Does Loss of Faith Lead to Divorce?

grieving-the-loss-of-faith

Cartoon by David Hayward

Over the past twelve years, I have corresponded with numerous Evangelicals who find themselves in “mixed” marriages after their loss of faith. Having entered marriage according to the Biblical principle found in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.

these unbelievers find themselves at odds with still-believing spouses. “What will become of their marriages?” these former Evangelicals ask. Having grown up in a religion that condemns mixed marriages AND divorce, they fear the consequences of losing their faith. Many of the Evangelicals who contact me suffer in secret, keeping their deconversions to themselves out of fear of hurting their spouses, children, parents, and close friends. I know a number of atheists/agnostics who attend Evangelical churches every Sunday because they fear what might happen if they dared to testify publicly that there is no God.

In April 2015, I wrote a widely read post titled, Consider the Cost Before You Say “I am an Atheist.” Here’s some of what I said:

If I had to do it all over again would I do it the same way? Would I write THE letter? Probably. My experiences have given me knowledge that is helpful to people who contact me about their own doubts about Christianity. I am often asked, what should I do? Should I tell my spouse? Should I tell my family, friends, or coworkers?

My standard advice is this: Count the cost. Weigh carefully the consequences. Once you utter or write the words I AM AN ATHEIST you are no longer in control of what happens next. Are you willing to lose your friends, destroy your marriage, or lose your job? Only you can decide what cost you are willing to pay.

I know there is this notion “Dammit I should be able to freely declare what I am” and I agree with the sentiment. We should be able to freely be who and what we are. If we lived on a deserted island, I suppose we could do so. However, we are surrounded by people. People we love. People we want and need in our life. Because of this, it behooves (shout out to the KJV) us to tread carefully.

This advice holds true today. Saying to believing spouses, children, and friends, I AM AN ATHEIST, can and will bring immediate negative responses. I always caution people to carefully and thoroughly weigh the costs and consequences of coming out of the proverbial closet. The Bible in Luke 14:28-30 gives some pretty good advice when it says:

For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.

Many unbelievers conclude that it is better for them to be closeted atheists than risk blowing up their marriages. But even then, these atheists/agnostics run the risk of being exposed; they run the risk of their spouses finding out the truth about who and what they really are. One man I know attended an IFB church with his wife and children every Sunday. To his spouse, family, pastor, and fellow church members, he was still a Jesus-loving, sin-hating, Bible-believing Christian. Outwardly, he was a good example of someone who loved Jesus. (Despite what Evangelicals say, it is possible and easy to fake being a Christian.) His deception could have gone on forever had his wife not found his secret stash of books by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Needless to say, the shit hit the fan. This man remains married, but it is doubtful his marriage will survive once his children graduate from high school. The chasm between him and his wife is so large that it is unlikely they can find a way to bridge the two sides.

I know several couples who have been in mixed marriages for decades. They found ways to make their marriages work, choosing to compartmentalize their lives for the sake of their significant others. Several years ago, I ran into the spouse of one these couples at Walmart. I had been her pastor for a number of years, and her atheist husband — a delightful man — would attend church with her from time to time. I asked her about her marriage, “if you had it to do all over again, would you have married Bob?” She quickly said, “NO!” I asked her, “Why?”  She replied, “My faith is very important to me and there’s a whole side of my life I can never share with Bob.” Viewing their marriage from afar, I see a couple who stills love one another, but I also see a relationship where each of them has a life separate from the other.

I also have corresponded with atheists/agnostics in mixed marriages who quickly found out that their spouses loved God/Jesus/Church more than they loved them. One close family member went through a divorce several years ago. At the time of their wedding, he was a faithful, Jesus-loving Evangelical. His wife, on the other hand, was a nominal Christian. Over time, he moved away from his Evangelical roots, eventually embracing unbelief — at least when it comes to organized religion. His wife, however, ran headlong into the arms of what is best described as emotional, touchy-feely, syrupy, gagme-with-a-spoon Evangelicalism. While he would admit that the reasons for their divorce are many, one man, Jesus, played a central part in their breakup. Given a choice, his wife chose Jesus over him.

Evangelical apologists have all sorts of explanations for why people deconvert. Few of their reasons, however, match what really goes on when a devoted follower of Jesus begins the process of deconversion. Most atheists/agnostics will tell you that their losses of faith were long, arduous, painful processes. I know mine was. The moment I wrote my coming-out letter, Dear Family, Friends and Former Parishioners, my entire life came tumbling down. Emotionally, I was a wreck. I knew walking away from Christianity was the right thing to do, but I grossly underestimated the carnage that would lie in its wake. I had followed the evidence wherever it led, and despite attempts to stop my downward slide on the proverbial slippery slope, I had concluded that the central tenets of Christianity were untrue. My unbelief forced me to rethink and rebuild my life from the ground up. What did I really believe? What were my moral and ethical values? What kind of husband and father did I want to be? The questions were many, some of which linger to this day. So, to Evangelicals who believe former Christians, without suffering, pain, and agony , just woke up one morning and said, “I am an atheist,” I say this: “you don’t know what the fuck you are talking about.”

