My friend Dale McGowan, who has already written two incredibly popular books on raising children as an atheist parent — Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers — has just published his latest book about atheists who are in relationships with believers.
In the exclusive excerpt below, McGowan talks about the benefits of those mixed-faith relationships:
Despite the general pall that so many commentators cast over religiously mixed marriages of every kind, the picture of the secular/religious marriage is positive and encouraging.
That’s not to say it’s always positive. After all, we’ve just spent a great deal of time examining the many issues and tensions that can arise when one partner is religious and the other is not. Helping couples work through such issues is one of the main purposes of this book. But most couples do find the challenges manageable, tension usually decreases over time, and many people find that the benefits outweigh the challenges.
When I asked respondents to my survey to describe any specific benefits or positive results from their secular/religious difference, fewer than 5% said they couldn’t think of any benefits. The rest offered not only benefits, but many of the same benefits, over and over. This chapter is devoted to that encouraging repetition.
What follows is a list of seven specific benefits that are repeatedly experienced in the secular/religious marriage.
- Many partners discover that religious and nonreligious people can share morals and values.
- Many partners report becoming a better example of their own worldview.
- Many conservative religious believers adopt more progressive and tolerant social views.
- Many nonbelievers are better able to let go of paralyzing resentments toward religion.
- The difference often leads partners to learn more about each other than they otherwise would have.
- Both believers and nonbelievers find themselves examining their own beliefs more closely.
- Many partners are now more open-minded and less militant toward the “other side” of the belief gap.
“We both found that each other was not the ‘scary atheist’ and ‘crazy Christian’ that we were led to believe,” says Julie, a Lutheran married to an atheist. “We both have the same views and morals and outlook on how life should be, how people should treat other people, animals, and the earth. We both want to do good in the world. The only difference is I think there is a God and he does not.”
Religious and nonreligious partners alike say that having a spouse on the other side of the aisle has made them smarter, more effective, and more empathetic in their engagement and activism and better examples of their own worldview.
“It may seem strange, but I think I’m a better Muslim than I was before I met my [agnostic] wife,” says Fadi. “I used to see things in fairly black and white ways and was very judgmental. She makes me think first about whether I am expressing the true heart of Islam in what I say. I am a better representative of my own faith now than before I met her.”
Many nonbelievers feel the same. “Having a wife that is a liberal Christian actually helps me in my activism,” says Steven. “She helps me moderate my message and tailor things so that religious people will be more receptive and less offended.”
Close experience with difference usually has a liberalizing effect, and it’s no different for secular/religious couples. “I have become more liberal in my thinking because of him and changed Lutheran denominations because of that,” says Julie. “We both can agree, and I love the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. In fact, I feel we both have strengthened the other in their views. At least he has for me by questioning why I think what I think. I was able to separate my true beliefs from just believing things because I grew up believing it.”
Hope says much the same. “Having my nice little Christian bubble popped has, at the end of the day, been a good thing. I’m more liberal now, and a lot of my friends act like I’m crazy, especially about abortion issues and gay rights. But I think more or less it’s a shift for good.”
Many nonreligious partners bring a painful history with religion into the relationship, including some deep resentments. Some have experienced betrayal, rejection, fear, anger, or even complete disowning from religious families and communities. Being in a loving relationship with a religious believer can help the nonbeliever to transcend this unproductive resentment.
“Despite my best friend being extremely religious and my family being fairly religious, I had a very toxic relationship with religion when I met my partner in high school,” says Stephanie, an atheist. “I felt it was inferior to atheism, close-minded, and overall a negative influence in the world. Through exploring my husband’s [religious] belief system, as well as my own humanism, I’ve been able to let go of a lot of the resentment I was holding against religion. I’ve reconciled with myself that people express abstract concepts through religion in good, helpful ways and in bad, harmful ways. I no longer automatically view someone who identifies as religious with derision, and I can in fact admire their faith, and I instead align myself with them based on the larger question of whether or not they are a good person in the broader sense.”
Some couples with different worldviews go out of their way to avoid the topic. But if the rest are any indication, including many of my survey respondents, they might be missing out on a good thing. One respondent after another described having deeper conversations with their partners and learning more about each other in the process than they ever did in their shared-belief relationships. “It has caused friction at times,” says one, “but it has also ultimately brought us closer together.”
“I have had to lose so many assumptions about atheists, and in some cases, about Christians as well,” says Alise, an Independent Protestant… “My husband and I have had to become much more intentional about the ways that we relate to one another. When you have the same belief, you assume a lot without asking. But I’m often curious about how he sees something differently, so I ask.”
Nolan, an atheist married to a former Methodist, echoes Alise. “It’s opened up a lot of discussions, and we’ve learned a lot about each other through conversations about our core beliefs.”
Others say the difference has increased their mutual trust. “I’m sure religious differences sometimes tear relationships apart, but ours has only made us trust one another more,” says Amanda, an atheist married to a Baptist. “I grew up Baptist, but now I am a closeted atheist in the South. My husband is the only person I have entrusted with my nonbelief, and he has been kind and considerate and loving in a way that I know not even my closest friends or family members would be. And through it all we have realized that our relationship is built on a strong foundation. That foundation just isn’t faith. It’s trust, respect, communication, cooperation, and friendship.”
If you share a belief system with someone, it’s easy to leave many of your beliefs unexamined. But living with someone whose beliefs are different—especially someone on the far side of the chasm between the natural and supernatural—makes a person more likely to think deeply and well about what he or she believes. There’s an inherent challenge to our complacency, even if not a word is said.
