When Interfaith Relationships Go Bad April 13, 2009

When Interfaith Relationships Go Bad

I’ve posted before about atheists in relationships and dating someone religious.

It doesn’t always end well.

You date someone who is religious and says she’s fine with your atheism… then, later on, it blows up in your face.

At least that’s the case for this reader, who just ended things with her girlfriend:

There were several incompatibility issues, so it was inevitable, but the final reason is what turned my initial relief into anger — she started lecturing me on how God doesn’t approve of our relationship (she’s been struggling with being Catholic and mostly preferring women for years now), and how God wasn’t happy with her and me, and how I needed to find Him! … Then she started going on and on about Easter! After putting up with my own guilt growing up Catholic and still sometimes having trouble with it… now I have to listen to someone go on about her invisible friend, and how my sexuality and hers is wrong because of that “friend”? I wanted to scream.

Has this ever happened to anyone — you date someone with different beliefs, and at first you think those differences are ok, but eventually, they become a problem?

Besides just breaking up, how do you deal with it?

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  • Siamang

    That person sounds a bit conflicted about her own sexuality… not a good foundation for a relationship regardless of religious differences.

    For example, Ted Haggard and his wife agree *theologically*.

  • Chris Nowak

    It’s a hell of a can of worms and is the biggest deal when talking about raising children – the religious parent probably would not want their kid to grow up Atheist.

    In younger relationships I think a lot of the time it’s really other problems or just general growing-apart that are the cause of the breakup but religion gets blamed since it represents an obvious difference in values. However, a great deal of people in will justify dating someone of a differing faith if they’re attracted enough…it’s another example of how rarely actually people actually pay attention to religion in their day to day lives when it’s not convenient.

  • Claudia

    Uh, though it could certainly be about her religion, it sounds a lot like this girl still hasn’t accepted her sexuality and is using god as an excuse.

    “I can’t deal with the fact that I’m a lesbian, I can’t accept this about myself so I’m going to say that it’s God that has the problem, not me, and you just can’t understand because you don’t see God”.

    It’s really terrible that her upbringing has made her hate herself and be unable to accept her inborn sexuality, but I’m betting that this is what’s really at the base of the breakup. Hopefully your reader will find another woman who doesn’t try to use god as a puppet to reflect her internal demons.

  • Skeptimal

    It happens even in straight relationships where both people are of the same religion but disagree on the particulars.

    Years ago when I was still Christian, I dated a girl who broke up with me because she couldn’t “find peace” with the fact that I drank beer and didn’t think the Bible was inerrant. As in the case of these two women, the real issues were elsewhere, but that was the excuse she used.

  • Kate

    Nope – still with a Christian (almost 3 1/2 years), still love him, still great. 🙂 Conflict management and excellent communication skills are *KEY*!

  • jemand

    I had a pretty bad relationship and subsequent breakup with a Christian, I began dating him when I only “had questions” which was fine with him because he secretly thought he could get me to think like him– (later I realized much of his behavior was manipulative and borderline emotionally abusive if not actually so). Once when I refused to “come around” to his point of view it finally became obvious that his insistence on me still “only” having questions was entirely unjustifiable he broke up with me in a huff. Given his later inability to let the relationship go I believe that was just another attempt at emotional manipulation but he miscalculated– I was GLAD to be apart and held him to his decision…

    Of course then he went and told lots of people I was a demonic atheist or something (I’m in a very religious area) and “greeted” me with “Heil Hitler!” for eight MONTHS after the end of our two month relationship…. Clearly there were mental issues FAR beyond simply a difference in religious belief, but his belief made him think his other craziness was no big deal I think.

  • Josh

    I don’t know if this counts, but I once dated a girl that was very “strong atheist” while I was a rather “weak” atheist.

    It didn’t affect the end of the relationship, but it did lead to more than a few arguments.

  • In my experience, it is better to date an atheist. My boyfriend and I have a happy relationship and are both atheists. We don’t have to worry about fighting over ideological differences. My last relationship ended badly and well my ex was a Christian and didn’t believe in evolution and I could not deal with that for one.

  • Andy D

    @Kate, are you the same Kate from the Kate and Erik story posted a little over a year ago on this site?

    If so I have a question for you, and if this is too personal then I apologize in advance. How do you and Erik handle the heaven/where do we go when we die thing? I’ve been dating a theist for a little more then a year, and things have been great. I love her to death and would really love to see this go on to marriage. All of our discussions up till this point have been respectful and definitely a learning process for the both of us. However recently she has started saying it’s important for her to go to heaven with her husband, and although she can’t say she knows who gets accepted into heaven she feels like it’s important to have all her bases covered (ie. Me being a christain would be a guarantee).

