Having read just over half of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
, I already have to recommend it as probably the second-best best book I have ever read. (The all time best would be The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
, also by Pinker.) It’s not that these two books are perfect, but Pinker exemplifies hard work, responsible scholarship, and intellectual rigour to confront some of the reigning shibboleths of our day, both on the left and on the right. In my biased opinion, you will not find a meatier, more fact-filled, more evidence-based, or more intellectually stimulating treatise on human nature than The Blank Slate
Whether on you agree with Pinker’s views, it cannot be said he hasn’t done his homework. Of the 20,316 Kindle segments (832 physical pages) that make up The Better Angels of our Nature, 5,418 (26%) are devoted to notes, references, and the index. Of course, citing lots of references doesn’t make the premise of a book true, but it does make it harder to dismiss it out of hand.
We’ve all heard business leaders, moralists, and pastors invoke the analogy of the boiling frog
: if you throw a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if you put a frog in a vat of warm water and gradually warm it up, the frog will not jump out, eventually boiling to death. Whenever you hear this analogy invoked, you can be sure you’re about to be told how we need to be more acutely aware of the dangerous trends around us that, left unchecked, will gradually but inexorably lead to our demise--economic, moral, cultural, or spiritual. I consider The Better Angels to be the flip side of boiling frog alarmism: over the centuries, violence of all kinds (including homicide, warfare, genocide, domestic violence, slavery, human and animal torture, rape, child abduction, and cruelty in general) has gradually but dramatically declined over the centuries.
But you wouldn’t learn this by listening to the media or to fundamentalist religious leaders. In centuries past, there were no 24/7 cable news outlets spotlighting all the sensational and unthinkable acts of violence that we routinely observe today. Our brains do not naturally place in proportion to the 7 billion inhabitants of our planet the vivid and sensational but anecdotal images of violence we daily witness on the television. News reports don’t encourage us to think statistically as do criminologists, who analyze trends based on how many homicides are committed per one hundred thousand people per year. Yes, crime rates did rise between the late 1960s and the early 1990s, but the broader long-term trend, both before and after this relatively brief spike in violence, has been sustained, unmistakable, and significant. In fact, murder rates have declined by 50-to-100 fold since the Middle Ages. The homicide rate in North America is now 6 per 100,000 people per year, and even lower in western and central Europe, where it stands at 1.2. In 2007, four years before publishing his book on the subject, Pinker gave an 18-minute TED speech on the decline of violence
. Particularly compelling is the graphical comparison of death rates in warfare for modern day hunter-gatherer societies (the closest we have to representatives of our primordial state) to those of Western countries in the twentieth century (see minute 3 of the talk). The blue bar representing Western deaths (including both world wars) barely registers on the graph compared to the longer red bars representing the death rates for all hunter-gather societies.
We know that the news media benefit from our fascination with televised violence; this helps explain how most of us have come to believe that the rates of violence are higher than they really are as a proportion of our population. But how do religions, particularly Christianity in the West, benefit from our mistaken thinking that things are getting worse rather than better? My two conclusions on this are my own rather than Pinker’s. I welcome your thoughts if you differ from me.
First, the notion that violence and cruelty have declined over time runs counter to the Christian (especially Calvinist) doctrine of total depravity. Human nature being totally depraved at is it is, we should not expect that society will improve substantially from one generation or era to the next, unless during that period the influence of the gospel has been on the rise. But at least in the West, we find the opposite: in the past few hundred years, secularism has waxed while violence of all kinds has waned (even it it has spiked at times, as during World War II, which was the ninth-most deadly war in recorded history as a percentage of world population; the deadliest was the relatively unknown An Lushan rebellion of 8th century China). Make no mistake: Pinker is not an idealist who thinks that human nature is inherently benign and immune from a penchant for evil; the bulk of his book The Blank Slate
is devoted to putting any such pollyanaish notion to rest. But political systems and attitudes toward different kinds of violence can and do change over time, and these changes in attitudes lead to corresponding changes in practice.
