The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
The first thing you should know if you’re an atheist dating a theist is that you’re probably a masochist. So if you didn’t know that about yourself already, now you do.
Alright, I’ll be a little more serious now. Atheist-theist dating is complicated, so complicated that I’ve been hesitant to write about it for a while, even though I’ve been dating a Christian for over a year. There are three main types of atheist-theist relationships, which I have labeled for convenience:
1: Conversionistic relationships. This is where either a) the believer is trying to convert the atheist, b) the atheist is trying to convert the believer, or c) all of the above. In case a), if you’re the sort who “passes through” atheism on the way between faiths, this might not be so bad for you. In case b), if your significant other is the sort who only believes because they were brought up religious and is thinking about getting out, this might not be so bad for them. In almost all other cases, including c), it leads to a lot of arguments.
2: Denialistic relationships. This is where both the theist and the atheist just don’t talk about religion in any way and try to sweep it under the rug. This works fine for short-term relationships, but in long-term relationships it becomes an elephant in the room. That’s what happened with me: my relationship got to the point where the difference between my girlfriend’s beliefs and my disbeliefs became an unresolved issue hanging over us. So we talked it out, which leads me to
3: Mutual-acceptance relationships. The theist understands and accepts that the atheist is an atheist. The atheist understands and accepts that the theist is a theist. You both accept that you won’t change the other’s beliefs, and decide that you can live with that. You will have to work out the details: will you go to church/synagogue/mosque with them; are they offended by the sort of God-bashing humor that, let’s face it, we’ve all indulged in at some point; et cetera.
If you are an atheist in a conversionistic or denialistic relationship, and you’re not comfortable with that, it doesn’t mean you have to give up on your loved one. Try to have a conversation, or multiple conversations, that will help move things in the direction you want.
Now, even in the best mutual-acceptance relationship, there will be some hurdles. First off, let’s talk about 2 Corinthians 6:14 and 15, which read:
“Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial [the Devil], or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?”
Of course there are plenty of Christians who ignore this rule, just like they ignore the rules about banking, mixed-fiber clothing, eating shellfish, and working on Sundays. I’ve had people explain to me that it’s an outdated passage meant to preserve community unity in the early days of Christian culture. That said, there are those who take it seriously. This is something to talk out sooner rather than later; you don’t want them to respond to your proposal with, “I’m sorry, I can’t yoke myself with an unbeliever.” A little too The Light in the Piazza.
There is also the chance that your significant other loves God more than they love you. Not all theists are like this; not even all Christians are like this; but some people are. There’s no good way to resolve this one. Either you can accept it or you can’t. Neither path means there’s anything wrong with you, or with them. Accepting it doesn’t make you weak, it just means you realize that they have spiritual needs you can’t fulfill. Not accepting it doesn’t make you cruel (even if they think so), it just means you don’t want to compete with a magic guy on a cloud.
The last main issue is one you will probably only confront if you marry a theist: whether you will raise your children with religion or not. As a 19-year-old, I can’t speak authoritatively on the subject, but I will say that opinions vary vastly. I know atheists who have no problem with their children finding God; I am related to an atheist who considers that to be child abuse. I know Christians who don’t really care if their children are Christian; I know Christians who consider it part of protecting their children to save them from the fires of hell. I personally think that children should be old enough to understand what they’re getting into before they’re introduced to religion.
Again, this is a case-by-case-basis kind of thing, and since I’m neither omniscient nor omnipotent, I can’t give you a set of ten rules to live by that will make everything turn out happily ever after. What I can say is that if you both truly love and accept each other, it will probably all turn out alright in the end.