De Facto Discrimination Against Atheists January 14, 2010

De Facto Discrimination Against Atheists

Now I understand why I don’t have a wife (PDF):

In contrast to the high rates of acceptance of marriage to those of a different racial or ethnic group, the majority of Americans affiliated with a religion would have a difficult time with a family member’s decision to marry someone who does not believe in God. Almost seven-in-ten of those associated with a religion say they would either not accept such a marriage (27%), or be bothered by it before coming to accept it (43%). Just 27% say they would be fine with a relative’s decision to marry someone who did not believe in God.

I would think the stats get even worse for atheists when the interfaith couple plans to have (or has) children.

I haven’t been in a position where a woman’s parents have judged me negatively for being an atheist, but at some point, their acceptance of your beliefs has to take a backseat to the relationship you have with the person you love.

Author Wendy Kaminer has an article at The Atlantic about this study and the general trend of discrimination against atheists. She writes that it’s nothing new, but it’s not as bad as it once was:

I don’t mean to set up any grievance competitions between historically maligned groups, much less suggest that being an atheist in America is harder than being gay. In general, closeting your lack of faith is probably easier and a lot less stressful than closeting your sexuality. Besides, no one can accuse the “new atheists” of being closeted, or otherwise shy in expressing their disdain for religion, as well as their own disbelief; and they don’t lack bully pulpits, which were harder to find a decade ago…

No doubt our soapboxes have grown. We’re living at a time when the atheist blogosphere is blossoming, books by atheists are being published with regular frequency, and the number of local groups for non-theists is growing all the time.

I especially love how Kaminer ends the piece, explaining why religious people have a good reason not to be against us:

It’s an often overlooked irony that atheists who regard all religions with equal disrespect, favoring no one faith over another, are sometimes the most reliable defenders of equal religious rights. But you shouldn’t have to be irreligious to consider religious liberty transcendent.

Which is really just another way of saying your parents shouldn’t be afraid of me. So let’s get hitched.

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  • Greg

    It’s an often overlooked irony that atheists who regard all religions with equal disrespect, favoring no one faith over another, are sometimes the most reliable defenders of equal religious rights.

    Given that the definition of irony is ‘an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.’ (, that statement should read:

    Ironically, it is often overlooked that… (etc.)

    There is no reason to think an atheist wouldn’t treat all religions equally.

    Maybe it’s the grammar and dictionary nazi in me, but that irritated me! 8)

  • All I know is that in the same Southern city, 30 years ago (as an out atheist) I was quite the outcast in High School. Jump forward 15 years and I got married (ironically to a moderate Christian). And now 15 years later we are raising two boys outside of any religious indoctrination and my atheism doesn’t seem to quite bother so many people like it used to.

    Interestingly, though, I have recently reconnected with a lot of old High School classmates through Face Book and they are still talking “God this” and “God that”.

    I have faith in the younger generations.

  • Andy

    My fiancee is Christian and her parents HATE me for being an Atheist. We struggled with our different beliefs quite a bit, but in the end we were able to put our differences aside. Once we accepted each other, we then told her parents about me.

    At first they were just shocked. A REAL LIFE ATHEIST! But Pastor Fred says they’re so EVIL. Then they decided that all Atheists leave the church because of a bad experience, so they would constantly proselytize. They would constantly tell me that Jesus wants me back and God has always loved me even if the Church hasn’t. They had me sit down with their pastor to talk about why I don’t believe (I NEVER should have agreed to that). Finally when it was clear I wasn’t converting they started going insane.

    It started with telling my fiancee all sorts of lies about how evil I am, and that I’m just good at hiding it. Threatening me to leave her. Threatening my fiancee with cutting her off. Calling her current pastor to try and break us up.

    Fortunately it has mostly died down, they still love to talk about how evil I am, but they just don’t put the effort in anymore.

  • Jamie

    Well, that was an interesting marriage proposal. LOL

  • ADW

    My formerly Christian husband recently “confessed” to me that he is an atheist. While I understand that he’s the same amazing husband and loving father, I am terrified to tell our family because I feel rather confident that it’s going to have a negative result. Just being a liberal “evolutionists” in the midst of all kinds of Hannity/Beck/Limbaugh conservatives is already wretched. Throwing an interfaith marriage into the mix (and with an ATHEIST, no less) will bring no end of stress. Eventually the stress of staying closeted will outweigh that stress, but it will definitely be a difficult road.

