Ask Richard: My Atheist Husband Has Secretly Become a Christian May 24, 2010

Ask Richard: My Atheist Husband Has Secretly Become a Christian

My husband and I have been a part of each other’s lives since high school, have been married almost 20 years and have children. When we wed and for most of our married life, we were both atheists. Open, honest communication and shared beliefs were the cornerstone of our relationship. Last year he told me he had decided to become a Catholic. It turns out he started believing in a god about three years ago, and hid it from me till he determined that he really wanted to pursue religion. I found stashes of Christian books hidden in our home and he finally came clean that he’d even been lying to me about where he was so he could go to church without my knowledge. Please do not delete my email because as ridiculous as it sounds, this is pathetically true.

I was raised in a Christian family by a man who used religion as justification for physical, emotional and sexual abuse. I cannot abide the thought of being married to or raising my daughters with a Christian. Following my husband’s disclosure to me, I sank into a deep depression and started having nightmares and flashbacks. We separated for several months and went to couples therapy. I am on meds for depression and he has decided not to become anything specific, but still wants to pursue spirituality, whatever that means. It’s been almost a year and we are doing alright but I find I respect and trust him so much less. I would love to know your thoughts.
Thank you!
one sad mama

P.S. His mother is a recent Jewish convert and is thrilled that he is “exploring the spiritual side of himself.” His father is Catholic.

P.P.S. Since my husband is very well read and was atheist for decades, he knows all the arguments against religion I might make. Our book shelves are full of scientific and rational thinkers but he has turned away from reason saying he needs something more. He thinks C.S. Lewis and others have made the case for god. I’m really desperate here!

Dear one sad mama,

You hold a very precious thing in your hands. Don’t let pain from your past cause you pain in the future by tossing away that treasure.

Your first paragraph is simply a role reversal of many letters I get where a couple is in crisis because they married as believers and some time later one of them became an atheist. The theist spouse feels betrayed and suddenly begins treating the atheist as if he has become a dangerous intruder, even though he has done nothing to deserve it. He feels unfairly judged and condemned despite his continued love and loyalty. It makes no sense.

If it makes no sense to throw away a loving relationship only because your partner stops believing in gods, then it makes no sense to throw it away only because he starts.

We are what we do, not what we think. We think thousands of thoughts per hour, but we are defined by our persistent behaviors, by our conduct. What makes us real is how we live. Your husband secretly read some books and attended church. But consider the sum total of your husband’s behaviors. Has he radically changed his behaviors as a husband and father? Have his actions suddenly become unloving and unsupportive? Or is he, by the broad scope of how he lives, still the man you married?

If his general conduct has not changed, then you are upset only about some thoughts going on in his head. Out of the 100 billion neurons in his brain, at the most only a few million neurons are involved with his religious thoughts. Those cells weigh but a few grams. Such a trifle should not ruin so strong and well established a marriage as the one you have described.

However, the second paragraph of your letter complicates things. Where there is old pain there can be fresh fear.

I am glad that you both went to couples therapy, and that you’re “doing alright,” but you both deserve better than alright. I hope that you went long enough to learn how to improve the impaired areas of your communications, and how to work out agreements. If not, go back.

You said “Open, honest communication and shared beliefs were the cornerstone of our relationship.” Open, honest communication is definitely essential for a marriage, but shared beliefs are not necessarily as important, if by “shared” you mean they must match. It looks like the expectation that the two of you would always have matching beliefs interfered with the ability to be open and honest. Apparently your husband did not feel safe to “share,” meaning to tell you about his changing beliefs.

Now, this is where it is very, very important to avoid seeking who is to “blame” for that lack of openness and that lack of feeling safe. Blaming will solve nothing and will only deepen the rift. Don’t fix the blame, fix the problem. Rather than one or both taking blame, both of you can take responsibility. That word means ability to respond. Both of you can respond to the problem of a constricted part of your communication, and together you can make it safe and open, even about beliefs that don’t match.

I’m also glad that you sought help for your depression, and I hope that the medication helps. However, depressed or not, the childhood trauma that you suffered at the hands of the man who raised you is intruding into your present relationship and is poisoning it.

You said, “I cannot abide the thought of being married to or raising my daughters with a Christian.” I think you cannot abide the thought of being with the man who raised and abused you.

Your husband is not that man.

That man is defined by his actions, and so is your husband. By their actions they are utterly different men. The only similarity between them is the small part of their Christian beliefs that might overlap. If your husband was anything like that man in how he lives, you would have left him years ago, long before he became interested in Christianity.

I’m sure that you can recognize the unfairness and irrationality of punishing someone through guilt by association just because the name of his beliefs reminds you of an abusive parent. But recognizing where you are being unfair and irrational will not automatically make you become fair and rational if you are being driven by unhealed injury and unsoothed pain.

You did not mention getting any counseling therapy for yourself to resolve and recover from the physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The medication may help with your depression, but until you are free from the ghosts of your past, you will react with fear and loathing to anyone who inadvertently triggers memories and associations by any similarity at all to the abuser.

Your husband has stayed with you for many years through your mutual joys and sorrows, your easy times and tough times. These last three years cannot have been easy for him either, yet he is still there with you. Together, you have built a treasure. If you let the sick, twisted man who abused you as a child reach out from the past to destroy this precious thing you hold in your hands, then you’re letting him abuse you once again. Don’t let him win.

