Losing my (lack of) religion
August 8, 2011 11:11 PM   Subscribe

Former Christian, happily married to a lifelong atheist for over two decades, considering returning to church. Very apprehensive.

I was raised Methodist/UCC with some inadvertent exposure to some fundamentalist/charismatic/evangelical religion, some of which was benign, some of which was downright nasty, and all of which...just wasn't for me. In college, I met my lovely husband, a Unitarian, a physics/astronomy major, and an atheist. During our engagement we had some conflict over religion--he tried mine and found it wasn't for him, and I experienced some distress over the fact that we disagreed on what I felt was a very basic principle. Over time, however, I came to accept this difference as rather trivial, because we have always shared the same ethics and values.

We got married and started attending a Unitarian church in the city where he was in grad school. It was great, actually--the services were wonderful, the congregation was warm and friendly, and despite the differences in our beliefs, we both felt as though we belonged.

I gradually lost my childhood faith over this period and thought of myself as an atheist/agnostic. Then we moved, and although we tried attending the UU church in our current town, we both found it kind of sterile. For several years I've just been sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

But I miss church. It's taken me a long time to get to this point, but I want to go back, and I find a nearby liberal Episcopalian congregation appealing. My husband, who has remained a scientist and materialist all this time, is encouraging me to return to my Christian beliefs and practices, if they will make me happy.

While I've always respected and revered the teachings and example of Christ, I am somewhat more agnostic and unsure whether my beliefs really qualify as Christian. I both embrace universalism (believing that if there is such a thing as God's grace, it applies to everyone regardless of their faith or lack thereof) and reject the idea of a supernatural deity (my concept of God is more Deist). I don't see the Bible as the Word of God because it is a political document with a long, contentious history. I would in all likelihood keep these views to myself, but I can't help feeling that, even so, I would be something of an impostor in a congregation of sincere, if very liberal, Protestants.

So I have two questions:

1. Has anyone else had an experience like this, where they leave the church for many years, and then come back after a period of atheism/agnosticism...but their new faith is completely unrecognizable?

2. Am I deluding myself in thinking that my husband and I can remain happy and compatible? He promises to be respectful and says he won't think any worse of me, and I very much respect his nonbelief and certainly would never dream of pressuring him to consider changing. However, somehow I feel as if I'm betraying him by accepting what he personally sees as an implausible religious tenet, however abstract my version of it, and I worry that it will, despite our best efforts, create some kind of invisible barrier between us. Are there any atheists married to Christians/other theists (or vice versa) here? What kinds of issues do you encounter? We don't have children and don't plan to have any, so deciding how to raise them wouldn't be an issue.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Go do it!

You'll love the community-mindedness of it, and on the theological parts you'll think, "Meh." You are a different person now. Most of that religious-y stuff will probably bounce off of you, but you won't know until you re-submerge!


Be open to taking up another spiritual practice up down the road once you have this fling. Be open to something that your husband will find amenable, because hopefully that is where you will both end up - doing something spiritual and group oriented, but probably not worshipful of some specific codified higher power - if you get my drift.

It's nice you have the freedom in your relationship to stroke your nostalgia, for that is what I think the church part might be for you. The community/spirituality thing is a real human need. The details are window dressing.

posted by jbenben at 11:34 PM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

From what you've said, it seems like you are the only one who is worried about there being some fundamental divide between you an your husband; he seems not to care much about it as long as you're happy.

I can't speak for your husband, but I want to say that it's possible his atheism makes him perceive this difference as less fundamental than you do. There are a wide range of views out there, but for me, personally, it is much more important that someone share my ethical values. I understand an atheistic authoritarian racist much worse than I understand liberal Christians. I do not feel that someone being religious is, in itself, a barrier to me connecting with people, even on a very deep level.

If your husband does not feel like you are betraying him, and is encouraging, I would not worry too much. It is more likely that you yourself will be the one erecting some kind of invisible barrier. Take what he says at face value until he gives you some reason to believe that he's being less than truthful about his feelings.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:41 PM on August 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would in all likelihood keep these views to myself, but I can't help feeling that, even so, I would be something of an impostor in a congregation of sincere, if very liberal, Protestants.

This is the "everybody is a worse mother than I am" antipattern in a different context.

