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Atheism, Christianity, Dating Mating Sex and Reproduction

“Mixed Marriage” and Children

What a horrible situation this is!  But it’s not rare.  I know at least a half a dozen atheists who are or were married to Christians.  And most of them have children.

I catch a lot of flack for this, but it’s my considered opinion that nonbelievers should not marry believers, and vice versa.  There’s just too much at stake for both positions, and I have a very hard time coming up with any scenarios in which two people can really be loving to each other when they are at opposite ends of this debate.

The woman in this video is feeling betrayed, cut off, angry, resentful, and scared.  You can see it in her face, in the tight lipped way she grudgingly nods as Dr. Phil tells her she has to be loving and accepting of her husband’s newfound atheism.  The thing is, these are appropriate feelings.  She and her husband live in two vastly different universes.  She truly believes that she’s not only lost a husband, but that she will lose her children, too.  She believes in her heart that the people she loves the most are going to be tortured by her god for eternity.  The god she loves and sees in the wind and irreducible cell structure, the god she hears when she prays, who answers her prayers — that same loving father is going to allow her husband and children to go to hell.  And it terrifies her.  Everything she wanted for her life is disintegrating in front of her.

We cannot fault this woman for feeling the way she feels.  It’s appropriate to her belief system.  We can — as Phil suggested — encourage her to keep an open mind.  But we can’t expect her to do it.  Why would we?  Her worldview, her god, her church, and her friends all tell her that an open mind is the doorway to hell.

The poor man is in a horrible spot now.  He’s got children he loves, and he wants very badly to do the right thing for them.  You can see it in his eyes as he hops around what he really wants to say — that he believes his wife is wrong, and does not want to subject his children to her beliefs.  But he can’t say that.  He has to suck it up and work with her closed minded position.  He has no choice.

These folks are stuck.  They’ve got to choose between their own happiness and the children, but it’s not even as simple as that.  From the woman’s point of view, maybe it would be better to divorce and marry a Christian.  Maybe it would be the lesser of two sins.  From the man’s point of view, maybe it would be better to divorce than be married to a cold woman who obviously hates what he’s become.  But then he’ll only see his children every other weekend.  Maybe if he stays and tries to tough it out, his children will absorb some of his open-minded skepticism and not accept their mother’s beliefs without question.

And what about the children?  They’re not going to be raised in a happy, nurturing, loving relationship by parents who support each other and work together.  They’re going to see the tension.  They’ll hear the fights.  On one side, they’re going to be taught that they’ll go to hell if they don’t believe their mother.  (OH NO!  Is Daddy going to go to hell?!) On the other side, they’ll see that their father thinks their mother is naive and gullible.  But doesn’t he love her?  He says he does, but why does he think she’s stupid if he loves her?  These are real questions that naturally occur to children when they are caught up in this kind of “mixed marriage.”

And it’s not fair to them.

Naturally, it’s my opinion that children should be raised without religion until their brains are sentient enough to make a rational decision about the subject.  But I also completely understand a Christian’s belief that it’s crucial to get the children converted as soon as humanly possible.  After all, this is eternity we’re talking about.  What kind of sane Christian parent would allow open-mindedness when it could only lead to eternal damnation?

The thing is, there’s really no middle ground here.  How can a non-believer parent who disapproves of the heaven-hell Bronze Age mythology of hate be a loving parent while allowing his children to be indoctrinated?  How can a believer parent possibly be a loving spouse to a person who’s dead set on not only going to hell, but taking the children with him?

We can’t blame either partner for doing what they believe is right.  And we can’t in good conscience ask either of them to pretend.  They both think they’re right, and they both believe that the other side is harmful to the children.  This is a binary decision.

This is one of the real ways that faith based belief causes direct harm.  Both husband and wife went in as believers, and through no fault of his own, the husband can no longer believe.  And now it’s going to destroy a marriage.



28 thoughts on ““Mixed Marriage” and Children

  1. “I know at least a half a dozen atheists who are or were married to Christians. And most of them have children.”

    I’m one of ’em. I married young, to a fundamentalist Christian. It wouldn’t’ve been so bad, I think, if I wasn’t a physics major.

    While I still care about her a great deal (20 years later), there’s no way our relationship could’ve lasted. Even without our daughter, and our concerns about how the other would influence her education, there was simply too vast a gap between her world and mine.

    Posted by nigelTheBold | November 18, 2010, 5:25 pm
  2. Actually, by the wife keeping an open mind, then it will change.

    I do recall a study in which Christian’s were psychologically manipulated to support a position, they didn’t support first, and then the whole religion thing conformed to their new found position.

    You may think this is a binary position but it’s not. Religious beliefs are rather maliable.

    Posted by cptpineapple | November 18, 2010, 6:12 pm
  3. I’m not sure how much of the preliminary interview I missed as the clip here is only about the last 5 mins of the exchange. This Dr. Phil certainly hands out a lot of saccharine advice…but it highlights a very real issue.

    As a former Evangelical & committed Christian married to a Christian believer, we have a very similar situation. I am convinced that the Christian faith is untrue & bogus and now consider my self to be an atheist. My wife has a real hard time accepting the idea that I no longer share the same life priorities in serving God etc. She is also very concerned that I will negatively influence our now 20-something children into rejecting the faith. (This is a very valid concern BTW as I’ probably am.)

    Dr. Phil might think that acceptance & tolerance & having faith in one’s unbeliever husband is a Christian value but I think he is kidding himself. The Biblical sanctions and indeed, our loving heavenly father’s declared animosity towards those who reject his good news gospel is very clear – we’re going to hell & will burn forever in eternal rejection & condemnation. How is a Christian spouse supposed to rise above that standard unless they are implicitly adopting a higher standard of love and humanity? How incongruous! These are not Biblical values Dr. Phil is recommending; these are human values & virtues.

    This whole situation places a huge burden on the believer spouse as it challenges their very core loyalties. It goes something like this: Who will you be loyal to? Your spouse or the god you think you worship? God hates your unbelieving spouse, why shouldn’t you? (OK – he loves your husband & has a wonderful plan for his life – unless he dies in his stubborn refusal to acquiesce to the fairy tale. In that case he’s totally & eternally screwed. God set it up to be this way. He hates unbelievers.) God’s love is conditional. Shouldn’t your love be conditional too?

    This is a huge issue.

    I am free to love my wife (& I do) but I think it is much more challenging for her to love me under these constraints.


    Posted by eheffa | November 18, 2010, 6:20 pm
  4. Usu. I find Dr. Phil pretty gross. His advice tends to trivialize and only touch the pop psych surface of most issues. But he did okay for a conman in this piece.

    I don’t see their relationship position as tenable at all. Notice in contrast to the woman sitting up tight lipped with strong disapproving body language that the man was slumped down with meek approval seeking manner body language. He was beaten. That is doom for a relationship in normal circumstances much less in this spot. If he wants to fight for the marriage he needs to do it with his feet under or in front of his shoulders. Most likely the marriage is doomed. But trying to appease her is only going to make everybody involved less happy for longer and have no chance for success.

    One thing that seemed missing for Dr. Phil’s discussion with the woman was “what about the rest of the world”. Unless they turned up to be Amish (and even then…) the kids were very quickly going to be bombarded with ideas from other sources. Part of being open minded is thinking critically. And you need to start teaching your kids how to do that early in life.

    FWIW my birth parents were a fairly staunch Irish Catholic, and a moderate Christian. Replacing the Irish Catholic early in my life was an ex Baptist minister from the south who after seminary decided he didn’t believe. No matter what I thought (believed, non-believer) he was very adept at taking the opposite side. I think this is about the perfect way to grow up.

    Posted by Miles Anderson | November 18, 2010, 7:07 pm
  5. I had a different experience. I let my wife raise my two sons as Roman Catholic. I did not interfer. When my sons asked questions, I answered them according to my position as an atheist. My wife did not pressure me to her position, so my sons were exposed to both. Even though they were baptised, had their confirmations and married in a church, however, today, I can say that they are both atheists.

    Posted by LM | November 18, 2010, 7:10 pm
  6. our loving heavenly father’s declared animosity towards those who reject his good news gospel is very clear – we’re going to hell & will burn forever in eternal rejection & condemnation.

    Actually, it’s not that clear. The word translated as “eternal” is aionos, the adjective form of aion. Which pretty much meant the same thing then that aeon means today–an age, or indefinitely long period of time. By no means did it mean “endless.”

