This is my response to Hemant’s call for atheists’ perspectives on dating religious people. It’s long and personal and rambling, so don’t feel required to read it if you don’t want to. I guess this is just a bit cathartic for me.
I’m still only 21, so I don’t exactly have a long list of guys that I’ve dated…but my list is long enough that it’s shaped my opinions on dating religious people. And what’s that opinion? Well, for me, I think it’s a bad idea. Now I clarify that this is for me only. I’m sure there are plenty of atheists out there who can get on completely happily with a religious significant other, but I don’t think I’m one of them.
I guess to fully understand my viewpoint you need to know a bit about my dating history and how in coincides with my thoughts on religion. My first boyfriend I dated for a year mostly when I was 16. At the time I pretty much considered myself agnostic, after recovering from a brief preoccupation with deism. He was (and still is) pretty apathetic about religion; while he’s not religious at all, he’s not going to go around being an atheist activist. That was fine at the time for me, because I still didn’t find my non belief a big deal. Now however, I think I’d prefer to be with someone who takes an active stance about atheism like I do – or at least supports what I do.
My next boyfriend when I was 17 was Wiccan, but not in a serious way at all. He never really talked about it, and now he’s an atheist too. Like I said, I wasn’t super serious about my non belief, so this wasn’t an issue for me. It was more important to me that he agreed about the silliness and corruption in mainstream organized religions like Christianity.
But by the time I was 18, I was getting a little desperate when it came to guys. I was depressed and having a lot of self esteem issues (what 18 year old girl isn’t?) and felt like I needed a guy in order to be happy, but at the same time thought that most guys were out of my league. I needed I nerdy guy like me, someone sort of shy that I could approach. That’s when I started dating another guy. He was another honors student in a bunch of my classes who I always thought was a funny guy. There was one major downside though, and I think this shows how desperate I was: he was a conservative Republican Lutheran.
At the time the Republican part bothered me more. Bush had just gotten reelected, so I was especially fuming about politics. But at the same time, that was one of the reasons I liked our relationship. We would debate politics and then make out, and that was pretty fun to me – especially after my last boyfriend, who drove me nuts for being “too nice” and never disagreeing with me (sorry, I was one of those girls!). I didn’t even think of religion being an issue. None of my friends were religious, whether by chance or the fact that we accidentally banded together. I didn’t really know anything about Christians or Christianity, so I thought dating a conservative Lutheran wouldn’t be a problem.
Yeah, I was wrong.
It wasn’t a problem for me, but it was a problem for him. I was pretty sure I was an atheist at this time, but I was still telling him I was agnostic to kind of soften the blow. I’d even start parroting my old deistic stuff to make him feel like I believed in something, even though I didn’t really believe in that any more. Whenever he took a religious stance on something I would usually back down as to not start an argument, or at worst give him an incredulous look.
But the longer we dated, the more arguments and problems started occurring. I wasn’t blameless here. I wanted to mess around – he was cute and making out just got me all worked up – but he wouldn’t ever go past heavy kissing. I probably annoyed the crap out of him with my wandering hands and persistence, and I kind of feel bad about not giving him his space. But at the same time that led us to arguments about morals and laws. It upset me that he occasionally drank alcohol while I had never even tasted it (yeah, I was a prude about drinking back then). To me it was more important to follow the laws of man that actually have repercussions than the laws about sex made by something I didn’t think existed. It scared me a bit when he said the laws of God were more important than the laws of man, and that since the Bible didn’t forbid him to drink, it was okay. But I dropped the issue because again, I wanted to keep the peace.
As we dated longer it became more awkward. I was invited to his brother’s wedding, and the religious parts of the ceremony upset me. They bashed it into the audience’s head that marriage was between a man and a woman, and that the woman must be submissive to the man. At the party they had Finnish ceremonies like the woman putting on an apron and jumping over a broom to signify her devotion to him as a homemaker. I remember turning to him and saying I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that, and he just scowled.
Despite all this I was still in love with the guy, though I was too nervous to say the L word yet. He was nice and funny and whenever we did stuff together it was great. It was fine for high school, but I knew it could never work on a serious level because of our differences. Still, we ended up attending the same university. It wasn’t planned, but we both got big scholarships there. When we were hanging out a couple days before school was going to start, he asked me if I would be willing to go to church with him. He told me it would mean a lot to if I tried it at least once and would help him since he didn’t know anyone here in his church yet. I then made the mistake of telling him yes, I’d go, because I loved him.
The next day he broke up with me. Why? “I want you to go to church because you believe it, not to make me happy.” He said he couldn’t see our relationship working because I needed to be the same faith as him. It didn’t make sense to me. Couldn’t I have become religious by trying church, wasn’t that his point? I’m pretty sure he was just planning on breaking up with me anyway and this gave him a convenient excuse, but it still made me feel like shit. I felt like being an atheist made me damaged goods, that no guy would want to settle for me. It didn’t matter that I had been good to him, that I helped him out when he needed it, that his family liked me – because I didn’t believe in God. And the scariest part is that I now realize far too many feel that way – that being a good person doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in God.
When a month later I met a guy who was an atheist, I almost immediately fell for him. I was so happy to find someone I could be myself around. I could have my little rants about religion, I could read the God Delusion without hiding it away, I could point out the silliness of superstitions without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings. Having such a big part of my life in common with another person not only made me happy, but also showed me how important it was to know other atheists are out there – which helped me to start the Society of Non-Theists here at Purdue.
A couple months later, when I was reading the God Delusion in the laundry room, a wide eyed girl with a necklace of the Virgin Mary around her neck approached me and asked what I was reading. When I explained, she asked very honestly, “But how will you find a man to marry?”
At first I was taken aback by the very fact that marriage should be the most important thing on my mind at age 18. But then I just replied, “There are a lot more atheists in America than you think. More than Jews and Muslims and Hindus combined. So since they can find husbands, I think I’ll be okay.”
And while she looked terrified at the thought of so many atheists, it made me very happy.
So can an atheist date a theist? Sure, depending on the atheist and theist. But could I? I don’t think so. I constantly felt like I had to hide my beliefs in order to avoid offending theirs, something I don’t really do with strangers, but would do with someone I love. I can’t have a healthy relationship where I’m muting a part of me I find so important. At the same time, the guilt and shame I felt about not being religious really hurt. Even if he wasn’t explicitly voicing his disdain, I could tell he wished I had the same beliefs as him. Even though he cared for me, there was that nagging voice in the back of his mind telling him I was going to hell. And all these feelings and thoughts were when I was much less of an activist. Now I think even a very liberal Christian or deist would bug me, since I would see their beliefs as irrational.
But would I automatically count a religious person out? No. I don’t want to pass up “The One” (which I don’t believe in) because of some prerequisite I have. But when I’m actively searching for a boyfriend, it’ll be among atheists and agnostics. It’s not necessary, but I know I’ll be happier.
Wow, that was way too long. I apologize. And you know, since I’m currently single, lonely, and can’t really find that cute smart atheist guy to date, maybe I shouldn’t be dispensing dating advice.