality; she told him she agreed. We stopped attending our former evangelical church a few months ago at her suggestion. The intention was to look at a more liberal church but thus far we have not visited any. At this point, though, I think our marriage is stronger than it ever has been.

    I don’t want to represent that I have the answers and some of the things that worked for us probably are pretty unique to our relationship. From my side, I was willing to continue in any religious observance that was important to my wife. Heck, some of them I would have insisted on: I love sacred Christmas music and creches are a necessary decoration. I am fine with prayer, even if I view it as an out-loud reminder to myself that I can’t control everything and that many things I enjoy are as much as result of good fortune as hard work. I also tried very hard not to convince my wife to my point of view.

    From her side, once she realized I did not view my deconversion as a license to abandon all ethics and that I was still the same person, she was willing to give me space to keep working it out on my own. Also, at her prompting, we found ourselves joining other communities that were somewhat different than what we had belonged to before. We now ride with a motorcycle group on Sundays. In another community it was a lesbian couple who took us under their wing and with whom we quickly bonded.

    My wife and I are different people. She would never have been willing to embark on the years of study I did before I decided/realized I no longer believed. For me, it was a matter of tracking down evidence and weighing cold hard facts. For my wife, faith is very relational. The fact I had deconverted held tremendous weight with her and growing close to new friends outside the evangelical “acceptable” category added further weight. And despite all this progress, faith remains an area where conversation seldom goes.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Could you list some sources that impacted your deconversion? Thank you, I’m just gathering information.

  • Hi Esther,

    For me, it was mostly about inerrancy. I suppose I had questions from a young age about how the loving God in the New Testament could be such a moral monster in the old. I also paid pretty decent attention in all the mandatory church attendance and recognized there were apparent contradictions. I was a little snot in youth group and took a concordance with me so I could find verses that contradicted the message. In college, I was also concerned by learning that no one knew who had written the book of Hebrews and finding out even evangelical sources admitted the ascension account in Mark was added well after the book was written. I was confident there were good explanations for what I was seeing, and eventually I decided to put my concerns to rest and research those answers.

    That began a multiple year study. I began with only evangelical approved sources like F.F. Bruce and Bruce Metzger. Learning the process to the adoption of the canon was much messier than I had been taught, that every bible I had ever read was a result of textual criticism and scholars trying to figure out what the original text was shook my faith. From there I studied further into archeology, higher criticism, the documentary hypothesis, the Q source, etc.

    It was only after I decided the Bible was not a 100% reliable source of information that I began to examine evidence from science. I often wonder if things would not be different if I had been raised in a more liberal faith tradition that did not rely so heavily on inerrancy.

    For particular sources, I would recommend the following (not necessarily in the order I read them): F.F. Bruce The Canon of Scripture, Bruce Metzger The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Richard Friedman Who Wrote the Bible, ANYTHING by Bart Ehrman, John Loftus Why I Became an Atheist, Thom Stark The Human Faces of God, Israel Finkelstein The Quest for the Historical Israel, and Timothy Beal The Rise and Fall of the Bible. There were others that don’t come to mind at the moment. At the same time I read books I would not necessarily recommend but were necessary for me to feel I had covered all my bases. Norm Geisler’s When Critics Ask was very revealing to me in how thin the apologetics were in the areas that concerned me. Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans and O Me of Little Faith by Jason Boyett were among the last evangelical books I read in an attempt to salvage my faith. These did not convince me, but might be worth reading depending on the journey you are on.

    I hope that helps,


  • I should add that throughout the entire journey, I had a Bible with me as I studied. If a book quoted a verse, I checked its context and the reliability of the quotation. When I got a smart phone, the YouVersion app that allowed me to compare multiple translations quickly was a big help. In the end, it was the Bible that led me to deconvert.

  • David W

    Heya Esther, I have still *kinda* been following this thread now and then.

    You seem VERY interested in what people read/learn that results in their “deconversion.”

    I want to try to reiterate this point to you as I believe that you are not seeing how incredibly important this point is to many people.

    -Supernatural explanations have always given way to scientific ones, every single time, the converse has never been the case.

    -Christians have posited many supernatural explanations, which they have then supported with the Bible; once again, these explanations have always given way to scientific explanations.

    There is an incredibly poor track record here; to many people this is problematic to the point of provoking apostasy.

    For me, and many people I have talked to, this is the core of their disbelief, the absolute lack of the supernatural in the modern day; admittedly there are many different paths, and many different books which can bring people to this point, but I think this is the core for a significant percentage of people who were once ‘believers’ and now are not.

    I remember being on the ‘inside,’ I don’t really expect you to suddenly be convinced and hear what I am saying; but you do seem curious, so I thought that I would try to communicate to you, once more, how important this reality is to myself, and to many others.

