The Atheist Experience TV show gets a lot of fans asking them for advice about how to deal with a loved one who is still into religion. The circumstances are frequently different: the atheist might have started out as a believer, or there might have been a known philosophical difference from the start. They might be considering getting more serious, or they might be already married with kids in the mix. It’s always tricky to offer relationship advice on a problem that has been building and building. There are no simple answers for relationship compatibility issues, but I’m hoping to offer some concrete starting points where you can suss out the issues yourself.
1. Should We Stay Together?
First of all, don’t consider your long term history together. This may sound strange, but dwelling on the past is not healthy, even if the past is positive. You need to be addressing the issues as they are now. Are the two of you getting along well? Is the religion issue making one of you hostile or walled off? Are you afraid of hostility or being shut-out if you were honest? If so, that’s not a healthy relationship now. Don’t consider how the relationship was years or months ago, and guiltily linger on that. Relationships should be continually developing and loving and giving, not something that just cuts off after a certain amount of time. There is no excuse, no reason that allows someone in a relationship to be treated poorly.
On the flip side, if the two of you are reasonable and caring to each other and you know about your religious differences, then you are at a good start. Relationships are built on respect and care, and if that’s something you have then you are doing well. Being nice to each other a great indication of a good relationship, but there can still be some warning bells.
A slight caveat to considering your history: if things are peachy right now, but there’s a history of extreme ups and downs then things will probably not get better. The cycle of abuse shows a relationship model of attacks, apologetics, happiness, tension building, and then more attacks, whether it’s physical, psychological or emotional. If there’s a history of domineering, disrespect, manipulation, hostility or other outbursts, then do keep that in mind. The cycle describes an relationship built on dominance and inequality, and the only way to break that cycle is to just get out. Watch out for a partner who refuses to allow your atheist books in the house, disallows you to go to atheist meetings, who forces you to come to religious worship, who tells you (with no remorse) that you deserve Hell, or doesn’t allow you to talk about religion to the family. Those are all kinds of controlling behaviors, and abuse is about control. Here’s a great guide about the kinds of relationship abuse, along with great extra resource links at the bottom.
Another warning bell to consider is if the two of you alright with your religious differences only because the differences are never discussed. Do the two of you avoid discing all difficult topics? When was the last time you had a serious discussion about politics, moral qualms, money, social problems, gender structures, etc? Do the two of you only talk about superficial stuff? If so, you might want to reevaluate if this relationship is really substantial or if you’re just in the honeymoon stage of the relationship. If there’s no deeper connection, no deeper common ground, then why would you want to be in a long-term relationship with this person? Seriously consider if you’re there just because it’s comfortable and tough to leave.
Now, it’s quite all right to have topics that are avoided. If the two of you talk about social, financial, political and other issues issues, while religion is just the odd duck, then that’s probably fine. Russell and I have topics that we’ve just agreed to disagree on and never bring up, because they’re fruitless discussions (male infant circumcision, for example) but we are pretty much in agreement when it comes to other debates, and we enjoy those discussions thoroughly. There’s only so much time we two can spend discussing World of Warcraft and other superficial things, before our conversations would go silent. Having these deeper connections keeps our conversations constantly new and fresh. Having deeper connections is important, and if those are lacking and have been lacking for quite awhile, then it’s pretty easy to see where the relationship will go in the future: nowhere. It can be tough, but really look at these outside issues.
Perhaps a more popular question from atheists about religious partners is how to deconvert their theist partners. That’s a much trickier topic to navigate.
The approach I take to this sort of question is to generalize it out. Instead of making it about religion, let’s say instead, “I have a partner with a large character flaw. How can I fix that flaw?” It’s the typical problem of starting a relationship with someone and then expecting them to change for you. Now, a small amount of personal change in a relationship is healthy and normal. It’s part of being accommodating, loving and exchanging: imagine a relationship where Partner 1 improves zir habits about picking up the laundry, and Partner 2 works on their problem of calling when zhe will be late. Maybe one picks up bicycling in exchange for D&D and they both increase their sphere of hobbies. That’s good. In a normal relationship, there is a certain amount of change that is willingly and happily made to accommodate and improve each other. It’s a positive embracing of newer and better habits, hobbies and experiences. When it becomes unhealthy is when that change is forced or coerced, (or when the change is in forbidding previously enjoyed activities). If there is someone who feels continually pressured to change, then the relationship ceases to be based on mutual respect and love. Here, I recommend a deep evaluation of whether pressuring is an appropriate tactic. You might win and deconvert them, but more than likely you will just put an extra strain on the relationship.