Second, if things are truly getting better, then perhaps there’s not as much room for the fundamentalist outlook that says, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket; I’m so glad Jesus will be returning to set it all straight; in the meantime, we need to introduce Jesus to as many as people as possible to prevent things from getting worse than they otherwise would.” If we as humans, collectively (believers and unbelievers alike), through government initiatives, United Nations programs, secular or humanistic argumentation, novels, movies, and the modern evolution of attitudes toward violence--if we all can make the world a better place, then there is less incentive for the faithful to seek refuge in the church from the evils of the outside world.
On a lighter note, I’d like to include a somewhat tangential humorous excerpt from page 69 of The Better Angels of Our Nature
(an excerpt I read to my family, to great guffawing).
“In 1530 the great scholar Desiderius Erasmus, one of the founders of modernity, wrote an etiquette manual called On Civility in Boys which was a bestseller throughout Europe for two centuries. By laying down rules for what people ought not to do, these manuals give us a snapshot of what they must have been doing.
“The people of the Middle Ages were, in a word, gross. A number of the advisories in the etiquette books deal with eliminating bodily effluvia:
‘Don’t foul the staircases, corridors, closets, or wall hangings with urine or other filth. • Don’t relieve yourself in front of ladies, or before doors or windows of court chambers. • Don’t slide back and forth on your chair as if you’re trying to gas. • Don’t touch your private parts under your clothes with your bare hands. • Don’t greet someone while they are urinating or defecating. • Don’t make noise when you pass gas. • Don’t undo your clothes in front of other people in preparation for defecating, or do them up afterwards. • When you share a bed with someone in an inn, don’t lie so close to him that you touch him, and don’t put your legs between his. • If you come across something disgusting in the sheet, don’t turn to your companion and point it out to him, or hold up the stinking thing for the other to smell and say “I should like to know how much that stinks.”’
I’ll leave you with another of my favorite quotes to whet your appetite, this one from page 136:
Charles Napier, the British army’s commander in chief in India, faced with local complaints about the abolition of suttee [the practice of burning widows], replied, “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
It’s a long book but well worth reading if you’re interested in a wide range of subjects showing how conditions have improved over time, along with Pinker’s analysis of why they have improved. The reasons he gives are admittedly more subjective than his documenting of the improvements themselves, but whether or not you accept his reasons, it’s well worth knowing that the world is a much better place for humans in general than it was centuries ago. If you’re at all interested, I recommend that you first get a taste for it by viewing the previously referenced video and by reading Peter Singer’s New York Times review
of the book. Happy reading, and be of good cheer! The end is (probably) not near!
From “George,” a reader: “After two years of nagging doubts, 13 months of focused reading, and then six months of intense study and agony, I've finally come out the other side. As of a couple weeks ago, I've admitted to myself and my family and close friends that I'm no longer a Christian. 11 days ago was my last time at church. I've had a lot of hard conversations, and more are still to come, but I'm moving on with life.
"The problem is, the deconversion testimonies I've read about finding a new freedom in life or raw existential joy don't seem to ring true. Instead, I find myself almost entirely lacking in motivation to do anything. Life is overcast and gray, a film watched through foggy goggles. I feel like a robot following its programming. The Christian would say, ‘Congratulations! You're now experiencing the meaninglessness of life apart from God,’ but when I look at other non-believers who don't have this problem, it's clear I'm doing something wrong.
"I realize that I can't just expect to flip a switch and immediately be freed from my Christian frame of reference. I'd been a true believer for my entire life, and the mentality and habits of faith are extraordinarily hard to break: I still feel awkward not praying before meals; when I'm approaching something difficult or uncertain, my first instinct is still to pray; and I still recoil from things that Christianity (alone) says are immoral.”
I include this message from George because it is unguarded and compelling--and probably more common than he realizes. It’s true that the testimonials of former Christians posted on the Internet are typically positive, inviting stories of liberation from the suffocating grip of fundamentalism. But for every glowing invitation to follow in their footsteps, we have no idea how many tormented souls wish they had not ventured into the stormy, open seas in which they find themselves, without an anchor or bearing and with no land in sight. Why do I think George is not alone? It’s because his experience mirrors so closely my own turmoil that began over a decade ago, and those of others with whom I’ve privately corresponded.