This rebuilding process, of course, does not take place in a vacuüm. People who are married when they deconvert wrestle with questions about the future. They ponder what kind of marriages they will have if their spouses are still Christians. They wonder how being in a mixed marriage will affect their children. No longer believing that there is life after death can and does alter how one views the world. If a former Christian’s marriage was already troubled before his deconversion — yet he stayed married because of what the Bible teaches about divorce — he often questions whether he wants to remain married to his Evangelical spouse. Since there is only one life to live and then you are d-e-a-d, it’s fair and honest to ask yourself as an unbeliever: “If my Evangelical wife remains a devoted follower of Jesus, do I really want to spend the rest of my life married to her?” Many times, the answer is no and divorce soon follows.

I know a handful of Evangelicals-turned-atheists who took a wait-and-see approach to their spouses and marriages. These former Christians believed their spouses were, at the very least, open to discussing the reasons for why they deconverted. Taking a low-key approach allowed them to have non-threatening, honest discussions about God, Christianity, and the Bible. More often than not, these discussions bore fruit, leading to their spouses’ later deconversion. Sometimes, it took years of discussions (and book recommendations) before their spouses came to see the light, so to speak. These former Evangelicals believed that their marriages were worth saving if at all possible. This is more likely the case for couples who have been married a long time. It is a lot easier to walk away from a marriage of two or five years than it is to walk away from a marriage of twenty or thirty years.

People often look my forty-year marriage to Polly and think that we are some sort of shining example of what is possible post-Jesus. I warn them, however, that our journey from Evangelicalism to unbelief is ours alone; that far too often believing spouses remain so despite the deconversion of their husband or wife. Quite frankly, Polly and I were lucky. Just the other day we were talking about what might have happened had either of us stayed true to Jesus. We both concluded that our marriage might not have survived such upheaval and disunity had one of us still believed. Fortunately, as has been the case for most of our marriage, we walked hand in hand as our former lives as followers of Jesus went up in smoke. While there was a time when I was the out-and-proud atheist and Polly was the secret agnostic, we are closer now when it comes to the extent of our unbelief. Our personalities are different, so it stands to reason that how we live out our godlessness in public and around family is dissimilar too.

Are you in a mixed marriage? Did you go through a divorce after you deconverted? Are you a closeted atheist who still attends church with their spouse/family? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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13 Comments

  1. RW

    My husband is an atheist, although not open to everyone he meets. (Bad enough he’s liberal in a conservative area.) I’m sort of not sure what I am. Not an atheist, not really an agnostic although I’ve described myself as an agnostic theist, or a theistic agnostic.* I don’t 100% know there is a God, and I don’t really know the form he/she/they/it take. I can feel there is some kind of deity, but since I can’t prove it I see no reason to make those beliefs something others need. I can and do get comfort from praying, although I don’t pray as often as I once did. But since I’m not a confirmed religionist trying to evangelize anyone, our marriage isn’t really that mixed.

    *I suppose since I don’t know the form a deity might take, said deity could be multiple deities.

    Reply
  2. Mona

    When I was in university, I had two dear friends who were fervent evangelicals and who eventually married. We fell out of touch but about a decade later, I met the woman again and we caught up for tea. I was surprised to learn that she and he were now divorced, given how devout they had been. Turns out that she was still devout – but he had begun to have doubts, which then lead to a complete departure from Christianity. Their marriage couldn’t survive because she wanted to bring him back to the faith and he didn’t want to stay in a relationship that revolved so much around church and Christ. Apparently, he felt that it had all been an illusion, a phase he was going through. And she felt his crisis of faith was the illusion. It was an eye opener for me at the time – they’d been so very evangelical and had tried so hard to convert me (a firm free thinker).

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  3. ObstacleChick

    My husband started recovering before I did, but it didn’t really affect us that much. I felt shocked that he believed there was no God, but he was still the same good person, and in my experience with him he had always been back and forth on the topic of belief so I suppose there was a part of me that thought he might go back to belief. It was more of a shock to him when I said I didn’t believe anymore. He tried to convince me to contact a pastor friend of ours to discuss my issues. I asked him why he would want me to do that when he didn’t believe, and he said he knew religion had been such an integral part of my upbringing and he wanted me to seek out more avenues of information. When I hear about couples that separated over religion I feel fortunate that we survived.

