The Ethical Dilemma: Evangelical Shrink

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Evangelical Shrink: I was born into an Evangelical family and for 30 years I had lived an intense religious life. In March, 2014, I became an atheist. My wife and 90% of my friends and relatives are Evangelical. They condemn atheism as a passport to hell.

My wife alerted me that I must go to a psychologist, but not just anyone. She wants me to go to a famous Evangelical psychologist. The couple of pastors of my old church said to me that I am sick. My wife continues firmly in that church and she loves these pastors.

My greater worry is about my marriage and my two children because my wife is very fundamentalist. Despite that, she is a wonderful person. I love her a lot. But her behavior has changed since I stopped believing. She is very sad about that. I have try to be the same person I always was. I don’t know what I can do to make her happy.

I’m very confused. What can I do? What about the psychologist?

Lifeline With Strings Attached


Dear Lifeline,

I suspect you recognize it’s not you who’s sick, although your situation may be making you nauseated.

It’s curious that you can pinpoint the month you became an atheist. I’m wondering what happened that would so precisely delineate your before and after. That information might be useful in defining your next steps. You also don’t mention how you feel about your wife continuing her life with the church and pastors, or how your atheism affects your views on raising your children. Perhaps you haven’t gotten that far yet since this is so new to you, but believe me, you will get there, and you will need support—which you won’t find among the believers, the pastors, or anyone else single-mindedly committed to keeping you within the flock.

Like your wife, I strongly urge you to pursue therapy–but not with the Evangelical psychologist. I suspect he (it is a he, right?) would be the equivalent of one of those therapists who specializes in straightening out LGBT people, who has no interest in the reality or value of your perspective–only warping you to his. You could, to appease your wife, give this guy a try, but the outcome would likely be a. to exacerbate your alienation, b. to brainwash you into knuckling under and reaffirming belief, or c. to browbeat you into just going through the motions to keep the peace. In any case, you won’t feel better for long and I doubt deep down your wife will either.

A more constructive course is to prevail upon your wife to join you in consulting a neutral or secular marriage counselor or therapist (and if you can’t convince her, go by yourself). The goal is not to get your wife to join you in atheism, but just to get her to the point where she can live with your differences and accept that there’s a wider world out there—and it’s not hell.

Many if not most non-believers are married to some type of believers. They learn how to enjoy the aspects of their relationship where they are in agreement, and tolerate (or ignore, or get some perverse kick out of) the disagreements. All marriages have points of divergence, whether it’s religion or politics or carnivore vs. vegetarian or athlete vs. couch potato or whatever. The trick is to strike a balance and give each other some latitude. Most importantly, both parties have to want the relationship more than they want to convert the other person.

I also recommend you cultivate friends and activities outside the Evangelical cocoon for yourself, and include your wife and your children as much as possible. The more you can expose your family to other worldviews, the better your chances of helping your wife to be more relaxed about different perspectives. Perhaps that will also relax the pastors’ grip on her.

But all this could backfire and escalate her fears that her protective shell is being cracked and that your family is being led (by you) into perdition. This is a very fraught passage in your marriage. I wish I could promise you everything will be fine, but there’s no way to predict if the two of you are capable of making the necessary compromises. It’s crucial for you to find allies and resources outside the Evangelical community, whether you manage to keep your family intact or need to find yourself a new place in the wider world. Good luck.