    It really sucks because I feel like this could be a relationship ender, but I hate to see it end. I question if some of my secular family members who are great people are going to hell, and her only response is she doesn’t know.

  • Oh yeah. I was in a relationship with a highly christian woman for way longer than I wanted to be. I went into it foolishly believing we could just live and let live. Whoa no. I was constantly pressured to convert. I spent the last year or so of it just waiting for her to decide it was over, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the fallout from being the one to call it quits. Some time after the split, I found out she’d registered a web domain to encourage people to pray for my conversion.

    This had the ironic effect of making me a much more resolute atheist. It opened my eyes to the folly of the naive idea that one can “coexist,” as the bumper sticker suggests, with a true believer. I resolved never, ever to date a religious person again.

  • BadServo

    This is certainly a rough area.

    I myself am married to a deeply religious woman. She came from a severely Christian and conservative family. Although a very intelligent gal, the ripples of the sheltering her parents did can still be seen today.

    I’d be lying if I said that we didn’t have some fairly epic disputes over religion. A prime issue to me is that she doesn’t always realize that it’s just as hard on me as it is on her and that I can also be offended. Although anyone who’s been an atheist for any period will likely tell you that people will accuse atheists of “taking the easy way out” by ignoring God.

    During one of the worst fights we ever had, she confessed to me that she was terrified that our young daughter make take after me philosophy-wise and burn in hell as a result. Naturally this cut me pretty deeply to be seen by the woman I love as a corrupting, threat to our daughter. And yet we got over it.

    To this day, although she has gotten increasingly more religious over the past year or so, we find ways of making it work. The most important thing is a mutual respect. Even though I’m technically “Godless” in her eyes, the Christian in her respects my morality; and even though to me her faith is illogical and hamrful, the atheist in me respects her intellect.

    We’ve both had to reign in certain aspects of our personality. I’m very vocal about the harm religion does to the world and how the modern church is far too willing to abandon their supposed “ideals” to serve their needs. I’ve been known to weep openly when I read of an infant who was allowed to die needlessly because it’s parents thought God would heal him and refused treatment. But I’ve learned that these must be tempered. I free to discuss such matters and their implications with her, but I have to be careful not to push too much negativity in her direction and to avoid getting to emotional about such matters, as this makes her feel attacked. I’ve also slowly grown to accept that a Christian will always be an apologist for their faith no matter how indefensible some of the actions are.

    For her part, she knows not to attack my beliefs needlessly or with pure rhetoric, and she knows that I’ll only respond to logic and anything else will only turn me further away from God. She’s also come to accept that I’m going to point out the fallicies in religion, and will always have a laugh at it’s expense. She knows that I’m kidding and mean no offense at her, and the she’s free to ridicule aspects of my beliefs for the sake of a laugh. Laughing together can mend and strengthen alot of bridge, my friends.

    Again, it all comes down to respect. If you spend all your time focusing on the singluar aspect of your partner that you dislike, there will be no time to embrace everything about them that makes you happy. And that is a quick road to splitsville.

    So on Easter Sunday, I attend church with her. Not to patronize her, but as a sign of respect and solidarity to her. And she knows that when I make a crack about the slightly creepy, seemingly coked-up women in her latest Christian lecture video that it’s made with good humor in mind and not as a challenge.

    At the end of the day, I think we’d both agree that the relationship has been mutually beneficial to our respective philosophies, both spiritually and politically. When I question the validity of some challenge to biblical scripture that’s caught my eye on one of the many atheist blogs, I have a go to source to clarify or confirm it. Right or wrong, I learn something. At the same time, when all the right-wing nut blogs go off on how Obama is turning the country into a fascist regime with some legislature, I cna read it and clarify-away the crazy for her. I like to think that both of our world views have been widened a few degrees. And seeing the progress she’s made in contrast to the staunch positions her parents take on issues such as Gay Marriage (IT’LL DESTROY US ALL), gives me a great deal of hope for the future.

    Kids, as I mentioned before, as the trickiest of issues. Schooling has been a topic of hot debate. My wife attended a very poor public school and as a result is dead-set against it. Whereas I am opposed to the rigidity, sheltering, and religion-infused nature of most private schools. As it stands our daughter is currently home-schooled, and if the neighbor’s kids are any indication, it’s to her benefit. ^_^

    I’ve rambled quite a bit, but in closing I’d just like to tell people that it’s perfectly possible to love your partner and tolerate the atheist/Christian within. And don’t be afraid to try chipping away at the shell sometimes. Even though no one is likely to have their mind changed, it insures that you’ll never end up as one of the complacent couples with nothing to talk about. 🙂

  • Devysciple

    Besides just breaking up, how do you deal with it?

    To be honest, I don’t. For one thing, I’m not the biggest fan of compromises, especially when it comes to my personality / my core beliefs. There are just things out there that I am absolutely not willing to give up for someone else’s sake.