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  4. Monica

    8 years ago I began my rapid deconversion. It was not my intention to deconvert, I was merely questioning and seeking answers. Within 3 months I lost my faith. I was not secretive in my quest, didn’t feel I had to be, after all I wasn’t planning on turning atheist.

    I really couldn’t put the breaks on when it happened so suddenly. My husband including every one in my life watched it all unfold. My dad freaked out but still loved me, my youngest brother abandoned me. My husband of 23 years was a bit troubled at first.

    Our marriage has survived. We both respect each others position, neither one of us push our views on the other. My husband isn’t a fundamentalist which helps. And he defends me if someone attacks my atheism. Last December his sister who is in her 3rd divorce said to my husband, “and your atheist wife” he countered her with, “so what, she is allowed to believe what she wants.” And she wonders why her relationships fail.

    Before we started building our house, she was planning a 5,000 sq. ft. house build. She expected to put everything they had in hock for her mansion. It was out of the question for her husband. They since separated. To this day she has not seen the inside of our new house.

    She is angry with me and my kids because we still associate with her ex. He has mechanic shops, has been our mechanic since they opened the first one. Now we are expected to find another mechanic? She “quit the family” last December because we wont cow down to her demands.

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  5. Brian Vanderlip

    I have been an atheist for many years but open with my believer wife who is not a Christian but follows a Bahai path. She rarely attends the social gatherings of the Bahai faith, their feasts but when she does, she does so without inviting me as she knows it is toxic to me. She gains solace and direction in prayer and in reading the Bahai scriptures, something I absolutely understand from my previous belief. It is both humorous and sobering for me to think back to our early love and how I attempted with so much angst to save her from eternal fire by trying to teach her that the Bahais are just another cult and she was tricked by evil. Years later, my Christianity shed, she still counts herself a believer and has told me that should she pre-decease me, she wants a Bahai funeral. (I want to be put on a pile of well-cured wood in the field and given back to the earth as ashes.)
    We are all ‘unequally yoked’ in life and our equality is in our knowledge of the vast inequality in existence. As old Solomon Burke so wonderfully intones, None of us are free, one of us is chained, none of us are free…

    Reply
  6. Dave

    When my wife realized I was no longer interested in attending church it was a crisis point in our marriage. I was always the more fervent Christian while she rode my coattails but this was extremely threatening to her and she even said she wasn’t sure she could stay married. I wisely did not use the word atheist and have not to this day as it has such a horrible connotation for so may people and that may have pushed her over the edge. Fortunately she now accepts my decision and even shows that she sees may problems with religion, particularly the evangelical embrace of Trump. I think it’s wise to simply point out the many obvious problems with religion rather than use the atheist label. People will know what you are but the word won’t hit them in the face.

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  7. David F. Strauss

    I was an evangelical Christian of a more liberal bent who had somehow reached a tenuous equilibrium between faith and reason. My wife was a nominal Christian, but a few years ago she flew headlong towards IFB and KJV-onlyism. It was a huge shock to me, but in retrospect I should have seen it coming. She’s not comfortable with uncertainty or ambiguity in other situations, so it makes sense. I tried to muster arguments against KJV-onlyism, but I somehow argued myself out of the faith in the process. It came as a big surprise to me.

    My wife didn’t take it well. We argued often and fiercely about the Bible and the nature of God. We really reached the brink, and then pulled back. We made the mutual decision not to discuss it anymore. I don’t question her faith and she doesn’t attack my lack of faith. There’s peace in our house but it’s accompanied by an emptiness, knowing there are broad swathes of our lives we can’t share with one another. We sit side by side, she reading her KJV and me reading Dawkins, Ehrmann or Price (on my Kindle so as not to disturb the peace). And I don’t know what to do. She told me point blank she’d never divorce me because “God forbids divorce,” but it’s cold comfort.

    We have kids. I let her teach young earth creationism and the KJV and I don’t interfere. I reckon the kids will figure it out for themselves at some point. I was a teenage atheist, after all, before improbably returning to the faith of my childhood. I attend church with the family as often as I’m able. It’s an independent baptist church but not as fundamental as my wife would like. I have no desire to attend any more “doctrinally sound” churches, however, so this is her part of the compromise. And it will likely remain so, until the kids are grown or old enough to understand why Dad doesn’t pray anymore, doesn’t sing in church, and doesn’t take part in daily Bible study. Then I hope to make a graceful exit from church altogether, and leave my wife to attend the church that suits her best.

    I think that knowing what I know now about the Bible, I can’t ever go back to evangelicalism. There’s things you see that you can’t unsee, and once you’ve seen the documentary hypothesis and good arguments for many if not all of the epistles as pseudepigrapha, it would take an act of stubborn willpower to return to faith. I hold out hope that my wife will one day awaken from her spell, but I’m not holding my breath.

