Questions for Atheists: Mixed Atheist/Theist Relationships

I’m posting this on behalf of Jeff, one of our frequent commentors:

“Are you going to church (and writing checks) even though you are an atheist? Are you happily involved in a mixed relationship where one partner is an atheist and the other a theist? Tell us your story of how you reconcile sometimes irreconcilable belief systems. What positive things do you do to make it work? What rationalizations and compromises are necessary? What rationalizations and compromises by your significant other are necessary?”

Jeff also sent his initial answer for himself, as he is in a mixed relationship and attends church regularly with his wife, and promised more details in the comments. I’ve also invited him to write a full post for Friendly Atheist about his experiences as an atheist in a mixed relationship who goes to church regularly. But in the meantime I thought this would be an excellent topic for discussion and one that dovetails nicely with Hemant’s recent post about Interfaith Dating During the Holidays.

Anyway, this is what Jeff had to say about how he deals with his own situation:

“Personally, I break the central directive of my church (“put God first”). I put family first. If it comes to a choice between my family and my beliefs (or non-beliefs) about God, my beliefs (or non-beliefs) come in second. As with any relationship, it takes two to make it work. As the atheist in the relationship, I perhaps find it easier to compromise my beliefs being that my beliefs are fewer in number and more loosely held. I am, though, both curious and critical of religious beliefs.”

  • Peter

    I am in a relationship with a new age mystic (astrology, homeopathy, acupuncture, etc), which I consider the same as theism.

    I’m also one of those materialists that see liberal/moderate believers/mystics as creating an environment where fundamentalism can thrive.

    Thus, we can get into some pretty serious debates. Usually, they end with some serious self-reflection and honesty – I am being hateful, and she is being solipsistic. There is always peace and humility at the end of the debates, but sometimes it takes a bit of heat to get there.

    The debates have decreased in number over the past year, but they pop up every once in awhile.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    I’m also one of those materialists that see liberal/moderate believers/mystics as creating an environment where fundamentalism can thrive.

    And how, specifically does your girlfriend do this? Does she defend fundamentalist theology? Does she make excuses for their bad behavior? Is she out there picketing abortion clinics with them? In what way are fundamentalists thriving because of your girlfriend? (Especially considering that most fundamentalists would probably condemn your girlfriend to Hell for following “demonic” New Age practices.)

  • Maria

    And how, specifically does your girlfriend do this? Does she defend fundamentalist theology? Does she make excuses for their bad behavior? Is she out there picketing abortion clinics with them? In what way are fundamentalists thriving because of your girlfriend? (Especially considering that most fundamentalists would probably condemn your girlfriend to Hell for following “demonic” New Age practices.)

    good question!

  • Julie

    I found that mixed relationships did not work for me, and it’s actually been a big part of the last few years. I never really thought about being an atheist, although I was one all along, until I was confronted with serious relationships. I’m sure it works for some people, but I found the theist or even agnostic spiritualist would have trouble with me every now and then. One guy who had left behind his fundamentalist, evangelical upbringing (but can you ever really leave it behind?) was troubled that Christmas with his family was like an anthropology expedition for me. I was so amazed at how they all believed in this Jesus stuff–it really put a new spin on Christmas for me. He didn’t like that, even though he claimed not to be really Christian anymore. Another guy didn’t like that I couldn’t believe in ghosts. And we disagreed about how to bring up potential kids. He never went to church but somehow thought church was “good for kids”, although he couldn’t explain why. I was willing to give some ground, but ultimately, my skepticism just bothered these guys, and they didn’t get me, and they gave me grief about it.

    These weren’t even religious people per se, just vaguely deist sorts, mostly agnostic and not really certain of anything. But my views really irked them, even though they couldn’t say for sure what they believed in. That was my bad experience with two potential life partners. When I began to date after the second lousy breakup, I decided atheists only need apply. I just didn’t want to deal with criticism in a close relationship.

    I don’t think I ever considered that having the same belief system was really an important component of a relationship–I mean, DUH. But I just never thought about my own beliefs that much. When I finally realized I was an atheist and a skeptic, I fell into a great relationship and it makes so much more sense for me.

    Honestly, I think I would have been able to do the mixed thing, if my partners had been able to do it. But I’m glad I didn’t have to. I love being with someone who shares my views about life’s important questions.

  • Julie

    Peter: I’m also one of those materialists that see liberal/moderate believers/mystics as creating an environment where fundamentalism can thrive.

    Mike: And how, specifically does your girlfriend do this? Does she defend fundamentalist theology? Does she make excuses for their bad behavior? Is she out there picketing abortion clinics with them? In what way are fundamentalists thriving because of your girlfriend? (Especially considering that most fundamentalists would probably condemn your girlfriend to Hell for following “demonic” New Age practices.)

    Barging in, I kind of get Peter’s comment. The partner herself may not support fundamentalist views, but if she believes in stuff that can’t be proven and requires faith, and that’s okay in her world view, then cumulatively, over lots and lots of people, that faith opens the door to everyone’s beliefs being okay.

    All religion is pretend, to me, and therefore none of it is truly benign, because all of it opens the door to faith without evidence, and I personally can’t buy into faith without evidence. But I was totally willing to spend my life with another person who did have faith. But if I ever expressed how I felt about faith, well, look out–fight coming.

