In six previous posts, I have discussed with the Friendly Atheist’s advice columnist Richard Wade the origins of his “Ask Richard” column, the nature of family conflicts over atheism, the problems with forming one’s identity based on one’s beliefs (or non-beliefs), how atheists should respond to the possibly religious dimensions of Alcoholics Anonymous, the ethics of advising people to lie about their atheism out of concern for their material or physical security, and whether atheists have responsibilities to both confront and to replace religions. Below, in part 7 of our 9 part discussion, the topic turns to the wisdom of marriage between believers and non-believers.
Daniel Fincke: Okay, so, I don’t think you’d be one to give hard and fast rules for everyone. But from your extensive experience in marriage counseling, do you think marriages between believers and ardent atheists are a particularly bad idea? If you learn an atheist refuses to get involved with religious people, do you do more than just respect that choice but think it particularly wise or particularly closed-minded? Should atheists treat this as a key assessment for marrying people, especially with the prospective education (and possible indoctrination) of children in the future? What are the real issues that make “unequally yoked” arrangements work or fail?
Richard Wade: Relationships are the most complex things that people ever attempt. Putting men on the moon and returning them safely to Earth is not quite as complex. Even in the best of circumstances, starting with backgrounds and sets of values that match well, couples are faced with very very complex tasks of communicating to each other on multiple levels. Add to that they are often quite unfamiliar with and unconscious of many of their own issues, and add to that they are always changing, always a moving marksman aiming at a moving target, and you have an extremely challenging task to make connections.
Then enters the most divisive thing ever invented, religion.
Young couples learn their best and their worst habits of communication from their families of origin. They almost never have any formal training or coaching in how to effectively communicate, and in their new relationship, they tend to practice their worst habits of communication more often than their best habits. I often have wished that states would require some basic pre-marital counseling before granting marriage licenses. It is amazing what important things that courting people don’t discuss before marrying. They only find out important things about the other after they’re deep into commitments.
In the case of an atheist/theist couple, they usually have some discussions about religious issues during their early dating period, and if their differences are not immediate “deal breakers” they tend to gloss over their differences, telling themselves more than telling each other that it won’t matter. This is often because they’re drunk on their initial love and infatuation for each other. It feels so good, and they don’t want to spoil it. They often fall into subtle patterns of tacitly agreeing to avoid any topics, including religion, that would bring up the possibility of a future impasse. The “elephant in the room” syndrome begins to grow.
Atheists sometimes pride themselves on being clear thinkers, looking at things rationally, and they often accuse theists of wishful thinking. But all people who are in love are susceptible to the intoxication of our endorphins and all the other brain chemicals that are released during pair bonding.
So things go along pretty smoothly until the question of children comes up.
Suddenly both people become adamant about their viewpoints where they used to assume they wouldn’t care much. There seems to be something far more primal, far more biologically imperative in seeing to it that one’s offspring copy our most cherished beliefs, even if our mates do not. It’s a kind of intellectual version of our DNA insisting that it make viable copies of itself.
So if a couple with widely differing religious views were to ask me for advice, I would urge them to get several sessions of counseling from a counselor who can be impartial about religious issues, one who concentrates on helping them to fully communicate, to carefully think ahead about many issues that may emerge down the road, and to work out clear and realistic agreements.
That will probably help increase their odds of a successful relationship, but in general, I don’t bet much money on these couples lasting for very long.
You see, there is another compounding problem that multiplies the complexities: their parents and families. In all but very rare cases, couples don’t just marry each other, they marry each other’s families. Those families have all sorts of expectations and requirements for their child’s mate.
I don’t know of any good survey on this, so what I’m going to say is merely my impression from dealing with many “mixed” couples. It’s a process that gets tougher at every step. I think only a small fraction of atheist/theist couples survive the initial dating courtship. Only a fraction of that group then survives the early years of courtship and marriage, either by a healthy set of agreements, or more likely the mutual denial that I described.
Then even if that much smaller group somehow passes the trial by fire of what the heck to do about their children’s religious upbringing, at every step along the way they will have their parents and siblings pressuring them to not go further with that “unsuitable” partner of theirs. The disapproval, the emotional blackmail, and the outright threats of cutting them off can take their toll on even the most intrepid of couples.
So to answer your question, no I don’t have hard and fast rules about such couples, only guidelines about going into these relationships with their eyes much more wide open than they think they are. They should talk, talk talk about it honestly and fearlessly in many separate discussions, and a referee, an impartial counselor would greatly improve the chances that those talks would be thorough and useful.
In sober moments, we look at the odds of a proposition, we look at the likelihood of a venture’s success, we count the number of smoldering wrecks scattered along the same road we’re traveling, and we often wisely decide that what we’re considering is not worth the risk. But sober moments and love are seldom in the same head at the same time. To touch on that biological imperative I mentioned earlier, nature doesn’t give a damn about our individual happiness when it drives us to find a mate. The only thing that matters to nature is to reproduce those DNA molecules, period.
For our happiness, it’s up to us to use that big brain for something it that might go against its own central purpose. We have to think through the whole thing, projecting what will most likely happen during the next twenty to forty years of our bond with this prospective mate. It’s a guess at best, and it’s in a sense going against nature, but there we are, faced yet again with human nature.
Read the other 7 parts of the interview, in which I ask Richard about: