The Humanist Dilemma: How to Drop out of Religion but Stay in a Marriage

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Generous or hypocritical? I no longer believe in religion, yet my wife asks that I keep some basic rituals. I guess I could try to view it as a cultural thing and go through the motions, but I don’t want to feel like a hypocrite. I think it’s nice to show appreciation for food before eating, but it’s difficult for me to say an official prayer addressing a specific god. In any case, she may not be asking much, and one must pick his battles. But does that make me a hypocrite?

Also, any advice on how to make such a marriage work (especially when young children are involved) is also appreciated.



Dear Evolving,

I’ve been doing the same thing throughout my marriage (over two decades) and with our kids since their births. One key difference is that I was clear about my nonbelief before we married and agreed that I would raise the kids in the family faith. I was also clear that I would not make any pretense about my views. So there was no sense that I had unilaterally changed the rules after the wedding vows, which could be an issue in your situation. But the fact is that individuals grow in different directions and at different paces within marriages, so marriages must bend or break to accommodate. I can’t say that the dynamic was, is, or will be easy in my situation or yours, but I do think it is entirely possible to survive and thrive if you keep the communications and the deals fair. Each of you is equally entitled to your respective beliefs. (Don’t let anyone tell you that religious belief trumps nonbelief.)

It sounds as though your spouse is being reasonable, asking only for “basic rituals.” The two of you need to hash out exactly what that entails, and also what you plan to say and do with your children—now and as they mature. It’s essential for your spouse to accept that you will be honest with them about what you do and don’t believe. My recommendation is to begin by soft-pedaling rather than thrusting your views upon your kids or others in your circle. When asked, answer truthfully but minimally, and be cautious about volunteering more information than necessary. Over time, I became both increasingly outspoken about my atheism and less involved in religious activities. But the few rituals I still participate in I view as family and social traditions. I make no pretense of believing in the religious aspects, but cherish these opportunities to spend time with friends and relatives (which include those who practice other faiths but enjoy joining in these festivities). Your idea to think of it as cultural is a very workable construct.

There will no doubt be moments of feeling hypocritical, such as when others assume you’re a believer and you don’t do anything to disabuse them; when you force rebellious youngsters to attend religious school or events because it’s what the family does; or when you feel dissonance sitting in a house of worship even though you reject the whole business. That’s an inevitable side effect of the compromise you’re making–and there may be many others around you making similar compromises. As your children begin to understand what’s going on, you’ll probably have less call to say or do things that make you feel dishonest. And once the kids are old enough (perhaps around thirteen), they can decide for themselves what path to follow—and both you and your wife should accept their choices.

Is it possible your spouse will eventually come to share your views and just needs time to come around, or do you think she’s unlikely ever to dismiss her religious identity? If the former, give her plenty of time and no pressure. You came to this on your own, and perhaps she’s just taking longer to arrive at the same place. If the latter, essentially do the same: tread lightly without pushing, to avoid push-back. The more you challenge another person’s views, the more fiercely they will cling to them—and retaliate either by trying to force you in, or force you out. To make this work you must avoid weighing in on her beliefs, and she must reciprocate. That doesn’t mean you can’t express your views, but do your best to keep it even-tempered, civil, and non-judgmental (which is far easier said than done!).

As for “prayers,” there are many sentiments you can articulate without invoking any deity or religion. I encourage our readers to offer specific suggestions, but in general, any moment recognizing the joys, hopes, and goals in your life, appreciating what and who you care about is a moment well spent. Reinforce what brings you together, not what separates you.