  • David D.G.

    Jeff P wrote:

    Interestingly, though, I have recently reconnected with a lot of old High School classmates through Face Book and they are still talking “God this” and “God that”.

    I’ve had much the same experience, except that several of my old classmates are actually much more religiously expressive than they were in high school. (This especially fits the one who was a preacher’s kid, who in high school was a stereotypical rebellious teen, but is now an on-fire missionary in Colombia.)

    ~David D.G.

  • It seems that atheists and gays are the two most rejected when it comes to marriage.

    And yet again, the ultra religious are claiming ownership of the term marriage.

  • This is what makes my life so interesting! I’m married to an atheist who is a different race than mine and who was raised in the Jehovah’s Witness ‘religion’.
    AND we live in the south. I guess it’s a bit easier as we’re both atheists…and he’s Asian. Everyone knows Asians are the only race whitey is allowed to marry if they MUST marry non-whitey.*

    People generally leave us alone, though. I guess those easy-lite crosses won’t build themselves.
    (Presumably why I got fire extinguishers as going away presents when we left NYC)

    *that was a joke, btw.

  • Bill

    As a European now married to an American and in America, I find it interesting the use of ‘out as an atheist’. My father was an atheist (even antitheist), my mother a mild, traditional Church of England goer, and neither tried to influence me, merely discussed their personal views when I was old enough to understand. Being atheist (I always have been, by personal conviction) was no big deal and I went to university and was friends with Xtians, muslims, Sikhs, Hindus etc, and it was NEVER a bone of contention. Now I am the US (and the south) I have found it best to be, um, circumspect, about my atheism, due to the almost hysterical reaction it can produce. But damn, it is hard sometimes, plus I feel I should just be upfront about it – I’m happy to atheist. It’s beginning to get quite tough actually, and this sort of data as reported is a bit depressing.

  • Matthew

    My wife is a practicing Christian and our two boys go to church. I, on the other hand, am a pretty staunch atheist. We’re as happy as can be and recognize each other’s differences without criticizing. We both do an equal share of joking, but if she believes in something that makes her a happy person… who am I to deny her that? I’m grateful that she’s VERY liberal and non-judgmental.

    We’ve agreed that should any of our boys decide church isn’t for them (they don’t go every Sunday but usually when they just feel like it and go for the camaraderie with other kids) that she’d never pressure them into going. Her church is pretty open and very loving; they preach a message of understanding, acceptance, and love for all.
    They don’t tell the boys tales of people burning in hell for their sins, etc.

    Our religious differences have caused zero problems in our marriage, and I definitely don’t see it causing a rift of any kind in the foreseeable future.

  • Matt D

    for Andy, good luck with the future in-laws. I’m married to a fundie who I know believes I am going to hell. It makes it really hard to connect at times because our world views have very little overlap.

    I’ve got 2 little kids to look out for and I’m hoping that over time my coaching in critical thinking will negate my wife’s indoctrination.

    My best bet (and yours) is to be a good father (and son, husband, brother, neighbour etc) and hope that when my kids ask me if I’m going to hell that my actions will speak or themselves.

    I’m sure you love your fiancee, but there is a strong warning for you in this comment. Love might conquer all – it might not.

  • Matt D

    I second Bill’s comments (although I dont live in the US). I cant imagine having to be so guarded about something that in so many parts of the world really isnt that big a deal.

    I guess so many people there still think atheist means satan worshipper. Maybe he could try “oh, no, I’m not and Athiest, I just dont believe in god”

  • TychaBrahe

    Dude, go to and look up Chicago Secular Singles. They do brunches on Sunday and movies/plays/comedian events that relate to atheism.

    Maybe you could join, meet a nice Skepchick, and not long after no longer qualify for membership. 🙂

  • Hey, if you don’t mind the cougar thing, I’m available…..

  • Angie

    Ah, nonbelief and relationships … the stories I could tell about my relationship with my fundamentalist boyfriend, and the break-up that ensued because he decided we were “unevenly yoked”.

    Matt D — If I’m not prying, did you and your partner marry ORIGINALLY as a fundamentalist and a nonbeliever? Or, did you become a nonbeliever after you married (or did your partner become a fundie after getting married)?

    Being in a mixed faith relationship can be difficult, especially with children in the mix. I wish you the best of luck.