In fact, I would be surprised if George’s experience were not the norm, at least for those of us whose faith, whose relationship with Jesus, formerly constituted our very identity. It wasn’t that Jesus was just a part of our lives, or even the most important part of our lives; he was our life. Should it come as a surprise to experience the loss of Jesus as we would the death of the one we hold most dear or as a divorce from our beloved spouse? I recall all too well in the year 2000 the knot in my stomach, the nausea, the sweat, the grey fog, the depression, the uncertainty, and the dread that filled my heart as I crossed the threshold from the comforts of faith to the despair of doubt. George, you are not alone, not at all
If you’ve lived your whole life with the understanding that the universe was created with you in mind, that your life matters infinitely to your creator, that you have a purpose to fulfill for the glory of your creator, that he considers you as the apple of his eye, that he gave up his son for you, that he watches out for you and protects you, and that he’s preparing a place of bliss for you for all eternity, and then if you come to doubt all that, of course
you’re going to be depressed! For those that easily skip from belief to unbelief without missing a beat (if such a person exists), I wonder how much their former faith really meant to them in the first place. The loss is felt most acutely by those who had the most to lose.
Those of us who’ve never used heroin don’t know how much of a struggle it is to give it up; only those who savored a regular high struggle to withdraw. Incidentally, perhaps this is why I (and other former believers) tend to seek out fellow apostates. Though we share a common worldview with lifelong unbelievers, we don’t share the same pre-deconversion or deconversion experiences. And, as George mentioned, we carry into our new life many of the views on morality we grew up with; for example, we may remain uncomfortable with drunkenness, profanity, loose sexual mores, homosexuality, abortion, or liberal political views--things that longtime atheists often don’t have a problem with. I’m not going to delve into these matters here, other than to note that these questions constitute one more source of angst for those of us who’ve grown up as conservative Christians and have left the faith for intellectual rather than moral reasons.
A number of surveys have shown that religious people are on average happier than unbelievers. I have been confronted by Christians who’ve used these statistics to question my new worldview. Likewise, they’ve also confronted me with assertions that, without God, there’s no good reason to be moral, nor does life have any meaning. What these well-meaning Christians don’t understand is that I did not abandon my faith because I wanted to, but because I came to see it as untrue. And if you don’t think something its true, you cannot simply make yourself believe it to be true. It doesn’t matter whether I might be less happy or less inclined to be moral or to find meaning in life; I cannot believe what I cannot believe. I suspect George is in the same boat, wanting in some sense to go back to the familiarity and security of faith but finding himself unable to do so.
But is there hope for those of us who give up our religion out of intellectual integrity, with no benefit to ourselves or to society? Are we just to grit our teeth stoically, tell the world we don’t believe, and forgo the benefits of religious meaning, morality, and community? I have written at greater length on the questions of morality (chapter 8; see also this blog post
) and meaning (chapter 9) of my book
. It’s my conviction that unbelievers have no fewer legitimate reasons or any reduced capacity to be moral compared to their religious counterparts, and there’s no reason we cannot lead fulfilling, meaningful lives. However, the loud insistence of the church that this is not so can actually make us believe it has a monopoly on the true source of morality, meaning, and joy, even as we make our exit from the church. Our long-term dependence on religion for these benefits is real and does make it difficult to envision a fulfilling life outside the church. In the months and sometimes years following our deconversion, we suffer this loss acutely. But over time, we adapt to the “new normal”; we “come out” to everyone, we keep many of our old friends and make some new ones, we find activities that give life meaning, we adjust to the idea that the universe was not made with us in mind--and eventually the turmoil we experienced in the beginning fades away into a bad memory. In other words--and this is the main point I want any struggling readers to take home--it gets better with time
. Not only to we adjust to loss, but we eventually our situation improves as we begin to see the world closer to how it really is; as we shed our egocentric notions of cosmic importance, as we let go of the congitive dissonance we experienced when we tried to fit square pegs into round holes; and as we no longer have to see others as targets of conversion lest they suffer for all eternity separated from God. For some the benefits come sooner than for others, and I can only hope that your deconversion blues will soon begin to fade, though there may always be a social price to pay, as there continues to be for me.
