The Ethical Dilemma: I Allowed My Husband to Raise Our Children Religious. Now I Regret It.

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Dominated Atheist: I have been married for over 23 years now to a very religious man. When I met him, he didn’t attend church (although raised in a Southern Baptist home), but now he is going to church twice a week, volunteering for a prison ministry program, teaching Awanas, reading gobs of C.S. Lewis and other religious texts, and he only listens to Christian music. I am an atheist. I have been my whole life (although I am in the closet since we live in the south).

This didn’t really become a problem for me until we had children. I was told before I got pregnant that if I wanted to have children, they would have to be raised in the church. OK, I wanted children, I loved this man—of course I would agree to that!

Now, every day I resent him more and more. I’m angry with myself for allowing our children to be brainwashed. I feel like I’m stuck. I don’t want to end our relationship, because we still have young children, but every day it seems I like him less and less. Any suggestions?

—About To Blow

Dear Blow,

If we just changed the particular religion, you and I would have very much the same story. While I’m baffled and often confounded and sometimes enraged by my husband’s religiousness—and the feeling is mutual regarding my heresy—I don’t expect the schism ever to go away. I suspect if it were possible to pull that religious thread out of my husband, his entire identity might unravel—that is, his belief system is such an intrinsic part of him, I doubt it could be extracted without also losing important good stuff (and, fortunately, there is a lot of important good stuff). Hopefully, he views my atheism the same way.

One possible but key difference between your story and mine: I’m not sure if, when you say you’re in the closet, your husband is aware of your atheism. That’s significant. I was always up front with my guy about my lack of faith, and I never let him forget that he has known from the start what he was getting into (which, of course, goes for me too). But you never really know till you get there, as you and I both learned.

The fact is, marriages are all about change and adjustment. Clearly, your husband has been changing in the direction of becoming more religious. Maybe he doesn’t realize you don’t share his faith or the extent to which you are bothered by it. Or maybe he is going deeper into it in opposition to your lack of faith. That happens, especially when there’s a tug of war over the next generation’s upbringing.

But you are also entitled to change. I’m so glad that when I was given the “the kids must be educated in the faith” ultimatum, I inserted the proviso that I would never fake my beliefs nor answer dishonestly if asked about them. Even if you didn’t insist on that when you made your deal, you can introduce an amendment now. First you both must recognize that your atheism deserves the same respect as your husband’s religion (he won’t agree, but tell him “fake it ‘till you make it” is acceptable). Then you can assert your right to express your views to anyone you wish, including your children. No need to stand on a soapbox or be intrusive about it or push the kids to choose sides. Just speak for yourself. And even without being explicit, there are myriad subtle ways to signal your perspective to your kids.

Also, don’t underestimate your children. They are probably already aware that you don’t exhibit Daddy’s religious fervor, and that alone will stir up questions about how true this stuff is if Mommy doesn’t subscribe to it.

If your husband is really committed to you and your family, he will be motivated to accommodate your convictions, just as you have been accommodating his. If necessary, you might want to explore couples counseling with a neutral (not religious!) professional. But once you learn to adjust the terms of your relationship to allow the two of you to agree to disagree, you may find his religiousness less irritating, and maybe he’ll even relax and tone it down a bit. Try to be lighthearted about it, likening his passion for church-going to other men’s passion for watching games or playing golf, while your atheism is akin to spending spare moments reading or gardening. No couple has to do everything together or vote the same ticket. This is just one of probably many ways you two differ. The kids will eventually follow their own lights, no matter how dogmatic or open-minded their parents may be. As long as there are other things you and your spouse enjoy with or about each other, and a mutual desire to stay together, there’s hope for your union—with or without communion.