Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I’m married to a strong (and sweet) Christian woman. Since we’ve been married, I’ve realized that I’m an atheist. I’ve tried explaining this to her a couple times, but her belief in God is so natural to her that it never really sinks in. She thinks I’m “questioning my faith” or “mad at God.” I’m not doing either, I just don’t believe he exists.
I still continue to attend church with her for several reasons. I want to be supportive of her, it makes me feel closer to her, I enjoy the singing, I enjoy the sense of community, and most of my friends are there. I work in a conservative industry in a conservative part of the country, and I think attending church just makes me fit in better.
So now here’s the dilemma… Three months ago, our first daughter was born. I want her to have every advantage possible, and I want to be honest with her. I don’t really want her to believe in God, miracles, or other supernatural phenomena because that would hinder her understanding of science. My wife and I agreed that we’ll be honest with her about issues like Santa Clause and sex, so I feel like I should also be honest with her about God.
I can’t see myself “going against the grain” and living as an open atheist. I don’t really want to give up the church community. Telling my daughter that God isn’t real and then sending her to Sunday school just seems ridiculous. The easiest thing to do would be just go with flow and keep pretending I’m a Christian, but that’s starting to get tiring. Do you have any ideas about what I should do?
Every organism living in a hostile environment gradually develops survival strategies. For instance, some become fierce, aggressive fighters. Others use camouflage to blend in to their environment, or mimic other organisms in order to avoid danger. Every survival strategy has its benefits and its drawbacks.
You have chosen to blend in with your environment and to mimic the people around you. You are adopting the appearance of being a Christian in order to get along with your wife, your community, your friends, and your work. You benefit personally, socially and professionally.
It’s important to resist the temptation to attach a moral value to someone else’s survival strategy, as if one is more “courageous” and one more “cowardly,” or one is more “noble” and one more “base.” That is self-righteous nonsense. There is only whatever works, with its benefits and its drawbacks. Just like any other organism, you’re trying to survive and to insure the survival of your offspring.
Being a fierce, aggressive fighter who stands up to society’s pressures might appeal to some people’s fondness for machismo and romantic fantasies of heroism. For some people that works, but no one has any right to condemn the camouflage/mimic strategy. It works very well for many organisms. The extinct don’t get to feel righteously superior.
But you’re more than just an organism, you’re human, with very complex thoughts, feelings and needs, and very complex relationships. The drawback to your strategy is that some of your thoughts, feelings and needs are left frustrated and neglected. The cost of “getting along” in any situation is usually a surrender of some freedom to express oneself. If in the future those inner pressures become more uncomfortable, or if the outside environment becomes less demanding of conformity, you may end up adjusting your strategy.
The important thing at this stage is to work out an explicit agreement with your wife that being honest with your child about issues like Santa Claus and sex will also include both of you being honest about your views about God. Don’t leave that unstated and assume you two have an understanding, only to find that your wife is outraged when she learns that you have been expressing your skepticism to your daughter.
Make it clear to your wife that as your daughter grows, you will try to instill a respect and value of science and critical thinking. As she grows to new levels of understanding, you will share with her your skepticism of the supernatural, and you will explain the reasons why you go along with the religious activities that you do. If you and your wife can agree to simply present your views instead of making it a competition, then your daughter will not have to be torn between loyalty to one parent or the other. She will be able to make her own choices on these matters.
She might become a believer or a nonbeliever, or she might be one and then change to the other, or she might be some kind of blend. Although she will know that you wear camouflage for social and work reasons, she will know your true thoughts. Your daughter will have heard two adults’ viewpoints, and most importantly she will see that even though they disagree, they are able to love each other and love her.
I have received many letters in which young atheists have discovered that one of their parents has quietly been an atheist for many years, going through the motions of the other’s religion in order to preserve harmony with family, community, and work. Sometimes the young person is able to form an alliance with that parent, taking solace and support until they can be on their own.
It will be complicated at times, it will be messy and confusing at times. When is real life not complicated, messy and confusing? There are no neat, clean, simple solutions to life’s problems. Anybody who thinks there are, hasn’t actually tried to apply them. Your daughter will be better able to handle life’s ambiguities and conundrums because she has two parents who are honest about life. Hopefully, as an adult she will live in an environment that is less hostile to nonbelievers, and she’ll be able to understand the compromises you made for your sake and for hers, putting up with the drawbacks for the benefit.
This is a very long term change we are participating in, longer than any of our lifetimes. We all try to do our small part, and there are many parts to play. We need the fierce, aggressive fighters, and we need the quiet, patient ones blending in, all the while nurturing better ways of thinking in the minds of the next generation.
You’re a good husband and a good father. I wish you and your family a wonderful journey.