Finally, though it’s conventional wisdom that believers are happier than unbelievers, the truth is more nuanced than that. According to this study
, firmly convinced and engaged believers are happier than lukewarm or uninvolved believers. The interesting thing is that the same phenomenon holds true for unbelievers: those that are just lapsed churchgoers (those who might have left the church for interpersonal or financial reasons, for example, or those who simply lost interest without intense study, or those who are unsure whether they believe or don’t believe) are less happy than those who are confident and open in their unbelief. In other words, whether you’re a believer or an unbeliever, if you’re uncertain or half-hearted about what you believe, you’re less likely to be happy than if you’re a confident and/or committed believer or unbeliever. So it’s natural that as you’re going through the uncertainty surrounding deconversion, even if you suspect that Christianity is untrue, if you have natural lingering doubts about your doubts, you can expect to live with the blues until your pressing doubts are resolved in one direction or another. But again, it gets better with time, since generally over the years you come to terms with your doubts and become more settled in what you believe.
From blog reader Holly: “What do you think the world would be like if every person was an Atheist? Would it be better or worse? As much as religion can cause harm, would it be worse if there were no religion? Would there be more suicides, attempts and support to eliminate the ‘burdens’ in society such as the mentally or physically handicapped, less charity and acts of good-will towards the less fortunate? Would there be more murder, crime, lying and deception (is that possible?). I of course would not be inclined to behave that way, but given my recognition of our very selfish nature and propensity to fall into despair and need hope, I wonder how many people would behave in such ways given a lack of belief in god. I like to think that we would still realize that it's best to respect life and that we would band together in attempts to make society a good place for everybody, but maybe I'm just kidding myself.”
Thanks for your topic suggestion, Holly. It’s a major subject about which many books have been written, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it justice in a single blog post. The best I can do is to provide some high-level thoughts and point you to some resources for further exploration.
Before delving into your question, I’ll start with the obvious: believers typically would like us to think that the world would be a disaster if everyone were an atheist, while atheists typically assert that the world would be a better place without religion or superstition. It’s like the results of the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election: if you’re a Democrat, Al Gore got the most votes in Florida, but if you’re a Republican, George W. Bush edged out Gore. The take-away lesson: don’t listen just to the side you prefer; the truth is probably more complex than either side would like you to believe, perhaps even too complex to answer using the tools and information we have available.
It’s not difficult to find examples of atheists (think Stalin or Mao) or believers (think the Ku Klux Klan, the Inquisitors, the Crusaders, or the Taliban) who’ve made the world a worse place. Nor is it difficult to think of skeptics (e.g., Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson) or believers (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., William Wilberforce, St. Francis of Assisi) who’ve made the world a better place. Nor do we have to look far for dysfunctional religious (e.g., Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Afghanistan) or nonreligious (e.g., Cambodia under Pol Pot, the Soviet Union, North Korea) nations or for healthy and prosperous religious (e.g., the U.S.A.) or nonreligious (e.g., Sweden, Denmark, Japan) ones.
We should be suspicious of those who make blanket pronouncements about the merits of religion or irreligion based on a selective mining of examples that support one perspective or the other. For example, in The Book That Transforms Nations: The Power of the Bible to Change Any Country
, YWAM missionary Loren Cunningham seeks to link every case of a prosperous nonreligious country to some point of Christian influence, past or present, small or great. Even the success of modern Japan is attributed to the work of a Christian industrialist in the early twentieth century. But using this approach, a Muslim apologist could cite Muslim influence as the explanation for the prosperity of any nation. It was, after all, Muslims who reintroduced to medieval Europe classical Greek science and writings, along with important contributions to algebra, medicine, and other disciplines. It serves Cunningham’s agenda to attribute Japan’s success to a Christian industrialist, but not the success of Europe to Muslim or pagan Greek thinkers. The same selectivity pervades many apologists’ explanations for the holocaust: it was all Darwin’s fault, and the antisemtism that had reigned in Germany since the time of the consummate antisemite Martin Luther had nothing to do with it.
