The Humanist Dilemma: Is the Honeymoon over for a Nonbeliever and His Baptist Bride?

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Spouse Trying to Convert Me: I’m an agnostic married to a Christian. My wife became a Baptist shortly before we got married, during a particularly dark and lonely period of her life when we were separated because of my job. At the time, I was accepting and even supportive of her choice. I grew up Catholic and accept that many people find purpose and fellowship in religion. Her church provided a great social network for her, and I was relieved by that.

After we got married I continued to support her new-found faith by promising to go to Bible study and Sunday service with her, and even accepting that our children, should we have any, would be brought up in church.

I have lived up to these promises, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult. She frequently tries to convert me. I tell her that we should respect each other’s beliefs, but she only pays lip service to this. When she presses me on my agnosticism, I usually end up discussing the various fallacies and shortcomings of Christianity and the Bible that led me to leave my Catholic upbringing in the first place. This invariably leads to hurt feelings. She often shuts me out emotionally, citing sadness and fear over my “unbelief.”

To add to my frustrations, I find her church obnoxious. They subscribe to fundamentalist beliefs deeply at odds with mine. For example, their pastors preach that dedication to marriage is a form of idolatry; Christians need to prioritize their devotion to God and pray for the conversion of their loved ones “at all costs” (their words). While the individual members of the church are nice people for the most part, I’m growing weary of fending off their proselytism.

Recently we had some bitter arguments. I told her, unequivocally, that I was not going to become a Christian, and I was tired of being a second priority in her life. I even told her I wished she had never become Christian (words that reflect my heart, even though I regret speaking them out loud). I feel like my marriage is heading for disaster, and it’s barely a year old.

I don’t want to compromise my beliefs, but I’m scared of losing my wife. Some of my secular friends have suggested that if I’m really indifferent to religion, I could consider just faking a conversion to preserve our marriage (since presumably it doesn’t matter anyway). This would be a uniquely humiliating experience: conversion in this church would involve publicly reading a multi-page “testimony” on how I am a wretched sinner and submitting myself to the authority of a church-appointed “spiritual leader.”

Is there anything else I can do? Have I been too blunt in defending my agnostic beliefs? Should I accept that we are just not meant to be any more?



Dear Despairing,

First, do you have any children already or on the way? If not, please don’t! Until you work this out, your options are way, way better if no children are involved.

I wish one day I’d get a question about someone who was professing non-belief but was actually a secret believer. Maybe that happened in the Soviet Union when religion was outlawed, but otherwise, I can’t imagine it happening. The religious never seem to feel pressured to feign an absence of faith for anyone. Surely, somewhere out there, there must also be some non-believers who oppressively pressure their partners to quit their faith.

Does that help you to see how lopsided your situation is? You are all by yourself, constantly on the defensive, trying to save your marriage, and supporting your wife no matter what she believes. In contrast, she is constantly asking you to abandon your beliefs and accept hers, with the blessing of her church and her fellow believers. She is conveying that her faith is more important than your marriage, but ironically, you are turning yourself into a pretzel to save it. Even your well-meaning friends don’t seem to fully recognize what she, and they, are asking of you. What accommodations does she offer you in return for you sacrificing your principles? Based on your letter, none. What’s the value of preserving a marriage with someone who doesn’t respect you and your core beliefs?

As you have probably guessed by now, I don’t think you’ve been too blunt at all. On the contrary, you have not been blunt enough. This is the time when I typically suggest a secular therapist or marriage counselor for both of you, or for you alone. But if you don’t have any offspring, I’d be aiming you so far toward the exit you’d be in danger of falling out the door. Your marriage is only a year old. Prior to marriage, you were living apart and growing apart. Why would you want to spend the rest of your life fighting a battle where you and your wife are on opposing, irreconcilable teams? You don’t say what your wife believed before she became a Baptist, but the trajectory going forward, and the lack of regard for your worldview, is clear. Unless there’s some reason to think she might in the near future reverse her beliefs and see the error of her ways, don’t expect her to change in the direction you would like.

Your friends’ idea of pretending faith is appalling. You are not indifferent to religion, particularly your wife’s—you abhor it. By faking it, you would be a hypocrite to your wife (and family, including any children you may have), and you would find yourself getting sucked deeper into the vortex of her church and the people pushing their onerous views on you. That can lead to either  slow agony or a dangerous explosion. You do not want to fulfill that prediction.

I suppose the question of love has to be raised. Your letter makes no mention of how you and your spouse feel about each other, although you sound like a very caring partner to her (I don’t see evidence of reciprocity, but maybe you just left that out). This seems like a situation in which one or both of you might say, “If you really love me, you will do as I ask/not ask me.” Many marriages endure, and are even very happy ones, despite conflicts like this. But unless there is at least minimally balanced give-and-take on this or other important issues, I’m not sure your bond can or should hold.

Your wife seems to be saying that if push came to shove, she would rather be with her church than with you. You need to state clearly that push has come to shove, and that you are ok with her having her beliefs, but only if you are unfettered in your own. If she can’t, or won’t, accept that (and it sounds as though she has already indicated her choice), you need to break away.

If there are children involved, making a clean break becomes impossible. In that case, I recommend counseling, with the addition of legal advice, because you would have to work out how to co-exist in the marriage or out, with explicit arrangements for custody and the children’s religious/non-religious education. Be aware that your wife and her church chums will teach the children that you are wrong and perhaps evil.

Readers, please avoid relationships with people who want to impose their beliefs on you, particularly religious convictions. No matter how open and accommodating and generous you may be to them, people who have a god and church on their side are apt to feel you have nothing on yours–and you may feel isolated and over-matched. But you actually do have some powerful forces backing you. You have reason, logic, science, truth, and integrity. And you have all of us non-believers, who are out here and rooting for you. Please stick with us. Maybe you can find other non-believers in your community or online to help you see beyond the people in your immediate vicinity. Your mental and emotional health is at stake, and that’s much more tragic to lose than your marriage.