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Today I read a downright heartbreaking post (that now seems to have disappeared, alas, sorry gang) (re-ETA: see comments, someone found it again!) about an ex-Christian man who is rightfully upset that his significant other is getting more and more involved in religion. It was called “I Won’t Play Second Fiddle to Religion,” and it made me want to talk a little bit about how that felt for me as well.

Christian views on Hell
Christian views on Hell (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Not shown: Marriage.

A “second fiddle” is a romantic term that means a person who takes a back seat to another person or obsession. When you’re a second fiddle, that means a first fiddle is more important–that the target of your affections cares much more about someone or something else, and that your needs and desires will always take second place. The target of your affections will always make that clear either implicitly or explicitly.

In this case, the target of the writer’s affections is a woman who puts religion way above her husband in terms of how much time and energy she gives it. He senses as well that if he gives her an ultimatum (“me or church”), she might well choose church over him and end the relationship. And he is definitely not the first nor the last ex-Christian to be put into that kind of a bind.

In most flavors of Christianity, marriage is supposed to be centered around religion. The two participants both agree that the most important thing to them is their religious sentiment, and they both agree that they will allow their partner to put religion over each other in every single particular. “Jesus first, spouse next, me last” is the formula you’ll hear repeated over and over again like a magic incantation. It’s not workable, of course. Human pride will eventually be stung at getting treated like a doormat or second citizen, and Christianity doesn’t respect or encourage the formation of healthy boundaries so inevitably one partner will get treated that way. That stung pride inevitably breeds contempt. Love can’t exist where that sort of contempt dwells. But Christians have been getting that nonsense drilled into their heads for generations by now, to the point where a great many of them don’t have the faintest idea how to conduct a marriage without that mantra. It sounds very Jesus-fied and sanctimonious so questioning it is all but impossible.

Indeed, one blogger even says that if a person refuses to put religion first in a marriage, why then that person “is a stranger to the cross”. Imagine that! And talk about idolatry! Not buying into this belief means someone isn’t even really Christian, to that guy! And he’s not anywhere near the only one saying stuff like this. Hell, he’s not even the most extreme example I could possibly cite; I chose that link because it’s about the most representative of the lot. This is stuff I heard through my entire time in Christianity, and stuff I’ve been hearing Christians say for over twenty years since deconverting.

As an added bonus, do you want to guess how long that blogger has been married, according to his wife’s page?

About eighteen months.

Yep, we have us another newlywed Christian husband here telling the whole world all about how to be married the right way. He’s apparently a minister of some sort, but even so I wonder how long that insistence is going to last in the face of reality. This bizarre insistence really is one of the most toxic aspects there is to modern Christianity, and it’s got to sound downright insane to ears that have never had the dubious pleasure of hearing Christianese. That insistence means that if one person starts going way overboard with church attendance and activities involvement, the other person isn’t really allowed to say much about it. Ideally, both partners will be involved with church a lot, but not so much that they’re not paying enough attention to their spouses. They will be a very visible couple at church, but people won’t be wondering when they ever find time to say anything to each other every morning over their cornflakes.

It can be hard to find that “sweet spot” of involvement even when both spouses are totally on board with this illusion. Resources abound to help spouses find a good balance. One site openly discusses the feeling of tension that results from being out of balance, while another admits that even ministers aren’t quite sure where that balance might lie.

Because so much of the religious worldview of Christians is subjective and not subject to falsification, it can be hard to teach people how much involvement is too much. Married Christians share story after story, as “Rose” does on this link, about losing and endangering their marriages over their excessive church involvement. Many Christians have internalized the notion that their church involvement is their religion in a lot of ways, and that can be heartbreaking to a non-believing spouse who doesn’t want to dictate someone’s religious feelings but does want to feel special and important to their believing spouse.

Before I deconverted, I was married to a lay preacher who wanted to go into full-time ministry. Because Biff was not a “made man”–he had not attended the right Bible College, did not belong to any of the scions’ families in our denomination, and had not even married into any of the big name pastors’ families–he had to work extra-hard to prove himself worthy of a ministerial position. (Looking back on it now, I’m surprised that he really thought he’d make it big–getting into a cushy pastor job in that denomination was as impossible for a man of his circumstances as becoming a big Mafia name would be for a non-Italian man!) He was extremely busy with church activities. And for a while, so was I. When we moved from our huge church to a much smaller planted church, I ended up feeling obligated to start helping out. There were only a few families in that whole church so it was a lot more obvious when someone didn’t volunteer in some way. I couldn’t sing for beans and I couldn’t play any instruments, and we all already picked up and cleaned the church every week–so I got roped into teaching Sunday School. You can totally see me doing that, right? Yeah, it was absolutely awesome. The kids were lovely if noncommittal; of their parents, only their mom was totally thrilled about attending church.

