Secondhand Atheist Dating October 21, 2009

Secondhand Atheist Dating

This post is by Jesse Galef

Here’s an interesting twist on a common question.  I’ve been asked several times whether I could date a religious girl. I can speak from experience (though with a sample size of one) that it didn’t work out well. She told me that her faith was a big part of who she was, and asked that if I didn’t respect her faith how could I respect her?  (For the record, an uncomfortable silence ensued before I asked “Is it really that big a part of you?”  We didn’t date long.)

Fortunately for me, it’s not an issue with Lisa, my current girlfriend.  She’s a member of the Secular Student Alliance, helped found two secular clubs in college, and is generally amazing.  Here’s an illustrative picture of her at the Maryland Renaissance Festival:

Lisa rocking the heresy sign in the stocks

But today my sister, Julia, posed a slightly different version of the question: “Could you date someone who could date someone who is religious?”

The question isn’t whether I could have a religious girlfriend, it’s whether I could date someone who has no problem dating religious guys.

I don’t think that I would immediately reject such a girl, but I don’t know if the relationship would last in my case.  I consider certain traits central to my identity – my skepticism, my rationality, my willingness to accept what I think is true rather than what I wish were true.  If a girl has no problem dating a religious person, how much could she value those traits in me?

I’m not talking about a girl who might take issue with religion but is willing to overlook it for other reasons.  There’s a difference between a girl who is willing to date a religious person and a girl who has no problem with it.  It becomes a matter of degree: how much does she value rationality?

What do you think? Of the question, not of Lisa, who I already know is great.

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  • Chal

    I think the more important question is whether you could date someone who could date someone who could date someone who is religious. 😛

    But seriously, I can’t see the problem. Just because a girl is willing to date a religious guy doesn’t mean that she doesn’t value scepticism, rationality and all that good stuff, it just (probably) means that the guy had other features that outweighed his religiosity.

  • Jasen777

    OMG, an atheist version of second degree separation.

  • Amyable Atheist

    Certainly an interesting thing to think about but not one I could make a decision about in the abstract. On a case by case basis, I would add this to the scales along with the billion other factors that come into play when determining compatibility with another person…holy crap I sound like an EHarmony commercial (EW)…

  • Polly

    Jeeeezus tap-dancing Christ. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
    We’re atheists.


  • Brandon

    I’ve been dating a deeply religious woman for around two years now. There have been some stumbling blocks from it, but because we have no plans for marriage or children, it’s not really that big of a problem. Like me, she’s a scientist, so her religion is more of a single blind spot that some overwhelming lack of rationality.

  • Demetrius Of Pharos

    I can say from my one experience that its a nightmare. Constant arguments over whether or not religion is a force for good or is tolerable or etc, which I eventually stopped bothering to engage in because I found her arguments tedious and realized her dogmatic upbringing was a large part of the problem.

    Of course, she was also an anti-vax/chiropractic-loving/organic-food-buying/cultural-relativist, so in retrospect the relationship was pretty much doomed from the start.

    All that aside though, in this case it was a control issue (she wanted to control every aspect the relationship) whereas I was finally being myself rather than being who I thought others expected me to be. So my experience is anecdotal, but might give warning signs to watch for.

  • mcbender

    I see the problem, and I want to say my position would be similar to Hemant’s (perhaps this is why I’m single; there just aren’t enough qualified, untaken atheist women out there).

    I could see myself having a difficult time dating an accommodationist, although I don’t necessarily think I wouldn’t do it. If nothing else, I think it would give us some interesting topics to argue about, and that’s always a good thing.

    Now as far as dating religious people go… sorry, I can’t date somebody I can’t respect. End of discussion. Maybe a deist… maybe; deism isn’t wholly disreputable, but no further than that.

  • exmai

    As long as my current s/o is happy dating me and vice versa, I have absolutely no problem with any inferior people he dated in the past or might resort to dating now if I weren’t available.

    /tongue in cheek

    Seriously: Why worry about hypothetical questions when there’s a flesh-and-blood human in front of you whom I’m guessing would be happy to give you a concrete answer as to how much she values those “certain traits central to [your] identity”.

    Consider this: those other relationships didn’t work out. She may or may not be willing to date religious folks, but given the choice, she chose to an atheist. What other information do you really need on this subject?

