The Ethical Dilemma: My Wife is Becoming a Fundamentalist Christian. Help!

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How to Speak to Faithful Children: While I grew up in a very religious family, I knew from an early age that I did not share in the same beliefs that my family did. Although I do belong to a group where there are many active discussions on morality and philosophical issues, we all also believe in the importance of recognizing that all religious texts use metaphors, and there is no literal belief in any actual “God” or “Goddess.” Some people in the group are willing to allow for the possibility that Jesus existed as a wise man, just not a prophet, but I do not share in that belief. I think there is ample evidence to suggest that Jesus never existed at all as a prophet or a man.

The problem that comes from my beliefs involves my family. I have two young nieces who I see on a regular basis, and they have been brought up in a very religious household. They have recently started wanting to talk to me about Jesus and God, and that creates a problem. While I respect the right of a family to teach any beliefs they see fit, and I certainly will not tell children that what they have been taught is wrong, it goes too strongly against my sense of ethics to pretend that I believe in something I believe to be untrue, and I am unwilling to say anything to indoctrinate children into any faith.

So far, I have tried to avoid the subject of faith, and I make my best efforts to dodge questions involving religion when they come up but the kids are getting more and more curious. What is my best option to address this dilemma? Do I tell the parents that they are going to have to accept me being honest with the kids if they wish to continually leave them in my care, or should I insist that it is a good time to teach the children that this world is made up of more than one belief system? What would be the most practical way to resolve this dilemma?

—Spoiler Alert?

Dear Spoiler,

There is a similar ethical dilemma from last week that you should check out.

Surely your nieces’ parents (at least the one who is your sibling) know that you are not on board with their religion—also the one you were raised in—but perhaps they have no clue how far away you have ventured. I suggest you have a talk with them and say pretty much what you say in the last two paragraphs of your letter: You don’t believe in any god (you needn’t mention that you question whether Jesus ever existed—an inflammatory debate, the pros and cons of which we won’t get into here), and you are giving a heads-up that you will answer honestly when the children ask about religion. Then it will be up to the parents to take the girls aside and tell them whatever they want about your divergent (to them, perhaps deviant) views, or instruct them not to talk about their faith with you, or instruct you not to talk about faith with them. In the last option, you would have to come up with a response to deflect their questions, such as “Let’s not talk about that” or “Please ask your parents about that.”

The problem with the above is that the parents might opt to limit your exposure to their children, an outcome I doubt you or the kids desire. But not warning the parents and exposing your nieces to your ideas could cause problems when the children repeat what you have said or become increasingly confused and conflicted by these contradictory assertions coming from the most trusted authority figures in their lives. The parents could feel blindsided and betrayed and more likely to limit the children’s contact with you. That’s why I advocate the upfront approach, despite these risks.

Hopefully you and the parents can come up with a compromise that all parties are reasonably comfortable with. Continue to be considerate of where everyone is coming from, and recognize that as the girls get older, they will increasingly recognize how your beliefs (and much of the world’s) depart from their parents’ beliefs. It will be difficult for them to avoid the inkling that someone must be wrong, even if you never use that word. Inevitably, sooner or later these girls will have to realize that not everyone buys what their parents are selling.

As the girls get older, you can become more forthright in explaining your skepticism and the things you actually do hold to be true and right. But the overriding goal right now is to remain a voice that your nieces will get to hear, even if it is muted.

Losing Soulmate to God: I have a very sensitive problem in my marriage and would really appreciate some advice. It is a long and complicated story, but I will simply highlight a few things until I see that I am communicating with the right people. Basically, my wife of thirty-four years started our relationship as a light-hearted, fun-loving lover who was not concerned about religion, nor did she accept most fundamentalist philosophies. As time progressed, and after we moved to a small, conservative community, she has become more and more socially conservative, completely fundamentalist in her religion, and has become very unfulfilling as a marriage partner. I am at my wits end. I will explain more after I know that we are truly communicating.

—Paradise Lost

Dear Lost,

Although we have assured you that you’ve reached the right place and invited you to provide more details, we haven’t heard any more from you, so we’ll do the best we can with what we’ve got. Please feel free to send in more details.

Speaking of truly communicating, that doesn’t seem to be happening with your wife. She’s changing in ways that are distancing you from her in every respect, and she doesn’t seem to be making any effort to take you along (regardless of whether you’d want to go along). Virtually about every relationship evolves over time, just as each of us individually evolves over time. Sometimes we separately and as couples get better, sometimes not so much. Many couples learn to adjust to or even embrace each other’s new traits or just tolerate changes they aren’t thrilled about. Others find the changes intolerable and go their separate ways—particularly if they are both moving in opposite directions.

But the odds of staying together and feeling good about it are greatly enhanced if both parties can be honest and communicate their feelings. It also helps if both parties sincerely prefer to stay together and are willing to do whatever that may require.

The first thing I’d recommend is to talk to your wife, calmly, in terms of wanting to work things out—but without mincing words about how she’s turning into someone else and how dismayed you are at the loss of the loving person you no longer find  in her. That alone could stimulate a huge dump of information, perhaps of gripes against you that you were oblivious to, or of other issues she’s struggling with that are manifesting in her distancing herself from you and in embracing religion. Perhaps she’s having an affair or just doesn’t feel love for you anymore. Even if she says her problem is that now that she is faithful, she can’t accept that you are not, that could be the beginning rather than the end of the discussion. What caused her to accept what she never believed before? What void does it fill for her? What discomfort does she need comfort for?

The next step, if she’ll agree, may be to see a secular therapist, such as a couples counselor or psychologist or psychiatrist. Another recommendation is a thorough medical check-up. It’s possible she’s experiencing some physical symptoms that are causing her to avoid engaging with you. Instead of the proverbial “headache,” maybe she’s using her newfound faith to avoid intimacy because of some painful or embarrassing physical or psychic symptoms. Perhaps this has something to do with menopause, or other changes that come with age, or a medical problem such as early-stage dementia.

Extrapolating from your thirty-four years of marriage, I figure you must be in your mid-fifties or beyond, and you may have children and possibly grandchildren. I’m sure you want to do everything you can to get to the root of what’s going on and save your relationship. Maybe you need to modify your expectations. Perhaps your idea of a fulfilling partner includes daily sex, which may be way more than she craves now, even if she was gung-ho in her twenties. Maybe her faith is a phase she will work through—or maybe it will continue to deepen.

So start by telling her you care about her and your relationship, and want to continue your life with her—but you aren’t comfortable with the ways she’s changing and shutting you out. I hope you can work things out with her, and that you won’t have to work things out without her.