The Humanist Dilemma: How to Drop out of Religion but Stay in a Marriage…

From The Humanist

 Generous or hypocritical? I no longer believe in religion, yet my wife asks that I keep some basic rituals. I guess I could try to view it as a cultural thing and go through the motions, but I don’t want to feel like a hypocrite. I think it’s nice to show appreciation for food before eating, but it’s difficult for me to say an official prayer addressing a specific god. In any case, she may not be asking much, and one must pick his battles. But does that make me a hypocrite?

Also, any advice on how to make such a marriage work (especially when young children are involved) is also appreciated.



Dear Evolving,

I’ve been doing the same thing throughout my marriage (over two decades) and with our kids since their births. One key difference is that I was clear about my nonbelief before we married and agreed that I would raise the kids in the family faith. I was also clear that I would not make any pretense about my views. So there was no sense that I had unilaterally changed the rules after the wedding vows, which could be an issue in your situation. But the fact is that individuals grow in different directions and at different paces within marriages, so marriages must bend or break to accommodate. I can’t say that the dynamic was, is, or will be easy in my situation or yours, but I do think it is entirely possible to survive and thrive if you keep the communications and the deals fair. Each of you is equally entitled to your respective beliefs. (Don’t let anyone tell you that religious belief trumps nonbelief.)

It sounds as though your spouse is being reasonable, asking only for “basic rituals.” The two of you need to hash out exactly what that entails, and also what you plan to say and do with your children—now and as they mature. It’s essential for your spouse to accept that you will be honest with them about what you do and don’t believe. My recommendation is to begin by soft-pedaling rather than thrusting your views upon your kids or others in your circle. When asked, answer truthfully but minimally, and be cautious about volunteering more information than necessary. Over time, I became both increasingly outspoken about my atheism and less involved in religious activities. But the few rituals I still participate in I view as family and social traditions. I make no pretense of believing in the religious aspects, but cherish these opportunities to spend time with friends and relatives (which include those who practice other faiths but enjoy joining in these festivities). Your idea to think of it as cultural is a very workable construct.

There will no doubt be moments of feeling hypocritical, such as when others assume you’re a believer and you don’t do anything to disabuse them; when you force rebellious youngsters to attend religious school or events because it’s what the family does; or when you feel dissonance sitting in a house of worship even though you reject the whole business. That’s an inevitable side effect of the compromise you’re making–and there may be many others around you making similar compromises. As your children begin to understand what’s going on, you’ll probably have less call to say or do things that make you feel dishonest. And once the kids are old enough (perhaps around thirteen), they can decide for themselves what path to follow—and both you and your wife should accept their choices.

Is it possible your spouse will eventually come to share your views and just needs time to come around, or do you think she’s unlikely ever to dismiss her religious identity? If the former, give her plenty of time and no pressure. You came to this on your own, and perhaps she’s just taking longer to arrive at the same place. If the latter, essentially do the same: tread lightly without pushing, to avoid push-back. The more you challenge another person’s views, the more fiercely they will cling to them—and retaliate either by trying to force you in, or force you out. To make this work you must avoid weighing in on her beliefs, and she must reciprocate. That doesn’t mean you can’t express your views, but do your best to keep it even-tempered, civil, and non-judgmental (which is far easier said than done!).

As for “prayers,” there are many sentiments you can articulate without invoking any deity or religion. I encourage our readers to offer specific suggestions, but in general, any moment recognizing the joys, hopes, and goals in your life, appreciating what and who you care about is a moment well spent. Reinforce what brings you together, not what separates you.

What should we think about death?



At the University of Southern California, a Humanist Chaplain Takes the Lead…


From The Humanist

Vanessa Gomez Brake is the new associate dean of religious life at the University of Southern California. She is the first humanist chaplain to serve in this capacity at any American university.

I first met Vanessa Gomez Brake in the fall of 2014, as she began her position at the Office for Religious Life (ORL) at Stanford University. Similarly, I had just started my first term as the president of Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics (AHA!), Stanford’s non-theist student organization. Despite being busy acclimating to her new work, Vanessa took the time to reach out to me as a nontheist student leader. One might imagine that, on a campus teeming with secular students, I already had support from the incumbent religious life staff. I quickly discovered that this was not the case, and having an ally in Vanessa was indispensable.

Vanessa used her role, knowledge of conflict resolution, and connections through the Bay Area Humanist community to offer fresh ideas to our student organization and to support diversity within the group. For example, at the beginning of one school year, she suggested we consider offering humanist programming alongside the many monotheistic worship services during Stanford’s new student welcome week. What followed was a scenario with which many humanists and religious minorities may identify; our non-worship service was rejected on the grounds that it conflicted with other, more “legitimate” welcome week events. Nevermind the underlying assumptions of the hegemonic Abrahamic religions that had already structured our understanding of a “week” as one that sets aside Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays for religious observance. Of course there were no welcome week events that conflicted with the many monotheistic worship services—our university had already taken for granted that welcome week events ought to be planned around them! Vanessa helped to challenge these prevailing assumptions among religious life staff and won AHA! the opportunity to provide humanist programming on equal footing with the predominant religious groups on campus.

Furthermore, Vanessa helped design and implement a number of discussions between AHA! and other religious groups on campus. There are two reasons why I find this to be particularly important: first, humanist participation in interfaith activities helps to introduce more people to the humanist philosophy, as well as broaden their perceptions of what counts as a life worth living. Secondly, it forces theists to engage and contend with humanist ideas, which ultimately reveals that many of the same underlying values motivate our diverse perspectives.

So, imagine my excitement when I learned that Vanessa had been offered an associate deanship in the Office of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. Think of it, the first humanist dean of religious life at any major American university. Humanists should be very excited about this historic appointment, as the implications are considerable. From the perspective of a former student leader, you can rest assured that nontheistic organizations will be given equal consideration with theistic organizations for time and resources. From the perspective of a humanist student, consider how refreshing it will be not to have to justify your ideas as meaningful, thoughtful, and moral to a university that has enshrined a narrow conception of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

USC has made a profound choice in forging the future of its understanding of religious life to not just tolerate, but to include non-theistic perspectives. USC’s Dean of Religious Life, Varun Soni, said that “we are at a unique moment in American religious history as the fastest growing religious demographic are those who are unaffiliated with formal religion. More than one-third of our university students are not affiliated with formal religion, and that number gets bigger every year.” Other universities should take note. These students will continue to need a communal structure within which to forge their own identities, and deans of religious life such as Vanessa Gomez Brake are well positioned to meet that need.

Interview with Vanessa Gomez Brake