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  8. dougckatyBG

    “if you had it to do all over again, would you have married ____?” She quickly said, “NO!” I asked her, “Why?” She replied, “My faith is very important to me and there’s a whole side of my life I can never share with ___.” Viewing their marriage from afar, I see a couple who stills love one another, but I also see a relationship where each of them has a life separate from the other.” This part hit pretty close to home. Just plug my name into the blank spots. It finally took too frequent science-bashing from the preacher and too much P&W / show business from the music leader in a SBC church to precipitate my moving on. I’m currently ‘parked’ in an O&A (on many issues, including theology, or lack of it) UCC church.

    Reply
  9. Van

    That’s me…totally closeted world wide except here on Bruce’s blog…go to church every Sunday and otherwise go through the motions, but don’t go out of my way to fake it. Have worked my way out of all church obligations, except watching 4 year olds once every six weeks. Am sure the wife and kids have noticed subtle change, but I nor they have brought it up.

    I often think about how that conversation will go some day. I agree with the comment above about not using the “a” word. The phrase I plan to use, which I heard on a podcast, is “I’m not sure I still identify as a Christian anymore,” and see where the conversation goes from there.

    Reply
  10. Danny Campbell

    My wife and I were both practicing Christians when we married in 1989 but even then we were in a bit of a mixed marriage – she was Catholic and I was Southern Baptist. Somehow we managed to tread the divide by actually attending one-another’s churches. My wife, in many ways, enjoyed the Baptist church more than her staid parish masses. All was well and good until the kids came along, or I should say when they started getting old enough to attend church. My wife was a teacher at the Catholic school so it was expected that our kids would attend there. But that only lasted one year as my wife found a better paying job in the public schools about the time our son finished kindergarten. But he still had to go through CCD, as did my daughter when she came along. Feeling a bit left out, and a bit horrified at the details I was learning about Catholicism, I started taking the kids to AWANA. As their parent-chauffeur and scripture coach for both faiths, the questions began to surface and I privately began reading articles online, and then Bart Ehrman’s book, “Forged.” From that point on, it was a slow but very steady process of deconversion, culminating in 2012’s Reason Rally in Washington, DC, after which I was an out atheist.

    The news did not set well with my wife. She has said that she feels cheated, that I am not the same person she married. True. And False. I have changed but I am also every bit the same person she fell in love with. In an attempt to find meaning in my new direction in life I joined a local Secular Humanist group and started doing work in the community – something she said embarrassed her. She called it my “Haters Group.” Acquiescing to her feelings, I curtailed a lot of my activities with the group but do still maintain a connection with certain friends. We’d reached a status quo, of sorts. She’d tried going to mass regularly but gave up on that after a couple years, never renouncing her faith, though. Things were okay on the faith front for a while. And then….

    …Our son died. He’d battled addiction issues for years and death was something we’d realized was a possibility though we held out hope that he would work through it. As I write this, tomorrow is the first anniversary of his death so many of the emotions are resurfacing. It has reopened a rift in our belief systems. It’s tough when one parent believes their child is in heaven with Jesus while the other parent believes their child is dead and no longer exists in any form except our memories of him. We’ve been through a short grief counseling session where faith came up but the whole experience wasn’t helpful to either of us. So we have gone back to the status quo, agreeing to disagree, wading through grief separately but together. At the end of the day, we do still love one another very much and our marriage is finding a new strength, though it doesn’t rest on the promises of God like it did in the beginning. This September will be our 30th anniversary so we are proof that mixed marriages CAN survive, even in the face of tragedy.

    Reply
    1. Caroline

      Danny:

      I’m so sorry for the loss of your son. I can’t imagine the pain you and your family have had to deal with. Addiction is cruel and unpredictable and still not well understood.

      Caroline

      Reply
  11. Pingback: Does Loss of Faith Lead to Divorce? – FairAndUNbalanced.com

  12. Anon

    Does loss of faith lead to divorce? In my case yes. My marriage was heading towards the rocks from day 1. Married way too young, at 19yo, in a Calvinistic bubble. It took me a long long time to work out the cause of my depression, but when I finally realised I was no longer a believer my marriage was all but dead. The thought of being married to an elders daughter who knew nothing but calvinism led me suicidal tendencies. “Since there is only one life to live and then you are d-e-a-d, it’s fair and honest to ask yourself as an unbeliever: “If my Evangelical wife remains a devoted follower of Jesus, do I really want to spend the rest of my life married to her?” Many times, the answer is no and divorce soon follows.” Bruce, your words rang true. My marriage ended in divorce. 1/4 adult offspring accept that, 2/4 tolerate me, 1 hates me (oh well, I can’t do anything about that…. she’s a married woman now, caught up in the charismaniac movement). My regrets are that I didn’t see the toxicity, that is called calvinism. Divorce is no bed of roses!!

    Reply

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