  • Interestingly, though, I have recently reconnected with a lot of old High School classmates through Face Book and they are still talking “God this” and “God that”.

    I was a fundy in HS — one of the few (Toronto is not exactly Bible Belt), so I stood out a bit. I recently reconnected with a few friends from then, including the ones from church at the time. So far, no one has commented on the fact that my Profile gives my politics as “Cynical” and my religion as “Cynicaller”.

  • I do!

    Oh, wait. . .

    So, um, what’s your take on polyamory . . . ? 😉

  • While this is disturbing in that many would not approve of a family member marrying an atheist, it does not show the breakdown in age groups who say this. I have a suspicion that, as is usually the case in polls like these, the older generation skewed the average data. So while the possibility of being heckled at the family barbecue is high, there may be many people of the 20-30 age range who do not share the sentiment. Sadly, like much social change, we must wait for the younger generation to grow up before we start seeing results.

  • liz

    I don’t understand how you could be in a relationship with a person that believes you’re going to go to some place like hell when you die. and i dont see how they could possibly be in a relationship with someone that literally doesnt believe in the most important thing in their lives. weird.

    i like my atheist husband…and i like to think he likes me more for my atheism

  • Trace

    Wife: raised Methodist, not religious. American born. Me: culturally Catholic, atheist for a long time. Grew up in Europe.

    We had a civil marriage while living in Canada. Nobody (in-laws) cared too much one way or another.

    We have a nine year old boy. He is bicultural. Religion has played a very small role in his life (the ocassional service, funeral, etc.). We think that a basic exposure to religion is important to his education so 1) he better understands its cultural significance and 2)does not grow up mysticized by it. Extended family seems to be OK with that.

    We are secular homeschoolers and live in a very conservative and religious part of rural NY.

    PS: English is not my native language…sorry…doing my best 😉

  • Luther

    I would eventually accept it if one of my atheist children married a religious person, but I would be initially concerned. So it does not surprise me if religious people have similar concerns.

    I would not be concerned about one marrying a person of another race. But if they were evolution, global warming, or holocaust deniers I would be concerned for the same reasons as if they were religious.

  • randy

    LOL, I misread this as:

    … the majority of Americans ***afflicted*** with a religion would have a difficult time …

    Actually, it makes a lot more sense that way.

  • muggle

    Good, I won’t have to worry about marrying any time soon.

    If this keeps someone off bended knee (well around me anyway) and I think it has despite not being pushy about what he believes and saying he doesn’t care about what I don’t, good.

    Where oh where are all these mythical men who have a fear of commitment I’ve heard tell of? People swear they’re out there; other women complain about them but me, I always seem to outlast them in that department. Sooner or later, we go our own way because of this.

    If I ever did break down that wall, it would only be to someone who had the balls to say loud and strong there is no “God”. None of this wishy washy, slight chance I could be wrong stuff either. I hate that.

    Of course the first husband was Christian so maybe that’s got something to do with narrowing my mind. It’s certainly got something to do with my record-breaking fear of committment.

  • Trace

    mysticized=mystified 😉 oh my! Who knows what else I have screwed up….

  • Jenniffer Groceman

    Ha! Lagunatic totally made this day better.

    Hemant, I have no idea why you don’t have a wife. If you’re still looking… 😉

  • Sadly I think polyandry is illegal in my state. Oh well. One trophy husband is probably enough.

  • JJR

    As I’ve related before, married a wishy-washy agnostic undergrad who was on the Dean’s list. I was a grad student; both of us were anti-war from early on (Afghanistan)…I knew she came from a fundie background but she seemed on the verge of dumping the whole bag of nonsense, so I gambled on pushing our friendship in a romantic direction.

    Our relationship was very passionate, and at first she didn’t seem to care about my atheism. Her fundy mom even liked me as a person, but she wept real tears thinking about someone so nice spending an eternity in her God’s hell. She didn’t approve of my “living in sin” with her daughter, but she didn’t shun her wayward daughter either. She even said once that I would “bring her daughter back to Jesus.”; This turned out to be correct, though not in the way she expected (i.e. I didn’t come along for the ride). Long story short, got married, the wife went back to being a biblical fundie, and got pissy when I wouldn’t board the crazy train with her and kept questioning her beliefs and biblical morals. Toss in some control-freak issues from her side; I eventually walked out and filed for divorce. During the divorce her aim was not only to save the marriage but get me “saved”; failed on both counts, glad to say.

