I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me. All questions will be answered in the order in which they are received.
Based on your deep learning and long experience, what do you see as the primary obstacle(s) in a marriage involving an evangelical (who came to the faith well after marrying) and an atheist/agnostic? And, given the scriptural warnings against such a union, how would you evaluate the chances for such a union to succeed? Thank you.
How often have you heard the statement “opposites attract”? Polly and I are very different from one another. She was a wallflower when we met, while I was, on the other hand, outgoing and talkative. Forty-three years later, Polly is still quiet and reserved, while I am, well, not that. 🙂 Over the years, an interesting thing has happened. Polly and I each developed hobbies and likes different from those of the other. But, we also developed hobbies and likes we share.
Both of us were Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Christians when we married. Twenty-nine years later, we walked hand-in-hand out of the doors of the Ney United Methodist Church, never to return. Today, I am an out-and-proud (and vocal) atheist. Polly is an agnostic who rarely talks about her unbelief. I can say this: her dislike of organized religion is much stronger than mine. I know, I know, hard to believe, but it’s true. I may be the outspoken atheist, but if I ever said to Polly, “let’s go to church today,” she would blister the paint off walls with curse words her IFB mother has never heard her say. 🙂
Our marriage has survived all these years because I am awesome. Or maybe I am delusional. 🙂 That was a joke, by the way. We share many common goals and ideals. We enjoy one another’s company. Our politics and religious views are similar. But, ultimately, it is the things we hold in common that are the glue that keeps our marriage together.
It is commonality, not differences, that typically attract one person to the other. This is why I recommend that people marry men or women who hold similar values, morals, and beliefs. Sure, all of us know couples with disparate values, morals, and beliefs who have been married for years. Such couples find a way to make things work. However, we also know numerous couples who divorced over dissimilar values, morals, and beliefs. No couple wants to spend their days arguing about politics, religion, or any of the other things that people argue about. And no couple wants to compartmentalize their lives, unable to talk with their spouse about certain things. (I deliberately paint with a broad brush. I know there are exceptions to the rule.)
I would never, ever recommend that an atheist marry an Evangelical Christian. The risk of conflict is too great. I am not suggesting that an atheist should never marry someone religious. It depends on the religion, how devout the person is, and the likelihood the person will become more religious over time. I know atheists who are married to mainline Christians. Their marriages seem to be successful and happy. Typically, the mainline Christian spouse is a universalist, so there are no worries about threats of Hell or evangelization. I have had two atheist friends die over the past two years. Both of my friends were outspoken atheists. What did their Evangelical families do after they died (one person was married, the other was not)? They ignored their final wishes and had funeral services for both of them. I have no doubt my friends were screaming and rolling over in their graves.
What about marriages where one spouse becomes an atheist or an Evangelical years later? Can such marriages “survive”? The short answer is yes. I know that some of the readers of this blog are in “mixed” marriages. They entered marriage equally yoked together as followers of Jesus. Then, years later, one of them lost their faith and deconverted. Some of the people I am talking about are “secret” atheists. Many of them even attend church on Sundays with their spouses and children.
That said, I have corresponded with numerous atheists who were/are married to Evangelical Christians. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for me to receive another email from them months or years later that says they have either separated or divorced. They either found they couldn’t make their mixed marriages work or decided that they didn’t want to spend any more time in a relationship where their significant other didn’t share their interests, values, and beliefs.
Let me conclude this post by addressing the “Scriptural warning against believers marrying unbelievers.” While I don’t care one wit about what the Bible says on anything, I do recognize that the Good Book occasionally offers sage advice. In the case of mixed marriages, the advice given in the Bible is generally sound.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.
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.
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, gag–me-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.
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Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? 2 Corinthians 6:14
During my years as an Evangelical Christian, I heard many sermons warning Christians not to be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers with regard to marriage, friendship, or owning a business together. The illustration was always of two animals that were not similar in size or strength being yoked together to pull something heavy. A picture was always painted of two animals walking in circles or the transport going awry in some way.
As teenagers and young adults, we were warned to never date unbelievers because that would lead to disastrous outcomes. Our pastors and teachers would give anecdotal examples of Christians marrying a non-Christians in which the Christians were bullied or convinced to give up their principles. Often the non-believers in these stories would mistreat the believers and lead them down roads of debauchery. Or the non-believers would lead the believers away from Christ, only to abandon the believers, leaving the believers’ lives in shambles (for Jesus and the church to swoop in to rescue and rehabilitate them). The pictures painted were quite bleak. The reasoning behind this advice was that a Christian and a non-Christian supposedly have completely different worldviews and sets of values guiding their choices.