    One might wonder how, thinking that way, I could have any religious friends at all, but I do have religious friends. I no longer have a religious life partner, however! And I am more adamant these days about my view being “correct,” because I don’t have to compromise all the time to live with someone. Maybe that’s a bad thing in the end–two people who just sit around agreeing with each other. But I love it!

  • http://www.digitaldisco.net alfred

    holy crap. I have just gone through this kind of relationship in the last year or two. I cannot describe the anguish and loss I have felt because I was deeply involved in a relationship with a bible thumper. She put the literal interpertation of the bible and her love in God above all else and always insisted that by being with me, she was giving up everything she believed in. “You’re not losing if you just believe, I don’t understand why you won’t.” Krikey.

    Our arguments increased, which were never settled because she refused to assess crucial evidence… always noting that “you have to start with God first, not the small stuff” kind of logic.

    I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with that, but I’m also very sad I missed a potential life partner. I blame organized religion on ruining true love.

    Man, I could write a book about the whole experience. Strangely, I live the farthest from any state in the bible belt, living in a very progressive city… I guess religion does really poison everything.

  • Joseph R.

    I too, am in a relationship with a religious person. We have been married for 9 years now and she still has not fully accepted my lack of belief. I was a Christian(Southern Baptist) for about twenty years and still considered myself one when we met. Since we have been together, she has become a Christian(Southern Baptist) and I have completely rejected all religious beliefs. I was an atheist long before I could even admit it to myself, but am now more comfortable with my beliefs than I ever was as a religious person. The discussions that my wife and I have had in the past have been somewhat heated at times, however it was different the last time we spoke about it. Our conversation finished up with her asking me if I was certain that there is no God. I explained that I try to keep an open mind about things and I am not opposed to examining some type of evidence to support the religious argument. Until then, I am an atheist. She seemed satisfied that I hadn’t completely closed the door on religion. I didn’t say anything to my wife, but it would have to be some pretty damn good evidence. After it was all said, our lives go on and we continue to maintain a healthy and happy relationship.

  • Peter

    And how, specifically does your girlfriend do this?

    Well I wouldn’t want to take this thread off topic too much :) In a nutshell, I believe that making claims about the universe without using the universe’s own language (mathematics, logic, evidence) is the root cause of most political, religious, interpersonal, and emotional conflict experienced by the human species. Even the most liberal deists or open-minded astrologers participate in this.

  • monkeymind

    She put the literal interpertation of the bible and her love in God above all else and always insisted that by being with me, she was giving up everything she believed in. “You’re not losing if you just believe, I don’t understand why you won’t.”

    Sounds like a wicked version of the ole “If you really loved me, you would…” blackmail. Yuck. Sounds like she would have been satisfied if you had merely said you believed just to make her happy. That’s a travesty of real love and religious conviction both, if you ask me.

  • http://merkdorp.blogspot.com J. J. Ramsey

    Julie: “if she believes in stuff that can’t be proven and requires faith, and that’s okay in her world view, then cumulatively, over lots and lots of people, that faith opens the door to everyone’s beliefs being okay.”

    Isn’t that a slippery-slope fallacy?

  • Julie

    “You’re not losing if you just believe, I don’t understand why you won’t.” Krikey.

    Yeah, and I agree with Pete that this kind of statement doesn’t only come from fundamentalists. I used to get that line a lot from my ex, and he was just talking about New Age stuff. Honestly, he got on my case once about Masuru Emoto, this guy who claims he can change water crystals with his thoughts. I said, “Doesn’t sound like that’s really possible.” Boy, did I get it. Why couldn’t I have faith in something? ANYthing? Why was I so logical? Why did I WORSHIP science and logic?

    I can’t quite explain it. I wasn’t bothered so much that he HAD to believe in something, but he could not stand my way of looking at things and my lack of faith. Explaining my side never did any good. It was always about how I didn’t have faith, and therefore I was on the wrong side of life.

    It was so perplexing at the time. I had a very live and let live attitude, but it wasn’t reciprocated, as far as I could tell. If I could just have lied and said, “OK, I have faith in such and such,” I think it would have kept the peace. But why couldn’t he accept that I just didn’t?

    To my mind, this need to believe in something, anything, is a by product of being brought up with religion. I was brought up without religion, so it’s very hard for me to relate to faith at all, although I’ve always tried to respect it. But it’s nice not to be pestered about it all the time.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    I’ve posted about mixed-faith relationships, and got some good discussion going, if it’s helpful: “He has his faults, such as being a perverted-democrat-atheist, but…

  • http://mcshaggy.blogspot.com Brett

    My wife and I have settled our differences amicably, though she’s upset that I don’t believe in god. Fortunately, she realizes that there’s no way to force me, and the best she could hope for is that I lie to her.

    However, when our daughter, Mickie, get old enough to ask why I don’t go to church, we’re looking at a round of ugly debates. I’m afraid what it will do to my relationship with my daughter, my relationship with my wife, and the relationship between them.

    This could get really ugly.

    Advice?

