Why Should the Atheist be Faithful in Marriage?

One week before I graduated high school, the film Bridges of Madison County hit theaters. For an 18-year old girl with a bit of a crush on the gravelly-voiced Clint Eastwood, a plot line that included a whirlwind romance and life-long unrequited love was a recipe for a teary-eyed sigh-fest. For months after seeing the movie, I would name it as my favorite chick flick, and each time I watched it over again I urged Francesca to open the truck door.

The film, in case you haven’t seen it, is about adultery. An emotionally unfulfilled farm wife has a torrid three-day affair with a handsome travelling photographer while her husband and children are off showing livestock at the state fair. Her husband, a gentle, kind man, never learns of the indiscretion, and thereafter, Francesca remains loyal to him for the remainder of his days, even nursing him on his deathbed. Yet, the film viewer is left wistfully disappointed that Francesca didn’t run away with the exciting and romantic Robert Kincaid when she had the opportunity.

Had anyone questioned the 18-year-old me about my views on the permissibility of adultery, I would have vehemently opposed it, as I still do. So, there was a sharp dissonance between my intellectual/moral convictions and my immature sentiments about Bridges of Madison County–a fine testament to how we sometimes inadvertently turn a blind eye to our inner moral compass under emotional circumstances. But, unless you are a moral relativist, wrong is always wrong, no matter what feelings or desires are involved, and (this is KEY) whether or not anyone finds out about the deed.

In the Christian worldview, there are moral absolutes– things that are wrong, for all people, in all times and places. Infidelity to one’s spouse is always certainly wrong, even if one manages to successfully hide it. Why do we believe this? Because God has created and sanctified marriage; the wife’s body belongs only to her husband, and the husband’s belongs to his wife. As my own wedding vows to my husband said, “I am consecrated unto you alone.” There are indelible Laws, and these laws can exist only because there is a Law Giver.

But what about in the atheistic worldview? If the atheist determines that he or she can be unfaithful while away on a business trip without their spouse ever finding out (and thus being hurt), on what grounds can they claim their adultery would actually be wrong? Most often, I’ve heard “wrong” defined by unbelievers as being something that causes someone else emotional or physical pain. So, what is there to stop them from satisfying physical urges unbeknownst to anyone that would be upset by the action? If they insist on calling adultery “bad,” how are they grounding that badness? Where’s the measuring rod?

In a 2007 article (now in his website archives), atheist Richard Dawkins frowned upon those valuing faithfulness. In “Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster,” he asked, “Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place?” He says that we need to intellectually “rise above” the sexual jealousy that blind Darwinian evolution has produced in us and cheerfully permit our spouses to carry on any sexual recreation they choose to have outside the marriage bed. “Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others if he or she is that way inclined?” he asks. Dawkins is being completely consistent with his worldview by denying any objective sexual morality, even where marriage is concerned, so long as no one is harmed. (It remains unclear, however, why harming anyone or anything is objectively wrong in his view, where morality is nothing but an evolutionary social construct.)

My sense is that most self-described atheists, particularly those who are in happy marriages, have a deep-seated conviction that something is truly wrong with marital infidelity. As God’s image-bearers, the Truth of Things resonates strongly within their soul, and they know that spouses should be faithful. Just like they know, intuitively, that it is wrong to stab puppies with scissors for fun. The Apostle Paul talked about how even those who do not profess to follow God often still follow His law, for it is written on their hearts—“their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:15).

I’ve never personally encountered an atheist who verbally endorsed objective morality. Some have told me that we should simply “let emotions be our guide” (you know, those blindly evolved neuro-chemical reactions in our blindly evolved brain) or that we should simply “refrain from harming” anyone. These are technically compatible with a clandestine extramarital affair, aren’t they? At the end of the day, though, how many unbelievers would claim that secretly cheating on your husband or wife is not absolutely wrong? Not that many, I’m thinking.

It’s a curious thing.