Ask Richard: Atheist Having Romantic Feelings Toward a Catholic Friend February 12, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist Having Romantic Feelings Toward a Catholic Friend

Hi Richard,

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. From what I’ve read, you typically give advice concerning family and jobs, rather than matters of the heart. I sincerely hope that you can help me resolve this problem.

I’m a young female college student, and I consider myself an anti-theist atheist. I’ve developed a romantic interest in a close friend who I’ve known for several years. We are compatible in the areas that are important to me — political views, interests, sense of humor, and others — except for one: he is a practicing Catholic. My dilemma is whether or not to pursue a committed relationship with him.

It’s not entirely clear how fervently my friend believes. I can tell you that he regularly prays before meals, attends church every few months, and participates in Lent and other Christian holidays. He also supports (perhaps loosely) some Christian principles such as abstaining from premarital sex. However, I have heard him criticize certain Catholic leaders for opposing contraception, and in the past he has distanced himself from his parents who he calls “radically religious.” It seems like he lives in the Christian tradition without centering his life on God. But I can’t be sure, and I feel like it would be unfriendly to ask him directly.

Religious disagreements aren’t always a relationship barrier, as I’m sure many happily married couples could tell me. But there are potential conflicts for me to consider. Since my friend is subtle and reserved about his beliefs, I am more concerned that I would create problems, not him. I am certainly willing to tone down my opinionated disposition, but I don’t know if that will solve the problem.

If my friend and I were to become closer, I’m sure I would more often witness his religiosity. I fear I would lose respect for him every time he prayed or went to church (that’s already sort of true since he prays silently when we go out to eat). I also worry that not only will I say something offensive to him, but that I won’t be sorry I did. We can’t simply agree never to talk about religion. Such a topic is inevitable, as well as relevant to how we view the world. I see religion as unreal, pointless, and often harmful, and I won’t be able to ignore his theism.

Although it will be difficult, I am prepared to put aside my feelings for my friend if I decide it’s not a good idea for us to be together. If decide to go ahead and pursue him romantically, I don’t know how I will handle or avoid the conflicts I have mentioned.

Any advice you can offer would be much appreciated.


Dear Enamored,

I know just the person whom you should consult. He’s the world’s leading authority on your friend’s views about religion, atheism, and even your friend’s feelings about you.

That expert is your friend.

When people begin to feel romantic love toward a friend, that is when they should become more open, frank and forthcoming about their feelings, not less. Unfortunately, the common tendency is to become more self protective and less self expressive. People think that more is at risk in a love relationship than a friendship, so they hesitate to share the very things that could allow the love to flourish. So they go on and on in limbo, wondering, guessing, wishing, and hoping that they can somehow learn the truth without telling the truth, without risking being hurt or embarrassed. Often they wait so long that opportunity slips through their fingers. Love is not for the timid.

So is there an atheist’s approach to this kind of situation? Perhaps. If you accept the idea that atheists tend to be realists, focused on what actually is rather than wishful thinking, if you accept the idea that atheists tend to be rational, preferring to figure things out logically, and if you accept the idea that to be realists and rationalists, they avoid making assumptions and instead try to gather data, information and evidence, then the atheist’s approach to this would be to gather the information you need in a step-by-step process.

There is a myth perpetuated by romance novels that predicaments posed by love cannot or even should not be handled with reason. Just as we have rejected other superstitions, we need to disabuse ourselves of this assumption that we cannot apply good problem solving skills to something as important as finding out where we stand with a potential lover. When it comes to such a significant thing in our lives, why should we follow the silly notion that we cannot use our prefrontal cortex, and only use our gut?

The first step would be to find out what are your friend’s feelings toward you. To do that, you simply need to come forth with your feelings in a candid but not dramatic way, and then ask him frankly if he has any similar emotions toward you. If he does not have a romantic interest that is in any way mutual, then you need not go any further in pursuing a love relationship. If you can set those feelings aside, as you said you think you can, then your friendship can continue. If sharing your feelings with him “scares him off,” and he ends the friendship, then he is a rather shallow and immature friend anyway. Good that you found out.

If he does have some comparable affections for you and an interest in a committed relationship, then you would go to the next step, to exchange information about religious attitudes. You seem to be mostly worried that his religiosity would be a deal breaker for you, but your atheism might very well be a deal breaker for him. As you say, religious disagreements are not always a relationship barrier. Some couples are able to make it work. But sadly it often is insurmountable, even with some Christians who have some liberal traits as your friend appears to have.