Likewise, atheists are quick to trumpet the shining examples of relatively nonreligious countries like those in northern and western Europe and Japan as proof that atheism is good for society, while finding ways to explain away counter-examples like the former Sovient Union, Camboia, Maoist China, and Cambodia (they were due to quasi-religious devotion to a Leader or a political ideology, not to atheism per se, or the atheism was externally imposed, not organic). Though perhaps plausible, this strikes me as a form of special pleading in the service a conclusion reached beforehand (i.e., that atheism is good for society), similar to that of Christian apologists like Cunningham.
I recently received an e-mail message with a call to prayer for Liberia, a country in turmoil that “needs God.” Having spent 15 months as a missionary kid in that country, I was curious to know its current religious situation, so looked it up on Wikipedia:
As a whole, Africa is the continent with the smallest proportion
of the nonreligious and unaffiliated; in other words, it is the most religious continent on earth, yet the least prosperous. Perhaps these are not “true” Christians--i.e., the type of Christians who construct a healthy, prosperous society. But then this definition of Christian is too convenient; if “true Christians” are defined as only those who construct a healthy society, then of course
all “true Christian” countries are healthy! In any case, it seems we should all be able to agree that religion is not a sufficient
condition for a prosperous society.
But even if it’s not a sufficient condition, might it still be a necessary
condition? The short answer is No (unless you’re intent on using special pleading to attribute the prosperity of all relatively secular nations to the presence of a mustard seed of Christian influence, past or present, while ignoring the fact that an even greater degree of Christian observance in Liberia has not led to prosperity there). After sociologist Phil Zuckerman lived in irreligious Denmark (where only 18% believe in heaven, compared to 88% of Americans) for a year to study a nonreligious society, he wrote the book Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment
, from which I’ll include an excerpt here:
I'd like to end this chapter with a bus ride.
It was a very simple, uneventful bus ride through Aarhus [Denmark], on a relatively unremarkable autumn afternoon. But it was during this particular excursion that I had several personal thoughts and reflections that eventually morphed into the urge and impetus to write this very chapter.
What happened during that bus ride was this: I felt a real sense of goodness. It was a sense of goodness that stemmed not from some internal endorphin rush, but rather, simply from taking in and observing the pleasant social world around me. There I was, heading to an appointment downtown, and I felt it deeply: everything was fine. Calm. Good. The bus was clean - not dirty and grimy, like many buses in large cities can be. The bus was also on time, stopping at each stop right on schedule. And all the people on the bus were sitting peacefully. Teenagers were placidly punching the keypads of their cell phones, old ladies were holding their handbags. A young schoolgirl was absent-mindedly flicking the neon-green strap of her backpack. The bus driver was doing his thing. Outside, through the bus windows, I could see a park full of trees with leaves turning yellow and red. And people jogging. And there was not a honk to be heard, for the flow of traffic was moving right along, smoothly. As we got closer to the city center we passed ice cream stores, book shops, law offices, flower shops, banks, and bakeries. Men and women of all ages buzzed safely alongside the bus on their bikes. The city buildings were largely devoid of graffiti. Litter in the streets was minimal. Every few minutes a pre-recorded voice would announce the name of the upcoming stop. People got off, people got on. Everything was fine. Remarkably fine.
And then, amidst that goodness, I thought about the words of Pat Robertson, particularly his words concerning "Gods wrath," and how when people disobey God, He gets angry, and unleashes His wrath on disobedient nations. Robertson surely isn't the only religious leader who espouses such rhetoric; nearly all religious leaders since time immemorial have warned that when God is disobeyed--or simply ignored--He gets mad, and we all suffer the consequences. Many millions of people, especially in America, sincerely believe this. And yet, on that smooth and uneventful bus ride, there were simply no signs of God's wrath. Just the opposite: all was good. Uneventfully good. Peacefully good. If ever a society could be described as "safe and sound," relatively secular Denmark would be it (pp. 30, 31).