Other examples:

- Everybody's life is more exciting than mine - just look at their Facebook!
- None of my workmates worries about their performance like I do - they always look so confident!

Here's the thing: if the people you hang out with are decent, and you're decent, then the details of what you do and don't believe don't matter. The only people to whom those details do matter enough to cause you trouble are people you're better off avoiding for any number of other reasons anyway. So go to church. Find people you like and enjoy them.
posted by flabdablet at 11:43 PM on August 8, 2011

I don't mean to minimise this but I'm not sure it's the fork in the road you're seeing it as. I know plenty - plenty - of people where one partner is a theist involved in organised practice and the other is not. I don't think you're remotely deluding yourself.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:28 AM on August 9, 2011

Not all atheists are like Dawkins. If your husband says he's OK with you doing it (and even if he says he's not OK with you doing it), go and enjoy yourself there. If it's just the need for community you're looking for, maybe you could try various different flavours of christianity?
posted by Solomon at 12:43 AM on August 9, 2011

My parents started going to an Episcopal church after many years away from church, and my father isn't a particularly strong believer. They seem to have a fine time there. I think you should check out your local church.

There is a post about atheist and agnostic churchgoers over in the blue right now; you might find john wilkins' comment particularly interesting. He is an Episcopal priest, and the way he describes his flock ("most of them are functionally agnostic"), you or even your husband would not be out of place at all. Of course, your local congregation may be different, but you'll only know if you check it out.
posted by col_pogo at 4:08 AM on August 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

My mother calls me a "recovering Catholic." I left the church for many years, but have returned. I certainly do not agree with a lot of things in the church, but there is enough good there for it to be worth my time.

Go - and take from it what you want.
Do not be afraid to change churches a few times, looking for the right one that suits you best.

I think you are selling your husband short - there is no reason to assume that he will not accept your spiritual growth - so long as you continue to accept his path too.
posted by Flood at 4:42 AM on August 9, 2011

I stopped attending in high school because of church politics, and came back in my late 20s to an extremely liberal church. It hasn't been all roses; I don't live in a big urban area, and my little liberal (UCC) church is struggling mightily with attendance and finance issues as a result.

My views on faith are decidedly non-standard, but I haven't really had a problem with feeling comfortable there. I have in fact gotten up and preached on two occasions, now, and am about to do a third. I briefly, when I first started going back, lacked a liberal church I could get to, and so I went to a Church of Christ, where the music was amazing, but I wouldn't advise trying to attend a conservative church more than temporarily, it can be harrowing.

I think it's worth it, in the end. My SO was raised nonreligious and has sometimes felt a little threatened by the idea because her ex's family was super-fundie, but over time she's gotten a lot more comfortable. I go, she doesn't, we're good.

I would like someday to end up somewhere progressive enough that she'd feel comfortable at least coming with me to social functions, but the only problem with that currently is that my little church is not Open and Affirming. I notice in my current church that there are a lot of husbands who show up when we do the chili cookoff who are definitely not there on Sunday, and it doesn't seem particularly weird for that to be the case. I think the ability for him to not be a total non-entity there is something to look for. He is your husband, and it's good if people can at least meet him and know who he is, so that he won't feel like this is a big chunk of your life that he's excluded from.

Good luck with it!
posted by gracedissolved at 4:52 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would be something of an impostor

This is a worry, at least occasionally, if only very privately, of many people of faith. People who actually _believe_ they believe. Or want to believe.

They pray to their deity, they attend every function, they prostrate themselves. And they wonder when they'll be discovered as the great big, unholy fakers they really are.

An atheist in the pews will be nothing new in any sect, but may not be publicly acknowledged.

Now. To the meaty part of my answer. Is your worry keeping you from church because there's something more satisfying about being out of church than in? You can't know the answer to that question without going, of course. So what I'm saying is. Go! Find out. Move forward. Trust your husband's deep love for you, he says you should go, and I believe him.

Openly atheist here all my life. Raised by atheist parents. I still say, get yourself to that Episcopal Church. You are wondering. They have explanations.
posted by bilabial at 5:08 AM on August 9, 2011

You say I worry that it will, despite our best efforts, create some kind of invisible barrier between us.

How do you imagine this barrier? Do you feel your husband will secretly look down on you though saying otherwise? Or that you will develop a contempt for his materialism? Do you imagine that you will become part of a community to which your emotional attachment will be not understood by him and thus will become an irreconcilable difference?

