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Can an atheist accept a religious partner?

I am an atheist, a loud and proud atheist who actively talks about what is wrong with religion. I just found out that my partner is not “spiritual” believing in a something out there but religious believing in God, praying and attending their church 6 times a year and carrying out the rituals while there. Now they don’t deny their religious book but they don’t believe in it fully, they don’t pray daily or weekly and they rarely go to church, but still religious. I am torn, how can I as an atheist have a relationship with someone who consciously denies science and believes in religion at any level? How can I put my future kids in a situation where there mother believes in fairy tale characters?

How do you get around this issue and save a relationship? How do you do it without ignoring it or going against your principles?

Posted: January 28th 2009

Dave Hitt www

Step back a moment and consider your non-romantic relationships. Do you have any good friends who are not atheists? Do you regularly hang out with people whose political views are diametrically opposed to yours? Can you agree to disagree on subjects you consider important? If the answer is yes, there’s hope. If it’s no, your relationship is doomed.

Personally, I choose friends based on liking to do the same things, not what they believe. I have friends who are socialists (to varying degrees) although I consider socialism to be always stupid and often evil. I have friends who are into stupid things like Wicca and homeopathy and horoscopes. I have a good friend who is a born-again Christian. We don’t discuss religion much, but we have enough other things in common to enjoy each others company.

How important is atheism to you? I consider my atheism as trivial as my disbelief in Santa; it’s only an issue because other people make it one. But if it’s so important to you that you have trouble with someone going to church every other month, you either have to break off the relationship, or change your own attitude about your lack of belief. I would recommend the latter.

Posted: January 30th 2009

See all questions answered by Dave Hitt

flagellant www

What an interesting question! The short answer is 'It all depends’.

As you seem to be the sort of person who talks frequently and openly about your position on religion, you must expect to get into some unpleasant situations. (Speaking personally, I never bring the subject up and I seldom talk about atheism, except on this site. If someone else brings the subject up then they’re fair game: the Mormons came to my door a few weeks ago; they hardly got a word in.)

However, close relationships are different and it sounds to me as though you will have problems. From your question I can see a number of reasons why this should be so. You say that she 'denies science’; is this really what you mean? If she really denies science, the evidence of which is all around us, electricity being one example, then run for the hills: she’s clearly not in touch with reality. However, I’ll take you to mean that 'She has difficulty with science and doesn’t understand much about it.’ If this is the case, you could perhaps persuade her to do a course in appreciating science, or in 'How things work’. Many people don’t understand science – some of it is very difficult to grasp – but lack of understanding is no excuse for dismissing it.

You don’t say what religion your partner has; this is where it all depends. There are some religious positions that are non-dogmatic; they are not evangelical, they regard religion as a private thing, and they accept a diversity of religious positions. Quakers and many Episcopalians are examples. In fact, they virtually accept my dictum: Religion is an activity for consenting adults in private. You will notice that children are excluded here; I believe it to be a terrible mistake to indoctrinate – as opposed to educate – children. Teaching comparative religion is my only acceptable exception. And it sounds to me as though your partner may have strong views about how children should be brought up. Knowing this, is it fair to you or your future children to compromise here, unless the compromise is hers?

There are some very authoritarian, prescriptive religions. Among these, I include Mohammedanism (Islam), Roman Catholicism, and, to a lesser extent, Judaism; all these will cause difficulties for an atheist-religious partnership, variously insisting on your converting and/or any children being brought up their way. Then there are the evolution-deniers who think that God would deliberately have misled us by leaving so many transitional fossils about the place: the sort of people who will believe something just because they want to, and in the face of all the evidence. Again, if she’s in this category, run!

Of course, I may have misread what you say. If you think she really is open to persuasion, in addition to trying to get her to appreciate science, you could suggest she joins a class about evolution in principle and practice. What you say about your partner’s religious group – 'they don’t believe in [their religious book] fully’ – may offer some slight hope: you could argue that, if they don’t believe parts, they shouldn’t necessarily believe the rest.

Close relationships between people with religious differences can work but, if either is trenchantly evangelical in their position, this makes it very difficult indeed. You might be well-advised to discuss the matter in detail with the lady. You could even show her the answers we have given and talk about them. This would give you both an opportunity to seek a path to resolution. It could also demonstrate to her that atheists are not necessarily shrill and aggressive, but thoughtful and considerate.

Whatever happens, good luck!

Posted: January 30th 2009

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Paula Kirby www

Surely the question isn’t really whether “an atheist” can accept a religious partner, but whether you can? After all, unlike the religious, atheists are not required to follow a list of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots”.

