I am contacted regularly with questions from atheists on how to manage their marriages with believers. These inquiries have to do with keeping sanity and peace in a home where an avid atheist and a militant theist (usually Christian) live. Ican speak from experience on this subject, not only as an atheist, but also as one who has faced the heartache of a failed marriage himself. Experience being the best teacher, there is a lot to learn on family conflict management when there is a clash between different religious viewpoints. Let’s begin by looking at common mistakes infidels make concerning their marriages to believers.
First, the infidel tries to get their unbelieving spouse to “see the light” of de-conversion: Like young and zealous
believers, unbelievers take the anti-good news of naturalism and bring it to their spouse, expecting them to latch onto it and receive as openly as he/she did upon their de-conversion. This is categorically one of the worst mistakes an unbeliever can make, and it is made all the time by unbelievers who contact me and ask for ways to convince their families of the truth of naturalism. It is human nature to want to tell others about what we find to be true and life-changing. In Christianity, this tendency is encouraged as believers are expected to tell others of their newfound faith. This is not a good idea, however, when it comes to the “good news” of rejecting faith. Throwing off your faith may have sounded good to you, but that may never be option for those in your family.
It is important for the unbeliever to recall what was required to produce in them naturalistic convictions to begin with; if you’re like most religionists-turned-heretics, it took time, the right experiences, and the acceptance of some cold, hard facts. The newly made materialist should not expect others to embrace non-belief as openly as they received the information that led to the development of their materialistic convictions. It doesn’t work that way. Your message is not a happy message and offers nothing of recognizable value to your religiously inclined listeners. Unless they are in a position in life that enables them to undergo your experiences and examine the processes by which you came to your conclusions, they will not be willing to accept them. Do not expect anyone to come around to your way of thinking, and do not seek to “de-convert” those around you. The tendency may be strong, but resist it at all costs to enable your family to have some level of peace.
Second, the infidel is quick to accept arguments and debates: This is as big a no-no as our last point. Don’t
argue; let me repeat: Don’t argue! I cannot stress this point enough! This only serves to further cause a rift in the family. No matter how badly your spouse wants you to, no matter how ferociously you are antagonized to debate, do not. Now this may sound easy to do, but beware! I am contacted continually by those who say they were at first persistent in refusing to argue but eventually gave in when provoked long enough. It is crucial that such an outcome be prevented. You must control the situation. There is the tendency to think you have control, to think that you’ll be able to lightly argue and then cut it off when things start to get ugly, but the damage from an argument is often done before a single harsh word is exchanged. There are even times when spouses seem like they are eager and willing to learn about the reasons behind your non-belief, but what they hear will only aggravate them at a later point. Initially, when “coming out” as an unbeliever, some level of explaining must be done, but keep this to a minimum if possible. You may know your spouse well, but then again, you may not know him/her as well as you thought because this is new territory in your relationship. You can’t know for sure how your spouse will react. See my article “Under Siege: What To Do When You’re Fundy Family Attacks You.” for more on when and how to begin an argument.
So leave the spirit of missionary atheism right on your doorstep. It must be dead to you once you go home—and
this applies to when you frequent relative’s homes as well. Do not give in to the tendency to argue! You want to make certain that those around you see that your faithlessness is not about getting everyone else into your “religion” of atheism. To give in to the tendency to argue only reinforces that false stereotype. To maintain any level of respect, you’ve got to show that your convictions are your convictions alone, and that there is no reason anybody else needs to share them.
Third, the infidel worries about religious indoctrination of the kids: I am asked by atheists what to do when their spouses go about educating their children in religious schools and take them to church every Sunday. They panic when a religious parent tells the kids mythical Bible stories and encourages them to pray before meals. The important thing is to do nothing and to quit worrying about the whole matter. As we stated on the last point, your convictions are your convictions, and they needn’t be anyone else’s. There is no reason for your children to learn of philosophical naturalism for the same reason your religious spouse doesn’t need to learn it. It offers them nothing of value and only brings discord in return. Let it go. There are ways of instilling scientific reasoning and logical thinking skills into a child’s mind without introducing them to the writings of Ingersoll or Voltaire. Let your children be taught the family religion and even encourage them to follow it. When your children ask you why you don’t participate, simply answer them, “Because I’ve chosen a different path in life for myself. It’ll be up to you to decide on your own when you grow up.” Children, particularly young children, have their lives ahead
of them. Have confidence that those who are more prone to following their heads away from religion instead of following their hearts into religion will go the way they deem suitable for themselves. Let time take care of that.
As co-habitator with your spouse, you know him/her and yourself better than anyone else. It is up to you to use the wisdom in this article and apply it for best results, but be advised that there are no easy calls to make on these
touchy decisions. The “right” decision differs from person to person. And bear in mind, sometimes there are no “right” decisions at all. I have seen spouses who were once intolerably resistant to atheism eventually come around to happily accept their atheist husband or wife. On the other hand, you may do everything they could possibly be done to salvage a marriage and still see it fall apart.
Despite all your efforts, the termination of a relationship may be in the cards still. I wish the prognosis were better, but based on the feedback I’ve gotten, it’s not. For that reason, the worst should be prepared for. It is worth stating, however, that if a marriage was strong and healthy before the faith conflict began, the greater the chances of it surviving afterwards will be.
Up to now, we have been discussing things that atheists do, but shouldn’t do. I shall conclude this article by emphasizing the one important thing that should be done, but often isn’t. When a clash between belief systems tears into a home, the importance of a healthy relationship is paramount. If anything is going to save the marriage, it will be the labor of love and intense work that goes into the upkeep of any healthy relationship. Work on the marriage. Send cards and flowers. Get your head back in the game of making your spouse happy again. Muster up as much intimacy as you can. Make sure your spouse and kids know that despite the belief change, it’s still you in there, and you still love them like crazy! At this point, you’ve done all you can do. Now, just hope for the best.