I met the man who became my husband through some friends. My close college friend was dating a guy who was the fraternity brother of my husband. In the early 1990s at our university, it was still customary for fraternity brothers to dress up in a suit jacket, khakis, a button-down shirt, and a tie to attend football games. Female students would dress up as well, typically in a nice dress (usually black) with nice shoes and jewelry. A fraternity brother would ask a female student to be his date to the game, meaning that they would meet at the fraternity house for cocktails, go to the game for a while, then return to the fraternity house for more cocktails. Later in the evening, after everyone had changed clothes, there would be a party at the fraternity house, typically with a live band. It was the South, after all, where traditions died hard. However, it was a lot of fun. (Our daughter attends our alma mater, and apparently the formal dress and the game date part has changed, but the pregame cocktails and postgame activities remain the same.) My fraternity friend set me up with his dateless fraternity brother for a football game. I figured that I wouldn’t have to actually spend much time with the guy; that we would both just hang out with our respective friends with the respectability of having a date to go to the game remaining intact. Instead, we hit it off and ended up dating. The rest, shall we say, is history.
When we met, I was in the process of leaving Evangelical Christianity, but as deconverts know, many deeply-held ideas are difficult to shake. My husband was a nominal Catholic, meaning that his family attended mass on Christmas and Easter, along with the occasional wedding or funeral. When we met, he said he was Christian and seemed confused when I asked him “what kind?” He seemed to think “Christian” covered everything. Au contraire, mon ami! I explained to him that there were many different denominations of Christian, each with its own doctrines and practices. As we became more and more serious, I knew that we were an “unequally yoked” couple. He would alternately refer to himself as “Christian” or “agnostic”, but he respected all beliefs or lack of belief. He had a strong set of values, stronger than those of many Christians I had encountered, so I knew he wasn’t a bad person. I knew he wasn’t “saved,” but I was having doubts about the necessity of Evangelical salvation, so I let that go. We got engaged, and while the concept of being unequally yoked nagged at me a bit, I continued to push those thoughts away. I had no intention of converting him to Evangelical Christianity; first, because I was having doubts myself, and second, because I realized it would sound ridiculous to an outsider.
Oddly enough, my family barely questioned my husband’s Christian beliefs. They knew that he had been raised Catholic, but they really didn’t ask us many religious questions. I don’t know if it was because they trusted me to vet a marriage partner or if they were afraid to have an argument with me. Many of my family members are afraid of me for some reason (probably because I am not afraid to speak my mind and to disagree with their ideas). In any case, we were married in our university chapel by a Methodist campus minister. We had our wedding reception, complete with a full bar and a DJ, at the fraternity house. I warned my Southern Baptist grandma before the wedding that we would be serving alcohol and having dancing at the reception, and she told me that it was between me and my husband and that she would stay for a little while. Grandma was a complementarian, after all. After dinner was served, my uncle drove my grandma home while the rest of us partied.
During our early years of marriage, we tried a variety of churches including Catholic, for a while. We ended up at a Congregational United Church of Christ for a few years while our children were little. It was an open and affirming church, with a husband and wife team of pastors. I became a deacon and joined the choir while my husband joined the finance committee. After a few years, each of us had our deconversion experiences for different reasons. He openly called himself an agnostic and then an atheist, while I spent several years saying I was “taking a break from religion” while I sorted out the details. Our children were so young that they do not remember much about our church-going years, and both consider themselves to be nonreligious and will occasionally use the term “atheist” to describe themselves, depending on the company present.
We are equally yoked atheists at this time. Because I was raised in such a hardcore Evangelical environment, I am more anti-fundamentalist than my husband is. He considers most religion to be benign, a way to teach people love and morals and to give comfort during times of suffering or heartache. I witnessed and was a part of the ugly side of Fundamentalist Christianity. I did not talk about it for many years, mainly because the memories were often painful and my embarrassment regarding the anti-intellectualism was too intense. As my daughter began exploring universities in the Bible Belt, I started talking with my family about my experiences so that they could understand the Bible Belt culture. I wanted them to understand a bit more about why mom reads books about evolution, about the history and archaeology of the Bible, about deconversion experiences, and about atheism. Each of my personal stories is met with looks of “WTF”. They are even more stunned to hear that many of our family members still believe these things.
I suppose an Evangelical pastor could use my story as a sermon illustration of why unequal yoking is detrimental to one’s “Walk With The Lord.” While I did not enter a life of total debauchery or divorce, I did deconvert from Christianity. I am an apostate. Though the pastors of my background (and some of my relatives and friends from my past) would consider me in the “once saved always saved” crowd, I am well outside the world of the True Christian®, and in their estimation I have led my husband and children to the eternal fires of Hell. In my estimation, for one to remain in Evangelicalism with beliefs at odds with the findings of history, archaeology, and science, it is vitally necessary to insulate oneself (and one’s family) from outside influences that reveal the tenuous nature of religious doctrines. Therefore, it makes sense that Fundamentalist leaders would urge their flocks to avoid becoming entangled with nonbelievers or to attend secular educational institutions.
Do you have a story regarding the concept of being unequally yoked, either your own experience or the experience of someone you know? If you were or are part of an unequally yoked pair, did you experience any trepidation? Please share your story in the comment section.