Get expert help about your childhood abuse, work on it diligently, gradually put it to rest, and finally be free of the past. Work positively and blamelessly with your husband to make sure that both of you feel safe to be fully open and honest, and nobody has to keep any secrets. Clearly, you are both very intelligent people. You can work out mutually acceptable agreements as he explores this part of himself. Wherever your not-so-perfectly matching beliefs might cause you to pull in different directions, for instance things involving your children, you can find creative solutions.

You can do this. It is worth it.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a very large number of letters; please be patient.

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  • Anonymous

    I understand that the husband probably wanted to become serious about faith before discussing it with her, but to hide his exploration knowing her condemnation of religion is also tied to past abuse was unnecessarily cruel. He should have made his questioning known from the start. Blameless? Not quite. It is a soft betrayal. And I can’t help but feel that you’re being dismissive of sexual trauma by suggesting she just gets over it with therapy. It’s important to move on, but it’s not an illness that if you dilligently take your medicine you find yourself cured.

  • Melody

    I consider myself to have the “perfect” marriage. My husband is my partner in everything, including secular activism. As much as I love him, I don’t know if I could deal with him believing in the supernatural. If we had children, I think it would be unbearable. I’m not sure if I could follow Richard’s advise. It’s a difficult situation and I don’t have an answer. My heart goes out to one sad mama.

  • Vivian

    I would feel sad too. But spirituality or lack thereof, is ultimately personal-even to a spouse. Richard hits all the points. I hope that if the mutual love is still there, this couple will resolve it.

  • sailor

    One Sad Momma’s strong reaction would appear to be rooted in the past, and I think Richard’s analysis is superficially a reasonable one.
    However, I think one might want to think about what the husband’s motivation is, for suddenly getting religion. He knew his wife’s past. He clearly understood there would be a strong reaction, so he kept it hidden for a while. Is this part of his attraction to religion? Is he at some level, aware or otherwise, using this to punish or otherwise get at, or away from his wife?
    I would ask the same question should a religious man with a religious wife suddenly become an atheist, especially if he behaved in this kind of way.

  • Richard, I think this advice grossly underestimates the gravity of what has occurred. While a 20 year relationship is nothing to trifle with, neither is something as fundamental as a person’s world view. Sure, we are defined by our actions, but our thoughts create our desires, which determine– if not all of our actions–at least the priorities with which we pursue them.

    There is one very disturbing thing here, which does not bode well for the future of this marriage: That the man hid his changing beliefs from his wife. This connotes shame, this is an admission of guilt, and it’s a clear picture of betrayal.

    Having been raised in a religious cult myself, I’m well aware of the pernicious nature of faith. Not only in the sense of how it warps the mind, but also in its social intractability. Even 20 years after coming out of my parent’s cult, people I know are still afraid to talk about it and tell the truth about it. They apologize endlessly, and fear the retribution of current and former members if they speak honestly and openly. So they do not.

    Christianity contains all these social guilt-inducing factors. It also contains a toxic desire to convert unbelievers. So this married couple has now experienced a rift like no other. Never again will the wife be able to trust that the husband is not hiding his beliefs, harboring some hidden agenda for converting her, and subverting all the countless discussions they’ve no doubt had over the years. They’ve achieved (finally) that rare thing of two people who not only love and trust each other, but have banished irrationality and superstition. Then her husband fell off the wagon and caved to his fears. This is a tragedy in the making. Either the guy finds a way to authentically get rid of his superstitious beliefs, or my opinion is this couple needs to go their separate ways. And I say this from long, difficult experience with the slow poison of belief, and its corrosive effects on relationships, both social and intimate.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    There is one very disturbing thing here, which does not bode well for the future of this marriage: That the man hid his changing beliefs from his wife. This connotes shame, …

    Not necessarily. It can just as easily connote a fear of being rejected by his wife for his beliefs. If the roles were reversed, and the husband was hiding his books on atheism, would that be a sign that he was ashamed of his atheism?

  • The basic allure of religion is to get something for nothing. For believers, the mere act of believing is supposed to grant them eternal life and avail them the greatest secrets and treasures of the universe. It is not inconceivable that someone who had not previously felt the need to tap into this delusion would do so later in life. Perhaps he was a little board and wanted to have something magical in his life. There is really no harm in that UNLESS he engages in any of the negative aspects of religious behavior (bigotry, blindly following authority, emotional blackmail, saying people who believe otherwise are going to hell, and the various forms of religiously justified abuse)…

    You might suggest to him that he take the stance of a Universalist since they don’t have hell as a core belief. You might tell him that you find all other forms of Christianity offensive. But other than that, hopefully you two can live and let live. Let him have his little delusion if it doesn’t hurt anyone but call him on things if he starts talking crazy.

    Good luck. I’m married to a Christian with pretty mild beliefs and we get along fine so it can work. I did get my way, though, with the kids. We don’t go to church (although we used to).

  • Kim

    Richard, your response to one sad momma was beautiful in it’s kindness to both husband and wife. I wish them well.

  • Frank

    I have to question Richard’s claim that only a few million neurons are involved in this guys religious thoughts. What possible basis could there be for such a claim? Where is the neuroscience to back that up?

  • If the roles were reversed, and the husband was hiding his books on atheism, would that be a sign that he was ashamed of his atheism?