  • Siamang

    Wow, Julie, that sounds terrible! It’s really funny, how long have we known each other? I didn’t know you were going through that!

    Anyway, I’m really happy for you now.

  • Viggo the Carpathian

    Brett,

    Stick to your beliefs (or lack there of) and make sure your daughter knows with no uncertainty what you think and that ultimately the decisions about religion are hers as a free adult. Your relationship with her will be just fine if you are completely open – you are her dad. As for the wife, can’t help there – I’m married to a cynical and skeptical biologist.

  • Yossarian

    What an excellent topic. Especially since I find myself in that exact situation.

    Before my first marriage, I wasn’t a holder of any beliefs — I had never given them much thought. We started going to an Anglican church, where I continued to attend even through our divorce, and my subsequent marriage to my current wife.

    I treated my exposure to religion as a bit of an experiment — wanting to keep an open mind. I found a lot of benefits in community and social circles. I was fortunate (?) to belong to a church that wasn’t the slightest bit fundamentalist, and where people actually freely talked about the errancy of the bible and instead sought to ‘discern’ a modern interpretation of ‘what God wants’. I suppose that degree of skepticism and liberal thinking kept me in the church for a while. If it had been a bible-bashing church, I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

    One of the intellectual tasks I set for myself when I had the personal energy and resources to deal with it was to spend time reconciling belief in God with a rational view of the world. Big mistake. That was the beginning of the end for my (limited) faith. It was a private journey for a while, especially since my wife was so devout and had been brought up in a strictly religious household (her moving to my church was seen as a highly questionable move by her family). So, even though she was able to move to a more skeptical ‘real-world’ interpretation of the bible, and similar view of God, I was afraid of how she’d react to my budding atheism.

    I stopped going to church (we were pretty irregular by this time anyways). Eventually, I thought I had to talk with her about it. It came as a shock, and there were tears and confusion (“You’ve been lying to me all this time!?!”). The fact that this came along shortly after we adopted our daughter didn’t make things any easier (especially when you consider the question “What beliefs do we bring her up in now!?!?”)

    Well, that first admission came about around a year ago now (which was after a year or more of my own soul-searching). Our daughter is now two years old and goes to church with Mommy (I get Sunday mornings to myself!). We’re happy, even though sometimes discussions on the topic can become difficult (mainly because when I say something disparaging about the negative aspects of religion, there is an inadvertent association with certain members of her family).

    As for the question of how we raise our daughter (and subsequent children, should they arrive), I have decided not to object to them going to church — mainly because it is a very progressive and liberal church. I’ll be responsible for teaching her critical thinking skills. Essentially, she’ll be well equipped to make her own decision about her beliefs when she’s old enough. At least, that’s the hope.

    For now, my atheism is a secret between us and some close friends. I do NOT want to think about what will happen when/if her family discovers my atheism. I’m afraid we’d have to cut off ties to maintain any amount of sanity, which would be a loss since there is so much love in the family as well.

    I’ve been meaning to write about my situation for a while, but never got around to it. Thanks, Mike, for creating this topic and allowing us to relate our own experiences. This is something that has been very much on my mind for quite some time and it’s nice to know that I’m not alone in this.

  • Ryan

    I grew up Catholic and met my Evangelical Christian wife in high school. Religion was never that important to me, so I just went along with her to her church most of the time. (I think starting out in an interdenominational relationship at first kind of eased us both into seeing that it’s ok to have differences.) About a year and a half after we got married, (about 9 months ago) I came to the decision that I could no longer accept the doctrines of Christianity. I told her I would still go to church with her if she wanted because that was important to her. She still tithes to the church, half of what you are supposed to (5%). But I think giving is important too, so I try to ‘tithe’ the other half. Only I give it to charities instead of the church. We both try to keep an open mind about religious issues and kept discussions civil and prevent them from turning into arguments. Like Jeff, we are both interested in learning about religion, which helps. (Actually we are in the middle of a Bible study class at the church that I agreed to take with her.) I ask her a lot of questions and talk about science a lot. It makes her think hard about faith stuff without seeming confrontational or belittling (I hope). She has become much less fundamentalist and conservative since we started dating, and even since getting married (so have I for that matter). She has changed her mind on a lot of things that goes against her evangelical upbringing (evolution, gay rights, not taking the Bible literally…)
    I think the main reason for her opened mind is that she respects and values my ideas, because she knows I have put a lot of thought into them. (And vice versa.) Also she knows I love her very much. I agree completely with what Jeff said and I think she might even agree:

    “Personally, I break the central directive of my church (”put God first”). I put family first. If it comes to a choice between my family and my beliefs (or non-beliefs) about God, my beliefs (or non-beliefs) come in second.

    I am not sure how exactly we will handle children, but we have agreed to not teach them only about Christianity (ie that some version of Christianity ‘has it all figured out’), but about the other choices out there as well. We will tell them what we each believe and let them decide for themselves. Teaching critical thinking is important to both of us.
    All that being said, she still hopes that I will someday come back to the faith.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Julie said:

    The partner herself may not support fundamentalist views, but if she believes in stuff that can’t be proven and requires faith, and that’s okay in her world view, then cumulatively, over lots and lots of people, that faith opens the door to everyone’s beliefs being okay.

    and Peter said:

    I believe that making claims about the universe without using the universe’s own language (mathematics, logic, evidence) is the root cause of most political, religious, interpersonal, and emotional conflict experienced by the human species. Even the most liberal deists or open-minded astrologers participate in this.