“It’s clearly not good to go through life with intellectually indefensible positions,” says Lewis, a Christian. He and his atheist fiancé, Andrew, both feel they’ve shed some of the weaker opinions and beliefs they once held. “I think it’s wonderful that we’ve been able to help each other shed those positions,” Lewis says.
I know I thought much more deeply and intensely about my own beliefs when Becca was still religious, even though we only rarely engaged the questions. Just the presence of the difference was like a whetstone against which I sharpened my mind. I’ve definitely gotten duller in that area since she changed her mind.
Once again, I’m far from alone:
J.T. (agnostic atheist): “Being close to my partner’s religion and attending her [Independent Protestant] church has prompted me to more closely examine what may or may not be the truth. I have joined Meetups and groups (both secular and religious) I would have otherwise never gone to and met some wonderful people.”
Patty (former Methodist, now agnostic): “I have been challenged to really think about what I believe. My life is richer and more meaningful as a result of this.”
Hannah (Lutheran Mennonite): “I find being married to an atheist a challenge to my personal convictions. I’m more or less forced to delve deep into what I value without hindering my husband with my personal beliefs.”
Nalia (atheist): “I think my [Independent Christian] husband feels more free to question his beliefs even if he still accepts them. He asks my opinions after he’s attended church with his family on occasion, even taking notes when he goes.”
Mandy (Catholic): “When I returned to active Catholicism, my [agnostic] husband was very supportive and was intellectually curious about Church practices, stands, and history. His questions have helped me look deeper into my faith practices.”
Amy (secular humanist): “I have found that being the nonreligious partner has motivated me to research and clarify my viewpoints so that I can better describe them to my partner as well as to friends (though the topic does not come up often, if at all, in my presence). Since the birth of my daughters, I have had to take a much closer look at my own worldview in order to be able to explain it to them in terms they can understand and in a way that will not offend my partner.”
One benefit stood head and shoulders above the rest in the survey: that being married across the secular/religious gap increases a person’s tolerance and open-mindedness about the other side of the gap because it is harder to maintain a simplistic cartoon of religious believers, on the one hand, and nonbelievers, on the other. It’s harder to dismiss all religious people as unintelligent or all atheists as immoral when you have fallen in love with a flesh-and-blood representative of that worldview.
“It is really helpful to see the other side of the coin for me,” says Jack, an atheist married to a Catholic. “I have learned to be able to look at life issues from a different perspective and see why people make the choices they do. I wouldn’t have been able to do that as well before.”
“My marriage has made me more open-minded,” says Hannah, an Independent Christian married to Ken, a secular humanist. “A considerable amount of respect exists in our relationship, and I always feel supported as the religious half to explore and discuss my beliefs. His nonbelief has certainly challenged my thinking about certain religious traditions, which has caused me to think hard about what specifically is important to me and why instead of just something the way everyone in my family has always done it. Ken’s character is a testament to the fact that while religion may shape values, it is not the only source — he is a fantastic, good man who shares many of my morals and values.”
“I think we have a moderating effect on each other,” says Jesse, an atheist, of his Catholic wife, Anna. “Her Christianity has led me to be careful in talking about religious issues, and to self-identify more as UU/secular humanist than atheist. In turn, I think I have led her to more clearly understand some of the points where she and the Catholic Church do not agree.”
Sometimes the opening of minds develops slowly over time. “At first I didn’t find any value in it at all, but as time has gone by I have learned some valuable things,” says Alison, a Mormon. Her marriage neared divorce after her husband left the Mormon church but has since recovered and is now strong. “I have learned to have more tolerance and less control. I have tried to stop changing my husband, and that has given me this sense of freedom because I no longer feel responsible for his decisions. He makes good, logical decisions, even if they aren’t the decisions I would make.”
The same ideas — greater openness and tolerance and less militancy — echo throughout the survey:
Gary (atheist): “I am more understanding and empathic of religious people, where I was meaner prior to knowing [my wife].”
Kylie (Christian): “I have become much more relaxed about atheists. Unless they’re shouting in my face at a party (you know that particular type of Dawkins fan), I am totally cool with whatever.”
Paul (atheist): “She has helped me be more moderate when discussions of religion occur amongst friends. I was fairly rabid toward believers prior to meeting her and have become a lot more accepting since. I have really accepted the religious as worthy, whereas I had zero interest in even having a conversation prior.”
Sarah (Independent Evangelical): “I saw people mostly in black and white terms before we got together, saved and unsaved. That just doesn’t make sense to me anymore, though I’m still every bit as committed to my faith. I think God works in more complex ways than I had given Him credit for.”
William (atheist): “I have learned the importance of not imposing my beliefs/nonbelief on anyone as it isn’t likely to result in any change. The decision/move from a religious to nonreligious identity is a personal journey that must be initiated by the individual. It is important for me to respect my partner’s different views and to allow her to believe as she does with my full respect and support.”
Finally there’s Brenda, a Mormon in Provo, Utah, whose husband left the church when he decided he was an atheist. “I was very worried at first when he left the church, but now I’m glad he is finding his own beliefs and feels more confident, comfortable, and happy with himself. I am thankful that he has taught me to trust myself and my moral judgment, and to think openly and critically. My mind is a lot more open to what might be out there in the universe, and I am a lot less closed-minded and judgmental of things I don’t understand or don’t agree with.”
In Faith and In Doubt is out today. Be sure to check out the whole thing!