Whether the two of you become a committed couple or remain at the friendship level, it is not a good idea to keep suppressing an important aspect of yourself in order to preserve the relationship. Build relationships that allow both people to fully be who they are. You have strong opinions about religion, and you’re not going to be able to keep swallowing them. It will eventually become obvious that you are being evasive or disingenuous. He’ll either figure it out, or he might misinterpret your being cagey in some way that makes things worse. As you have said, discussing religion is probably inevitable. The longer you put it off, the more painful it will be if it splits you up.

Similarly as with your feelings, you can lay out your opinions on religion in a frank but courteous way, and encourage him to do the same. It would not be as you say, “unfriendly to ask him directly.” It would be respectful to both him and yourself, showing that you have confidence in both of your abilities to discuss this maturely and civilly. If the two of you cannot do this, then again, it’s good that you found out.

Enamored, I hope you can get past your hesitation and free yourself from this endless guessing and wondering about what might be, could be, and would be. Use those good traits that atheists tend to have and boldly and assertively find out what is. To learn his truth, tell your truth.

For the best friendships or love relationships, ask earnestly, answer honestly, love openly, and think rationally.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. All will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

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  • littlejohn

    Certainly good advice, but I wonder exactly what sort of romantic relationship the lady has in mind.
    If she envisions marriage, then I see serious problems, as the Catholic Church requires elaborate premarital conseling by a priest, then if there are children, your husband will insist they be raised Catholic.
    If she envisions something less than marrige, it is already clear he opposes premarital sex, so what would your relationship consist of beyond the friendship you already have?
    My atheist father married my nominally Catholic mother, but not until she agreed to stop practicing her Catholicism. A liberal Protestant clergyman performed a quickie marriage, Fortunately, my mom’s Catholicism didn’t really mean much to her, so it worked out.

  • Enamored,

    Another option is to change the order of Richard’s advice a bit and first lay your “religious cards” on the table for him to see and then kind of see what happens.

    I’m married to a lax Christian (15 years now) and I told her my religious view on our first date. She had plenty of time while we were dating to absorb this and reconcile it with her own views.

    One thing going to your advantage is that in our culture the man often defers to the woman matters of social custom. Perhaps he will end up deferring to you on matters of “church going” and such.

    Good luck,


  • JulietEcho

    Good advice, and I second Jeff’s suggestion as well – maybe put your opinions out on the table more clearly before addressing your feelings. If it becomes clear that you two wouldn’t be able to handle the differences, you won’t need to bring the “will we”/”won’t we” relationship talk up at all.

    If you do think things could work out, and if he feels the same way, don’t agonize over the decision – go for it! The only way to find out if some relationships can work is to try them, and every romantic relationship you ever have will eventually end… until one doesn’t. Even if this guy doesn’t end up being the guy for you, a positive dating experience with him could open up the possibility of dating other non-atheists in the future.

    Best of luck!

  • Peregrine

    The church only requires counseling and raising the children Catholic if the ceremony is to be held in the church. For a civil or secular ceremony, or ceremony, or ceremony by another denomination or faith, there there is no such requirement. Some churches, depending on the parish, might even perform the ceremony anyway, but just won’t “consecrate” it, or whatever. Ask the priest about the “fine print”.

    From my experience, Catholics are pretty easy going folks by and large. And this lady’s friend sounds like many of his opinions are in line with hers, religious views aside.

    I’d say go for it. Talk it out with him first, by all means, but don’t let a few minor differences of belief stand in the way of a potentially meaningful relationship. If there are any serious incompatibilities, hopefully you’ll find out about them long before marriage comes in to it. That’s kindof what the dating process is about.

  • mcbender

    I couldn’t enter into such a relationship, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t. Richard’s advice seems sound here.

  • Rebecca Gavin

    The only thing I can add to all this excellent advice is that theists, especially Catholics, can change their level of religiosity throughout their lives. Your friend could abandon religion entirely, or he could become even more religious, especially in times of hardship. I think theism is kind of like an addiction that way. I come from a fairly large extended family of Catholics on both sides, and to my knowledge, my sister and I are the only two non-practicing Catholics in the whole lot.

  • I think that’s very good advice. I am an atheist and my wife is a Christian. We’ve been open about our beliefs since the beginning and the conflicts between the two belief sets don’t get in the way of the rest of our relationship. It has taken some work on both our parts, but it’s definitely not impossible.

  • Lauren

    Let’s face it. Atheists only make up a small percentage of the population. If you live in the United States chances are you will be around lots of Christians – including some good looking, funny, just-your-type kinda guys or ladies.

    Lots of atheists are married and/or in functional, loving relationships with believers. I do not believe that religious differences are insurmountable, as long as both parties are honest and accepting of each other.