    The reason it got translated that way was because the translators were familiar with the special definition Plato gave aion in his Metaphysics, and not the actual usage. Classic eisegetical translation.

    This was the opinion of respected Bible scholar George Milligan, whose works are still used for translation today, and also of C. S. Lewis.

    Now as to why more Christians don’t accept this, I suppose that, other than not being inclined to think critically about their dogmas, translating aionos as “eternal” is what gives them “eternal life.” And I guess they’re rather us heretics get damned to hell forever than give up their Everlasting Free Ride.

    Posted by Ian | November 18, 2010, 7:14 pm
  7. @LM: That’s great to hear. Kudos to you for being the open-minded one and giving your children the chance to examine their beliefs critically. It sounds like your wife is not the “fundamentalist” type, and I suspect the woman on Dr. Phil is going to be a lot more hard-edged about allowing her husband to even talk to the kids about atheism. That’s what her body language said, for sure.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 18, 2010, 10:12 pm
  8. @Miles: The reason I picked this video is that Dr. Phil did ok, in my opinion, with an awful situation. There really isn’t much good advice you can give in these situations, and it’s the religious meme that makes it so. As eheffa pointed out (thanks for the comment, eheffa! Great to have you in the discussion.) the dogma she believes forces her to choose between her husband and god. The only responsible thing for her to do is choose god.

    So honestly, whatever you say to someone that staunchly religious, it’s just going to be a band-aid until and unless they change their religious views.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 18, 2010, 10:14 pm
  9. Pineapple, do you have a citation? I would really like to see that study but I couldn’t find it from a keyword search.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 18, 2010, 10:15 pm
  10. Pineapple, do you have a citation?

    Posted by cptpineapple | November 18, 2010, 10:49 pm
  11. Oh and here’s an article about the study for the tl;dr version

    Two other studies directly manipulated people’s own beliefs and found that inferences about God’s beliefs tracked their own beliefs. Study participants were asked, for example, to write and deliver a speech that supported or opposed the death penalty in front of a video camera. Their beliefs were surveyed both before and after the speech.

    Posted by cptpineapple | November 18, 2010, 10:51 pm
  12. But cptpineapple, what you are talking about is just evidence for what cynics already knew very well; that people’s religious convictions will “just happen” to support their political and moral beliefs, whatever those political and moral beliefs are. In other words, God (being imaginary) always hates the same things (and the same people) His believers do: Quelle surprise!

    Genuinely faith-based convictions, however, are likely to prove less flexible. Moral beliefs, for example, are not primarily or usually faith-based. Yes, people claim that their moral beliefs spring from their faith-based religious convictions, but there is all sorts of evidence (most notably the study you cited) that the claimed religious inspiration for morality is conveniently altered to fit whatever moral beliefs people happen to have, however they arrive at them (usually by social convention appropriate to their culture and class, admittedly often learned in church or other religious contexts). People’s minds can thus be changed about moral and other beliefs where reason or even simple persuasion can be brought to bear. Faith beliefs, however, are those which are specifically defined by the rejection of any need for supporting reasons, which is why they are so frequently characterized by resistance to further input (i.e. dogmatism).

    Core religious ideas — that God exists and judges and punishes and forgives and demands that we believe — are, I suspect, a lot less amenable to change than secondary or peripheral ideas about the exact details of the contents of His judgments and what particular sins He is inclined to punish or forgive. God is notably flexible about divorce, for example: He is absolutely against divorce according to many believers, until a believer is trapped in a bad marriage him- or herself, at which time He suddenly becomes a lot more forgiving about it. However, the importance of believing in God is far too central to most believers’ world view to enjoy the same sort of flexibility: If a believer doesn’t already have a liberal/progressive “You believe whatever you want, I choose to believe there is a God” approach to faith — and this woman certainly doesn’t, or there wouldn’t be so much marital conflict here — it’s gonna take a lot more than some of Dr. Phil’s patented pablum to get her there.

    Posted by G Felis | November 19, 2010, 1:38 am
  13. Silly post and, actually, betrays a quite dangerous thought process. Not everyone is a fundamentalist atheist or christian. Its actually quite easy to get along fine.

    Great blog though!

