Stoic advice column: Mormonism, and what to do if your spouse is still into it

Advice[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.

13 thoughts on “Stoic advice column: Mormonism, and what to do if your spouse is still into it

  1. You’re not alone in the interfaith struggle, J.

    And let me add that I’m impressed with how clearly you expressed the problem in your original question! I recognized my own home denomination, whose “doctrine is” also “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.”

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  2. Some points to consider

    1) you made this change and not your wife. She did not ask for or expect this. Consequently the adaptation must come from your side and not hers. If you compromise you will have to make the greater adaptation.

    2) respect her faith and her choices. They are important to her and therefore you should respect it.

    3) do not approach this from the perspective that you are right and she is wrong. That will poison the relationship and in any case right/wrong in this case is not objectively ascertainable.

    4) decisions about tithing are not yours alone. I expect she wants to continue tithing. Respect that and meet her halfway by offering half of the tithe. The uses of the tithe are not the issue. What is at issue is respecting your wife’s choices and acknowledging that your own choices have caused the potential problem.

    5) integrity requires that you be honest about your beliefs but do that in a respectful, discreet way that does not harm believers. Do not push or advocate your point of view. Respect theirs. Say little but be friendly, respectful and loving. This is an occasion where self-effacing humility is of great value.

    6) reduce your participation in church affairs but do enough to give your wife support. This is what matters. She must know and feel that you love her enough to support her even at the cost of your own beliefs. This is not dishonesty or hypocrisy, it is instead giving primacy to love where it matters most, to your wife.

    7) education of your future children. Discover how strongly your wife feels and how much it matters to her. Then you can search for an intelligent adaptation, always remembering that you, and not her, have caused this problem and so you must make the bigger compromise.

    I had the reverse problem. I became the only churchgoer in a family of non-believers. They regarded me with amusement for a long time but I hid my sorrow. Love is what matters and to be authentic I must live the love. As a consequence we became very close as a family, healing past pain and divisions; and now, while they still do not share my beliefs, they greatly respect mine.

    That is the final and the real challenge you have, to live your beliefs in such a way that it wins the admiration, love and respect of your family. If you cannot do this you have failed yourself and your beliefs.

    I urge you to take up this challenge, to earn their love, respect and admiration for your beliefs and not to fixate on the details of how you must adapt. The petty details will sort themselves out in time.

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  3. Truly a difficult situation. All the good advise so far is gentle and very well meaning, compromising. In the end no one will be happy and flourishing though. You will always feel that you give more than you get, your wife will feel deserted by you, your children will be confused, even if you play along for a while, and the church will try all they can to “get you back”, because they feel you cheated them. So your choice is to live a non-flourishing live of constant sorrowful compromise or to muster Andreia (courage, resolve, manlieness) and create a path to un-muddled lines. That will hurt at first but may create more tranquility in the end. Since such is a big decision, it should not be taken hastily and only if all else fails.

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  4. ” members in good standing are required to submit to a biennial interview with a church leader to confirm their orthodox belief.”

    But J no longer has orthdox belief. So he can be honest in this interview, and if the Church then expels him, that is their doing, and his wife will so regard it. Or, just possibly, the Church will allow him to continue going through the motions as a social gesture. This may be an acceptable outcome, although it leaves the problem of tithing untouched. Or he can attempt to fake it, with two possible outcomes: success, in which case he is committed to a life of deceit, or failure, in which case he is expelled anyway, but the expulsion will be his responsibility alone because he failed to perform adequately.

    I would suggest using the virtue of foresight to predict, as best he can, how these things will appear to his wife.

    I lost my own (Jewish) faith at age 17, but went through the motions for a year, until I had left home. I do not think I would have been able to keep up the pretence much longer. And my problem was much smaller than J’s; there are secular Jews but no secular Mormons.

    Finally, there is the issue of children. J will be failing in his duty to them if he is less than completely honest with them. This also is something he must discuss with his wife.

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  5. Dear J,

    1 Playing your social roles is one thing. Pretending to be something you are not on a very basic level is just not honest. Not to yourself, not to your wife, not to your community. (Justice).
    2. You love your wife. We are social animals. But if you think about it: your wife is in the end a ‘preferred indifferent’. You can reason with her about your beliefs, but her opinion about them is up to her. All you can do is talk to her the best you can. That is under your control. But you have to talk about it.
    3. Children: that is something of the future, isn’t it? Fate permitting. Don’t worry about the future. That’s not up to you.
    4. I don’t know much of the LDS but wouldn’t it be possible to reconcile LDS with Stoicism? I mean there are Catholic and Protestant Stoics, why couldn’t there be Mormon Stoics. Reading your question it seems to me you traded one set of beliefs for another.

