At least once a month, I’ll find a thread on a subreddit I frequent about someone’s struggle with being an atheist dating a Christian. Inevitably, there will be a flood of comments advising the person to drop their significant other like a hot potato, even in the case of someone who has been in a relationship with this person for 10 years. Whenever this comes up, I try to comment with my story, if only to show that things can work out, but sometimes I just don’t have the energy to type up a bunch of detail. When I realized this, I decided to turn it into a blog post. I then remembered that I’m not a super special snowflake, so expect more people’s stories of mixed religion relationships in the future under the Mixed Yokes category.
Why do I feel so driven to share my story? The short version is that I was a Christian in a relationship with an atheist, and that played a role in my deconversion. In my attempts to convert him, all he did was offer the flaws he saw in my logic. When I finally understood that my positions were insupportable, I dropped them. It can happen.
As you know if you follow this blog at all, I was a young earth creationist, so I was pretty deep into Christianity. However, I also thought everything I believed could be proven logically or empirically.
Shortly after we met, he told me he was an atheist more or less as an explanation for why he didn’t want to join in my church activities, which I normally did a few times a week at that point. A lot of our conversations after that were around religion, mostly with me trying to convert him and trying to explain why I believed what I did. I thought that if I could just present the correct argument, he would certainly believe. We began reading The Probability of God together, and as we read, he would talk about why the author was wrong or committing a logical error. I don’t remember how far through the book we got, but we never finished it.
While this situation continued, I had two Christian biologist friends trying to convince me of evolution. Reading Finding Darwin’s God convinced me of the truth of evolution, and I then realized that I couldn’t make sense of Christianity in light of that.
I then spent about two years searching for a reason to believe Christianity before giving up and telling my family I’m an atheist.
I’m obviously leaving out a lot of detail here, both about my deconversion process and my relationship. I did break up with him over the religious differences before the evolution thing happened, but we continued to be close and we would talk about religion and whatever I was reading, mainly because I trusted him to help me keep my logic straight. We did get back together (and have been since), but not until after I was pretty far out of religion.
Of course, every situation is different, and not everybody is going to just change their mind when you show them evidence.
Based on my experience, I do have some tips if you want to preserve a relationship with someone who is stressed by your lack of belief. As I was the Christian, and as this is the scenario that seems to come up most, this is written as if to a guy about his girlfriend for grammatical ease, but the genders involved shouldn’t make much of a difference in applicability. I am also writing under the assumption that removing the conflict of religion can help de-stress a relationship, or at least remove one obstacle. I know relationships with such important disagreements can work, but I also know I was plenty freaked out from dating an atheist, and I spent of lot of time worrying about and praying for his soul (that I now believe he doesn’t have).
This is a bit of a sidetrack, but someone crying for your soul is not crazy. It shows they care about you and want the best for you; they may be wrong about what that is, but that doesn’t make them crazy or not worth holding on to.
First, find out why she believes as she does. Specifically, ask if she thinks it is possible to prove Christianity. Say you are not asking her to do so, but wondering if she thinks somebody like William Lane Craig (or Thomas Aquinas if she’s Catholic) could do it using philosophy and/or science. If she says yes, that’s a good sign that she wants to believe where the evidence leads and not just what she was raised to think. Another way to ask might be if she can imagine anything that might cause her to stop believing. Some Christians, like Ken Ham, think that the Bible is right, and that’s it; nothing can ever convince them otherwise. If she is one of those, that’s uncharted territory for me. If she wants to believe what is true, regardless, there’s a lot more that can be done. Before I’d even met my boyfriend, I had made a commitment to follow the evidence wherever it led because I was convinced it would lead me to where I already stood, and I followed through with that commitment despite being wrong. If she can do the same, that can be a huge common ground – I know one thing that attracted me to my boyfriend in the first place was that we both valued logic, reason, and evidence. In other words, we both valued being able to support our conclusions, not just hold them because of emotional or environmental factors.
I imagine that if she just wants to believe Christianity, one thing you can try next time the issue comes up is asking what you have done to deserve eternal torment. In other words, appeal to her emotions for you. I’m assuming she loves you, and she surely doesn’t want you to go to hell, so try to help her see how unfair and unloving it would be of god to throw you in hell just for not believing in him. If she protests that it would be because you don’t love him, ask how you can love somebody you don’t know exists. To some of us, appealing to emotion is “fighting dirty” because of the logical fallacy, but these are valid objections and do not commit that fallacy because you are asking questions, not making an argument.
