Ask Richard: Should an Atheist Try to Change his Church or Leave it?


Noc. 4, 2009

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(Author's Note: "Bill" wrote a long letter that I have edited for space reasons. My paraphrasing is indicated by parentheses. For privacy, I have given him a different name.)

Dear Richard,

I'm in a bit of a bind, and I need to advice from someone who lacks the religious prejudices with which I've been indoctrinated.  I appreciate any thoughts you have regarding the following situation.

I've been gradually losing my faith over the last couple of years. I was raised in and still attend services at what I would call a hyper-conservative church in Tennessee. While I do not believe, I continue to attend out of respect for my wife's devotion.

When we got married, we were both sincere believers, and she still is. As my faith has eroded, I've begun to be more vocal in publicly disagreeing with the elders, who are considered the authoritative leaders on all things at church services.

During the past few months, there has been a class studying Genesis through Deuteronomy. I have never studied these books from the perspective of skepticism before.

For example, Deuteronomy 22:13-21 discusses Israelite laws addressing a daughter's virginity. These verses relate how if a young husband accuses his young bride of not being a virgin; it must be investigated by her father and the city elders. If she is found to be a virgin, the husband must be fined, whipped and must remain married to her for life; but, if she is found to not be a virgin she must be killed by stoning. (Here is a link to the passage in the English Standard Version that Bill included.)

The teacher and elders said we should teach our daughters to not have sex before marriage because God hates it and he demanded death for it in the past. They said that a few deaths for fornication would solve a lot of our problems with premarital sex in this country.

After hearing the tirade for about five minutes, I asked the teacher if he would kill his daughter if she sat down with him and told him she had premarital sex. His exact words were "I sure would like to kill her if that happened."

I responded that no sane parent in this day and time would kill their child, and in fact, no one in the room would do it.

A parent may be upset, angry, frustrated, or feel any number of emotions, but they would not kill their own just because of a supposed biblical fatwa in the Old Testament. Furthermore, how is it just that the man only gets a fine and a beating if he is wrong, but the woman gets stoned? Should we adopt the ancient practice of viewing women as property?

Needless to say, my comments didn't go over well with the teacher.

He informed me that human logic doesn't apply, and that God said it, he believes it, and that settles it. This is really the church's way of saying "You called me out, I have no answer, and therefore, I conclude that you are wrong." This is just a sample of what I argue against on a weekly basis.

Is it ethical for me to continue to attend this church and publicly disagree with the leaders on these sorts of issues? Should I just walk away, or should I continue to try and inject some critical thinking into the indoctrination/teaching process?

I guess what I'm really asking is whether or not it is appropriate to take the fight against religious fundamentalism into the sacred sepulcher and challenge cherished beliefs in the pews instead of the public sphere. Thanks for your consideration.




Dear Bill,

This would be a simpler problem if your wife was not involved.

Without her on the scene, the only ethical problem would arise when someone in the church asked you point blank if you believe in God. Then you'd have to weigh the ethics of honesty vs. your desire to make things better.

Aside from the honesty issue, absent your wife, the rest would be a matter of weighing cost versus benefit. In other words, will you really be able to change others' beliefs or social attitudes from the inside as a church member, and what will it cost you?

The teacher was courteous enough to tell you what you're up against. He said "that human logic doesn't apply, and God said it, he believes it, and that settles it." Will your rational arguments, enhanced by your passionate outrage be enough to break through pious mulishness like that? Will your logic at least plant seeds that might sprout in a few of the more fertile minds, or will it bounce off like a BB off a battleship? I don't know.

Remember what it is like inside the fortified mind-set from which you freed yourself. Faith, often a euphemism for unquestioning credence, is taught to be a moral virtue. Doubt and skepticism are taught to be moral vices.

Merely questioning the Bible is seen as rude at best, and heresy at worst. Education is looked upon with suspicion. Science is often called the work of the devil. Here, ignorance is not merely the passive lack of knowledge; here, it is active, robust, aggressively self-defending and self-replicating. Here, ignorance is alive.

Also remember that you're up against men who make money by convincing people to abdicate their ability to think for themselves. Your church isn't just a social and book discussion club. It's a business that sells dogged intellectual conformity. Threaten the leaders' livelihood, and it won't be long before you're told to quite literally get the hell out.

Dissenters don't usually get to stay inside and work to change things for very long. More often they're pushed out and they start their own church with their own angle on things, trying to take some of the like-minded congregation with them. This is why there are thousands of sub-sects. They multiply by dividing, like amoebas.

Bill, if it were just you alone, I'd say hey, if you like fighting single-handedly against a gang of armor-plated automatons, then go for it! I admire your valor and your pluck. Sometimes David vs. Goliath stories turn out well. Maybe you'll turn the whole thing around, or maybe you'll at least get them to soften their stances on certain social issues. I'd also suggest that you wear a helmet in church, and don't walk down any dark streets.

But you're not alone.

I cannot be sure from your letter whether or not your wife knows of your loss of faith, and what that would mean between the two of you. That is a first priority issue that would affect your other decisions.

Your wife is still a devote believer and member of the church. You said that you continue to attend out of respect for her devotion, so her feelings are important to you.

It might be that nothing unpleasant will happen, but churches have well-earned reputations for penalizing people for their association with others who are seen as troublemakers, especially family members. Your actions could seriously affect her relationships with others in the congregation, and your actions could seriously affect her relationship with you.

This is your primary ethical dilemma: You must weigh your desire to do battle against what you see as a harmful influence in your community, versus the risk of collateral damage that may be suffered by your loved one. Whatever hits you take as a result of your struggle are part your choice, but someone else taking hits from that is another matter entirely.

I suggest that you talk this over thoroughly with your wife. Since you clearly think that women should be treated as persons instead of property, than she should have some input into your decision.

I can only urge you to be very judicious. The consequences of your decision range from good, to unremarkable, to very painful.



(Richard Wade is 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.)