Ask Richard: My Atheist Husband Has Secretly Become a Christian


June 30, 2010

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Dear Richard,

My husband and I have been married almost 20 years and we have children. At the time we wed and for most of our married life, we were both atheists. Open, honest communication and shared beliefs were the cornerstone of our relationship. Last year he told me he had decided to become a Catholic. It turns out he started believing in a god about three years ago and hid it from me until he determined that he really wanted to pursue religion. I found stashes of Christian books hidden in our home, and he finally came clean that he'd even been lying to me about where he was going when he went out so he could go to church without my knowledge.

I was raised in a Christian family by a man who used religion as justification for physical, emotional and sexual abuse. I cannot abide the thought of being married to or raising my daughters with a Christian. Following my husband's disclosure to me, I sank into a deep depression and started having nightmares and flashbacks. We separated for several months and went to couples therapy, and I have been on meds for depression. Subsequently, he has decided not to join any specific religion, but still wants to pursue spirituality (whatever that means). It's been almost a year and we are doing alright, but I find I respect and trust him so much less. I would love to know your thoughts.

–One Sad Mama

P.S. His mother is a recent Jewish convert and is thrilled that he is "exploring the spiritual side of himself." His father is Catholic.

P.P.S. Since my husband is very well read and was atheist for decades, he knows all the arguments against religion I might make. Our bookshelves are full of scientific and rational thinkers, but he has turned away from reason, saying he needs something more. He thinks C.S. Lewis and others have made the case for God. I'm really desperate here!

Dear One Sad Mama,

You hold a very precious thing in your hands. Don't let pain from your past cause you pain in the future by tossing away that treasure.   

Your first paragraph is a role reversal of many letters I get where a couple is in crisis because they married as believers and sometime later one of them became an atheist. The theist spouse feels betrayed and suddenly begins treating the atheist as if he has become a dangerous intruder, even though he has done nothing to deserve it. He feels unfairly judged and condemned despite his continued love and loyalty. It makes no sense.

If it makes no sense to throw away a loving relationship only because your partner stops believing in gods, then it makes no sense to throw it away only because he starts.

We are what we do, not what we think. We think thousands of thoughts per hour, but we are defined by our persistent behaviors, by our conduct. What makes us real is how we live. Your husband secretly read some books and attended church. But consider the sum total of your husband's behaviors. Has he radically changed his behaviors as a husband and father? Have his actions suddenly become unloving and unsupportive? Or is he, by the broad scope of how he lives, still the man you married?

If his general conduct has not changed, then you are upset only about some thoughts going on in his head. Out of the 100 billion neurons in his brain, at the most only a few million neurons are involved with his religious thoughts. Those cells weigh but a few grams. Such a trifle should not ruin so strong and well-established a marriage as the one you have described.

However, the second paragraph of your letter complicates things. Where there is old pain there can be fresh fear.

I am glad that you both went to couples therapy and that you're "doing alright," but you both deserve better than alright. I hope that you went long enough to learn how to improve the impaired areas of your communications and how to work out agreements. If not, go back.

You said, "Open, honest communication and shared beliefs were the cornerstone of our relationship." Open, honest communication is definitely essential for a marriage, but shared beliefs are not necessarily as important, if by "shared" you mean they must match. It looks like the expectation that the two of you would always have matching beliefs interfered with the ability to be open and honest. Apparently your husband did not feel safe to "share," meaning to tell you about his changing beliefs.

Now, this is where it is very, very important to avoid seeking who is to "blame" for that lack of openness and that lack of feeling safe. Blaming will solve nothing and will only deepen the rift. Don't fix the blame, fix the problem. Rather than one or both taking blame, both of you can take responsibility, by which I mean ability to respond. Both of you can respond to the problem of a constricted part of your communication and together you can make it safe and open–even about beliefs that don't match.

I'm also glad that you sought help for your depression and I hope that the medication helps. However, depressed or not, the childhood trauma that you suffered at the hands of the man who raised you is intruding into your present relationship and is poisoning it.

You said, "I cannot abide the thought of being married to or raising my daughters with a Christian." I think you cannot abide the thought of being with the man who raised and abused you.

Your husband is not that man.

That man is defined by his actions, and so is your husband. By their actions they are utterly different men. The only similarity between them is the small part of their Christian beliefs that might overlap. If your husband was anything like that man in how he lives, you would have left him years ago, long before he became interested in Christianity.

I'm sure that you can recognize the unfairness and irrationality of punishing someone through guilt by association just because the name of his beliefs reminds you of an abusive parent. But recognizing where you are being unfair and irrational will not automatically make you become fair and rational if you are being driven by unhealed injury and unsoothed pain.

You did not mention getting any counseling therapy to resolve and recover from the physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The medication may help with your depression, but until you are free from the ghosts of your past, you will react with fear and loathing to anyone who inadvertently triggers memories and associations by having any similarity at all to the abuser.

Your husband has stayed with you for many years through your mutual joys and sorrows, your easy times and tough times. These last three years cannot have been easy for him either, yet he is still there with you. Together, you have built a treasure. If you let the sick, twisted man who abused you as a child reach out from the past to destroy this precious thing you hold in your hands, then you're letting him abuse you once again. Don't let him win.

Get expert help about your childhood abuse, work on it diligently, gradually put it to rest and finally be free of the past. Work positively and blamelessly with your husband to make sure that both of you feel safe to be fully open and honest and nobody has to keep any secrets. Clearly, you are both very intelligent people. You can work out mutually acceptable agreements as he explores this part of himself. Wherever your not-so-perfectly-matching beliefs might cause you to pull in different directions–for instance things involving your children–you can find creative solutions.

You can do this. It is worth it.



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.