    Thanks for the clarification guys. However, I do just want to point out that, according to what you’ve said, your issue with your significant others really has nothing to do with them “supporting fundamentalism”. That’s really besides the point. If you think that <em>all faith</em>, of any kind, is inherently bad, period – then your problem is with your significant others directly, not with how they may be supporting fundamentalists. I mean, you could just as well talk about the fundamentalists supporting the evils of your significant other’s kind of faith, since in your view the problem is not the content or behavior associated with their faith as with the simple fact that they have any faith at all.

  • http://groundedinreality.blogspot.com Bruce

    I have to hand it to all of you in mixed relationships who have been able to make it work because I doubt I could. One of the things my wife (fellow atheist) and I enjoy is our shared sense of humor which often comes at the expense of the religious. If I were to have ever married a religious person, it would have had to have been someone with a very thick skin, that’s for sure.

  • Julie

    Thanks for the clarification guys. However, I do just want to point out that your issue with you significant others really has nothing to do with them “supporting fundamentalism”.

    But Peter never said his sig. other supported fundamentalists. He said moderates create an environment friendly to fundies.

    If you think that all faith, of any kind, is inherently bad, period – then your problem is with your significant others directly….

    I can only agree wholeheartedly with you on this point. I wish I had had enough self knowledge to truly understand that was how I felt in my relationships: I think faith is not a positive in the world, and that’s it. Why not just say that and walk out the door, since I was constantly getting hassled? Instead, my partner got on my case all the time about my lack of faith! I think it was about that time I started reading Dawkins and finally got the language to describe how I perceived faith in the first place.

    Julie: “if she believes in stuff that can’t be proven and requires faith, and that’s okay in her world view, then cumulatively, over lots and lots of people, that faith opens the door to everyone’s beliefs being okay.”

    J.J.: Isn’t that a slippery-slope fallacy?

    I was actually going to say that maybe that line of thinking IS a slippery slope argument. And really, the way I phrased it, it is! It isn’t really true that one girlfriend can lead to the US becoming a fundamentalist theocracy. That isn’t really what I mean to say!

    Peter said it better than I did.

    Anyway, those of you who can swing, it, good for you. The real problem with religion and relationships, as far as can tell, is that religion comes between perfectly good people. But I guess some people just deal with the differences.

    Honestly, I think some people probably don’t care as deeply about their faith, or their lack of it. My brother just hopped the fence and became a Catholic to make his wife happy. He is the most agnostic Catholic I know. He’s always surprised that people at his church believe in angels and Satan. He sort of thinks of the church as a fun place to go but he just doesn’t take it all that seriously. It’s like a social club.

  • Julie

    Wow, Julie, that sounds terrible! It’s really funny, how long have we known each other? I didn’t know you were going through that!

    Anyway, I’m really happy for you now.

    Yep, it was terrible. And faithful dummyhead left me in debt, after all that! I think the only stupid thing I ever had faith in, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, was that he would get a job!

    OK, obviously my experience is so skewed–I hereby absent myself from further discussion! I’m really only posting so much because I am putting off Christmas shopping, after all.

  • Siamang

    Get back to Christmas shopping, you atheist Jew! Especially if it’s my present!

    (I already got your present!)

  • Karen

    My hubby is still a fundy while I am now an apostate. It’s not been easy, and I do feel sorry for the poor man. He married a good, submissive Christian wife (yes, ladies, we were supposed to SUBMIT to our husbands!) and wound up married to an independent-minded and outspoken atheist, of all things. And he was the one who was the science major, no less, while I hated science in school (I had a terrible teacher). Go figure.

    But we are celebrating our 25th anniversary next month and have two incredible boys, so we’ve decided there’s too much invested in the marriage to trash it over something as silly as religion (that’s my take on it anyway).

    The main problem is that there’s a lot of stuff I can’t discuss with him, and vice versa, because it leads to arguments and it’s generally unproductive. So, where it stands currently is that he attends church alone and I attend my Skeptics Society meetings alone and neither of us tries to convert the other. It’s working out, but it certainly isn’t ideal. I wouldn’t recommend a mixed marriage to anyone. My parents had one and they broke up after 13 years, with religion being one of the major problems.

    Brett, what I did when my kids were old enough to understand – probably about 13 and 15 – is just level with them. I sat them down and explained that I had done a lot of research and thinking and that I didn’t believe in god anymore. They were a bit shocked, but the conversation was very calm and I let them ask any questions they wanted and tried to answer honestly. My older son hasn’t mentioned it since, although he’s definitely critical of the religious right and expresses no interest in church. My younger son told me later that he “never believed that stuff either,” so I think he’s probably taking after his mom. ;-)

  • Adam Hall

    Behold! The power of Punani.

  • http://ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Thanks for the post, Jeff!