And the thing is, religiosity is a very strong emotional and religious meme, and it is a tough thing to shake. In a way, it’s like an addiction, as strong as an alcoholism. Try reframing this relationship deconversion problem as trying to get an alcoholic sober. You can see the problem, you can see the logical gaps, you can see how it’s possibly destroying their lives and eating up their money, you can see everything. And you deeply care about this person, and would love for them to be freed from this one affliction that is ruining an otherwise perfectly good person. But anyone who has tried to help an alcoholic will tell you how fruitless it is. That person is in an addiction and sees no reason to change. You will have to accept that probably they will never want to see the light. You will probably have no influence on them leaving their religion or their alcoholism.
Now, this feels hypocritical for me to write, because I used to be a Christian who was in a relationship with atheists, and now I am quite the atheist myself, so I know change is possible. But I feel like my story is merely one anecdote, and I prefer to trust general facts instead of indivi
dual stories, even if that individual story happened to me. This is tough to do, but an essential part of being a skeptic. And looking back, I don’t think I would have deconverted while I was dating my high school atheist sweetheart. At that time someone pointed out to me the bad things the bible says about women, and I had flippantly excused it with “Oh, that’s only The Old Testament.” I don’t know that I was emotionally ready to deconvert, and any attempt to do so would have probably just made me feel hostile and disrespected. I did change my mind later, but that was only because it was something I came to slowly, and independently, through a love of skepticism and evaluation (and not until I was single). I changed not because of who I was with, but because I chose to follow the facts and they slowly led me to disbelief.
I don’t think my story is all that typical of theists. After all, most of the theists I know are still theists. There are always those alcoholics who independently decide to kick the habit and cure themselves. There are those religious people who slowly realize that their faith is based on nothing. But it shouldn’t be your job to sacrifice yourself on the unlikely chance that they will spontaneously change themselves, or that you can be the one to “fix” them. It likely won’t happen. That spark and desire for change has to come within, and there’s nothing you can do to put that into someone else’s brain.
As another example, Russell and I took a premarital class to waive a marriage license fee, and in it the director gave a story about how on his honeymoon he flipped out and punched through the glovebox of the car. A scary story by itself, but then he then he continued that kind of behavior for 9 more years before finally figuring out that was unacceptable. He slowly realized he needed to change, and turned himself around. I’m glad that he had that self-realization, but would you have wanted his partner to have stayed through that for 9 years on the hope that he would change? Do you think that there was anything this woman could have said to make him re-evaluate his behavior, or would he just have ignored her? The truth is that something clicked in his head on its own, and he self-motivated his own change. A good method for self-evaluation is to pretend that a friend is in a similar situation, and ask yourself how you would give them advice. In my opinion, they shouldn’t have stayed together. Take a step back and look at your relationship as if you were looking at a friend in a similar situation: would you advice your friend to wait it out? Can they be happy together if they stayed the same, for years and years? If you can’t accept them for how they are now, then you need to re-look your standards or re-look your relationship.
I would like to point out a mitigating factor, even though I worry that it might just add confusion and false hope. Many people who are stuck in religion are there only because they’ve never been presented with contrary views or information. Their religion is treated with some sort of reverence that shields it against scrutiny, and they might be simply ignorant about their own faith. If they are the kind of person who cares about truth and knowledge and logic, then they might just need a bit of nudging in the right direction, and you never know where that nudge might come from. It might be from you, it might be from someone else, it might even be from someone religious. Faith is a Jenga tower, and you can never be sure which block will topple the whole thing down. In this case, it might be helpful for you to offer advice and arguments about religion and reason. Address concerns and doubts they have. Ask them the tough questions: always ask questions instead of telling them. Let them do their own research and point them in the right direction. Asking questions allows them to think about it themselves, telling them allows them to just shut it out. I recommend reading 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, and The Demon Haunted World. And of course, Iron Chariots and TalkOrigins are fantastic guides as well.