    Yes. It is about a demonstrated breach of trust, not the subject matter. It could be anything. Baseball cards, pornography. If it’s not part of the understanding the couple has with each other, then it’s a tacit admission of a rift.

    Now I’m not saying couples have to agree on everything. But hiding things is never a good sign.

  • Jeff Dale

    Great advice. I’d add that there are plenty of smart theists who have heard the arguments against god belief but still hold onto their belief, and there are plenty of atheists who have nice relationships with smart theists. This husband merely went from being one of the latter to being one of the former. The point is, there are ways for smart people to arrive at theistic beliefs (unsupportable as those ways may seem to us atheists), so the husband’s arrival at this position is not shocking in and of itself. If the husband had undergone this transition much earlier in life, prior to meeting the wife, he would’ve been (in this respect) pretty much like all the other smart theists in her life. Would she still have married him? I can’t say, but if he’s as great a guy as she apparently thought him to be, I don’t see why not. And if she would’ve had enough reason to marry him originally if he had been a theist at the time, then she has even more reason to stay with him now, because of the long years of building a relationship (and a family) with him.

    As Richard points out, it sounds like the key is going to be dissociating the past abuse and its ramifications from the present realities of her marriage and her husband. Clearly, these two issues are blending together for her. Otherwise, how would his turn to theism, apart from any significant changes in relationship behavior or family values, lead her to “respect and trust him so much less”? This blending of the two issues will make it much harder for her to resolve either one.

    It may also be worth considering the depth or potential longevity of this conversion. She says he “needs something more,” so perhaps this is more a case of him confusing wanting to believe with actually believing. Existential concerns of approaching middle age could be a significant part of his motivation. Aside from that, who knows whether his conversion will “stick” in the long run? If he truly understood those atheist arguments she says he knows, I suspect it’ll be hard to get them out of his head when he’s trying to believe. I’m not saying she should wait around hoping for this, or that she should try to convert him back to atheism. Frankly, I think she’ll do better just accepting him as he is. (Isn’t that almost always the case?) But it helps to remember that people are complex, and that he (like everyone else) is a work in progress. And wherever his journey ultimately leads, a journey she’s enjoyed sharing with him for many years already, it can be interesting and edifying for both of them.

  • I agree with some of the commenters that the advice has been dismissive of the wife’s past. Past abuse is not something that you just “get over,” and it’s not fair for the husband to have hidden his exploration of xtianity from her, especially knowing why she mistrusted it. I can also say as an assault survivor myself, that at least i can never just “be free of the past.” That abuse or assault is ingrained into a person, and it will be with me forever, and it may be like that with her as well (especially since it still is after at least 20 years). That being said, it is important to seek counseling or other help to learn how to cope with it effectively.

    I see from her letter that they are (or were at one time) open and honest about everything to each other, and it is sad to see that the openness has deteriorated to the point where the husband lied about his whereabouts and such. I agree with the final bit of advice that says to keep communicating. Communication will be the most important part of recovering the relationship (if it is to be recovered). While I know it is often very hard to keep a past abuser separate from a present person who reminds one of the past abuser, that will also be very important to the relationship.

    Also, I don’t know how old the children are, but I think it is also important to consider how to protect them. I think that they should understand what is happening (that a formerly atheist father is exploring spirituality, and that an atheist mother is intensely uncomfortable with that), and they should be made to know that none of it is their fault. Children often blame themselves for disputes between parents.

    And I don’t know about the neuroscience claim either, but I think the point was to illustrate that just like being an atheist totally defines none of us, being (or exploring) a xtian does not totally define the husband.

    Good luck.

  • Claudia

    I’m seeing a pretty blatant double standard here.
    If a woman wrote into a Christian columnist saying that her atheist father abused her and that she had just found out that her own husband had become an atheist and kept if from her and she just couldn’t bear the idea of raising her children with an atheist, would you even hesistate to defend the husband?

    Isn’t it even marginally possible that he found religion and hid it from her, not to be a lying bastard, but because he did not want to hurt her, knowing the kind of trauma she had gone through? Asserting he should have simply taken no interest in religion is ridiculous, a pure mirror-image of people telling us we should just try out believing in god.

    I’m 100% behind Richard on this one, and I suspect a lot more people would be if the identity of the atheist and the religious spouse were reveresed.

  • Slider33

    I am in the exact reversal (minus the victim of abuse part) of this situation. I was a Christian for years (before and after marriage) and became an atheist later on. Telling my wife was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and we are still working through those issues.

    I would hope that One Sad Mama would at least keep the dialog open and friendly. My wife felt betrayed just as she feels betrayed. People do change their worldviews, but I find it hard to believe that people completely change *who they are* deep down inside.

    Just because I became an atheist I didn’t all the sudden throw morality to the wind, and change who I was. I’m still the same kind and caring person I always was, just shed of religion.

    I doubt becoming a Christian is going to turn him into an abusive monster. While I am concerned about his rational thinking by following what I consider is a fear-based religion; I know many upstanding Christian individuals who are morally good, although rationally misguided, IMO 😉

    I know what it feels to be the “betrayer”, and it is not fun for him either. The more open and less hostile you are to his unexpected change, the better you will both be at communicating your feelings, and he will likely feel more comfortable coming forward even though he knows you disagree.

    Richard’s advice is spot-on.

  • grazatt

    She just need to dump the bum already!

