You have finally come out of the closet.
You have declared to your family and friends that you are an unbeliever, that you no longer are a Christian.
You feel good. You feel clean. Finally, the burden has been lifted.
If you are married, your new-found freedom of unbelief comes with a new marital dynamic, especially if your spouse is still a believer, still a Christian.
When I left the ministry, left the Christian Church, and finally left the faith altogether, my wife was right there by my side. At first, I was concerned she was just following along. After all, that’s what Baptist women are taught to do, follow their husband. Don’t think, just obey. Submit.
Over time it became clear that my wife was staking out her own ground. I asked her awhile back if she wanted to go to church. Her response was a quick and sharp HELL NO. She has no interest in going to Church.
I am blessed to have a partner that embraces many of the same things I do. I am grateful she is a fellow unbeliever, and, according to some, we will roast in hell together. Our affinity for the same beliefs or lack thereof makes life much easier to navigate.
I know that some readers of this blog are not so fortunate. Their marriages are mixed marriages where one partner is a believer and the other is not.
I can’t imagine a more difficult circumstance than to have one partner committed to a belief system like Christianity and the other partner believing that the Christian God does not exist or does not exist in the form put forth by the modern Christian church.
A mixed marriage is fraught with danger. The threat of conflict and dissolution are real. Many marriages do not survive the conflict and end in separation or divorce.
Then there is the matter of children.
It is likely that the unbeliever does not want their children educated in the superstitions or doctrines of Christianity. The believer adamantly believes that the children should go to church. How are the children going to learn good moral and ethical values if they don’t go to church, the believing spouse will ask.
Baptisms. Dedications. Confirmations. Weddings. Funerals. Mother’s Day. Christmas. Easter.
The opportunities for conflict are many . What should the unbeliever do? I wish there was a magical Unbeliever’s Bible to turn to in hopes of finding an answer, but there is not. The unbeliever is left to their own reasoning to determine how to engage and live with their believing partner.
The remainder of this post is more of a “what would Bruce do” post rather than the rules for navigating the believer/unbeliever road. I don’t want anyone to turn my words into a how-to manual for couples trying to make their marriage work in light of one partner’s unbelief.
It is important for couples to communicate with each other, even more so when one partner does not believe. Religion, by nature, brings conflict into a mixed marriage. Religion is an attempt to answer the great questions of life: why I am here, what is the purpose of life, how should I live my life, what happens when I die?
Both the believer and the unbeliever should have the freedom to express their feelings and beliefs. Openness and honesty is very important.
In an open and honest relationship there will be times when one partner verbalizes a belief that is 180 degrees opposite from what the other partner believes. Hopefully the couple will be able to talk about their differences. The goal is understanding not acquiescence.
Discussions can, and should be, passionate, however they should never turn into abusive diatribes where one partner beats the other over the head with the Bible or mocks the mythical sky God. Respect your partner’s beliefs, even if you think their beliefs are foolish or contrary to reason. Believers and unbelievers alike must learn to respect those who hold to different beliefs than theirs. I know this is not easy. Sometimes we have to swallow our pride and sense of rightness.
Proselytizing is never acceptable, Sicking the pastor, church members, or deacons on the unbelieving partner is sure to cause conflict and could ultimately destroy your marriage. Think twice about requesting prayer for your unbelieving partner. How will they respond when a filled with the Holy Ghost, loose-lipped church member sees your partner at the mall and proceeds to let them know how the WHOLE church is praying for them in the hope that they will become a Christian?
Children are a lightening rod for conflict in a mixed marriage. It is likely that the believing partner will want the children to attend church. After all, where will the children learn morals and ethics?
I think it is proper for the unbeliever to lovingly confront the believing partner’s assumption about the value of church in teaching morals and ethics. Personally, I think children learn ethics and morals from those they interact with the most. Two hours a week in church pales in comparison to the time parents spend with their children.
Church “may” benefit children, but it also has the potential to harm them. Churches can be, and are, dens of intolerance. Anytime a church groups people into classes (saved ,lost, heterosexual, sodomite) there is a risk the children will be taught to be intolerant. Whole generations of racists received their racist training compliments of the Christian church.
What will the children be exposed to at church? Will they be pressured to make a “decision” for Jesus, asking Jesus into their heart? Will they be encouraged to develop critical thinking skills or will they be taught dogma and encouraged to view unbelievers as heathens, unsaved, and headed to hell?
Children should never be used to coerce the unbelieving partner into going to church. More than one spouse has used their children as a tool for evangelism. “Why don’t you go ask daddy/mommy if they want to go to church with us.” Such a tactic usually results in marital conflict. Children should never be put between the believing and unbelieving parent.
Moments of intense conflict often come when the believing partner wants one of the children baptized or confirmed. The unbeliever most likely thinks religious rituals are a waste of time. However, the believer, if they are serious about their religion, believes the rituals have great meaning and significance. Baptism washes away original sin, is a sign of the covenant, an outward sign of an inward act, etc. (churches have varied views on what baptism signifies and whether it is a means of grace)
I attended the baptism of my granddaughter Emma. Her mother and father attend the Catholic church. To be honest I didn’t want to go to the baptism. I didn’t want to step foot in a church building, not for fear that it would fall in, but because of the anger I still have towards organized religion. I have a special place of anger for the Catholic church. I do not understand why anyone would want to be a part of a church that has such a bloody history and a history of encouraging and ignoring sexual abuse.
But Emma’s baptism is not about me and my views. Her parents wanted her baptized and I respect their beliefs. As long as I did not have to participate in the baptism and I wasn’t required to affirm any religious dogma I thought I could attend the baptism without fear of conflict. I did have a “I want to shout bullshit” moment when the priest exorcised the devil out of my granddaughter, but I held my tongue.