In today’s world, there is a statistically significant correlation between a nation’s lack of religiosity and its societal health, including economic prosperity, longevity, and lowered rates of homicide and other violent crimes, incarceration, and teen pregnancy. Even the abortion rate in secular western and northern Europe is lower than that in the U.S.
The suicide rate
of the Scandanavian countries is slightly higher than that of the U.S. though interestingly it's lower in the Netherlands, also a notably secular society, so it's difficult to draw any conclusions about suicide rates as they relate to religiosity. I encourage you to read Zuckerman’s book, Society without God
, to gain a fuller appreciation of just how well a secular society can function. (He has a new book Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion
that I intend to read soon; based on the Kindle preview, I would also heartily recommend it.)
Incidentally, the U.S. stands as somewhat of an anomaly among developed nations in that it is both economically prosperous and relatively religious. Author Greg Paul posits an interesting thesis for this anomaly in his essay, “The Big Religion Questions Finally Solved” (available here
; it might take some time to load). He posits that there’s a direct correlation between religiosity and the degree of income inequality of a nation; in other words, the more religious a country is, the greater the disparity between the “haves” and the “have nots,” as in America. The less religious a country is, the fewer very poor and very rich there are. I’m not sure that this correlation Paul has identified is a causal correlation between secularism and relative equality, but it’s an interesting twist worth considering.
I would never claim that freethought (atheism, agnosticism, deism, etc.) is a necessary or sufficient condition for a well-functioning society; there are too many examples to the contrary. But neither would I say the same about religion. There is benign atheism and toxic atheism, benign religion and toxic religion. Neither atheists nor humans are exempt from the foibles of human nature. The worst atrocities in human history have been committed by those most convinced of the rightness of their ideological, utopian causes (whether for this life or the next)--for example, the Crusades, the Catholic-Protestant wars of the 17th century, and the bloodbaths committed by Communists, Nazis, Maoists, and radical Islamists.
I’m sorry I can’t provide a more definitive answer to your question, Holly, but it seems to me that we can’t know for sure whether society would be better or worse if everyone were to become an atheist. Yet the examples of northern Europe and Japan and other secular nations at least assure me that society wouldn’t necessarily go down the toilet, and there’s probably a better than even chance that it would improve, provided that the move toward atheism were voluntary, not externally imposed by tyrants like Stalin or Mao.
"I still haven't even told my wife the whole truth yet. I'd love to hear more in your blog about your process of 'coming out' with your wife, and how you two have coped with everything over the last decade."
Thanks to this reader (I’ll call him John) for giving me fodder for this week’s blog post. His predicament is fairly common for those leaving the faith; it seems that only rarely do both spouses in a marriage leave the faith together. Over the years I’ve received a number of messages from married doubters, usually men. Typically the wife remains a believer, though sometimes she eventually joins him in leaving the faith. Otherwise, the couple either remains in a mixed marriage or ends up parting ways.
I’ll share some of my story in this post, but with a couple of caveats. First, since every couple and every situation is different, our experience can’t be used as a template for all couples in which one of the partners is going through a deconversion process. Second, ours is a long, personal story, so I can only share a few salient highlights in this context. My only goal in writing this is to provide a little inspiration to those struggling in a mixed marriage.
Shortly after we began dating in 1991 after my year of seminary, I intimated to Charlene that I had experienced two crises of faith during college but that I had recovered and was aiming to become a missionary Bible translator. She was thus aware of my potential vulnerability to doubt, but little did either of us suspect that I would, nearly ten years later, experience a relapse that would end our missionary career and lead me away from the pastures of faith.
I did experience a brief period of doubt for maybe three or four weeks during our yearlong furlough in Texas in 1999, but I kept it secret from Charlene, since I felt confused and unsure of which direction to take, and I didn’t want to upset her until I was more settled in what I believed. As it turned out, after confiding my struggles to a respected Christian professor, I regained enough confidence in my faith to return to the mission field in the summer of 1999.