  • lurker111

    For a rationalist so late in life to give in to woo is possible but so rarely reported that I have a hard time not wondering if this is a Poe.

    If this _is_ for real, my apologies and condolences.

  • Anonymous

    That’s unfairly judgmental, Claudia. Her husband lied. Atheist or Christian, his behavior is unconscionable. Considering how Christianity degrades women (and its promotion of rape in the Old Testament, for that matter), his religious choice certainly means something next to her past that, roles reversed, atheism would not.

  • pmsrhino

    I dunno, I thought this advice was dismissive of her abusive past, as some above commenters have said. I was abused in the past and it’s not something one can just get over and it’s triggers aren’t something that can always be controlled (even with therapy and drugs). Yeah, a long marriage isn’t usually something to just toss aside so easily, but people get divorces at 20, 25, 30 etc. years, so it’s not like it’s unheard of. And it does sound like they have made a go at it, with counseling and what not, but there is no need to pressure her to stay in a marriage that doesn’t make her happy and, at it’s worst, has her remembering her abusive past to the detriment of her health.

    I think that’s what bothers me the most about this advice. It’s pressuring her to stay with a man she may not want to stay with. It makes it seem like she’d be irrational and insensitive to leave her husband after this. Like her inability to control her mental health because of an abusive past is her fault and she just needs to try harder to make her husband comfortable with his new found religion. Which I do not agree with at all. I don’t know if she was writing this letter for a pep talk to keep her in her marriage or for someone to let her know that it would be okay for her to separate from her husband. But I think it is irresponsible to give her advice where the only option seems to be to fix herself and stay with her husband. You know, as long as he isn’t actually abusing her. Would have been nice to give her more than the one option in the advice. Seek help, but if your mental health requires that you separate from your husband then that may be exactly what she needs to do.

    I only hope One Sad Mama finds a healthy place in her life, whether it’s with her husband or not.

  • Claudia

    And considering what Christianity says about women (and rape, for that matter), his religious choice certainly means something next to her past that, roles reversed, atheism would not.

    Wait, I’m being unfairly judgemental?!!! For goodness sake, he said he was, at most, a Lewis Carol Christian and maybe just “spiritual”. Saying that him being a very soft-core Christian at most makes him more likely to be abusive is outrageously bigoted. The guy appears to believe, at most, in teddy-bear jesus, he doesn’t want her in a burqa.

    Yes, he lied. How many have lied to their parents or spouses about their atheism? How many times, on this very site, have we commiserated with the newly outed atheist and justified their motivations behind their deceit? I’ve yet to see someone say that someone else is being a bad person because “I can’t tell my mother I’m an atheist, it would hurt her so much”. That doesn’t even count the fact that he had perfectly rational reasons to suspect she would not take his newfound faith well. He can’t just wish his faith away.

    He lied, and that’s bad, but understandable given his fears. She’s severely overrreacting to his faith, which is bad but understandable given her history. They need professional help, which I’m glad to see is happening.

  • @Claudia,
    You beat me to it. 🙂

  • Richard Wade

    Beth, pmsrhino, (and other commenters)
    When you say that I have been “dismissive” of sad mama’s past abuse, I think you are responding to other comments rather than to my response. There is nothing there that minimizes, dismisses, or says “just” get over it. I have not said nor have I implied that it is easy or quick to heal from this kind of experience, or that one is ever fully “cured,” another mischaracterization by a commenter.

    No, it will be long and slow and hard and tearful. But doing nothing will let this fester and may destroy this marriage, and will possibly threaten any future relationship she may try to establish.

    To say or to imply that a victim can never be free of the worst of the past’s influence is a terrible thing to suggest to someone struggling with this, and I’ve heard some of that here.

    Her past is invading and destroying her present. As a therapist I can easily say that therapy is not a panacea, but it can in many cases help reduce the self defeating patterns of reaction that continue for decades after trauma, to a level that it does not interfere with important relationships later in life. Of course one does not “get over it” completely, but there is a chance to weaken its influence and keep it from tormenting you and everyone else in your life.

    I have counseled hundreds of these cases and have struggled with my own experiences under the guidance of counselors, and while it does not make the past disappear, nor does it work even partially for everyone, it often can help. It’s hard, slow, painful work, but it’s worth trying.

    I also don’t think I’m “pressuring” her to stay with a man she wants to leave. If she wanted to, she would have already. She wrote me the letter because she wants to find a way to make it work. She’s trying on her on volition to make a go of it, but she is in continuous pain. The source of her pain is the man who abused her, not the man she married.

  • Anonymous

    More likely to be abusive? Why does it have to be abuse? He originally wanted to explore Catholicism, a denomination that bends over backwards to conceal the molestation of children by priests yet immediately excommunicates a nun who recommends a theraputic abortion when a woman’s fifth pregnancy would have killed her. The further he delves into Christianity, who knows how he might change? It doesn’t have to be abuse. He could find himself insisting on the last word in an argument about their offspring because he has “natural” authority as the patriarch. It’s silly to defend his deception because other people do it or because he’s the same person, just with different beliefs. That suggests we exist in a vacuum where spirituality has no influence on our lives.

  • Aj

    I think it’s highly unfair to associate the husband with the abusive father. That’s a dangerous delusion to have, and should be treated if at all possible.