In brief, I recommend that you try an figure out the answer to this question first and then discuss it with your husband.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:08 AM on August 9, 2011

Are there any atheists married to Christians/other theists (or vice versa) here? What kinds of issues do you encounter?

I was raised Catholic but never really believed once I got older and stopped believing things just because my mom told me to, and now I'm an atheist with a very negative view of most churches, especially the Catholic one. When I met my wife religion was never really talked about. She usually says she "has questions" but isn't really much of a believer.

A couple years after our son was born she said she wanted to try out a church, mostly because she missed the community and singing, and because she wanted to at least expose our son to religion. I was apprehensive but given the liberal church she picked out and her views (just questions) I decided I was ok with it. I did tell her if she got too deeply involved it would probably end our relationship because I've seen religion consume other family members like any other addiction and I couldn't live with that again. She didn't think this would be a danger.

It's a few years later and things are fine. My rule of thumb is that if my son asks me my beliefs I'll be honest with him buy I won't try to influence him one way or another. If anything, I've encouraged him to keep an open mind and that it's ok to believe in Jesus' teachings without really believing in anything supernatural. Since he was six he's been saying he's an atheist, which is a word he didn't hear from me. I suspect he heard it from my mom, probably when she was telling him that his fool daddy didn't believe in god.

Anyway, you said kids aren't an issue. Things are fine between my wife and I. She still has "questions" but isn't really a strong believer. She's made some good friends, enjoys being in the choir, and enjoys the community. I've gone to the church a couple of times (mostly to hear my son sing in the kid's choir) and even though it's a much different (not depressing and evil) experience from the church I grew up in they still lose me when they talk about god as if it's a proven fact. Plus, the whole "praise god for all the money in the basket" thing skeeves me right the fuck out out. My wife knows I feel this way but I act respectful and friendly when I'm there.

The biggest issues are that she's alone in this. In a church filled with happy families she's there alone or just with our son. I go to the occasional event, and nobody judges me or even asks me why I don't go, but I do feel bad that it's not a family thing for us. My beliefs are my beliefs though, and I'm glad my wife doesn't make a thing about it.

So bottom line is if you both respect each others beliefs you'll be fine. I am a very bitter ex-Catholic waiting for the day I can spit on the last-remaining smoldering ashes of the Vatican but I'm over my "all religion is bad and people are stupid for believing in things" phase. She's a mostly agnostic woman who wants to think there's something bigger out there than all of us and sees churches as a way to foster community and help the less fortunate, and the church she's attending seems mostly geared towards that type of person. Neither of us is too deeply involved in our "side."

We love and respect each other. It works.
posted by bondcliff at 6:32 AM on August 9, 2011

"I am somewhat more agnostic and unsure whether my beliefs really qualify as Christian. I both embrace universalism (believing that if there is such a thing as God's grace, it applies to everyone regardless of their faith or lack thereof) and reject the idea of a supernatural deity (my concept of God is more Deist). I don't see the Bible as the Word of God because it is a political document with a long, contentious history. I would in all likelihood keep these views to myself, but I can't help feeling that, even so, I would be something of an impostor in a congregation of sincere, if very liberal, Protestants."

First, there are plenty of "cultural Christians" anymore, who go to church but don't super-believe, or even believe at all, in large chunks of what their church teaches. You'll hardly be the only one and it's not that big a deal in most non-evangelical congregations.

Second, I went to SEMINARY with people who held all those beliefs you list above. In a liberal Protestant congregation, those beliefs will be quite normal. (And most mainline denominations believe the Bible is both the "inspired" Word of God AND a human document with a long, contentious history that has to be read in its cultural context and carefully interpreted with modern scholarly tools. Many denominations even see Biblical literalism as heretical.)

I've known plenty of atheist/religious marriages, and it can work fine as long as there's mutual respect. And I've known plenty of people who left the church and came back to a more liberal belief later on. Again, I went to seminary with some of them. Try it, if you like it, keep doing it; if you don't, stop.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:12 AM on August 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

From what I've read, it sounds like you are the only one who's concerned about how your husband will respond to your faith decisions. He sounds like he just wants you to be happy. And unless you start building an Ark in the back yard or dragging him on a religious pilgrimage to Lourdes or something, I don't see that changing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:21 AM on August 9, 2011

I would just try it out and see how you feel. Remember that in any congregation, every single person's faith is different, and nobody's going to be interrogating you on what you believe; in my experience, liberal Christians are good at accepting the differences among people.