Most importantly when communicating, evaluate how you have these kinds of discussions. Different ways of approaching a relationship disagreement can lead to vastly different results. If there is accusing, storming out, stonewalling, ignored olive branches or any other number of bad arguments habits, then you need to take a moment to work on your own communication skills. I highly recommend John Gottman’s The Relationship Cure, which is all about how to communicate effectively, really in any situation. Interestingly, one of the best summaries of proper relationship communication techniques I could find quickly was in a section of a wikipedia article about open marriages (it’s been flagged as inappropriately placed, so enjoy it while it’s there).
As an atheist now, I frequently feel frustrated that I was a christian so long around so many atheists and skeptics who rarely questioned my faith, but on the other hand, I honestly could not tell you if attacks on my faith would have sped up my deconversion or whether I would have entrenched further. For example, this incredibly long YouTube series tells the story of a student decoverting after fervent debate with his professor, a guy who I would have chalked up as a lost cause. Meanwhile, as I’ve already said, I defended biblical subjugation of women with the dumbest argument that I actually believed made sense. I was a pretty hopeless case, and maybe I did benefit in some small way from having my faith prodded a bit when I was younger, but it took years after that. It’s always worthwhile to try presenting arguments against religion: even if they fall on deaf ears now they might produce logical responses years down the line. Deconversion is a slow, gradual process that frequently requires input from multiple sources. They might thank you years down the line.
That said, I would like to reiterate that it is not your job and not your place to change and fix your partner. It might be possible to point them in the right direction, but if these debates go nowhere, then you really need to accept that this is how they are and this is likely how they will be for a long time. I’ve hesitated to give the above advice about how to deconvert a partner because I am worried that it might be used as a sort of grasping at straws for those who are in a relationship with someone who really is stuck. I’d say most people are in the kind of situation where their religious partner is not likely to be swayed. The majority of Christians I’ve ever known and discussed religion with are still Christians. And if you think that doesn’t apply to your partner, then you’re probably deluding yourself. Go ahead and attempt to change their mind, but be prepared for it to fail, and then be prepared to move on. You should not sacrifice yourself and your happiness to try and fix someone who is a lost cause. When was the last time you watched a romantic movie? They are formulaically based on the fantasy of changing a fundamental flaw in the love interest. That this is so attractive of a fantasy really speaks to how unlikely the chance for change really is. If you’ve tried to communicate your desire for a change, and that desire has been ignored, then
you need to accept that this is a person with their own free will and thoughts and you might never be able to change them. Are you alright with coupling with someone who will have this attitude forever? Would this permanently leave your relationship more strained than positive?
One of the side questions that gets brought up is that of going through the motions, for the sake of the relationship. Whether it’s a religious ritual in a marriage ceremony or attending a religious service. If you are an out atheist to your partner, this pressure can feel uncomfortable. Perhaps you feel awkward about going through these motions, but are uncertain about why: after all if you don’t believe that sprinkling water on a child does anything magical, then why not allow it to happen? This discomfort comes not from the actual act, but from the attitude of respect and mutuality in a relationship. The ceremonial implications with god might be imaginary, but the ceremonial implications between the two of you are very real. If there is a situation where you are expected to take the backseat and have no input, then that is being disrespectful to you. It is disrespectful to say that one person’s views must be followed and the other person’s must be ignored, for the sake of someone outside of the relationship. Here is where you need to find some sort of compromise that shows respect to your feelings and your partner’s feelings. Have that wedding chapel ceremony, but exclude references to god from the vows. Compromise, and be wary of inflexibility. Inflexibility now means inflexibility in the future. It means you will be in a relationship where you will be pressured and coerced to continue going through the motions, and as we’ve already discussed, pressure to change is a real relationship-killer. Is that something acceptable to you?