    But with that said, I know that there are a dozen and one explanations as to why there is no obvious supernatural in the modern day, even though it was a daily experience in Biblical times…. *shrug*

    As Ricky said in ‘American Beauty’ Never underestimate the power of denial.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Hi Tim. I’m familiar with mostly everything you mentioned here. I’ve probably got them all in my house somewhere. Was actually just reading _Misquoting Jesus_ the other day.

    I was never raised to assume inerrancy, though I was still raised in a very conservative tradition. So I always knew about the late ending of Mark, the insertion of the passage about the woman caught in adultery, and other minor things like that. I also believed certain specific passages in the Old Testament were dissonant enough (especially with God’s command to “Do no murder”) that I was told not to fear the hypothesis that they did not happen as written—i.e., the Israelites did kill their enemies, but the command from God was an insertion.

    I also knew about all the contradictions, some of which were real but minor, and some of which were invented out of an ignorance of historical/cultural context. When you remove the mental block of the need for inerrancy, I think what you see is that this is what real history looks like. Documents giving no appearance of contradiction would, if anything, look very suspiciously like collusion (just like three identical accounts in court). Real history is full of contradictory accounts, many of which surpass the real or supposed contradictions found in the gospels. Sometimes an historian will even contradict himself (see Josephus, murder of one of Herod’s wives—I don’t have chapter and verse on hand at the moment but could provide them if you were interested in comparing the contradictory accounts).

    Geisler, frustratingly, insists on inerrancy, which limits his scope. I could offer some “thicker” material if you’re interested, but I won’t press anything.

  • LeeLovesLIfe69

    “But it’s not so simple an issue as one of being honest. I can personally attest to the fact that we can have stopped believing without even having realized it. In other words, it’s possible to still believe you believe without actually believing. (A big part of the reason is that it’s too easy to mistake what we want to have true for what we actually believe is true.)”

    ^^Great point.

  • LeeLovesLIfe69

    Cool post. I enjoy reading the accounts of others that have gone through similar things as I have. I became an evangelical Christian when I was 19. I discarded my Christianity when I was 40. That was nearly 5 years ago. It was a process of course. I married a Christian girl when I was 25. We had two kids together, a girl now 12, and a boy now 11. When I finally admitted to myself and to everyone else that I just could no longer believe in the claims of Christianity it turned our world upside down, both individually and as a couple. Her first reaction was to go into protective mode with the kids. She was terrified that I would influence them to question Christianity. She thought since we had gone into our marriage as Christians and had committed ourselves to raising our kids in a Christian environment that it was reasonable to ask me to keep my mouth shut in front of the kids about my new perspective on things. I didn’t think that was reasonable at all. At any rate, we tried really hard to make it work, but the differences between us were just too great. Not only did I lose my evangelical faith, but I also lost the requisite conservative political views that go along with it (gay rights, abortion, etc etc) as well as “moral” stances (e.g. pre-marital sex). The truth is, we had always been “unequally yoked”, even when I was a Christian. We were very different in a lot of ways. About the only thing we did have in common was Christianity and conservative political views, so when I lost both of those things, it was just too much for us as a couple. I’ve since remarried to a girl who has always been an atheist and a liberal and who’s never had kids. She and I are so much in common it’s uncanny, and not just our atheism and left-leaning progressive politics. The only real difference between us is the fact that she’s never been a parent. So marrying a guy with kids that he shares custody of with his ex has been challenging to her and everyone involved really. Anyway, it’s been a challenging yet exhilarating ride getting back to “the real me” that I had tried so hard to crucify and bury when I was Christian. I’m still dealing with a lot of emotional issues as a result of the evangelical doctrines I tried so hard to live by. I found this to be a helpful resource for people like me who are recovering from religion:
    I also an currently living in the buckle of the bible belt. No joke. My town was recently named the “most biblically minded” city in America: Ugh.

  • Neil, thanks for the post. I’d like to ask for some clarification, though, as I’m confused about what the graphic is representing (Christian → Atheist × Liberal → Conservative). It seems it may represent the difficulty of staying in relationship when one partner deconverts, varying by the stable-belief partner’s position on those two axes. I’d expect both top rows, in that case, to be thumbs-up (either liberal or conservative atheist partner is happy when deconversion happens). I.e., I don’t find the graphic compelling, so I think I must be missing the point.

    Somewhat related, the paragraph before the graphic assumes the conversion goes from belief to non-belief. The other direction can happen, too; especially, perhaps, if non-belief was an unexamined default position due to growing up in western Oregon. In this case, I think the same issues might arise. I don’t have any specific examples of this to inform my opinion, and perhaps both partners are more likely to be liberal and accommodating of differences (more likely than believers are). Or maybe that’s just prejudice talking.

    Finally, I am interested in “In Faith and Doubt”, and think those guidelines are important for me when opening up with my best friend of 30+ years who remains a dedicated evangelical Christian. And with my parents. I think the book will be relevant far beyond marital relationships.

    Just some thoughts. Thanks for writing. —Tim