    I’ve seen how differing beliefs take a toll on a marriage. I have a friend who is a fundie Christian whose husband is an atheist. While I love them both, I know that she cannot fully accept his atheism, and he cannot fully accept her faith. On the surface, the marriage looks to be working. But I know from many late-night phone conversations that there are deep seeded frustrations surrounding the difference in beliefs.

    I have another friend who is a fundy (is it y or ie?) protestant and her husband is a devout Catholic. He never misses church, and he gives to the church religiously. He goes through all the motions of a good Catholic, but does not discuss his beliefs with anyone, not even his wife. She has no respect for his religious ways, and somehow puts herself above him spiritually. To outsiders, though, the marriage looks to be working.

    I know there are many factors that can make a marriage difficult (as no marriage is easy); but when there are belief issues involved, I have to admire the people who can still respect each other’s beleifs (or non) and make it work for them.

  • Robin

    I’ve been in an eight-year same-sex marriage with a faithful Catholic boy.

    It’s been an education, on both of our parts.

    I’ve been remarkable fortunate, in that I was absolutely aware of my homosexuality from a very young age. And when my church told me that my sexual identity was evil, I knew that it was a lie. And if the church was lying to me about this, I thought, what other lies could they be telling me?

    Turned out, there were more lies than truth.

    Despite all the encouragement I was getting from the family, I became less and less interested in church and religion. By the time I was in high school, I wasn’t attending church at all. And when I graduated, I couldn’t take being shut up in the closet anymore.

    When I came out to my family, it ended my relationship with them. They were so blinded by their noxious, evil faith that they couldn’t bear to have a horrible sodomite like me in the family tree. From time to time, I’d get brochures in the mail from Christian therapists, full of assertions as to how I could change my sexual orientation. Eventually, even this stopped. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly predisposed to like Christians after being treated like that.

    Those were dark days, indeed. But then, I embraced my growing atheism. It’s not an exaggeration to say that atheism probably saved my life.

    Imagine my surprise when I found myself attracted to a faithful, Catholic man. His life experiences were quite different from mine; his family, who was at first hesitant, eventually accepted him for who he is. He prayed regularly, attended church faithfully, sang in the choir.

    And he was as mystified as I was about his attraction to this godless atheist. We dated for awhile, and found that we had a lot in common. Our tastes were basically the same. We liked the same movies, the same books, the same…well, pretty much everything. (He still doesn’t like anime or El Santo flicks, and I still can’t stand Barbra Striesand or Bette Midler, but what the hell.) We gave our relationship a shot, and it paid off.

    I learned that not every Christian is a knee-jerk bigot, and he learned that atheists can be pretty cool people. His family, so different from my own, welcomed me and embraced me unconditionally, fully aware of my atheism. After so many years, it’s wonderful to have a family again. We aren’t bound together by biology, it’s true, but our ties are there because we chose them to be. And that’s infinitely more important than blood ties. They taught me that there really is such a thing as unconditional love.

    What did I teach Michael? Certainly, I taught him that just because someone is a Christian, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re decent. And, I taught him that bigotry really is bigotry, no matter how it’s justified. He used to tell me, excusing some of this fellow parishoner’s homophobic beliefs, “Well, you’ve got to understand, they come from a very conservative background…”

    Well, that doesn’t exactly fly. I don’t care how conservative or how traditional one’s background is. Knowing what we know now about homosexuality, there is no excuse for homophobia.

    None. Nada. Zip.

    And he doesn’t put up with it anymore. He’ll call his fellow churchgoers, and his clergy, on their homophobia. I especially like it when he and I attend Church functions together, openly, as a couple. It’s very difficult to be openly bigoted, in a roomful of people. And actually, I kind of like making bigoted people in a church uncomfortable. It gives me that warm feeling of schadenfreude, to see bigots exposed for what they are.

    Of course, we still have our disagreements about belief and the lack thereof, but even marriages between two atheists, two Catholics, two Wiccans or…well, whatever…there’s going to be a little friction in the belief systems. And that’s great. Michael’s Catholicism makes me a better atheist, and I’d like to think my atheism makes him a better Catholic. Ultimately, I think we both learned that believers need unbelievers, and unbelievers need belivers for the exact same reason.

    We keep each other honest.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I’ve been an atheist all my life and my wife has been someone who has just gone through the motions of being a Christian all her life. We both knew this about each other going into the marriage and neither one of us have changed. I also kind of promised myself when we first got married that I wouldn’t fight and argue with her over anything if I could help it. Why get mad and argue. That just turns one bad thing into two bad things… I think my wife also likes being the most religious person in the household.

    She never pressured me to go to church at all for the first 8 years of our marriage. During this time I didn’t feel any need to express or discuss religion. I was simply focused on living my life. Then around two or three years ago my wife started to get the urge to attend a church (any church). She attended a couple of different churches but neither of them really “did it” for her. Her best friend was also “church hopping” and found a contemporary Baptist church that she liked a lot that had lots of fun activities in the kids program and a soft-rock band that plays during the service. She got my wife to go a couple of times with the kids. Then she got me to go along and the church broke my expectations of what a Baptist church was like.

    The church was experimenting with an outreach program to the “unchurched” and tailored the sermons to people that did not grow up in a church. Yes, people like me. I was quite impressed with the message and was learning a lot about this flavor of Christianity so I started to attend regularly. I figured if I was going anyway, I might as well volunteer in various capacities in the church and join a “small group” for bible study.