After I deconverted, though, I couldn’t keep doing that with a clean conscience. Telling kids they were Hellbound for just, well, being kids–that felt like abuse to me. I pulled away from church and quit going altogether, which left Biff in a very uncomfortable position.

I could easily see why he got more involved at church after my deconversion. He got affirmation of his religious ideas from church that he simply didn’t get from me. He could lose himself in altar calls and bombastic preaching sessions and forget for a little while that his wife was going to Hell. Just as someone with a bad home life might get way into reading or playing video games to escape an unpleasant reality, he was using religion to self-medicate in a way, I think. I’m sure at the time he thought he was doing all this stuff to get his god to strong-arm me into believing again or something, but it’s hard to fathom how that was going to work given Christianity’s emphasis on a truly good, loving god-figure.

It took me a while to realize that I was being deliberately and ostentatiously excluded from his religious practice. A number of new practices for him emerged as part of his attempt to drag me back into religion with him. Let me stress: what I’m about to describe are things he only started doing after my deconversion. He’d pray in our bedroom closet but he’d do it so loudly that I’d clearly hear every word across the house. He’d have friends over from church who I didn’t know and have deep spiritual conversations with them in our living room–acting like I wasn’t even there at all, to the point where even the church friends felt uncomfortable with how he was shunning me. He got super-involved at church and then babbled to me constantly about every single tiny detail of every single “breakthrough” he had and every “miracle” he saw, just like any World of Warcraft addict bores people to tears blathering about their favorite character or the raid they did last Saturday. I’m still not sure totally what he was aiming for–maybe to make me long for those breakthroughs and that euphoria or joyous fellowship with fellow believers–but it backfired dramatically at every turn.

After a while, I began to think that he was doing at least some of these things for himself, not necessarily doing them at me. I began to think that his excessive religiosity was feeding some need of his.

Religiosity comes from somewhere. As societies grow more dysfunctional, they grow more religious. As societies grow more functional, they grow less religious. I don’t know if we’ve quite figured out which happens first–does the dysfunction decline first and then people need religion less? Or do people quit relying on religion and figure out how to get real answers for their problems? Whichever the case, that relationship between dysfunction and religiosity plays out on the personal stage as well as the national one. That’s why religions prey upon the sick, the elderly, the poor, and the marginalized like they do (except LGBTQ people of course, but I’m sure once Christians get over their terror of such folks they’ll be along in short order to capitalize on their feelings of stress and alienation). That’s also why just education doesn’t do much to eliminate religiosity. The core needs are still there, and until those are addressed, the religiosity doesn’t necessary just vanish into thin air once someone is presented with enough facts contradicting the existence of deities and supernatural stuff.

Religion provides its own sort of benefits and rewards. When someone’s getting way too into religion, that’s someone who isn’t those getting benefits and rewards anywhere else. Actual real rewards from somewhere else would feed those needs, but in absence of reality-based rewards, imaginary rewards work just as well for some people. And one of those rewards may well be the easing of personal stresses and worries and fears–such as those produced by a deconverted spouse.

Sometimes those stresses, worries, and fears can be so intense that all that stuff about a couple being one flesh goes right out the window and one person could very well start seeking solace elsewhere–like in the arms of religion. I’ve heard from a number of my ex-Christian friends who have mentioned that their significant others stepped up religious involvement or fervor after a deconversion, so I don’t think this development I saw in my own marriage was unique to me.

I was heartened to see someone on that link (the one with “Rose) encouraging married couples to put each other first. That is a very bold move considering church culture’s insistence on “putting Jesus first.” That steps quite against Christian culture and looks firmly to reality for advice on how to make marriage work.

Because let’s not mince words here: Christian culture is not reality, not even a tiny bit, and it is not where people should be looking for advice about marriage.

Christian ideas about marriage are unworkable. If Christians actually had considerably lower rates of divorce and domestic dysfunction that’d be one thing, but they totally do not. No, these worthless platitudes and mantras are just a vast social experiment done on the backs of ignorant, overly-trusting sheep, and that experiment has strewn the roadside with the bloated, rotting corpses of countless divorces and unhappy marriages.

And one of these days, the people who’ve borne the brunt of that experiment are going to ask some very hard questions of their leaders about why this experiment got done on them. Dogma is very fine and good for some folks, but it will never love anybody back like a spouse can. I have to wonder how many Christians lose their marriages over religion and look back years later and wonder why they were ever so stupid. Until then, second fiddles everywhere fret and worry and agonize over just where they stand in their spouses’ affections and esteem.

But hey. Nothing’s more Christian than hurting and destroying the person you swore to love and cherish till death do you part, now is it?

What better witness could there be to a lost soul?

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...