    I often offer to go to church with my S.O. – I don’t want him giving up on his own belief system because of me. You can put me in any church anywhere and I will be respectful(meanwhile keeping in mind that it is a nice fairy tale.) Of course, he knows me and knows how I feel and never takes me up on my offer. (:

    If we expect Christians to be open minded with us, we need to be open minded and tolerant of them. (Even if we believe it is all a bunch of poppycock! They think we are just as crazy!)

  • Lauren

    By the way – I am officially going to start using the word “Poppycock” (:

  • Joseph

    My family’s Catholic, and they’re all pretty liberal about it (like, they think priests should be able to marry and think Communion is just metaphorical). My father is even a Christian universalist, they just like being Catholic because they parents were, they went to a Catholic high school, it’s tradition.

    Good to hear he believes in birth control. Another thing to find out is if he believes in female ordination. Says a lot about how a guy will treat you if he thinks women can teach or hold authority over men.

  • Shorter Richard: go for it, and be honest all the way. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it, whichever way it turns out.

  • Claudia

    If she envisions marriage, then I see serious problems, as the Catholic Church requires elaborate premarital conseling by a priest, then if there are children, your husband will insist they be raised Catholic.

    Certainly these are potential issues, but they need not be assumed at once, especially not from what appears to be a pretty liberal Catholic. I know one such couple (she’s a Catholic, he’s an atheist). She’s a theist yes, but so liberal that the sum of her religious belief is a prayer now and then, a religious ceremony or two and that’s about it. Civil wedding, son baptized but unlikely to be raised truly religious.

    You really have to know the individual to know what to expect. If we had to decide if someone was husband/wife material before taking the first step, lots and lots of people would die virgins, and that’s no fun at all.

  • Deepak Shetty

    As an agnostic(born to a hindu family) married to a catholic here are my views
    a. Both of you must want to make it work and you should be willing to work at it. Understand that you will always have differences with your partner and this is just one more difference. The key thing is how will you’ll choose to react when there is disagreement.
    b. Even if you understand and compromise with each other, you may have parents , relatives who make snarky remarks, or want you to convert or attend church or whatever. It is very important that you’ll stand by whatever you’ll decide.
    c. By far kids are the biggest stumbling block. If your spouse wants a Catholic marriage you will have to sign a waiver saying that you are ok with kids being raised Catholic. Its difficult to discuss kids at the start of a relationship, but don’t leave it for too late either. You must decide whether you are ok if your partner wants to raise children religiously. You will also have to determine your level of participation if that is the case. My agreement with my wife is that she can teach the children whatever she wants, I wont actively try to prove her wrong , but that I have every intention that our children will be educated properly and be well read, something that I think will make them less religious. I’ve also agreed to let a priest pour water on them (supposedly you magically become Catholic by this act), I believe they will choose when they are old enough and as long as they know what choice they have , Im ok with what they choose (this was pretty hard to accept for me)

    d. It is difficult to not make fun of / or laugh at / or not criticise some Catholic religious practices. How will your partner react to it or are you willing to keep your mouth shut? My wife prefers I accompany her when she goes to church as company, but the 1 way nature of the sermon irritates the heck out of me. It is difficult to remain seated when the priest mentions that Catholics are persecuted for their views on marriage (on the topic of Gay Marriage).

  • Deepak Shetty


    I see serious problems, as the Catholic Church requires elaborate premarital conseling by a priest, then if there are children, your husband will insist they be raised Catholic.

    Went through the marriage prep, yawn inducing(did it online!) but manageable, wrote it like a college assignment say whatever will get you to pass whether you understand it or not :). Funniest parts were where the wife was supposed to be subservient to the husband (my wife had mistakenly assumed she was the boss). However my wife is liberal enough that she doesn’t practice that part!

    Children are a bigger issue , usually. However both parents normally agree to educate their children well (in science too!) and both of us want our children to read on a wide variety of topics. Whether they are raised catholic at a young age shouldnt really matter. When they are in their teens and can think about such topics as long as both parents decide to support any choice they make (and really you arent a good parent if you cant do this), then you should be ok

  • Moo Pie

    My husband, a former Catholic, started out as my very best friend in college. He was more seriously Catholic than the man described here, but I was more agnostic than atheist as well. I learned what I could about his faith from him and from courses at our verycatholic college, and he asked me about my beliefs and lack thereof. We have helped each other, over the years, define our own convictions. He might be described as deist now and gives me (and a lesbian friend of ours) some credit for his giving up the church. I am more strongly atheist now and he is my biggest supporter in my pursuit of reason.