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  6. Seems to me that your greatest ethical responsibility here is to be totally honest with your wife. You must make very clear what you feel (at the moment, at least, for can you be certain at this point that you have reached a relatively stable position?) and the limits of your ability to compromise on things like raising children. Then, she will have to decide whether she can live with these conditions or wants to take her life in another direction. That will be one of those things in life you cannot control.

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  7. This will be a long comment, as I’ve been through this exact situation. Buckle up.

    Number one, do NOT have children until you’ve figured out where your faith crisis ends and where it leaves your marriage.

    Number two, don’t promise too much early on. What you’re attempting is the middle way. It works for some people, I know a few. But John Dehlin (former mormon podcaster and therapist) estimates maybe only 5% of the people who try it are able to make it work long term. I was intent on doing that, but the more I went to church and played along the more fractured my soul was and I started having panic attacks almost daily, crying and migraines every Sunday, it was destroying me. I had to leave the church, stop attending altogether. I intended to just go along with it, like you, but once you see the harm you can’t un-see it. It ate at me. But, like I said, I know some people whose temperaments are okay with it and they can handle it. Maybe you’re one of those people.

    Consider that this faith transition is a process. It’s ongoing. Most people end up going through an angry stage. Once they realize the church isn’t true they get really upset at all that the high demand religion took from them and continues to take from them and their loved ones. It’s hard, but try not to take that out on your wife. The typical wisdom is often summed up in “GO SLOW!” But know that where you are now may not be where you are in a few years, in regards to the church.

    Part of this depends on where you end up. I know so many marriages that have split over this. Sometimes it’s from the believer’s side. In her mind you may have just ruined the eternal marriage, and she can’t handle your constant level of non-belief. (But, unlike the commenter above, I wouldn’t advise you to take on that guilt too much. It’s not your fault you discovered the church wasn’t true.) Sometimes that comes from the non-believer side, who becomes so disgusted with the church that they can’t respect anyone who stays in it. I’d also advise against that position. There is harm in the church, to be sure. But try to get to where you can see the good it also does, and why it works for some people. I’m intellectually curious, my wife not as much. She likes the peace and comfort and answers the church gives her. I may not respect that intellectually, but I respect the ways in which it makes her a better person. I’ve also seen a ton of marriages end after they both leave the church, realizing that they now have little in common and no strong moral guideline that divorce is to be avoided at all costs.

    I would strongly advise couple’s counseling. We went through some rocky patches, counseling did help. Don’t think it’s one and done though. You might have to return. In our case, I kind of think it worked out better that we went to counseling after I decided to completely split with the church, take off garments, etc. It helped us deal with what was, more or less, the final outcome. By the way, my wife is as believing as they come, but she saw how much church was hurting me and said she thought I shouldn’t go (plus, it was making it impossible for her to enjoy services).

    Give her time to adjust. There will be some dark moments along the way. She may say things (as my wife did) that what your doing is a deal-breaker. I can’t promise it won’t end in divorce (hence, the advise to please not have kids until you’re sure where you end up). But also consider that you both may adjust long term. What seemed like a big deal in the beginning may end up being accepted. Shocks like this take time to adjust to.

    If you do have kids, that’s where it gets really tricky (but where it also means it’s more likely you’ll fight to stay together). There needs to be compromise. It’s typically VERY difficult to get a strongly believing member to compromise. But it needs to happen. It’s been a few years after I’ve left and I only recently got her to agree to let me have the kids one Sunday a month. But again, going slow makes sense. If you reverse roles (I used to be orthodox too) you can imagine just how painful this is for them as well. That’s why it’s tempting to feel all the guilt yourself. But again, it’s not your fault the church isn’t true. Of course, treat each other with respect, don’t talk down to her, I try to support her in her callings, for example.

    It’s not ideal. Frankly, at this point we just don’t talk about it. That was almost a deal breaker for me, when it really hurt in the beginning and I needed to discuss the church. But I’m beyond the angry stage now (for the most part) and don’t care as much. Are we as close as we could be? No, but we’re comfortable and making it work. But I also think people romanticize marriage too much and expect their partner to be their end-all be-all. I have other friends I can talk to about this stuff. But I would like a deeper relationship. Perhaps, with time, we’ll be able to discuss our differences openly and respectfully more with less emotion. It’s gotten better, much better. But mormon beliefs are so deeply held it’s really hard to do early on.