As a general rule, it is probably unwise for you to bring these topics up, but she probably will. My experience is the conflict is almost entirely on her; I felt a pretty desperate urge to convert my boyfriend until I stopped believing, and that led to me bringing up religion over and over, while he only brought it up once or twice. We would talk until I became upset, usually, and then change the subject. That’s another thing: expect her to become upset when you do show problems with Christianity, and realize that anger isn’t really your fault. More than anything, I grew angry because I could not explain why certain things shouldn’t be considered problems, and normally that was because such things were severe problems with Christianity. Try to remain calm and just drop the issue when that happens.
Probably the most important thing: Always be loving. Hug her and hold her close (assuming you are both okay with that) while having these conversations as much as possible. This will help her not get as upset, and I’m pretty sure my boyfriend’s tendency to just physically hold on to me is part of what makes us work together.
Offer to read at least one apologetics book with her, especially if she is the type who reads apologetics books. Cuddle close (again assuming you already do that) and take turns reading aloud, interrupting to discuss certain passages. You probably don’t want to do too much of this at a time, because you will probably find a lot of problems and she’ll probably get upset. Again, I’m speaking from experience here.
On that note, if she denies evolution, give her a copy of Finding Darwin’s God, but not for an occasion! (Don’t stoop to the level of those who try to proselytize with birthday and Christmas gifts. It will be seen as a jerk move, just as you would be upset if she gave you a Bible or something.) I just can’t recommend this book enough, because it is the main reason I stopped believing creationism.
Don’t really try to defend your own position unless she specifically asks, just show the flaws in hers. Try very hard not to strawman her arguments, though, and not to make fun of Christianity. For instance, odds are very good that she does not believe in a talking snake even if she accepts the Garden of Eden as literal; she likely believes it was the devil instead, so pointing out the talking snake won’t help anything.
Keep in mind that if she does start investigating and realizes that she really shouldn’t remain a Christian, you might be the only person she trusts with that information for a while. I know I was afraid to tell anyone because I didn’t want anybody else to leave the faith because of me, and I didn’t really want anyone to try to make up my mind for me before I was able to spend more time researching and figuring out what I should think. My own deconversion was pretty traumatic, and I leaned heavily on my boyfriend for emotional support, because it felt like he was all I had, even though I had lots of friends I could have talked to, in hindsight.
It is also important to note that she may lose her basis for morality if she loses religion and act out for a while. I did things I’m ashamed of, but I eventually calmed down, and finally found a secular basis for morality in empathy: suffering is bad because suffering is bad because suffering is bad, no other reason needed. It seems so obvious now! I remember having quite a fierce struggle with the question of why murder is wrong, and empathy has provided a good enough answer.
If you are lucky enough to help someone you love out of religion, or even to remain with them and provide emotional support as they make their own way out, it is critical to remember that the journey does not end when they no longer believe; it is often just beginning. I spent a long time clinging to parts of my religion after I knew I didn’t believe anymore, and I don’t think I’ll ever completely recover from the effects of my upbringing. My boyfriend has been, I think, extremely patient with my random outbursts of crying because I deserve hell and similar bullshit.
This isn’t really related, but I feel it needs said at some point: it often seems that I pretend Christianity and atheism are the only options. I know full well that this isn’t true; these are just the only two labels I’ve ever held, so they are the only “religious” positions I feel qualified to discuss at length, at least until I do some serious study.
As I mentioned earlier, I want to make a whole series of stories like this, possibly collecting them into an anthology sometime down the road. I would prefer to focus on happy stories where the relationships are ongoing, but if you have something you want to say about a failed relationship, especially if it might help others, please share that, too. If you wish to tell the whole story in a comment, go ahead; if you wish me to dedicate a post to your story, please let me know through the comments below or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also send your stories to that email if you simply want to share but don’t want me to share them with anyone else, just let me know; I will assume all stories sent to that address are meant to be shared unless told otherwise.
I’m aware that not every relationship can or even should be salvaged; sometimes, a breakup is for the best, especially if the Christian is using emotionally abusive or manipulative tactics such as ultimatums to force the atheist to believe or vice versa. My goal for this project is to show that relationships don’t have to end just because there is a mixed yoke.
Enough about me. What are your stories? What advice would you give to couples of believer and unbeliever?