    If a woman would tell me what god to believe in, what music to listen to, what books to read, or what opinions not to utter publicly, since they might insult others, I’d split up after I told her once (at length) why it is that I am doing certain things a certain way, and what the consequences of not accepting this part of me would be.

    I can justify (parts of) my personality and my core beliefs, especially to myself. They are not arbitrary and thoroughly thought through. I’ve spent half my life struggling to find out who I am, and I am sure that I’m not even half-way there, but someone in passing by just mocking that is a grave insult I am not willing to forgive anymore.

    This may seem very harsh to some of you, but if you’ve been mocked, and bullied, and left outside, and ridiculed for who you are and what you think, you might tend to get a bit intolerant towards people who do not respect you the way you are. Because it is more than arrogant to assume that anyone’s personality and core beliefs are less thoroughly thought through than your own, at least until you encounter some evidence to the contrary.

  • Spurs Fan


    My situation sounds awfully similar to yours. It would be fantastic to be able to chat with you about it.

  • I am an atheist (raised Catholic) and my husband is a non-denominational Christian. We’ve been married for almost 6 years and have an 8-month-old. I have to say that when it comes to religion, my husband fortunately doesn’t flaunt his Christianity in my face. He doesn’t bug me about my atheism. He didn’t insist that our daughter be raised Christian.

    That being said, I dated two other guys before him who said that they were okay with my atheism, and really weren’t. The first guy I dated was Jewish. He wasn’t deeply religious but his mom didn’t like the idea of him dating a Gentile, and she asked me at one point if I’d ever convert should we get married. At the time, I said I would, and all I can say is thank goodness we broke up. I don’t think that asking someone to convert for marriage is a good thing. If you are willing to convert just to make your partner happy, then obviously you don’t know what you believe in. I was so worried about losing him that I would’ve done anything to make it work, even if it meant renouncing part of my identity. Don’t EVER do that.

    Another guy I dated was Catholic and knew that I was an atheist raised as a Catholic. He said he was okay with my atheism. Then, partway into our relationship, he said that he would never marry me if I wasn’t Catholic. Stupid me – I actually started going to church again on Sundays and for a few months was actually believing this god and Jesus stuff again. Fortunately, I caught myself (yet again), realizing that I again was making concessions for a stupid guy who didn’t even deserve it.

    When I met my husband, I told him about the atheism thing up front. He was seriously okay with it. Although we don’t agree on the existence of god, we do agree on one thing: organized religion goes way overboard. Although I am at times tempted to go on religious rants, I stop myself because after all, he respects me beliefs (or lack thereof), so I should respect his.

    Relationships between atheists and theists are pretty much like inter-faith relationships. There should be mutual respect, and the ground rules must be laid from the beginning. I’ll respect your faith if you respect mine.

  • Cherie M

    I dated a hard-core pentecostal for a while – at a time I was trying to get out of mormonism. It was a nightmare. He said he respected my beliefs, but was upset when my shifts at work went over more than 15 minutes. (I helped close at a restaurant on the weekends, so the time I left greatly depended on how busy we had been.) He’d berate me for wearing make-up or anytime I got my hair trimmed. Times we went out together at a mall or other shopping area he’d try to force skirts on me. He was controlling, demeaning and told me I’d have to be more submissive if I wanted things to work out.

    I finally told him it was over and he tried to pull me in with a “but God said you were right for me!”

    It was generally an awful experience. He’s been married, divorced and is back with his first wife in the 4 years since we split. And trying to start his own church. Ugh.

  • I dated a fairly conservative Lutheran for about 9 months, and we dealt with it by never bringing it up. I was more agnostic than atheist at the time anyway. We went to the same college (not purposefully, mind you) and before school started he asked if I would go to church with him at least once. I said sure, since I’d never been to church before and I’d try it out for him. The next day he dumped me because he “knew I wouldn’t become religious” and it was too big of an issue for him. Joy.

  • dfledermaus

    Back before I decided I was an atheist, I was already pretty much an agnostic. Then I met a woman who was a Wiccan and head of a coven. I went to a few of their gatherings, (12 nekkid people in a hot tub was one of the more memorable ones!) but remained pretty much on the sidelines despite some extraordinarily carnal proselytization. She finally dropped me when she realized I preferred conjoining to conversion. Still, If you have to have someone trying to recruit you into their faith, I’ll take this method over having a missionary ring your doorbell on Saturday morning every time!

  • Erik

    Andy D – This is Erik from the Erik and Kate story posted here a while back. Kate might join in later, I don’t know…she’s at an academic conference for the week.