    There’s a book called In Faith and In Doubt about making these relationships work. I’m not sure I’d advise reading it together though, because so much of it was saying that these relationships are working today because religious believers are more mellow. But he often specifically calls out mormonism as that not being the case. We tried reading it and it was a disaster. But there ARE some really great points in it. I would watch the two summary videos that The Friendly Atheist did on the book. It highlights the big points (eg. don’t try to convert each other, stick up for each other with your friends and family, have a plan for the kids, etc.).

    There are various facebook and other support groups you can join, if you feel so inclined. I loved them early on, but I’ve come to think the venting there sometimes actually contributes to the problem and causes distance that wouldn’t be there otherwise. So I’m a little unsure. But if you can find any friends IRL to talk to that would be great. Let me know and I’d be happy to chat with you anytime.

    As far as a stoic point of view? Sorry, I’m new to it and not very useful there. But I can’t see someone going through this struggle alone without sharing at least some of the accumulated wisdom I’ve seen over the years. Good luck.

    As to Massimo’s point: I am an ex-mormon attracted to stoicism. I think SO often when people leave the church, which was a very fundamentalist and life-encompassing ideology, they’re left bereft and aimless. Often they end up going off the rails: promiscuity, cheating, drugs, drinking to excess, all the stuff they didn’t do as teenagers or in college. They also tend towards a certain nihilism and have lack of meaning in life. Stoicism appealed to me as it was a way to find meaning in the experiences and aims of life without needing to believe in religion again. It was a way to find purpose without needing god. Sure, there’s humanism, but that isn’t something that transforms you on a personal level the way a daily stoic practice can.

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  8. I’ll second eyedempotent’s recommendation of Dale McGowan’s In Faith and In Doubt!

    Reading the book together worked very well for my wife and I during our engagement—but she already had very progressive political views and a very tolerant & non-fundamentalist understanding of her Christian faith. eyedempotent is right that strongly conservative/orthodox people may not resonate with it.

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  9. Massimo, I find your advice to be very good, in that it offers appropriate wisdom for the situation without being judgmental. We as Stoics are supposed to consider another’s view, for we never know if we are the ones in error of judgment. Since so much of this is based on this man’s personal circumstances, there will always be some degree of distance between the object and impression. So it’s nice that you offer him the option to choose which route he must take.

    I myself have a similar take on this. Obviously, he does not honestly have any attachment to his old religion, but feels as if he must fulfill his role as best he can without violating virtue. It seems he is willing to play the role of devoted and loving husband but not religious devotee. So it’s up to him to determine how much he is willing to tolerate by fabricating an appearance of religious devotion, for the sake of his wife’s expectations of him, and how much he regards as intolerable subservience to what he regards as an affront to his senses — Mormonism. In this, I hope that he has confessed his atheism to his wife by now, for if he intends on keeping it to himself, it won’t be long before she realizes something is amiss, and will become resentful that he has been lying both to her and to the church. Then, once he has confessed, he will have to determine how much she requires of him in this religious role. If she absolutely insists on his honest piety, then I don’t see how I can agree with him that they share the same notions beyond religion. If she does not insist, then a compromise can be reached where he can fake being pious for the sake of social reasons, in a manner that he would feel isn’t a real or significant contribution for him. I don’t regard lying as a vice. It depends on to whom you’re lying. If you’re lying to a vicious person, there’s no injustice. If you’re lying in a situation where justice is present, then you’re presenting injustice, so that’s bad.

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  10. Hi, I’ve been married to a wonderful LDS woman for 36 years. I was never a member and am an atheist. I’ve know many secular men married to LDS women, but not, interestingly, the reverse. My wife thought I might convert but gradually accepted me as is, as I did her. For the most part I was happy with my kids being part of the church. There have been challenges, but I’ve been happy more than unhappy about it. There was one major glitch when my son determined that he was gay. Surprisingly he got more support than I would have expected. (We lived in liberal Oregon.) She tithes half of the 10% and I give where I see fit.

    I agree that your wife should know, and especially before you have children. I would expect her to come to accept the situation, but who can predict? She should certainly know before you have kids, assuming it’s not too late. If you do decide to tell I advise you to avoid explanations or arguments, just a simple “I cant or don’t believe anymore”.

    I wish you the best.

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  11. I just realised, seeing other people advising J to come clean to his wife, that in my own comment I had presumed that he had already done so. If he has not, as a matter of course, shared with her something so important, that would say something about the relationship that in any case needs remedying if it is to last.

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