[Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, I have started a “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please be mindful that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.]
J, wrote: “I grew up as an orthodox, believing member of the LDS (aka Mormon) church. I truly believed all the doctrine until about two years ago, when I encountered and researched new-to-me information about my church and consequently experienced a ‘faith crisis.’ I have since rebuilt my worldview, and now consider myself an agnostic atheist. Philosophy, especially Stoicism, has become the anchor replacing my old dogmatic religious beliefs. Complicating the matter, my faith crisis happened shortly after I married my wonderful wife, who is also a believing, active member of the Mormon church. As in many fundamentalist religious traditions, doubting or leaving the church is strongly looked down upon. Mormon doctrine is heavily focused on uniting family units in belief both in this life and in an afterlife, so having an unbelieving spouse or other family member can cause significant distress. My wife’s faith still works well for her, and I don’t wish to take that away from her if she’s not ready to move on. I have made peace with having a mixed-faith marriage. I love my wife dearly; we have a strong relationship with much in common beyond religious beliefs, and I am willing to participate in the church community to support her. My question is about living authentically from a Stoic perspective. Participation in the Mormon church is often seen as all-or-nothing, and requires various expressions of belief, including public prayers, wearing specific types of clothing, abstaining from certain types of (seemingly arbitrarily chosen) drinks, and participating in various rituals and traditions. Additionally, members in good standing are required to submit to a biennial interview with a church leader to confirm their orthodox belief. As these things are now meaningless to me, I don’t mind participating in them to avoid family strife. However, the church also requires significant financial tributes of tithing; I feel that much of the church’s use of tithing funds is wasteful at best and harmful at worst, and I would like to contribute that money toward more worthy causes. Also, I worry about what to teach our child(ren) when we eventually have them, as I feel that a large proportion of church teachings are incorrect, nonsense, or even harmful. Is it ethically wrong to participate in these things despite my nonbelief? How open and honest about my beliefs do I need to be with my wife, my extended family, and my church community? Is it selfish of me to keep up a façade of belief, or would it be selfish to distance myself from church activity and thereby cause pain and distress to my believing wife and other family? I know there are many people in my position, and I would appreciate your opinion on these issues from a Stoic perspective.”
Dear J, definitely a tough situation, though, as you say, not an uncommon one. A number of people I know personally have been, or are going, through something like this, and not just within the Mormon church. (Though someone at Stoicon ’16 told me that there seems to be a higher than usual frequency of former Mormons who embrace Stoicism — I’d love to see some systematic data on that!)
To begin with, I believe that so far you have done exactly the right thing. First off, you have applied the dichotomy of control, realizing that changing your attitude toward Mormonism is within your power, while changing that of others, for instance your wife, isn’t. (This, naturally, doesn’t mean you cannot influence other people’s beliefs, only that you don’t control them.)
The issue of integrity is a delicate one, and finds different instantiations with different Stoics. For instance, Cato the Younger, one of the classic role models for Stoics (especially so for Seneca) was notorious for putting integrity above all else. But as Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni, the authors of the recent biography of Cato entitled Rome’s Last Citizen, have argued, this probably led to Cato’s ultimate failure as a political figure. When elected to public office, he behaved with utmost (and unusual) integrity, but he was unable to enact the sort of structural reforms without which his successor immediately went back to business as usual. Indeed, his degree of integrity became proverbial, with other Romans excusing themselves for their own failures by saying “we are not Catos.” Even more dramatically, his extreme reluctance to make an early ally of Pompey against Caesar at the very least facilitated the latter’s ultimate triumph and the end of the Republic that was so dear to Cato.
The point is: integrity is certainly a Stoic value, but it may be trumped by prudence, the cardinal virtue that teaches us how to best navigate complex situations — and yours certainly is a complex situation (though, luckily, nothing close to the mess Cato found himself to have to deal with before he died in Utica!).
Moreover, there is the other side to integrity — or, as you put it, the issue of “authenticity.” Consider, for instance, the recent book by Brian Johnson, The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life (on which I will eventually comment in detail), where the author discusses the fact that Epictetus tells us to play our social roles, even when they are not easy, to our best, and indeed invites us to use the occasion as yet another chance to practice as a prokopton.
I think the following passages by the three great Roman Stoics may be potentially useful in your situation:
“A pilot has a double rôle: one he shares with all his fellow-passengers, for he also is a passenger; the other is peculiar to him, for he is the pilot. The storm harms him as a passenger, but not as a pilot.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, LXXXV, On Some Vain Syllogisms, 35)
“Reflect on the other social roles you play. If you are a council member, consider what a council member should do. If you are young, what does being young mean, if you are old, what does age imply, if you are a father, what does fatherhood entail? Each of our titles, when reflected upon, suggests the acts appropriate to it.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 10.10)
“In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.” (Marcus, Meditations V.1)
Seneca’s point is that as prokoptontes we are participants in other people’s fortunes and misfortunes (in your case, your wife’s choice and the church life that it implies for both of you), but that we ourselves do not fail so long as we keep in mind what our real objectives are (in your situation, to balance the value of your relationship with the disvalue of continuing to belong to the church). Epictetus reminds us that we all play different social roles (for you in this case, that of a husband), and that we should interrogate ourselves about what does it mean to play those roles well. As for Marcus, he is making a more general point about the fact that we ought to get up in the morning and do things, even if sometimes we’d rather stay in bed because we don’t like the things we are about to do (going to church with your wife, for instance).
All the above said, however, you raise the most difficult question of them all near the end of your letter: what about the damage — as you see it — that your own financial contributions to the church are doing? And what will happen when you will have children? Is it fair to your future children, and even now, to whoever is negatively affected by your tributes?
I think that that is were I would draw the Catonian line: it is one thing for you to bear a social role, that of a church member, in which you don’t believe, since you are doing it out of love and loyalty toward your wife. It is another thing, however, when other innocent human beings are negatively affected by actions that you do control (your staying in the church and contributing money to it).
Seems to me that that is the point where you need to draw on the virtues of justice, courage, and prudence. First, to see that it is not just that your desire not to upset your wife trumps the psychological welfare of others, including your future children; second, to have the courage to tackle the issue with your wife, for the sake of your future children; lastly, to exercise prudence in choosing the timing and manner of extricating yourself from the current situation. I am not advising you to leave your wife, but I am advising you to make the most just decision; to attempt to (gradually, most likely) to persuade her of your view and to seek at the least a compromise (is it possible for you as a couple to raise children by exposing them to both the church and a secular community?); and finally to remember that you are in control of the way you go at this, but not of the ultimate outcome. I hope you will succeed, may Fortuna be with you.