    On one trip home, my 9 year old was quite agitated in the car and blurted out that there wasn’t a God and it was all just made-up stuff. This startled me because I had never discussed religion with him before, but I was quite proud of him. I later told him that it was indeed all an invention by man but to view it as somewhere to go to learn about what other people believe. He hasn’t been agitated since. But as time when on, we started getting pressure to make more substantial monetary contributions to the church. They want 10% of our pre-tax income. Well, there is no way in hell I’m paying that for something I don’t believe in… but, just so my wife doesn’t lose face, I do write a small check with each visit….more than I want to leave but less than she wants me to leave. I think we tithed at about 2% last year. Anyway, I started getting agitated just like my 9-year old did.

    By then I was used to the sermons and realized that they were not as liberal as I originally thought. It was basically the same old message just packaged in a contemporary way. A lot of the virtues of Christianity, like not getting mad (Matthew 5:22) is just good secular advice. It doesn’t need the added motivating factor of Hell-fire damnation. That’s about when I started my own blog pointing out the absurdities of the foundations and motivations of Christianity. The blog (even though it was mainly a monolog) helped me release tension that otherwise may have been directed in unhelpful ways. I started looking around the internet and noticed that there were lots of people with similar atheist blogs. I was just one of many.

    Anyway, I don’t now how much longer I will continue with the church. I was about ready to drop out a few months ago… but posting comments on the this blog and others has helped me to maintain a even composure. I do find religious belief very interesting and my wife will probably always want us to be involved in some church somewhere. We might end up trying another denomination after a while. That’s the one nice thing about Protestant churches. You can always “church hop”. I’ve always wanted to try a snake-handling church. I bet that would be interesting. ;) I would probably get bit every time, though. :)

  • Miko

    Julie: “if she believes in stuff that can’t be proven and requires faith, and that’s okay in her world view, then cumulatively, over lots and lots of people, that faith opens the door to everyone’s beliefs being okay.”

    Isn’t that a slippery-slope fallacy?

    No, the slippery-slope fallacy is the suggestion that a premise is false solely because it leads to an undesirable outcome. This argument is that the premise is undesirable because it leads to an undesirable outcome, which is a completely different thing. For example, “If I run in front of a car, I’ll be hit by a car. Getting hit by a car is bad. Therefore, running in front of a car is bad” is a valid argument while “If I had run in front of a car, I would have been hit by a car. Getting hit by a car is bad. Therefore, I did not run in front of a car” is not (unless you add the premise “I do not do things which lead to bad outcomes”).

    And how, specifically does your girlfriend do this? Does she defend fundamentalist theology? Does she make excuses for their bad behavior? Is she out there picketing abortion clinics with them? In what way are fundamentalists thriving because of your girlfriend?

    Let’s try an analogy: fundamentalists are alcoholics, ‘moderate’ theists are moderate drinkers. Is the moderate drinker defending alcoholism or defending the behavior of drunks? No, I’m sure they’d be against it just as a teetotaler would.. But would we have the alcoholics in the numbers that we do without the implicit (but not explicit) support of moderate drinkers? I’d think not. (And I’m not making claims about the desirability of any particular course of action or implying that religion is a disease or any other crazy conclusions that can be wrung out of this by tortured logic; I’m just looking at the nature of the relationship between ‘moderate’ and extreme forms of belief.)

  • Miko

    (Especially considering that most fundamentalists would probably condemn your girlfriend to Hell for following “demonic” New Age practices.)

    The poster you’re responding to didn’t qualify “fundamentalism” with the word “Christian” by the way. There are other types of fundamentalism out there. Fundamentalism of any sort is tied together by its antipathy for argument based upon logic or reason. Faith is the assertion that valid arguments can be constructed without logic or reason. Moderate believers of any sort hold faith. Large numbers of believers create the impression that faith is a valid epistemic tool. Ergo, moderate believers provide cover to fundamentalism. I’d classify it as a statement which is true, but also not very meaningful. Since it’s not a productive means of stopping fundamentalist thought patterns, I don’t really see why either ‘side’ cares so much about it. (Okay. I’m done being off-topic now.)

  • http://www.ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Robin,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is very touching, honest, and eye-opening. I’ve always wanted the opportunity to talk heart-to-heart with someone who was gay. I had so many questions, some of which you have answered in your beautiful story. You are a wonderful and poignant writer, by the way. I hope you will stick around and keep sharing your views. (although I don’t know if I will be here as much as I had been lately.)

    One thing, though, that I noticed which bothers me a lot…

    I still can’t stand Barbra Striesand or Bette Midler

    Now, that’s blasphemy! ;-)

    But seriously, it’s a pleasure to know you!

  • http://www.ohthethinksyoucanthink.blogspot.com Linda

    Jeff,

    You know how I feel about you. I’m so glad I now got the chance to know the whole story. It was always very puzzling to me why you attend a church, not to mention wondering what kind of church. I guess I never asked you the right questions and just assumed that you would volunteer the information if you wanted me to know. Now I know, and I understand. Thank you.