As I recounted in my book
, it was less than a year later, in the spring of 2000, that I was again struggling while reading through the Old Testament with Charlene in Africa. I didn’t initially let on to her the extent to which some of the passages troubled me. I sought answers to my questions on the Internet and instead happened upon Robert Price’s online critiqued of fundamentalism, Beyond Born Again
. Even before I finished the book, I felt my world coming down around me, and I couldn’t continue holding onto an evangelical faith I knew in my heart to be unfounded. Before that point, in struggling with doubt I wondered if I was just off my rocker, but when I read Price, I realized there were good reasons for my doubts and that I was certainly far from alone. I’ve never been one to be able to hide a secret, so with fear and trembling, I confessed to Charlene that I was again experiencing doubts. Having recently read Darwin’s Black Box
by Michael Behe, I could honestly say I did not doubt God’s existence at that point, but I did doubt the inspiration of the Bible and the claim of Christianity to be the only way to God. The details of how I “came out” to her are like a misty fog to me now nearly 11 years later, but I think I started off with something like, “Charlene, I have something difficult I need to share with you.” Then I proceeded to spill the beans as gently but as truthfully as I could. She was of course taken off guard and disappointed, but I don’t think it was as much of a shock as if I hadn’t informed her of my prior struggles before we married.
I am grateful to Charlene for not reacting more negatively than she did, and I consider myself fortunate to be married to her. Based on the correspondence I’ve received from others, it does not work out so well for everyone. Some spouses react with surprising bitterness and even vindictiveness. I heard from a guy who had a two-and-a-half hour “coming out” conversation, after which his wife accused him of abandoning her. She explicitly compared his act to adultery. Another friend of mine was told by his wife that she will never have children with him until and unless he returns to the fold as a Bible-believing Christian. Yet others end more happily. Within a several months of one man’s deconversion, I heard back from him with the news that his wife had followed suit. Others are more like Charlene and me, where the two remain committed to each other in love despite their differences.
Given the uncertainty over how the believing spouse will react to the doubter’s coming out, it’s no wonder that John (the reader I mentioned at the beginning of this post) has been reluctant to tell the whole truth to his wife, and I can’t say I blame him. Yet at some point it will become more uncomfortable for him to continue hiding his secret than to face the prospect of her reaction to his new views. And when that time comes, he’ll no doubt find his own way to reveal to her where he stands. For my part, I felt that hiding a secret of this nature for any significant length of time could lead to a breach of trust, so I determined to let her know as soon as it was settled in my mind that I could not longer subscribe to the evangelical party line.
To make a long story short (the longer version is available in my book
), we returned from Africa to the mission headquarters here in Texas, where I received counseling and experienced a renewal of my faith for a few months, after which it all fell apart again in late 2000, and I faced the dreaded task of revealing this to Charlene again. It was a terrifying roller coaster ride for both of us, and Charlene was understandably unhappy with my new relapse, perhaps sensing correctly this was going to become my long-term position. Perhaps a year later I started doubting God’s existence (I had held to deism during that transitional year), but I didn’t ever come out and tell her explicitly I didn’t believe in God, perhaps because I never came to the point where I was certain God does not exist. Instead, I stated my agnostic position and later agnostic/atheist/secular humanist position to friends, both verbally and through e-mails that she read, so she became aware of my evolving position naturally over time.
Incidentally, I should confess that I do not hide my e-mails correspondence from my wife, nor does she hide any from me, so she’s aware of a lot of what I write and read from others and vice versa. I think this helps us understand each other’s world better without having to preach to each other. It’s a decision we simply made early on when we shared a common e-mail account, and then we never grew out of it when we set up separate accounts on the same computer. (If you’d like to contact me without Charlene reading your message, please indicate, “For Ken only” at the top of the message.)
My inclination at the beginning of the “coming out” process was to try to justify my position to Charlene and to take every opportunity to explain what I now believed and why. I didn’t want her to think I was just randomly going off the deep end for no good reason, and I wanted her to appreciate and maybe even accept my reasons for not believing. It would even be fair to say I wanted to convert her to my point of view, and I know she wanted me to return to Jesus, praying much toward that end. We had some pretty tense exchanges, but eventually we both realized there was little to be gained in sparring over our respective positions. I don’t recall that we’ve engaged in a single discussion, let alone argument, over religion in the past six or seven years.