    Beliefs are important, they are related to actions but they can also greatly effect relationships. It should be concerning given the organisation he said he had joined, Catholicism, with its unpleasant dogma and authoritarian nature. Not to mention the policy of protecting and hiding paedophiles. That should lower someone’s respect.

    You don’t choose to believe in a god because you “want something more”, you don’t choose to believe anything, that’s just lame justification after the fact. It could be the case that the arguments of CS Lewis persuaded him, perhaps he isn’t that smart. Although I think it’s more likely to be something emotional that sparked it, it often is.

    Trust has to be earned, and the husband definitely broke trust that had been, so he’s going to have to earn it again. I don’t think it’s for anyone else to say how much it’s worth sticking to together. Don’t be afraid to try resolve these issues with open discourse, but also don’t be afraid to separate if it’s not working.

  • Carpus

    1) Go get ’em Claudia. You’re right on.

    2) Richard, I’m persistently impressed by the advice you give. Your balance and reasoning is impressive. It’s risky to offer advice to people – there’s lots of room to go wrong – but from what I’ve seen so far you’ve done well.

  • JulietEcho

    I have a very wonderful but gullible husband, and I sometimes have to have long, frustrating conversations with him to talk him out of doing something woo-realted, like seeing a chiropractor instead of an MD for leg pain. He has an instinct to trust people blindly, and he has a weakness for anecdotes. I worry sometimes that he’ll get suckered into a religion someday, and I don’t know how I would deal with that.

    I don’t have advice for the sad mama. I think Richard’s was good, but that pmsrhino does have a point – it sounds like pressure to stay. Richard says that if she wanted to leave, she would have already, but I think that’s an assumption. She might very well feel that it’s her duty to stay and make it work – for the kids, because she takes marriage vows seriously, because she could have trouble taking assertive action to get what she wants. She could have written this letter as a way to ask Richard for a metaphorical permission slip to get a divorce.

    I don’t know – Richard could also be completely right about her motivations. But it seems like an assumption to me, and this is a messy, gray situation where assumptions are dangerous.

  • Charles Minus

    Let me just add a quick note. Wife and I are lifelong atheists and raised our son with no religious doctrine, but told him it was up to him to explore. He never was interested. Then he fell in love with a Catholic girl who wanted to marry him but insisted that he become a Catholic. He did. We kept our mouths shut and bought him a St. Christophers medal when he got baptized. He almost cried it made him so happy. He thought we would be critical of his choice. Now we go to mass with them and it doesn’t even hurt. I just ignore the bs and enjoy the positives. I’ve even met a few of the priests and they have all been decent, loving individuals that I admire.

    In other words, it’s not the end of the world.

  • Evilspud

    Could I also suggest that, when they are ready, they begin discussing how they will address the issue to their children?

    This may work out to the children’s favor, they’ll grow up knowing beliefs many treat as fact are actually opinions that can coexist as they are examined.

  • sailor

    We are dealing with two people here: Sad Mamma and the husband. I realize Richard can only address Sad Mamma as she is the one who wrote. But although I think Richard is usually wonderful with his advice, I still wonder if the analysis is a little superficial here.
    Sad mamma and hubby met and married young, 20 years ago. She says: “Open, honest communication and shared beliefs were the cornerstone of our relationship.” I think maybe she does not know her husband and his feelings quite as well as she thinks she does, given the circumstances.
    Now think about the following:
    “It turns out he started believing in a god about three years ago, and hid it from me till he determined that he really wanted to pursue religion. I found stashes of Christian books hidden in our home and he finally came clean that he’d even been lying to me about where he was so he could go to church without my knowledge. Please do not delete my email because as ridiculous as it sounds, this is pathetically true.”
    What he has been doing is in many ways emotionally equivalent of having an affair. He has sneaked behind her back, hidden religious tracts in the house, lied about where he is going, while he formed emotional bonds with others – in this case a church and its members. Here is what is clever about it – she can hardly get really stinking mad at him, because society will generally be on his side – religion is considered normal. So deprived of being able to be really mad, which I believe she has every right to be, she turns her anger inward and becomes depressed.
    But if Sad Momma wishes a continuation of the relationship, she has to look beyond what happened and figure out why. It seems to me the best prognosis is if she is the dominant partner of this pair. His behavior could be most graciously explained as a person who felt overwhelmed and unable to assert himself, so he did so by sneaking away outside their marriage, forming bonds away from her that give him a sense of autonomy he has been lacking. In this case she may be able to give him some room, realize that something between them has been out of balance and try to make things better.
    If he is the more dominant of the pair, I think it is more troubling. Turning religious in middle age is probably a form of mid-life crisis. But there is an extremely small chance it could be neurological in origin. If this is the case there would probably be some fairly marked behavioral changes happening at the same time.

  • JT

    I feel everyone kind of glossed over a particularly huge thing. He went from being an avowed atheist of 20+ years, to pursuing spirituality in the form of Catholicism.

    Most people here are atheists. Ask yourself: What would it take for me to start believing in magic and a higher power and one religion’s specific interpretation of that? It would have to be something HUGE.

    So he either had something huge happen in his life that she was not privy to. Or, worse and more than likely. He never was really that much of a skeptic. One Sad Mamma went 20 years thinking she truly knew this man. All the happy moments of connection she thought they had shared, was that even real? When it’s a christian who goes atheist, that happens. Most of us went through that. We had moments of true faith on our way out the door. I don’t think you can ever go back to believing in Santa after you find out the truth. And I don’t think you go back to religion once you reach genuine atheism.