    Posted by Skronk | November 19, 2010, 9:09 am
  14. Well, thanks, Skronk…

    I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that it was impossible for a theist and an atheist to have a working marriage, though. But good for you that your life hasn’t been adversely influenced by the kind of dynamics I wrote about.

    Beyond that, I’m afraid I can’t really comment on your thoughts, since you haven’t given me anything to understand why you believe this subject is silly.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 19, 2010, 1:29 pm
  15. GFelis, I just don’t see how Core religious ideas aren’t as malliable as to whether or not it’s moral to support or oppose the death penalty.

    For example, if you give a Core religious value such as the Earth is very young and all animals sprung into existence in their present form, to a Christian who accepts evolution, then Genesis becomes a “metaphor” or “allegory”

    Second, I think many in the atheist movement may overeggerate the influence of church.

    For example, Scott Atran grabbed a bunch of Christians from the same church and asked them for their interputations of Christian doctirine {I believe he asked what the ten commandments mean} and got as many different answers are participants.

    Third it baffles me when the atheist movement admits we don’t get our morality from religion, and yet claim getting rid of religion will make us more moral.

    Posted by cptpineapple | November 19, 2010, 2:56 pm
  16. Silly post and, actually, betrays a quite dangerous thought process. Not everyone is a fundamentalist atheist or christian. Its actually quite easy to get along fine.

    I don’t see how it is such a “[s]illy post”. I wrote my views on a similar situation that happened to me. Not as drastic as the situation in the YouTube clip, but similar pathology nonetheless.

    It seems as though the thought process that concludes that things like this don’t happen is far more dangerous.

    Posted by J. Quinton | November 19, 2010, 3:07 pm
  17. Third it baffles me when the atheist movement admits we don’t get our morality from religion, and yet claim getting rid of religion will make us more moral.

    That’s because you refuse to accept that people do immoral things in the name of religion, that they otherwise wouldn’t do.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | November 19, 2010, 4:13 pm
  18. Alex, I don’t see how that follows given the arguments here.

    I mean if people don’t derive their morality from religion [as established in the studies] then I don’t see getting rid of religion will make people more moral.

    Now, you [and Hamby] may say that while religion isn’t the orgin of morality, it does give us justifications to let the ugly side of human nature rear it’s head.

    However, I just don’t see it. I have yet to see actual scientific data to show atheists are less likely to be intorelent or less dogmatic, or authoritian and I’ve even seen data to the contrary.

    Posted by cptpineapple | November 19, 2010, 5:02 pm
  19. However, I just don’t see it. I have yet to see actual scientific data to show atheists are less likely to be intorelent or less dogmatic, or authoritian and I’ve even seen data to the contrary.

    This is not relevant. You are making the argument that what atheists would do or not do is somehow correlated with what theists do or don’t do.

    Removing a reason for people to do immoral things is the point. We’ve been over this before, thus the simple statement I made before. You don’t want to see removing religion for it’s negative consequences as a valid goal, in and of itself. We do.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | November 19, 2010, 7:51 pm
  20. Just a minor comment — a female fundamentalist is probably going to have a tougher time with a spouse turning atheist than a man would. All that junk wrapped up in Christianity about the wife obeying the husband has got to add some pressure.

    Granted, I’ve never met am American Christian woman who totally obeyed her husband, thank goodness.

    Posted by Nicole | November 19, 2010, 9:08 pm
  21. This is not relevant. You are making the argument that what atheists would do or not do is somehow correlated with what theists do or don’t do.

    I actually sympathize with Pineapple (though I do disagree). It’s tricky territory, trying to figure out what someone would have done had they been someone different than who they are. I say it that way because I believe we have to throw out the popular concept of a person’s “true identity.” That is, the idea that a person is a static mental entity that somehow persists through external and internal changes. Instead, we have to think of ourselves as unique entities in this moment, formed by the sum of all the data we’ve perceived over our lifetime.

    When we put it that way, we see that at any given moment, I am defined by my circumstances more than my “essence.” So if my circumstances had been different, I would be a different person. And naturally, I will have acted differently in certain circumstances than I actually acted.

    When we test our hypothesis this way, it becomes falsifiable. We can say “People defined by X, Y, and Z circumstances tend strongly to behave L, M, and N. People defined by S, T, and U tend strongly to behave D, E, and F.” We don’t have to know what would have happened if Person A (X, Y, Z) had been (S, T, U).