  • TK

    I met this one girl at school. Extremely friendly and attractive. I found out that her religious beliefs are so strong that kissing prior to marriage is tantamount to adultery to a future husband. Needless to say, I lost all romantic interest in her.

    I am not particularly good at getting mates, but there is still a level of religious devotion that I will avoid. Religion for most people is completely separate from their personalities. It lingers in their minds, reminding them of mistakes in their personalities, but never really changing them. If it has enough of an effect on a person, it has become the personality and I think those people are the ones to avoid.

  • Brandon

    The sentiments a couple people have expressed come across as being about as close-minded as what I think of conservative Christians as being, rather the atheist community.. Aren’t most of you irritated by religious people that look down on us simply for our lack of belief? How can you claim any sort of moral higher ground while doing the exact same thing?

    I can fully understand why someone would say that they’re incompatible with religious partners for relationship purposes, but stating that it’s because you “can’t respect them” seems just downright bigoted.

    Demetrius – it sounds like the person you were with was a wholesale idiot, not just a ‘normal’ religious person.

  • Brandon

    TK – I think you hit the nail on the head much better than I would have. For many people, religion isn’t their defining characteristic, just something that they do. Of course, it’s not something that I admire, and it’s a trait that I’d rather my partner not have, but I don’t get why it would be an automatic deal breaker.

  • Demetrius Of Pharos

    @ Brandon – yes, thats pretty much precisely how I would describe this person now. Unfortunately, I didnt realize it until much later on. Also, to be clear, she wasn’t very religious, more of an accommodationist, but she was batshit-insane in other areas. Like I said, more of a cautionary anecdote then meaningful data.

  • Brandon

    Yeah, I see what you’re saying there.

    I don’t think there’s anyway to have particularly meaningful data, at least not for individual usage. It would be interesting from a research standpoint to see how atheist/theist couples work out compared to their counterparts, but it doesn’t tell me anything at all about how this particular atheist will work out with an individual theist. When it comes to relationships, it’s all about personal compatibility.

    I’d honestly have a much bigger difficulty dating vax/homeopathy nut than a Christian. I work in immunology, so biomedical research is my life; it’s much more of a self identifier for me than my atheism. Those people are just a direct affront to every bit of what I stand for.

  • Shannon

    Ditto what Polly said 😉

    I also want to say that I was still a practicing Christian when my atheist husband fell in love with me. And it was over 10 years of blissful marriage before I reverted back to the atheist I had been before we met. True, I was a very open minded Christian who willingly admitted all the bad stuff, but I was church going and choir singing and all that shit, and he didn’t care because he fell in love with *me*. Love is love. You don’t choose who you fall in love with.

  • Sackbut

    We’re talking dating, right? Going out to do some fun things, being friendly, enjoying each other’s company, right? We’re not talking about making a lifetime commitment? Why not date a religious person? To me, it’s like asking whether you can be good friends with a religious person, and I hope the answer for most of us is an emphatic yes.

  • Alec

    First, I have to say that I’m completely jealous of you, Hemant! Lisa is very pretty!

    I have to ditto Polly as well, hah.

    Finally, I don’t know that I could date a religious girl. I’m sure it could happen, but it’s probably much easier to date someone with similar lifestyles. I probably wouldn’t know though, I’ve only had one girlfriend before, but it was about 3 years ago, in the sixth grade, so I don’t think that counts, haha. I don’t really see a problem with dating someone that would date a religious person though.

  • sailor

    “I met this one girl at school. Extremely friendly and attractive. I found out that her religious beliefs are so strong that kissing prior to marriage is tantamount to adultery to a future husband. Needless to say, I lost all romantic interest in her.”

    Now that is rational, but it has more to do with the kissing than the religion.

    If you understand where religious people come from (it is easier to understand some than others) and respect them, I don’t see what the big problem is. Reminds me of when I was young and guess what: The idea of Catholics dating Protestants was considered really risky. Come on guys lighten up a bit. If she is pretty, lively, has fun, is good with people and has a good heart, who cares?

  • I don’t see why I’d have trouble dating a woman who could date a religious man. I mean, it’s dating. There’s not necessarily any desire for something serious to come from it. If she just enjoyed his company and liked the physical closeness of the relationship as long as they didn’t talk about religion, it could work for a while.