    So the echoes of past abuse is probably cause for distress. But I feel there’s an underlying questioning of the legitimacy of the moments shared with a man she thought she knew which is also causing her bother.

    At least that’s how I would feel in her situation…
    And I would like to apologize to One Sad Mamma if she reads this on the off chance that it wasn’t an issue of hers and now it is because I’ve put the thought in her head. Sorry, that’s kind of a dick move on my part.

  • Demonhype

    The husband, as you say, may believe in “teddy-bear jesus” and may never give any credence to the undeniable justifications of abuse in the bible, but when you consider that her abusive father explicitly (at least from the letter) used his Christianity to justify the abuse, it is completely understandable why she would be so upset and have such difficulty disassociating the two. We’re not just talking about an abusive parent who happened to be a Christian, we’re talking about violence proudly and explicitly motivated by the abuser’s Christian faith.

    And no, there is not a very good parallel between atheism and Christianity in that case. An abusive father who is an atheist would just be general abuse–there is no Holy Doctrine of Atheism that would state his dominance over his wife and kids. An abusive parent who happens to be a Christian but doesn’t use his/her faith as the crutch to prop up the abuse would be more parallel to the abusive atheist parent.

    Compare and contrast both of those to a father who abuses his wife and kids in various horrible ways, all the while spouting his favorite justifications from the Holy Writ of Patriarchal Dominance (aka the Holy Bible).

    I wouldn’t say that someone simply being Christian in general is more likely by necessity to become abusive, but when you’re talking about beliefs explicitly motivating behavior in that sense, there is no real parallel between being religious and being atheist. At least, not until we actually set down our own little Council and batter out a Book of Rules for Atheism and start up official Churches to spread these rules, encourage these rules and monitor these rules. And then someone starts abusing his wife and kids because the Holy Writ of Atheism commands that a man is the master over his family.

    The clearly advertised Christian motivation for the abuse adds an element that I think isn’t so easily bypassed. If it weren’t for that, I might say, “hey, see if it works out”. But that abuse element makes it very hard to be quite so glib. I had emotional abuse that I’m still struggling with fighting in my head today, and that is nowhere near what this woman sounds like she went through.

    I personally wouldn’t be with anyone who believes anything supernatural, partly because while i can be friends with such a person I couldn’t respect their intelligence to the extent that I could build a life with that person. The other reason being that socially, the believer has the upper hand in everything. Whatever the believer wants, I’m supposed to cave to because I’m just a damned atheist and he has “deeply held beliefs”. Hell, I fell in love with a preacher years ago, and my mom was astonished that I wouldn’t convert to be with him. When I reversed the situation, “what if I said he had to de-convert to be with me?” (something I’d never do), she said that would be out of line.

    So imagine what it might be like, with him not wanting us to use contraception because of his “deeply held beliefs”–to coddle his imaginary friend, I’m expected to keep pumping out kids? That would be my own no. 1 concern if I married an atheist who turned believer–the pressure I’m likely to get from all sides to accomodate his every wish just because I need to “respect” his “deeply held beliefs”, no matter how I might feel about anything.

    But that abuse thing—I wouldn’t blame her if she couldn’t get past it. I don’t know that I could myself.

  • littlejohn

    This guy knows all the arguments and still came to the wrong conclusion? And that’s OK? She’ll never respect him. Dump him.
    What if he had taken up Scientology, Voodoo, or the accordion?
    Would you expect her to be so open-minded? What if he persuades the children to take up bagpipes or whatever? This is an irreconcilable difference.

  • mikespeir

    My advice would be to hang tough. This guy knows too much. Within five years his little experiment will have ended in failure and they can get on with their lives.

  • Ron in Houston

    I can’t believe you guys. Richard didn’t miss anything. Any of you can have whatever world view you want. The only way I can be upset over your world view is if I let it disturb me.

    This has nothing to do with whatever the apparently formerly atheist husband’s world view may be. It has everything to do with the writer wife’s perception of it.

    Richard nailed this one. It’s not the husband’s world view that is a problem, it is the writer wife playing out her issues on the husband.

    Not only did Richard nail it, he said it in a very diplomatic and sensitive way. Kudos Richard!

  • Trace

    Good grief, people!

    I have no advice for sad mama. I hope things work out between you and your husband.

    Silly story: My wife travels to Buffalo for work every now and then. She loves to listen to a Catholic radio station while driving: Ave Maria, the Station of the Cross. A while back someone called the priest who hosts it with a similar case: husband was considering other faiths. His advice: ” to withdraw sex” until he saw the wrong of his way.

    Some advice.

    Good luck to you, sad mama and sorry for the silly testimonial. I was hoping to make you smile. I meant not disrespect or insensitivity. I wish you well.

  • A Portlander

    “Or is he, by the broad scope of how he lives, still the man you married?”

    No, he’s not. She thought she was marrying a fellow member of what we in the godless blogosphere have taken to calling the “reality-based community”, somebody she could rely on to be her partner in the real world, and to raise their children in that paradigm. His mother may be thrilled that he’s exploring his spirituality, but One Sad Momma has every right to be HORRIFIED at her husband’s cowardly retreat into the soft, easy promises of wishful thinking. He’s taken the first step down a self-justifying slippery slope, at the bottom of which lives the Christian father who abused her, and I don’t blame her for not wanting to stick around to see whether her husband completes that journey.