    Pineapple rightly points out that there do not appear to be many — if any — categorical behaviors that are unique to religious people. She cites papers demonstrating that atheists still suffer from outgroup discrimination, and that they still behave selfishly, etc. And she’s right. However, she has consistently and continually avoided and deflected from my observation that people who move from theism to atheism change their behaviors, often with regard to moral decisions. This bears out the hypothesis that theism effects people’s moral compasses.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 20, 2010, 11:16 am
  22. Nicole, I think you’re right, and I think it’s even deeper than you’ve indicated. Yes, in some churches, obedience is stressed for women. But recent studies have demonstrated that women in the U.S. are far more likely than men to self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” than “atheist,” even when their beliefs are essentially the same as atheism. There is something about the notion of spirituality as it is culturally understood that is appealing to women. Maybe it’s associated with “deeper emotion” or something like that. I dunno. But the fact is, men appear less likely to have to deal with a woman “turning atheist.”

    Posted by hambydammit | November 20, 2010, 11:21 am
  23. I think the self-identification thing has less to do with religion than the fact that girls are brought up in this country to be non-confrontational. Certainly this is a Christian ethic, but is far from unique to the Abrahamic religions.

    Some shake it off as grow up, many don’t. “Spiritual but not religious” is as non-confrontational of a way as you can find to say you don’t agree with someone’s religion. Also, self-identifying this way avoids confrontation with yourself.

    Posted by Nicole | November 21, 2010, 12:10 pm
  24. “Spiritual but not religious” is as non-confrontational of a way as you can find to say you don’t agree with someone’s religion. Also, self-identifying this way avoids confrontation with yourself.

    This certainly seems like a great explanation, and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t account for at least part of the difference.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 21, 2010, 5:09 pm
  25. Hamby, I’m curious as to what your stance is on Tabula rasa aka the blank slate?

    I just can’t really pin down where you stand on this

    Posted by cptpineapple | November 21, 2010, 6:56 pm
  26. I might as well throw in the “noble savage” as well

    Posted by cptpineapple | November 21, 2010, 7:00 pm
  27. Hamby, I’m curious as to what your stance is on Tabula rasa aka the blank slate?

    I cant fathom why you’d be confused. “Tabula Rosa” is a nutty idea. The noble savage is also fiction.

    I’m not sure why it’s hard for you to understand the idea that each person — and therefore each person’s mind/personality/”essence” is a template, not a fixed state. A person’s environment is filtered through their mind, which alters itself in response. We cannot help but define a person as the sum total of their environment interpreted through their “mind algorithm,” which is literally a new algorithm with each additional bit of information. It’s an evolving program.

    I know I’ve explained that before. What don’t you get?

    Posted by hambydammit | November 22, 2010, 4:26 pm
  28. It’s not you explaining them, it’s you proving them.

    You seem to imply here that religion [the enviroment] can change personality, but the study I posted refutes that. If you were correct, then they wouldn’t have changed God’s position on the death penality. They would have either:

    1] refuse to change their position to stay with Jebus’ original word

    2] changed, but felt guilty about displeasing Jebus

    3] Something other thing I’m not thinking of

    That’s putting predictions to the test. You have a [n annoying] tendacy to make vague “predictions” and “falsyfiying conditions”of your hypothesis. Predictions are vague so they can easily be filled [ well that mean person was religious as we would expect, but the other religious that aren’t mean are despite their religion]. and falsyfing conditions so vague, that no result can match them.

    If I asked you to predict what would happen if I did those two studies, and you didn’t see them in advance, I highly doubt your predictions would match the results.

    Such as we should see religious people more intolerant/dogmatic etc… regardless of whether or not we control for coalition attitude [I would note that without coalition controlled for, the religious were more of those things, but when it was controlled for they magically conformed.]

    Where as if I asked you what would happen when we control for coalition, or what would happen when we attempt to psychologically manipulate Christians to support a view they did not previously support, then I may have gotten different answers from you.

    I’m not saying the environment doesn’t have an effect, or that we’re persoanlity robots, I know the environment has an effect, I just think you’re going for the wrong approach.

    Posted by cptpineapple | November 22, 2010, 9:44 pm

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