I’m sure there are many atheists who could cope without difficulty with having a religious partner. Your partner, presumably, has known all along that you are an atheist, and it doesn’t appear to have been too much of a stumbling block to her.

I suspect only time will tell. If you find you really can’t respect her because of her (apparently pretty mild) religious beliefs, well, then clearly the relationship won’t work. But if it has been a happy relationship so far, doesn’t it seem rather a shame to throw it away on a principle, without waiting to find out whether it really does cause a problem or not?

If your relationship’s going to last, I suspect this will only be the first of many compromises to be made, on all kinds of issues.

Lots of people cling to a mild and cosy form of religion simply as a source of comfort. Many of them, when challenged, don’t really believe in the literal teachings of Christianity. If your partner falls into this category, it sounds to me like a fairly minor thing to accept in someone you love. But do you love her? I confess that the very fact you’re asking this question makes me wonder. I also wonder how openly and honestly you’ve been communicating with each other anyway, if this issue has only just come to light. If your communication with each other isn’t open and honest, I’d see that as a bigger potential threat to your relationship than her apparently very mild version of religion.

Posted: January 30th 2009

See all questions answered by Paula Kirby

Eric_PK

I’ve seen this a few times, and have read about it a bunch more.

First off, people have different ideas of what a relationship should be. Some tend towards the “mutual support” approach that was common in my parent’s time, while others are at the “soul mate” end.

Having said that, the most successful relationships I see are based on mutual respect.

Ask yourself, “can I respect this person and their beliefs in the long term if nothing changes?”

That’s the first hurdle.

Then, what you have to consider is that it’s really really common for people who have drifted or rebelled against their parent’s religions to become suddenly devout when kids enter the picture. And since there is no way to compromise over whether the kids are indoctrinated in a religion, this is a real problem.

My wife and I had really close friends who went through this. He was not really religious at all, she had a religious upbringing but wasn’t practicing. Things were going well for them, then they had kids and she switched back, and then it was her and the kids going to church every week and him at home.

That worked for him okay, though he didn’t like some of the changes in his daughters, and he didn’t feel as close to his wife as they had been in the past. He took a new job to be able to spend more time with his family, and then 6 months later his wife had an affair with a church member who had been helping her deal with the issues she was having with him not being religious.

Which blew their marriage apart.

Relationships are hard work even in the best of circumstances. My wife is very rational and smart and our worldview is very close, but we still have issues.

A smart guy that I used to work with said that when his son was thinking about proposing, he asked him, “How would you think about waking up next to this person for the rest of your life if you never had sex again?”

I think the fact that you asked the question is your answer to that.

Posted: January 29th 2009

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brian thomson www

I think this kind of question has been asked before, but in the context of an existing relationship, and this is a similar issue. I know that church attendance alone does not make one actively religious, since there are other social and community aspects that go with church attendance. (By “religious” I mean that religion is central to a person’s life and affects the choices they make.)

Personally, I reject dogmatism and ideology in all its forms, whether it supports religion or not. I tend to focus on the practical consequences of the choices we make. In the case of a religious partner, I’d be concerned about a number of aspects:

  • possible attempts to evangelise at me, or at other people I know, which would be embarrassing. Would she accept that that was unacceptable behaviour?
  • if the relationship develops, and we were to consider marriage, what would happen? I could never get married in a church, since I would never want to be anything less than totally at ease and honest on such an important day. (Your wedding day is no time to be acting or playing word games!) On the other hand, my potential spouse might want a church marriage, and/or be under familial pressure to have one.
  • say we succeed in avoiding all the above-mentioned obstacles, and start a happy marriage, the question of children would probably come up. How many to have (if any), what to name them, how to raise them. Would I accept sending my children to a religious school, and could I counteract what they would get taught there? I honestly don’t know at this time.

While I feel there are many reasons why a religiously-mixed relationship would not work, I know there are many counter-examples, where compromise was possible. A lot of it depends on the other person: is he/she open-minded enough to accept that you do not believe in any religion, and that that will probably never change, for as long as you are together? In a long-term relationship, there can be no secrets, no hidden agenda, no real expectation that one party will convert to the beliefs (or lack thereof) of the other, though decades may pass.

I would not want to compromise on the questions of a church wedding, or indoctrination of children. However, I’m pretty sure that a relationship can never work if one party is hung-up and pushy about their religion, or lack thereof. 8)

Posted: January 29th 2009

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