    I’ll agree with previous commenters who’ve suggested that the husband was less than a rigorous, thoughtful non-theist. Anybody who finds Lewis in the least convincing was just looking for an excuse; at least Anthony Flew was going senile. This man is not your ally any longer, OSM. I’m so sorry, but you should be looking for your way off the ride.

  • Mike

    Wow, most guys get busted for stashing porn in their closets. This guy gets busted for stashing a bible.

    What’s the world coming to?

  • Staceyjw

    A few things:
    I wonder if their actual beliefs are as different as she thinks, even now. I had always thought my husband (then BF) really believed in chakras and karma as a supernatural force, and other silly forms of woo- he always said that atheism was an awful word, etc. However, when we got down to the underlying beliefs, I learned that he and I actually agreed (no supernatural beliefs at all!), we just expressed it in totally different ways. Maybe her husband really went off the deep end into xtianity, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was much the same underneath.

    Even so, the respect thing is a problem- it was the deal breaker in all of my past relationships- once it’s lost, it was over. I just couldn’t be with someone I had no respect for, and I never managed to re-establish it once it was gone. This is a tough thing to fix, but I guess it could be done by someone more understanding than me.

    I do think that her past is poisoning her present, and that is a real tragedy. I hope she can find a way to stop being abused by her father, as he is still abusing her indirectly after all these years. Her husband probably knew this and hid his faith from her so he wouldn’t hurt her, and I understand this. Lots of atheists with xtian spouses do this, so I would think we atheists would understand his deception.

    I also think that (with work) she can and WILL get over the abuse, it doesn’t have to torment her for life. That attitude doesn’t help at all!

    I’m not great with advice, but I would say that if she works through her past issues (important for her, regardless of the state of her marriage), and STILL feels disgusted with him, its time for a divorce. Many xtians divorce their spouses for becoming atheists, why this would be different I don’t know.

    I do feel for her- if my husband turned xtian it would be terrible! Unitarian would be OK, anymore than that would probably push me over the edge, and I am very laid back and understanding in most circumstances.

  • Staceyjw

    I would prefer porn to a bible ANY DAY!

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I was going to write a longer comment, but the shorter version is: “Yeah, what Claudia said.”

  • What Claudia (and a few others) said.

  • Anonymous

    Is Claudia patting herself on the back by posting under different names? I still maintain that it’s absurd to think his newfound religious belief won’t change his perspective and behavior. You’re all jumping to worst case scenario here that she thinks he’ll become her father when he may still be harmful in far more insidious ways.

  • being a Muslim background since young and now at 70yrs of age I became a cultured Muslim. (an atheist myself but based on Islamic concepts to the contrary) My advice to sad mama is being atheist or religious or otherwise is as human we live and die.while still alive in a human form we are born into diverse religions and ethnicity and features. When we die the souls lives on and will come back into this world and will live only to die again. Haven and hell is here and what we make it while we still breathe. So make the best of life. True love is for the spouse to make a promise that whatever one does outside the view/sight of the other is is out of jurisdiction. It clears the mind from making allegations that we do not see or hear. Love him as he is and the kids out of responsibility.

  • I do have to agree with a couple of the other commenters: The thing that really jumps out at me in this letter isn’t necessarily that the husband has succumbed to woo, it’s that he hid it from her. Her trust has been damaged because she thought that they were being completely open and honest with each other, and then she discovered that he’d been keeping a fairly life-changing secret from her for the past three years. I can certainly see why she might wonder what else he’s been hiding.

    My husband and I are both non-believers, and although I admit I’d be disappointed if he started seriously exploring religious belief and eventually converted, I’d be a hell of a lot more upset if he did it behind my back. It’s not as much the change in worldview as it is the sneaking around.

    The writer should definitely address her fears about his newfound religion with her husband, and emphasize that the shock would probably have been less if she’d known what he was doing. If he’s the caring man she married, I assume he’d at least take pains to reassure her that his beliefs won’t taint his actions the way that they did her father’s. If he trivializes her fears, then I’d say that she might have cause to worry (not necessarily that her husband would ever abuse her, but that he apparently doesn’t respect her worldview any longer).

  • mousefeathers

    1) Richard, will you marry me and have my babies? (For the record, I am a 62-year-old woman, so he’ll HAVE to do any child-bearing!)

    2) I have been an atheist since I turned 21, but my husband wasn’t; however, one reason he WAS my husband was that his core values were very humanistic. I had some bad moments when he started his Mormon phase, but he got disillusioned very quickly there, and it became simply silly family history.

    The point is, that he didn’t become another person because of it, despite my initial fears of being shut out of an important part of his life, of having missed something so important to him. He remained who he was, and rejected any efforts to change that person. He was too stubborn to change anything he valued for any reason, and his first loyalty was ALWAYS to me and our family.

    I suggest that this is a very possible outcome with Sad Mama, if she can learn to deal with her abuse issues as separate from HIM. I hope she can for her own sake, even aside from the marriage–that’s the only way it will work for her anyway.