    My view is similar to that of your girlfriend in that I just don’t know. I believe that Jesus has something to do with the accessibility of heaven, however I’m unsure of how stringent the requirements are. A favorite book on the afterlife for me is “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis. It offers a very non-traditional and more fluid version of the afterlife that most of us have been told.

    The problem, as it sounds to me, is her insistence that she go to heaven with her husband. This assumes that marriage still exists in the Christian afterlife, and in fact it does not. Jesus himself addresses this in Mark 12:18-37 when he says that in heaven everyone is like the angels, who do not have the institution of marriage. So I really fail to see why she is insisting you go with her into the great beyond. Marriage is an clearly only an earthly institution (aka “until death do us part”).

  • These issues don’t stem from just having different beliefs, the issues stem from your partner having a flawed method for determining reality. It’s hard to respect people who just seem to make things up for what they believe, so of course it’s going to have an impact on your relationship.

    People who have their own unquestionable methods of determining reality are probably people you don’t want to get involved with in the first place.

  • It’s not so difficult to date interfaith. It’s extremely difficult to seriously date interfaith or marry, because then the family pressures intervene. If you’re dating casually then don’t worry too much about it, but if the relationship goes anywhere, you absolutely have to be ready to stand your ground, and to sacrifice either your principles for your relationship, or the other way around.

  • anonymouse

    I could never date someone who was devout in any faith. I’m in a relationship but if I were ever single again, it would be a requirement. I couldn’t handle someone on my ass about going to hell all the time.

  • cassiek

    I have been successfully married to a fellow atheist for 25 years, but when I was single I did date religious people, mainly Jewish and Christian. I never lasted past a second date with the hard-core Christians; I just couldn’t get past the preaching. I had one long-term relationship with a Jewish man, but his family was fairly secular. However, when we started thinking about marriage, his family began to pressure me to convert, which I could not do in good conscience. It wasn’t the main reason we ended our relationship but it did contribute.

  • Before dating any person of faith, I’d find out if they seriously believe that non-believers are going to hell. For some religious people, this is a nonexistant or very iffy belief. For others it is very serious, and IMHO, an atheist should not date this kind of believer.

    When I was a Christian, I dated atheists and knew other Christians who did, because “Believe on the Lord and you shall be saved, and your house.” In other words, God will probably bring them around, especially if you get married.

    When God doesn’t bring them around, this won’t be a mere disappointment for the hell-centric Christian, but a terrifying, deadly important problem. Think about it — who wants their spouse being tortured for eternity if they can take a step to avoid it? This will become an insurmountable problem.

  • Michelle

    It is really great to read other people’s stories about interfaith relationships. I am an atheist and am dating a guy for almost two years that is a devote Catholic. We have had numerous disagreements in the past about how we would raise a family if we got married. I do not want to raise children in a religious household as he was raised, and he wants to give them the option of choosing their faith. This sounds fine to me, but he also wants his kids to attend private, religious schools (because they are the best he says).

    I feel as though he will not really let our children choose and try to “force” his religion on them. I love him but am so confused about a long term marriage, even though he does not seem to worry. Children should not come between a marriage but I feel as though they would. Whenever I try to discuss this with him it somehow always ends in a fight. I don’t know what to do.

  • Only a few weeks ago I proposed to my fiance… a catholic girl, though I’ve noted to her before that a lot of her views are much more deistic than catholic.

    As far as our relationship has gone so far, it’s been fantastic. She knew I was an atheist up front, and her parents learned that only a couple weeks after we started dating. My parents actually have a bigger problem with me being an atheist that her parents do. And this part is just awesome… my future mother-in-law actually told my mom that she needs to back off of me about being an atheist.

    We’ve never really had a fight, though we have had many discussions. They’re always civil, never any shouting or anything.

    The most “serious” ones end up on how we would raise our kids and it came down to compromise (as if there was another option…). We’ve come to compromises about baptism, when they can start learning about religion, what schools they would go to and conditions that I would be okay with a private school. I get to teach them as much science as I want, so they won’t be ignorant of that at all on that front.

    Many people have said this before me… you need to communicate. Don’t just avoid the subject… you need to talk about it, or it will fester until it is talked about.

  • Adam the Open-Minded Christian

    I’m a Christian and my girlfriend is an atheist. I can tell you right now, if you love the person enough you won’t care what they believe. I think that you should love someone for who they are, not what they believe. Sure, I get scared for her and all of my friends who are atheists. Love the people around you for WHO THEY ARE! Not what they believe. Atheists are more open-minded than most religious people are. We are all entitled to our beliefs and our ideas. You can offer to discuss it when your significant other is ready. Just be willing to hear what he/she has to say, if you don’t then nothing will be resolved. They won’t necessarily think that you’re ignorant for believing what you do. Everyone has different experiences in life and that makes us into who we are today.

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