    I hope you and your family will get a chance to come and visit my church someday. That would be wonderful.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Fundamentalism of any sort is tied together by its antipathy for argument based upon logic or reason. Faith is the assertion that valid arguments can be constructed without logic or reason.

    Just my opinion, but i think those are pretty bad definitions of both fundamentalism and faith. And if that is true, then I don’t think the rest of your argument works either.

    Besides which, even according to your argument, the issue is still not about moderates “providing cover” for fundamentalists. Again, if your main beef is with “faith” itself, then you shouldn’t care whether they are moderates or fundamentalists. In your eyes they are both just as bad.

    Personally I don’t buy it. I think the content of the faith and behavior encouraged by it is extremely important, and that it is grossly unfair to just lump every single type of faith together as if fundamentalists who fly planes into buildings are just as bad as doctors whose faith motivates them to give up wealth and comfort to go provide medical care in Third World countries. It’s not all just the same or just as bad… again, IMHO.

  • Pither

    Personally I find it frustrating that the term “faith” has been twisted to now mean “the tenacity of one’s belief in religious doctrine.” And I think that may be part of the issue here. When we allow the fundamentalists to define faith this way, it robs us (the non-religious) of the opportunity to participate in the kind of “faith” that Mike alludes to here. Faith, when defined as a hopeful optimism and motivation to do what we think is right in spite of opposition or complacency. Now that’s a faith I *DO* honor and admire. Blind belief in doctrine in spite of evidence – that’s not faith at all in my book. I think it’s time we non-theists reclaim that word to not be the sole property of the religious believer.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    I’ve been married to a devout Christian woman for a little over two years (and dated for a couple of years before that). It’s been an interesting, and sometimes frustrating, experience, to say the least. Most of the time it’s ok – very rarely does moderate Christian faith actually impact what goes on in your everyday life – so it’s only a problem when you make it a problem. I admit to rolling my eyes and getting impatient when my wife is praying, so basically it’s overt lack of respect or general pushiness about religious questions that result in the odd argument.

    I have to agree with a previous commentor that it’s easier for the atheist to give a little than vice versa – we just don’t have as much strong belief to curtail, so I guess it makes sense that we can go with the flow more easily. For instance, I do go with her to church most weeks. For her part, even though the (already very wealthy) church wants 10% gross tithes, she only gives a couple of bucks here and there. As an aside, think about that. For us, that’s a little over $10000 a year! After four years, you could have bought a really nice car. What a rip off. This proves Pascal’s Wager is crap. If I believe but am wrong, I don’t lose nothing; I lose 7 luxury cars over the course of my working life!

    Things may get interesting when kids arrive. I’ve agreed not to overtly say that their mom’s religion is wrong, but I have free reign to teach critical thinking, science, history, and multiculturalism.

  • http://butchbailey.com/ Butch

    I’m an atheist married to a Christian, although a pretty moderate Episcopalian one. We have a great relationship, and honestly the best marriage of any couple I know. I guess it’s because we both put our marriage as the number one most important thing in our lives. Period. There isn’t even a #2. I don’t think it’s any harder than that. Just pick someone who is good at being married (not everyone is) and sell-out 100% to them and the marriage. We’re going on 8 years now as a religiously mixed couple and have had no serous problems.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Faith, when defined as a hopeful optimism and motivation to do what we think is right in spite of opposition or complacency. Now that’s a faith I *DO* honor and admire. Blind belief in doctrine in spite of evidence – that’s not faith at all in my book. I think it’s time we non-theists reclaim that word to not be the sole property of the religious believer.

    Very well said Pither. That is much closer to what I mean by “faith”; and I can wholeheartedly agree with you on that goal of reclaiming the word for all to use.

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Several of you have mentioned the tithing issue. I wonder – have any of you that are in this situation where one partner wants to tithe and the other doesn’t want to support religion financially considered a compromise. Perhaps you could agree on a faith-based charity whose work is not evangelistic but is simply to provide for people’s needs and make the world a better place. (I could recommend many.) That way the religious partner can feel like they’re giving to their faith and the other can feel like their money isn’t being wasted.

    Just wondering…

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    Mike, that’s a good idea re: tithing. There is a chance the religious partner would feel very strongly about giving to the church in particular rather than just the community, but for most people, I’d expect this to be a fair compromise. That’s why I bought a bunch of those cancer society lottery tickets – not that it’s exactly charity, but I don’t really expect to win anything ;-)

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    There is a chance the religious partner would feel very strongly about giving to the church in particular rather than just the community

    Well, perhaps those people can find a charity being done by the particular church itself that they would both feel comfortable designating the money to. Maybe the church is doing a mission trip to dig wells or build clinics or something in a developing country. Or maybe they do projects for the poor in their local community. Perhaps the couple can earmark their tithes to only go towards such projects.

  • Karen

    Tithing was a huge priority in the churches I used to attend. Many, many sermons during the year focused on “cheerful giving,” though they were pretty strong-arm about it for people trying to promote “cheerfulness”! :-)

    Our compromise is that my husband still gives a portion of his income to his church (though nowhere near 10%) and I give to a number of charitable causes from my income. My charities are an eclectic mix that represent my interests, from the arts to education to alleviating poverty in the developing world, promoting church-state separation and promoting science education.