    I would also like to mention, to the knee-jerk Catholic bashers, that one of my favorite authors is Andrew Greeley–as Catholic as they come, since he’s a priest as well as an author. He doesn’t leave “woo” out of his fiction, but he’s a pretty modern liberal, has NO patience for the multitude of abuses committed by other priests and his hierarchy, and frequently condemns it. I treat the supernatural elements of his work the way I treat any fantasy fiction–which I enjoy enormously. It’s just fiction. And most of the actual Catholics–and Mormons–I’ve known have been wonderful human beings, not monsters.

    Most of us are pretty good, few of us are monsters, and religiosity has little to do with it. Thank you, Richard, for seeing that, and spreading the word.

  • Claudia

    Is Claudia patting herself on the back by posting under different names?

    No, Claudia isn’t that superficial, though she could get aroung to finally registering on the site, since she’s been here long enough lol.

    I’ve made pretty much the points I wanted to make. I will add that I find a lot of advice pretty casual. “Oh, dump him”. Dump him? You say dump him to a 21 year old who found her boyfriend cheated on her. This is a 20 year long marriage with children. It seems highly irresponsible to blithely suggest divorce because of a conversion. Again, if the roles were reversed and a woman divorced a newly atheist man and took the kids we’d be screaming bloody murder. The assumption that since he’s now a Christian his attitudes must now be different and his motivations for hiding his conversion must have been bad are sheer guesswork unsupported by any evidence.

    They are in therapy, which is good. If in fact this event is the tip of an irreconcilable-differences iceberg this will come out in the course of the therapy and divorce may be the only option. But reading evil intentions or failing morality into this letter is excessive, and suggesting the breaking up of a family on its basis absurd.

  • Alex

    Haven’t most of us seen religious conversion change people who already were religious? Not sure if the husband is likely to become disillusioned and quiet down, like some of you suggest. Parental pressure is difficult to ignore at any age. I’d be equally suspicious of a new atheist if they started reacting badly to their kids being sent to Sunday school or decided to subtlely (sp?) convert their spouse. I think most opinions here sound reasonable. It’s dumb and disingenous to pull the “you wouldn’t say this if it was an atheist” card.

    Sad Momma separated for a few months, sought therapy, and if that’s not enough for her to be comfortable with her husband, how much more should we tell her to do? He changed. He lied to protect her but handled it poorly. He seems to have abandoned a lot of his interest since their split. Who’s to say he won’t then blame her for his loss of faith if he swallows his curiosity to appease his family? There’s a lot of hypotheticals here. I say to OSM, do what feels right to you, without anger or disrespect, once you believe you’ve done enough.

  • Litha Cim

    I’m not sure what Claudia means by saying we wouldn’t react the same if the genders were reversed. It’s hard for me to even imagine. Would it look like this?- My wife and I have been married for 20 years and she has secretly become an atheist. I’m scared because my mom used her atheist beliefs to justify emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

    It is very valuable to challenge our assumptions, but does this really translate? Isn’t it likely that she is physically smaller and possibly financially dependant on her husband? Or that their family’s financial well being relies on both parents? It seems far more likely that a woman would have cause to fear for her safety and security if her husband radically changed then a man would if his wife changed. I don’t read a lot of stories of women raping their husbands, or forcing them to abandon birth control, or threatening to remove financial support. Not that it is impossible, just less likely. I think we should assume that OSM is in a position that men would not be likely to find themselves in. Particularly since we are talking about a religion that explicitly states that wives should obey their husbands.

    As to the secrecy and dishonesty, would we really think it was okay for a woman to hide her atheism from her husband for three years? Hide her books? Lie about where she spends her time? Sounds to me exactly like the betrayal of an affair.

    OSM’s husband cheated on her with god! Personally, I’m with the person who said I’d rather find a porn stash then a bible stash. At least with porn we can both have a good time, LOL!

    To me, it looks like OSM is coping as best she can but that she is grieving and feels alone. All I can say is I feel your pain and wish you well!

  • Claudia

    Litha, by roles reversed I meant exclusively the beliefs, not the genders. I thought it was implied by my earlier comments, sorry about the confusion.

    I maintain that there is no evidence in her letter that his conversion has changed his behavior in the slightest. In fact, given her feelings, I’m pretty certain she’d be especially sensitive to any sign that his attitudes towards her have changed due to Christian dogma, so her not mentioning it would, if anything, point to him not changing his behavior.

  • Alex

    Of course we miss out on specifics when reading someone else’s letter without follow-up! We don’t stay the same person from the cradle to the grave, I know I changed when I returned to school, I know I changed after my first and only child, I know my husband changed when his mother died. Do you underestimate faith because you do not identify as spiritual, Claudia? Were you raised atheist or non-practicing? From the letter we have no reason to believe her husband treats her badly. However, he changed his entire philosophy! Our beliefs, our choices, affect us. It takes a lot of faith to believe he’s the same person after accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior falling for C.S. Lewis of all people.

  • Neon Genesis

    “He’s taken the first step down a self-justifying slippery slope, at the bottom of which lives the Christian father who abused her, and I don’t blame her for not wanting to stick around to see whether her husband completes that journey.”

    So all Christians are abusers? I thought this site was called The Friendly Atheist?

  • Jeff Dale

    I thought this site was called The Friendly Atheist?

    Hemant is the Friendly Atheist. You’re quoting A Portlander. Hemant’s friendliness, not A Portlander’s, is pertinent to the name of the blog.

    FWIW, I agree that the strong connection some commenters are drawing between Xianity and abusiveness is unwarranted, but I don’t think they’re unfriendly for saying what they think.

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