    Learned that last year she finally got herself a new boyfriend and had a son out of wedlock by him in October 2009…such a good, upstanding Christian girl! 😉 Same person who went on and on about the sacredness of OUR wedding vows, blah, blah, blah.

    When I walked out of the marriage, the mother-in-law said in a rare moment of total honesty: “I’m surprised you hung in there as long as you did, son.”

    My Ex had had a reputation of being a real man-hater and never having a serious boyfriend before I came along. Her friends always regarded me as kind of amazing in that I could win the heart of the friend they knew so differently. Invariably one of them would turn to me and ask “how did you DO it?”

    I was kind, compassionate, I listened, I was patient, and very gentle; Wasn’t perfect, probably self-absorbed at times, even selfish, but I really did try to be a good partner in the relationship. In retrospect maybe I should’ve waited for her to come to atheism on her own and if she never did then just back away slowly…but what can I say, love is blind, my heart ached to be with her, and I really did love her at one point. Life circumstances forced me to take a chance and I did. It turned out badly in the end, but there were good times along the way. I wouldn’t want to do it *again*, but I also wouldn’t erase any of it if I could.

  • Being married (41 years) to a radical Catholic lady makes it fairly easy for me (atheist at 16). She rejects almost all of what the Catholic church stands for: men, power, wealth. For her, its a social milieu. She feels comfortable. Its her quiet time. I did modern dance and ballet for 25 years, and do tai chi and steel pan. Similar results.

    Interestingly, I agreed she would raise our children as Catholics. All three of our sons are non-churched, humanist, atheist types.

    Being married to a fundamentalist would be tough, as witnessed above. The liberal wings of religions are so much more relaxed. We both knew going in what the baggage was. And we both have a live and let live attitude, as long as you don’t force things on others. The recent rise of the religious right, both christian and Islamic, has caused me to get a bit more vociferous about the evils of religion and why bronze age myths are destructive of society. Its lead to some interesting conversations, usually of the sort “why do you say that?”. I just answer the question. She has gotten a bit interested in my reasoning. I keep telling her she is half a step away from graduating, and she says she’s just comfortable where she is. We have a lot in common, and enjoy our differences.

  • En Passant

    Those poll results are no joke, f’realz. I’ve been an atheist for about 6-7 years, and hardly anyone I know in my parents’ generation knows it. If my significant other’s super-Catholic mother found out… Ugh. Luckily the S.O. personally leads a secular life, so no conflict between the two of us.

    But I’m so afraid that the mom will be one of those statistics when she finds out her child and I won’t be married in a church or by a priest.

  • and I won’t be married in a church or by a priest

    When I got married (to a Christian) we were not affiliated with any church so my fiancé saw in the local Style magazine an ad for a minister for hire to perform marriage ceremonies. We rented out a local mansion for a combination marriage ceremony and reception, invited everybody we knew, and everyone had a good time. The exchange of vowels was short and sweet and the vast majority of the time was spent at the party afterwards.

    That works just fine.

  • Andy

    Jeff which vowel did you give? I want to give my fiancee a U, but I think a lot of people would find that offensive. 🙂

  • Oy, so basically I have a 1 in 4 chance of finding a good relationship in the future that will turn to marriage…

    Do any good-looking, single atheist women want a ridiculously youthful-looking single atheist guy? I only look like I’m 17, but I’m not!

  • Deltabob

    An atheist friend of mine has always wanted to marry a woman who is religious, because he wanted his children to be raised in a religious setting because of having always felt alienated growing up as an atheist.

    While I disagree heartily with his wanting his children to follow a god he doesn’t believe in, I can see his point about the second class citizen treatment many atheists receive.

  • Chri

    I know this is an old thread, but wow… I am lucky to be with my fiance — we are both atheists.

    The only major disagreement we have is on how gingerly to step around our parents (we were both raised catholic). Perhaps this is because I am also extremely anti-religion, with a particular dislike for Born Again Christianity and Islam. Because I have no respect for religion and all other forms of conservatism I tend to keep my mouth shut. She is better at being sincerely diplomatic.

    Looking at the statistics, being in an interracial relationship with both partners as Political “Liberal” Atheists is pretty uncommon, I suppose. We certainly are a minority.

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