A mixed marriage with children is fraught with danger and there will be many places where the marriage can be shipwrecked unless both partners work very hard to avoid conflict .
In general I will attend religious rituals, ceremonies as long as I am not required to participate in the ritual or ceremony. In the case of my granddaughters baptism I attended the ritual to support my son and daughter-in-law.
At the start of my unbelief I found it impossible to attend any religious ceremony. I was too angry and I feared making a scene. Over time I have mellowed out and now I am comfortable attending rituals and ceremonies in support of my children and grandchildren.
Holidays are special times when the risk of believer/unbeliever conflict is especially high. Christmas and Easter are two holidays that offer any number of points of conflict. Avoiding conflict requires everyone to be willing to compromise. Remember the overall objective is to have a home free of animosity and conflict.
Christians believe that Christmas is a high holy day, the birth of their savior Jesus Christ. The unbeliever doesn’t believe the Christmas story. They likely know that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th and no doubt they have read about the similarities between the Christian religion and other pagan religions.
Easter is very similar to Christmas. Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Easter is THE day in the Christian Church. As a pastor I often said that a lot of people are like a flower that blooms twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. The unbeliever likely knows the history behind the church co-opting the Easter holiday from the pagans. The unbeliever probably doesn’t believe in the supernatural and they likely consider Christ’s resurrection, along with the virgin birth and the miracles he did, as nothing more than superstitions.
When I first left the Christian faith I did not want anything religious uttered in my home. “Keep that shit to yourself” was my approach. Over time I realized I was being unfair to family members who were religious. Life is not all about me.
When the family gathers in our home I ask my father-in-law, a retired pastor, to say a prayer over the meal. I allow this for the benefit of others. I am of the opinion that prayer accomplishes nothing since there is no God that answers prayer.
Once again, as long as I am not put in a position that requires me to participate in a ritual or affirm religious dogma, I am indifferent to those who want to do differently. Several years ago, one family member wanted us to go around the dinner table and say what we were thankful for. (the implication is thankful to GOD for) I asked that it not be done because it put everyone on the spot to come up with something they are thankful to God for. Needless to say the meal was quite tense. I was thankful when the meal was over.
Any relationship that brings believers and unbelievers together will have conflict. The key is to manage the conflict in such a way that allows each person to maintain their dignity and self-respect. This is not easy to do when one partner thinks the other is a potential salvation prospect or thinks the beliefs the believing partner are bat-shit crazy.
This is a two-way street. Unfortunately, it seems that believers almost always want the unbeliever to back down. After all, they are one with the new unbelief belief. The family has always been Christian and the unbeliever should not expect them to change.
The unbeliever does not, or should not, expect believers to deny their belief in God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. All the unbeliever asks for is respect. My wife and I have stopped going the her family’s Christmas get-together because the level of religious and political intolerance is so high that it makes impossible for us to have a good time and raises the risk of me having a stroke. Polly’s family expects us, the only unbelievers in the family, to go along with whatever is done, yet they are offended when they come into our unbelieving home, a home where religion has no place, and we act according to our unbelief. At times, it seems this gulf is almost impossible to bridge.
Sometimes, couples have to decide that religious discussions (and often political) are off-limits. This is not ideal because of the many areas of life religion touches, but, for the sake of the marriage, it might be better not to discuss issues relating to the believing/unbelieving divide. This requires both partners to compartmentalize their lives.
Neither partner should demand or force the other to participate in things that violate their conscience. Share the 90% of life you have in common with each other and realize that many people would love to be 90% compatible with their partner.
No couple is 100% compatible. My wife and I tolerate each other rather well. We can talk about most anything. However, there is one thing we can’t talk about, suicide. When depressed and racked with pain head to toe, I will talk about taking a ride on the .357 train. My dear wife freaks out about this and it is one area where we can not seem to have open, honest discussion. I could be bitter about this, but that would hurt our marriage. So, my counselor has the privilege of parsing and dealing with “Bruce’s suicide talk.”
I could focus on the one thing Polly and I can not talk about OR I can focus on the wonderful, open, loving marriage we have 99% of the time. It is easy to become fixated on the 1% and totally miss the wonderful 99% you share with your partner.
Some mixed marriages will end in separation or divorce. The believer/unbeliever divide is too wide and one or both partners find it impossible to find ways to close the divide. Perhaps the believer/unbeliever conflict exacerbates problems that were under the surface long before the conflict over religion began. The conflict over religion only brought light to matters that have lurked in the shadows for years.
Before dissolving your marriage I would encourage you to see a marriage counselor. Make sure the counselor is a secular counselor. A religious counselor, one who believes the Bible is truth, can not be objective. The secular counselor is able to see the issues more clearly since their view is not clouded by dogma and presuppositions about family, marriage, etc. I know that some Christians will find my advice offensive, but if they think about it for a moment they will know I am right. A conscientious Christian counselor most likely has views about human nature, sin, marriage, and divorce that would only muddle the problems the couple is having. When Jesus is the ultimate answer for every problem, an unbeliever will find such counseling offensive and a waste of time.
Above all, talk to each other. Be open and honest with each other. Be passionate without resorting to temperamental outbursts and ill-advised pronouncements. For those of us who have been married a long time, consider the investment you have made in your marriage over the years. When someone suddenly professes faith in Christ or professes they no longer believe in God it can cause turmoil in the best of marriages. Move slowly and carefully. Consider the other person, the person you love, the person you have spent a lifetime with, facing everything life can throw your way. Facing this latest battle will not be easy but most likely you can face it together and find a way to live in peace with each other, leaving thoughts about eternity to that day when we all will know whether or not our beliefs were right.
repost, revised, updated