    I really have no need to ask someone’s dating history. That’s an invasive question and can only offend the person you’re looking to spend more time with. I don’t need to know, you don’t need to know. It’s just unnecessary. Sure, if you are dating a person, if that person is seeing someone else, it’s good to know that the relationship isn’t exclusive, but you don’t need to be told who the other person is.

    Short version: Maybe you know that s/he has dated, that you’re not his/her first, you should definitely know if he/she is still dating, if s/he is dating you exclusively or not. That’s it.

    I know I wouldn’t want to have a woman interview me about my dating history, just to see if I was worth dating.

  • Lynet

    If I was dating a theist, I’d need to know that they didn’t mind my atheism, and it would probably be fairly important that they didn’t believe anything too crazy or have restrictive ideas about sex. However, it might still work. I wouldn’t discount it.

    By contrast, an atheist who just happens to be willing to date a religious person is almost certainly fine on those counts, so, sure, that could work.

  • Mariana

    Well, I am an atheist woman in a relationship with a deeply religious man…it’s not that I agree with his faith, but he is such a good person and has so many good qualities that they outweigh the differences. Also, we can openly discuss said differences — it’s not as if one of us has to pretend to be something we’re not. I am happy for the opportunity to provide arguments for the opposition (for one thing, I’ve convinced him that you needn’t be Christian to be good).

    If we as atheists automatically dismiss the possibility of friendship or relationships with people simply because they are religious, well, doesn’t that make us just as close-minded as “the other side”?

  • Lexi

    As a female agnostic who has problems with dating the religious (as in I can’t I’ve tried the mildly religious and it still doesn’t work as soon as something gody comes up, I lose my attraction. It is atheists or agnostics for me.

    Anyway, I don’t have a problem with a guy who is atheist or agnostic who has dated a religious girl in the past. But this could be because I’m somewhat sexist and expect men to be the more rational of the two partners. Additionally there are more men out there that are atheists than women. And after having given it some thought, if I were to be back on the dating scene again, I don’t think I’d date someone who is willing to date a very religious girl. I don’t know until I meet him.

  • Lisa

    Just for the record, in case anyone cares… I do think I could date a theist (if I weren’t already crazy about some atheist blogger guy, of course).

    Although I personally am a Heretic- I follow no deity except for the FSM- there are some religious views that annoy me more than others. For example, I’ve met some neo-pagans with views that I could handle, although I would never be able to date someone who thinks that humans used to have pet dinosaurs. I agree with Jesse; I think it’s very much a matter of degree.

    The Girl in the Stocks

  • muggle

    It seems rather extreme to worry about this. How does it matter exactly? She’s choosing to date you.

    Also, are you talking the past, present or future? Presumably the present, you’re hoping she’s not dating another even if they are Atheist if you’re in a serious relationship and if it’s casual, why in heck would you give a darn. Future would only mean if you two broke up so, again, why would it matter? Past is past and may or may not be what they’d do now so, again, it doesn’t matter.

    If it helps, I once married a Christian.
    Wouldn’t date anyone other than another nonbeliever now.

  • Simo

    I’m married to someone like you describe. She’s something of a religious chameleon as near as I can tell. She was raised Methodist, and has sentimental attachments to that faith, but is non-practicing.

    I was very open about my lack of faith from the beginning, and it wasn’t a problem. I know one of the guys she dated in college was from a very restrictive Christian household. So, go figure.

    This holiday season, she’s playing in the handbell choir on invitation of one of her co-workers at one of the Methodist churches in the area. But, she also regularly attends the twice-a-month atheist association meetings with me.

    The overall feeling that I get is that she likes Churchy stuff, but doesn’t really buy into most of the mumbo-jumbo.

    Also, it can be social suicide to be an open atheist in the deep south–so this may be a consideration.

  • Charon

    I can fully understand why someone would say that they’re incompatible with religious partners for relationship purposes, but stating that it’s because you “can’t respect them” seems just downright bigoted.

    My experience, and it sounds like Jesse’s too, is that they wonder if you can actually respect them if you don’t respect their religion. For the record, I think the answer is yes, although I sometimes have to try to convince my religious girlfriend that’s true. (And honestly, I would respect her even more if she decided, due to rational argument, to leave religion.)

  • Rob

    Why stop at second order? Why not keep going, and take the transitive closure of being kind of okay with religious people, so that the entire world is separated cleanly into “us” and “them”?

    Unfortunately, not being prepared to separate myself from basically everyone I know, I’d have to be classified as “them”. Hemant would probably be “them” too, because, you know, he started a website about being an atheist who’s friendly toward Christians.

    Actually, I have a better idea. We could call it “tolerance”.

  • Godfrey Zone

    My husband is agnostic and I’m Atheist (with a capital “A”!) and we have some lively, but respectful debates. I do sometimes look at him with a bit of disbelief… how can someone so smart, creative and well… tasteful (he likes me, after all!) even consider all that twaddle. He, on the other hand, has really reconsidered his ideas about atheists. He says I’m one of the most moral people he knows. Maybe he just knows a lot of immoral people, though!

    His mother is a bible thumping Baptist who drummed the fear of God into her children and he’s done pretty well all things considered. I do believe that other than a few people who jump the fence in adulthood, most people are victims of their childhood indoctrination. Children are different in how they interpret the indoctrination, of course. He says he always took what his mother said with a pinch of salt, but some of it got in, nonetheless!

    He’s even got his mother to understand that I don’t eat babies (haha). She did, however, end the big discussion with an “I’ll pray for her”! Which I don’t mind. She’s a very sweet person and I’d pray for her, too, if I were… you know… afraid she might go to Hell. At least she wants to save my soul. She’s a really good shot (seriously, she is a prize-winning targetwoman) and I’m glad she’d rather pray for me than aim at me from a bell tower!

    My first husband (who died) was an apostate moderate Muslim with some residual generic spiritual beliefs (which I just don’t share). We got along just fine, though! He died of cancer very young and I’m pretty sure his whole religious community thought it was punishment for leaving his religion and marrying a headstrong atheist heathen!

    In my experience the chasm between belief systems hasn’t been too large (I don’t think I’d be able to respect an evangelical anything!), but it’s not difficult to get along with someone who is a believer. Particularly if their evangelical parents live in a different city!


  • To me the question is one of rapport and the consequences for disagreeing within the relationship. If having different opinions is like picking a different favorite color, I’m fine dating a woman who could date religious people. We’ve all got errors in our brain. I know believers I can live with. What’s so hard about nonbelievers that aren’t all or nothing? I’m one. I’m gonna be wrong on lots of things, I can’t expect my partner to have more figured out or to be more adamant about it.

  • ecorona

    I think you’d do better dating a ‘woman’ since you’re an adult, Hemant.

  • absent sway

    It’s fair to wonder whether somebody could truly value your prized rational traits if they don’t seem to prioritize rationality in general, prospective dates being just one example, I suppose. I think there’s no need to limit your playing field by such stringent criteria as described, though, provided that someone can demonstrate that they share your values and/or appreciate your strengths and perspective. Keep in mind that although rationality is important, there’s also more to life, more strengths and weaknesses in other people and ourselves to consider. I think how someone approaches this question depends quite a bit on their level of idealism vs. pragmatism, and it takes all kinds.

  • Delphine

    I don’t see a problem either. I’m dating whom I consider a deeply religious Catholic. (According to him he’s not that religious compared to others.)

    There’s tension between us. He’s not happy when I make fun of Christians or diss the Pope, and if he tells me there’s no atheist in the foxhole then all hell breaks lose.

    I do appreciate rationality and I consider myself a very rational person. In fact, my boyfriend says I’m probably the most rational person he knows. The down side is I think with rationality and don’t understand people’s emotional, uncalculated responses.

    I tolerate his religiosity because he doesn’t base his values on religion. Religion is a reasonably small part of his life. He doesn’t pray out loud any time. While he reads the Bible and considers it a good source of morality (lol?) he also acknowledges it’s filled with violence and evil. He acknowledges his god is not perfect. He even points out Yahweh never said he was the ONLY god. He just said he’s the only god Jews should pray to.

    If someone doesn’t force his religion upon me and doesn’t base his values on religion, then I’m totally okay with him being religious. He can believe in 50 gods and it won’t bother me.

    Sometimes I question why he even bother to stay a Catholic if he doesn’t agree with the pope most of the time, but meh, rationality shuts off when it comes to things indoctrinated into you when you’re small.

  • I wrote a more in depth response here. From what I understand the post implies that religious people are less capable, or incapable, of skepticism and rational thinking. This is completely false. Not only can an atheist who dates a religious person still value those traits, but the religious are equally capable of valuing them as well.

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