    As a family, we make a year-end contribution annually and get our kids involved in choosing where it goes. One year we donated to Medecins Sans Frontieres, one year we funded a Kiva.org loan, and this year we’re going to give money to the school athletic program that our kids participate in.

  • Robin

    Tithing: when we budget, we allow ourselves each some spending money. If he wants to donate his share to his church, that’s his decision. Simple as that.

  • Julie

    Sorry, Mike, but I don’t think you can redefine faith because you want to. Here’s the definition from my Apple dictionary:

    1. complete trust or confidence in someone or something. 2 strong belief in God or in the doctrines of religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.

    Miko’s definition is closer than Pither’s according to the above. Hopeful optimism and do-gooding are not faith, although they may grow out of faith. Faith is not necessarily a positive quality, in the eyes of atheists, although in our society it has a positive connotation. Dispelling that connotation and looking objectively at the notion of faith, which IS belief without proof, is important.

    And that last paragraph is probably why I couldn’t be in a relationship with a believer! Ha ha, I’m also an English teacher, by the way, so quibbling about words and definitions just comes naturally to me. And I think preciseness of language is crucial.

    If you don’t like what faith means, well, that’s a different story. But that’s what it means!

  • monkeymind

    Hooboy, I am so tired of the “my abridged dictionary has the final word on all the possible denotations and connotations of word X” thing. Look it up in the OED and let’s talk.

  • monkeymind

    Julie, my Merriam Webster lists this as the first definition of faith:

    1 a: allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1): fidelity to one’s promises (2): sincerity of intentions

    If you don’t like what faith means, well, that’s a different story. But that’s what it means!

  • Stephanie

    Well, I suppose I’ll join the fray. Eighteen years ago, I met a cute Atheist. At the time I was a liberal and rather tepid, CEO sort of Christian. We never really talked about it and we certainly never argued, but I would bring his Atheism up every so often because I was fascinated by what could fill the void left by belief. Years on and I still think nothing fills it, it’s just that if you examine religious beliefs hard enough they get weathered down by evidence until finally there’s nothing left. At least that’s what I think happened to me.
    I still show up at a Unitarian church once in a great while, when I miss the community of faith. But that’s about it, and I go alone even though the congregation welcomes Atheists. My husband won’t set foot inside and we’re both fine with that. That way he can make breakfast. :)

  • http://emergingpensees.com MikeClawson

    Hooboy, I am so tired of the “my abridged dictionary has the final word on all the possible denotations and connotations of word X” thing. Look it up in the OED and let’s talk.

    Agreed monkeymind. Didn’t we just have this conversation in the last thread I put up? :)

  • Julie

    Pither: Faith, when defined as a hopeful optimism and motivation to do what we think is right in spite of opposition or complacency.

    OK, monkeymind, but it still doesn’t mean this! The point is that it was being redefined incorrectly here. Bring on whatever dictionary you like, and get as sarcastic with me as you please. I can totally take it.

  • monkeymind

    Julie – I don’t see how Pither’s definitions is all that different than the Merriam Webster definition:

    1 a: allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1): fidelity to one’s promises (2): sincerity of intentions

    if one sees one’s duty and promises as working for positive change in the world

    The meaning of faith can certainly not be restricted to “belief without evidence.” I think you’ll have considerable trouble explaining away the meanings of “faithless” and “unfaithful” if you do.

    Polysemy’s a bitch, I know. Sorry for the sarcasm but linguistic prescriptivism really raises my hackles.

  • monkeymind

    MikeClawson said,

    Agreed monkeymind. Didn’t we just have this conversation in the last thread I put up? :)

    There’s glory for you!

    And by glory I mean, here we go again! :-)

  • Julie

    Monkeymind, I doubt you’ll look back here, since this thread has disappeared over the horizon, but the “if” part of your your comment is exactly the point. If one sees one’s duty as working for the destruction of the US, then faith “means” something else, according to the way you’re interpreting it. Faith itself doesn’t get to pick its target. People can have faith in lots of different things. Pither’s point was that faith can be inherently positive, but it can’t.

    A person can be faithless or unfaithful only relative to another term.

    I’m no prescriptivist, but I like to be precise with language.

    By the way, you messed up your subject / verb agreement in your first sentence. Put that in your hackles and smoke it.

  • monkeymind

    Sorry, Julie, you got some blowback from an unrelated discussion. I don’t think Mike or Pither were claiming that their definition IS what faith means in some essential sense. Words don’t have meanings outside of how they are collectively used, and often opposing sides will struggle over “ownership” of a word. Part of being precise with language is knowing how different audiences are likely to respond to a given word, and if you are using a connotation peculiar to some sub-group, to make this clear implicitly or explicitly.

    I think you will find that “faithless” and “unfaithful” are used mainly pejoratively, except for some attempts to redefine “faithless” (along with “godless”) as positive, much like gays redefined “queer”. When I see the word faithless used in this context, it doesn’t bother me at all and I don’t feel the need to point out the “dictionary” definition to people who are obviously using the word in a different and perfectly legitimate way.

    Sorry about the grammatical error in my post. You may take points off for the typo if you like.


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