    Yes, the church makes you promise to raise the kids Catholic if you marry there (and we did). We both agreed that young children should learn reason before being exposed to religion. Then he lost his faith and the point was moot. His family is not happy with our choice, but that’s what living in other states is for! There is also pre-cana counseling, but it was not that big a deal.

    We remain best friends and very much in love. Our differences have brought out strengths we might not have otherwise seen in ourselves, but it has been challenging at times. When both partners are willing to work and listen to each other, this type of relationship can work. Good luck.

  • Trace

    ummmh, pretty much what Richard says.

    Be yourself, that normally does it in most honest relationships. If it is not meant to be…oh well.

    Good luck.

  • Ron in Houston

    What’s funny to me is that atheists pride themselves on being “rational” and “objective.”

    Well guys, nothing clouds those two things worse than biochemistry.

    There are many scientific studies that show that we totally discount the negatives about our significant others. And while I’m talking about that, no sex. As a noted scientist said, “never have sex with someone you don’t want to fall in love with.”

    So, while Richard gave very sound rational and objective advice, my guess is that the writer could very likely totally reject it.

    So my advice to the writer? Beware, you’ll only be as rational or objective as your biochemistry allows you to be.

  • Derek

    I think that was solid advice. One other thing, if you two decide that you do want to pursue a romantic relationship, you may want to discuss childrearing. That may well be something that you two would want to discuss early, if you have any qualms about your children being raised with a Christian belief system. If you do have issues with it, then it would be good to find out if he would mind bringing them up in an atheistic manner. Better to find out early than late.

    Cheers and Excelsior!

  • Jeff Dale

    What’s funny to me is that atheists pride themselves on being “rational” and “objective.”

    Atheists sometimes underestimate the power of our biochemistry (and that is often funny), but so does everyone else. The difference is that atheists don’t stubbornly hold onto a demonstrably irrational belief in one or more gods. In other words, nobody’s perfectly rational, but we might as well try our best.

    There are many scientific studies that show that we totally discount the negatives about our significant others.

    True dat! It’s confirmation bias: our natural, evolved tendency to overestimate the importance and reliability of evidence that supports our belief and to underestimate the importance and reliability of evidence against our belief. It applies to religious beliefs as well.

    Beware, you’ll only be as rational or objective as your biochemistry allows you to be.

    I understand where you’re coming from, but I’d argue against fatalism. It’s one thing to appreciate the power of biochemistry and confirmation bias, and another thing to abjectly surrender to it. Rational consideration is exactly what’s needed to level the playing field as much as that can be done.

    Good advice, Richard, though I’d agree with another poster here that it might be better to start with some religious discussion before testing the waters on the romance.

  • Jeff Dale

    One other thing, if you two decide that you do want to pursue a romantic relationship, you may want to discuss childrearing. That may well be something that you two would want to discuss early, if you have any qualms about your children being raised with a Christian belief system.

    Actually, if you do get this far (you have a romantic relationship and the religious differences aren’t causing problems, yet), I agree that you should discuss children, but I don’t think you ought to limit your view to raising children either Christian or atheist.

    Dale Magowan’s books (Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers) have some great advice and examples on this subject (including how to deal with strongly religious grandparents, which would be your situation in this instance). I think you should read them regardless of how this particular relationship goes. There’s a good chance you’ll face this issue with someone, eventually.

    Basically, you’ll want your kids to be religiously literate (educated about various religions, not indoctrinated in just one of them), so it’s not a bad thing if your husband (and/or his parents) want to educate your kids in Christianity, as long as they agree to a few ground rules (no talk of hell, support for the kids’ own right to choose, no undermining your authority, etc.). You could then educate them in the various and conflicting claims of other religions and let them know about your own views, expose them to science and the wonder of the natural world, etc. They’ll try on different beliefs when they’re young, but eventually decide what they think on their own, which is what we want anyway (what it means to be freethinkers).

  • Enamored

    Hi all, thank you for your input. And thank you so much Richard for your response.

    In the time since I wrote that letter I had been finding opportunities to ask my friend questions about his beliefs. I decided to give it a go. Tonight I went to dinner with him and we talked, but sadly I did not get past Richard’s Step 1 — he doesn’t share my feelings. Now I feel silly for agonizing over it for so long. Fortunately our friendship remains strong.

    p.s. I wonder if my letter was intentionally posted near Valentine’s Day.

  • Richard Wade

    Hi Enamored, I’m glad that you have found out where you stand with your friend, and also that your friendship remains strong. Thank you for the update. Don’t feel silly, you’re doing great.

    I only realized yesterday when I was buying valentines cards, that the post would be published so close to Valentine’s Day. It was not intentional.

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