Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Atheism & Dating

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.


  1. I've only ever dated atheists. It's not really something I look for, though, it just happens that way... probably because I tend to go for really smart women, and really smart women tend not to believe in sky fairies. (Amazing coincidence, that.) I wouldn't rule out a liberal and rational deist, neo-pagan (although I went on one horrifying date w/ a woman who believed in astrology), church of England etc. type...

    Jen, I think you need to get out of the midwest to find nice atheist boys. I, of course, will recommend California. ;-)

  2. I became an atheist while in a relationship with a lutheran girl. Yeah. Didn't go down so well. She spent about five months dithering about whether to dump me, all the while coming up with humiliating crap about "breaks" and "open relationship", before leaving me for a guy she met at work. Sticking with cute heathen girls from here on out.

    Also recommending California! ;)

  3. I made the transition from Lutheran => Wiccan => Pantheist => Apathagnostic => Atheist. And I can't help thinking that I would have got more out of University while I was there if I'd been an atheist when I was there.

    However, on topic, my wife was a Lutheran when we started going out, at least still a deist when we got married, although all along her religion was ill defined and not terribly biblical. I made no secret of my anti-theism, and was pretty open about my intentions to get her to think critically about her own beliefs. Heck, about life in general! (Theists tend to be kinda irrational about their decision making processes, in my experience.) She finally admitted to me that she'd been questioning her beliefs, and had lost her faith, but that she hadn't told me because she didn't want to admit I'd been right! XD But the relationship is still going strong, so it can work out. So long as you're honest. Eventually. Heh.

  4. « I needed I nerdy guy like me, someone sort of shy that I could approach. »

    Making me wish more girls were like that. I might've had a real girlfriend like that, being the epitome of the nerdy, shy guy type in real life. *Dramatic sigh*

    Well, certainly sounds like you know what you want and what you don't. I personally would of course prefer an atheist or agnostic girl to a religious one, but it wouldn't be a must; as long as the girl is smart enough to think for herself AND isn't overly religious (ie. not a church-dwelling Bible-thumpin' praying-at-dinner type), I'd likely be fine with her beliefs. (Too bad she probably wouldn't be fine with an atheist boyfriend. =()

    At least my dating history's even sadder than yours, if that's any comfort. -_-

  5. I became an atheist while dating a Mormon. She had nothing to do with LDS church anymore but it was still kind of weird. I would say at this point, I could not date a religious girl. I have to hide enough from my parents so they won't worry about me.

    "« I needed I nerdy guy like me, someone sort of shy that I could approach. »

    Making me wish more girls were like that. I might've had a real girlfriend like that, being the epitome of the nerdy, shy guy type in real life. *Dramatic sigh*"

    I hear ya, I was uber shy with girls in High School. I am still shy but not near as bad. In High School, I only went on a couple of dates, and never really had a girlfriend.

  6. Most of the religious/atheist relationships that work that I've heard of tend to be atheist guy theist girl-- I think there is way too much of an undercurrent of misogyny in organized religion for most atheist women to be happy in a relationship with an religious man. Besides, in the US at least, there seem to be a few more male atheits than females (I don't think this is true in the UK or Europe, but I do think it's true here)... so it's easier for female atheists to stick with other atheists. I don't think I'd ever date another theist.

  7. Hm. Interesting thoughts. My first real girlfriend was a hard-core-uber-high-fructose-theist, but it never came up, because she, like me, enjoyed sexual encounters. As far as I was concerned, this, emotional support, and having fun together was good enough. Though... our radically different fundamental approaches to life may have adversely effected our equilibrium constant, which started as a Ksp and became a K sub b.

    Currently, I don't think I'd care, because I'm not exactly in a "looking for love" phase of dating, but rather in a "looking for a good time" phase -- which can include many things, and isn't as objectifying as it may sound at face value. (though there's certainly nothing wrong with that, either)

  8. I've actually never dated a Christian girl. They've all been agnostics or atheists, or in three notable cases, one wiccan and two just plain crazy. They generally kept it away from their family members, which I was doing at the time as well.

    I've almost always been an agnostic, until after my 'Trying Really Hard To Be Catholic' stage in high school. Still, though, I doubt I'll end up ever dating a really religious girl. The closest I got was an agnostic/deist girl who was going to Catholic school.

    Of course, it's hard for me to find people who aren't ladmines, so I suppose holding back isn't such a bad idea for now.

  9. I've been married to a mormon woman for the past 18 years. The only part that makes it easier is that I was atheist/agnostic from the get-go, not hiding anything; rather than a sudden de-conversion halfway through the marriage.

    While we have a great marriage, and we love each other dearly, I can't say I'd recommend it to anyone. Marriage is hard enough and this just adds another strain point. I think ours works mostly by us (usually) keeping our mouths shut about religion in general, which works ok and smoothes a lot of bumps but it's tough and kind of lonely in a way. She gets her support at church, I get mine through blogs like this.

    By all means, date within the atheist/agnostic community.

  10. The only person I had a "comming out" too was my now-ex. We started dating in what turn out to be my final two weeks of Catholicism. Aparently being a Catholic was one of my major selling points too. We just kind of glossed over religion for most of our relationship and focused on zombies.

    When I graduated and moved away, we still tried to make it work, and were seeing how far we wanted to take things.

    "If we have kids, I can't allow them to be baptized," I told her.

    "Why can't you just go through with it?"

    "Can you even image me at a baptism? 'Do you reject Satan?' and I'd be like, 'Nope.'"

    She hung up. The next day broke up with me, via AOL Instant Messenger. We're still freinds.

  11. It is good to hear from the commenters that they've actually found atheist partners. I've only been in relationships with Christians, and like you suggest, it typically doesn't end well.

  12. I think the choice for you isn't religious vs non-religious bf. Rather, it's reason vs faith as a relative place in a potential bf's hierarchy of values.

    When a person values faith more than reason, they will inevitably run into a conflict internally with themselves or externally with reality or with another person. A relationship where one values reason and another values faith won't work.

    When a person values reason more than faith, on the other hand, they won't run into a conflict because they will resolve the conflict by rational means. In a relationship where both of them value reason over faith, a conflict is less likely to happen, and if there is a conflict, it is easier to resolve it by rational means.

  13. I would certainly rather date/marry another atheist, but I'm not going to turn the right person down just for having an imaginary friend!