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Hi Richard,

My wife and I are both atheists. I’ve been open about it since my very early teens, but prior to meeting me a little over four years ago, my wife “Annie” had generally lived her life not thinking too much about religion. She didn’t buy the stories, but went along with her family, who mainly acted pious in order to please the matriarch of the family, her maternal grandmother “Ruth,” for whom religion is central.

Everyone holds Ruth in reverential awe—myself included. This wonderful, caring woman endured supreme hardships in her life, and her devotion to her family is boundless.

When we got married, an immense amount of strain was put on Annie to have a traditional Catholic ceremony. Being devoted to her family and by then well-accustomed to going along with religious observances if only to avoid rocking the boat, she was more inclined to go along with their wishes. I was not at all inclined to do so, and in the end, we decided it was our day, and we had an outdoor wedding performed by a very liberal minister who accommodated our wishes to keep god out of the ceremony.

The problem is, ever since the wedding, whenever Ruth and Annie are alone, Ruth will often express fear that our souls are at risk, and plead with Annie to have the wedding blessed by her parish priest, “father Peter.” It is an earnest and humble request, made by an earnest and humble woman. Given Ruth’s declining health (she is 87 and will soon need major surgery for a chronic heart ailment), Annie had recently been wanting to satisfy the request, if only so this gentle woman might have peace of mind that our souls are “saved.”

Neither of us are good liars, and we almost always default to the truth if only because it’s the easiest thing to remember. We’re also not hardliners—if I may call it that—so this blessing is meaningless to us, and wouldn’t be an affront to our “secular sensibilities” to go through with it if it eased Ruth’s conscience. However, when Annie called father Peter to find out what was involved with the blessing, her honesty was met with self-righteous and uncompromising indignation when she revealed that she didn’t believe in god, and only wanted to fake her way through the blessing in order to please Ruth.

The question we now face is, Is it worth devising an elaborate charade to fake this blessing, and very likely having to involve others in our tangled web, simply to allay Ruth’s worries? One lie begets another, after all—even if it is a white lie.

Honestly conflicted

Dear Honestly conflicted,

I’m glad that neither of you are good liars, and I hope you never have to become good at it. I would not suggest that you construct an intricate deception. The more complicated it is, and the more people involved, the more likely it is to fall apart, and getting caught in a lie is often worse than the “offense” about which one is lying.

Ruth’s worrying about this issue is possibly not as distressful to her as you might think. I get the impression that it’s part of a role she thinks she is supposed to play. For years, the whole family has been pretending to be pious just to please and accommodate her, so she thinks it is her responsibility to be family’s religious “Elder.” I suspect that in addition to yours, she considers all the other souls in the family to be at risk for all sorts of reasons, and she thinks it’s up to her to keep everyone safe and saved.

She’s wonderful and caring and has been through very tough times, so it’s understandable that everyone holds her in reverential awe. But that may have had the unintended effect of inflating her sense of authority and responsibility. I’m sure it’s not at all her intention, but her “humble and earnest” request is also intrusive and presumptuous when seen from a more detached vantage point, like mine. She is neither the resident family saint nor is she just a meddling spiritual hall monitor. So your response should not be to either of those inaccurate characterizations.

Firstly, I suggest that you minimize having Annie being alone with her, since that’s the only time that Ruth presses this. When she does, Annie should respond as noncommittally as she can. If Ruth really pushes it, then it may be necessary for a response that puts this to rest once and for all. Annie has had enough pressure and strain from the religious requirements of others, and hopefully she or the two of you can put an end to this issue, yet still leave Ruth with her own reassurances.

Begin by expressing your love for her and your appreciation for her caring. Call it “caring” rather than “concern.” Then tell her that the minister of your choice blessed your union, and that is good enough for your beliefs. Either leave it at that, or consider adding that you don’t think that God disapproves of your wedding or your marriage any more than he disapproves of anyone’s wedding or marriage that is done in good faith.

While keeping it warm and loving, have just a tiny hint of finality in your tone, to subtly let her know that this is not up for further debate. The phrases “the minister of our choice” and “for our beliefs” not-so-subtly imply that you have the right to your choices of ritual, and they’re not really subject to review by her. Essentially, you’ll be taking advantage of the ubiquitous “hands off my religious beliefs” etiquette that permeates society. Usually atheists are frustrated by the special privilege that the pious expect for their positions, but for once you can use it for your benefit.

Finish off with a big hug for Ruth, tell her what a treasure she is, and then on some prearranged excuse, quickly leave the room. That prevents any “yes, but” attempts to argue further.

Worded in the way I described, both of the statements about the minister, your beliefs, and God are true for you. In the strictest sense you are not lying, but I fully acknowledge without apology that it is deliberately letting Ruth deceive herself about what Annie or both of you believe. So it is not honest by my standards. I usually emphasize honesty, but in the ever-shifting balance between honesty and kindness that life’s predicaments demand, sometimes kindness takes the forefront.

Hopefully, Ruth will relax her efforts on this, and will decide that God will be fair and forgiving to this admirably loving, caring, and conscientious couple, and in this case he doesn’t really need her intervention to fix things so he can bestow his grace on them.

Once in a while the Almighty just has to get along without the help of mortals.

I wish Ruth a comfortable and speedy recovery from her surgery, with many more years of harmony and mutual loving devotion with the whole family, and I wish you and Annie a happy life together, free from the stress of others’ expectations.

Richard

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