Alternatively, if your partner doesn’t know that you are an atheist, then you are in a bit of a bind. You are now in a relationship that’s not based on mutual respect and trust, but instead lies and deceit. If you are afraid that telling your partner about your atheism will damage the relationship, then you have to examine how strong your relationship really is. If something like that can shake your strength, then be honest with yourself about if there are deeper issues: lack of deeper common interests, inabilities to communicate, etc. You need to ask yourself if this is a relationship worth keeping together on such shaky ground. Now sometimes relationships can be solid, but the religion has entrenched itself so deeply that even strong relationships will be torn apart by a commitment to the faith. In this case, it can be painful to admit that you are in a relationship with someone who would hurt you for something imaginary. But does that sound like a deep love, a faithful commitment? Does that sound like the sort of person you would want to rely on? Would you recommend a friend stay with someone who doesn’t accept them, who has to lie? This can breed a relationship where you feel resentful and disrespected and trapped, and your partner feels an unknown distance growing between the two of you. It’s much better to come clean, and then to accept the repercussions of that. Do it gently, if you are worried: say that you don’t believe what you used to and that you’re still the same person and that you care about your partner and will always be open to answering different questions, and that you hope they still care about you in the same way too. Give a negative reaction some time to cool off, but if there continues to be hostility, then realize that this is someone who does not respect you for who you are and is not contributing to a loving, respectful relationship.
One of biggest and toughest questions I’ve saved for last: the issue of children. The easier issue of children comes with those who don’t have them: discuss if you want children and come to some sort of agreement about how they would be raised, and how much religiosity they will have. Discuss schooling and strictness and punishment, really consider if you want to bring someone into the world who might be pressured into believing a religion. Can you accept watching your child be taught to believe for life in the imaginary? That’s a pretty tough burden to accept.
If there are already children in the picture, it can be tough. Very young children really do benefit from having two parents, and you should consider the fact that splitting up might leave your religious partner as their primary source of religious information. Consider also that many atheists now are the children of very religious parents, myself included. All you need to do is instill a love for truth and knowledge, and atheism can come naturally later on its own.
When it comes to divorce, the damaging effects on kids is actually a bit overblown. The connection between emotional damage is actually with parents who are frequently negative and attacking of each other. If you and your partner argue frequently and heatedly, then a divorce might actually be more positive, because it would reduce that negative element by giving the two of you some space. Similarly, if the two of you have a loveless marriage, kids will pick up on that. Then, that sort of unfulfilling, unaffectionate relationship will be normalized for them. There’s no positive in that.
If you choose to divorce, make a conscious effort to do so respectfully and calmly. There is a lot of societal/religious pressure to keep marriages together at any cost, but this might not always be healthy. Obviously it’s not good to get flightily at the first few whiffs of trouble, and if trouble has just started then it might be a good time to look into relationship help. But if there are deep relationship issues, don’t be afraid to break those off just because of children. Whatever choice is made, be sure to impress upon your children how much you care about them and reinforce that you will still be there in their lives because they are important; that’s the biggest thing that kids need from their parents.
I’ve covered a lot of ground here, but I hope that this can serve as a good starting point for those who are currently in a relationship and aren’t quite sure what to do next. I find that frequently people know exactly what to do, but have trouble admitting that to themselves, and look for outside advice. So think about your relationship, think about the implications, think about the status of your relationship together. Think about how deeply committed and respectful and loving you are to each other. Think about how you would advise a friend in a similar situation. Think about what sorts of things you care about in a relationship. Think about if your decisions are influenced more by comfort or by true respect.
If you do decide to split up, don’t focus on finding someone else. Focus on yourself; improve yourself; join classes and expand your interests and hobbies. Follow your passions and then if you are active with them, maybe you will find someone that way. If you don’t, know that happiness and healthiness are more important than being in a relationship. There’s plenty you can do to make the world a better place, and it’s always nice to focus on ways you can improve the world.