In a nutshell, my advice to those in a mixed marriage is 1) treat your spouse with respect, 2) love your spouse, 3) don't go off and sow your wild oats, and 4) did I say respect your spouse? (Not that I'm a model on any of these points, but it's what I strive toward.)
For many in a mixed marriage, the greatest source of tension is in how to teach the children. Since I’ve blogged about this previously
, I won’t say more here. Our story is still in progress, but once the kids are grown and more of the outcome has unfolded, it’s possible that Charlene and I could write a book together on our shared experiences--how we learned to compromise, feel each other out, develop patterns in relating to each other and to our children, etc. Perhaps there’s a niche for a book like that, though I’m not sure how big the market would be. Whatever the case, if it can be help to others struggling through a mixed marriage, it may be worth the effort. Both Charlene and I are in favor of preserving marriage whenever possible, especially when children are involved, though I recognize there are times when the relationship is so poisoned due to rigidity on the part of one or both parties that a decision sometimes has to be made to move on. Thankfully that has not been the case for us, and we’d like to do what I can to help make it as rare as possible for others. Charlene has corresponded with a few Christian women whose husbands have left the faith to offer encouragement and support, so if you come out to your wife and she’s struggling with your deconversion, feel free to reach out and let me know; I know Charlene would be glad to help.
Thanks to all who’ve read and/or responded. Please keep the good questions coming in as fodder for my future blog posts!
Thanks to those of you who weighed in on the problem of rebuilding social networks after deconversion. Rather than launching into a new subject this week, I’ll take this opportunity to interact with your comments from last week’s installment.
James lamented the tendency of freethought communities to devolve into “screw god” groups and suggested the need for more or less religiously neutral “community help groups.” James, I share your ambivalence toward those who get together primarily to bash those “silly believers” and their religious faith. And I think it’s healthy to be part of a community with a common goal to make the neighborhood and the wider world a world a better place, without bringing religion or non-religion into the mix.
So Holly, when you wrote about your son’s involvement in the Rotary Club, that gave me cause for optimism that there might already be an opportunity to plug into a preexisting infrastructure without an overt religious or sectarian identity. However, the pressure imposed on your son to align himself on the religious side of the Christmas clash (rather than giving him the freedom to use whichever phrase he’s most comfortable with) is a little unsettling. (By the way--a little off topic--I recently noticed a bumper sticker that said, “Keep Christ in Christmas” and wondered how the owner of the bumper sticker, probably a Protestant who doesn’t celebrate Catholic mass, would take to a Catholic bumper sticker saying, “Keep the Mass in Christ-Mass.” But I digress.) I’m heartened to learn from Wikipedia that they’re a secular organization, though their membership is by invitation only for business and professional “leaders,” so I’m not sure whether the Rotary Club (or other similar groups like the Lion’s Club) is a perfect fit for the growing number of everyday individuals needing social interaction after leaving the church. In any case, I’m considering contacting one of this clubs in our local area to explore the possibility of joining. Thanks for the tip, Holly!
Thank you for your thoughts, too, John (by the way, I know John in person; we live in the same metropolitain area). I’ve considered visiting the freethought group you’ve attended and enjoyed, and I think I’ll give it a try next month. I understand this group is involved in community service projects, so it sounds promising. I tend to agree with you that we former believers could benefit not only from acts of service but also from “fellowship” with those of like mind. It would be ideal to be part of a group that splits its time between acts of service and social gatherings with unbelievers who aren’t overly bitter or antagonistic toward the believing world.
Tim, I like your idea of joining special interest groups unrelated to religion. It just seems for me that religion, philosophy, and counter-apologetics have defined my existence for so long that I’ve had difficulty moving beyond these matters and just taking up a healthy hobby with others. I have a bad back, so running is probably not for me, but bicycling is something I might consider. I’ve seen cyclists rolling down the road in packs on a Sunday morning; sounds like a good alternative to letting my muscles atrophy at home!
All in all, I think I have more to learn from you all in maintaining this blog than you have to learn from me! Thanks so much to all of you for chipping in and sharing your thoughts on this most important topic!