It wasn't quite clear to me from your question what you're looking for. Is it the community aspect of it? There are other ways to be part of a community if that's what you want; you could always get involved in a particular charity or other community group that you feel passionately about. What about joining an active MeetUp group or taking a class? Getting together every week to quilt or mall walk or whatever might help you feel part of a supportive group without making you feel so conflicted.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:43 AM on August 9, 2011

I just started going back to church six months ago after over 15 years away and happily agnostic. I was raised evangelical with fundamentalist overtones, which totally didn’t suit my basic outlook on life. I became an atheist for awhile, and completely rejecting the beliefs I was raised with ultimately cleared my mind of a lot of the negative aspects of Christian faith, and I gradually became agnostic as I became aware of and accepted the fact that I believe in a higher power and a bigger picture, even if I’m not entirely sure what the details are. Over the years my faith has morphed into something of a universalist stance as well.

I too chose an Episcopal church when I decided to go back, and I’m very happy there. One thing that is said about the Episcopal church, jokingly but truthfully: no matter what your beliefs, there is someone in the Episcopal church who believes the same thing. My church isn’t among the most liberal even, but they are very tolerant of diverse beliefs.

The Episcopal church affirms the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed, and at first I was a little concerned that I couldn’t say with certainty that I believed everything contained therein, at least not literally. I’ve reconciled this within my own mind by realizing that most the tenets of the creed are not incompatible with my universalist beliefs, and whether or not I believe in it literally I can appreciate and affirm it in a symbolic way. That worked for me at first, and later I came to a point where I was comfortable taking the basic tenets on faith, whether or not I felt there was “proof” that they had everything 100% right. It helps that I am comfortable taking the Bible non-literally. It still contains stories and traditions that are beautiful and touching to me, and, as I read somewhere, “they have to be true, whether they happened or not.”

I’m not sure if that was clear, but the point is that these days I consider myself a Christian, and also still somewhat agnostic, and it feels ok to me.

A couple of books I have enjoyed recently, which have helped me become more comfortable with my less-traditional form of Christian belief:

The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg

Love Wins by Rob Bell

Kind of surprisingly to me, I also really liked The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. While I don't think he makes an airtight case that the evidence for Christ is overwhelming, there are some very good points in the book that helped reassure me that there is enough good evidence to make belief reasonable from a rational standpoint.

My husband is not an atheist but more of a deist, and I think he was kind of hoping we could go to a Unitarian church when we talked about my desire to return to church; but he has since settled into the Episcopal church pretty nicely while maintaining, I think, less belief in the Christian mythology than I. We have good talks about religion and philosophy sometimes, and while we often disagree to an extent, we are respectful of one another and I don’t feel like there is any sort of barrier at all. Like you and your husband we share the same basic values, including open-mindedness and tolerance, so we don’t have any issues regarding the differences in our personal beliefs.

I hope you enjoy your return to church. The Episcopal faith is lovely and very welcoming.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:17 AM on August 9, 2011

There are many more people like you in the pews and frankly the pulpits of mainstream Protestant churches than you might suspect, because most (and particularly the latter) are quiet about it. While there are certainly those who would be bothered by your personal ideology most people and most pastors of liberal churches would be happy to have you there. Some people don't participate in things like creeds because it bothers them to pronounce orthodox assertions they don't agree with. And there is nothing insincere, or false, about being skeptical and unorthodox, in my opinion.

If you and your husband feel no need to proselytize each other or save one another from "wrong" ideology there's no reason for this to be an issue in your marriage. I'm very active in an urban mainstream Protestant church and I've noted that single-spouse/partner attendance at church is becoming much more of a norm. People's desires to practice religion vary and diverge; there's much less likelihood of there being a social onus on family members not showing up to church, and people have less of an impulse to pressure their spouses or partners into attendance. There are a lot of positive, valid and valuable things to be found in the church community, go ahead and explore if it is for you.
posted by nanojath at 12:26 PM on August 9, 2011

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