Ask Richard: Fifteen-Year-Old Atheist In Love With a Christian

Hi there, I’m a 15 year old guy, and I’ve been in a relationship with a Christian, self proclaimed “holy-roller” for about 7 months. In high school, let me tell you, that’s a long time. Anyway, I really like this girl. I mean, I think I may love her. Now, my deeply logical brain is what keeps me from accepting the Christianity that previous generations of my family hold so dear, and yet I stayed with this girl knowing that at some point my feelings about the universe would at some point clash with hers.

This happened about 2 weeks ago.

We were talking about it on Skype and she got deeply emotional about it. We both shed some tears and she said she was contemplating breaking up with me. I told her there’s no way I’m breaking up with her over this, because I’m fine with whatever religion/non-religion she follows, and that it’s her choice. She decided that she just never wants to bring up religion again. I told her that’s not what I want, that she should bring it up whenever, because couples should talk about these kinds of things. Still, she insisted that she wouldn’t again.

Today, she brought it back up.

We were once more on Skype and she started singing a song (“Our God Is Greater,” or something). She mentioned that she wanted to go back to church. I told her to go. She said it doesn’t work like that. I said go on Sunday. She said she’d be out of town. I said to go to a church there. She said she doesn’t like any other church. Then I sang a line from her song, but I sang, “Our church is greater,” and she got majorly PO’d. I thought it was harmless fun, and she got all mad at me, saying I was making fun of her religion (which I wasn’t, at least not on purpose). Then she said I’ve “crossed the line one too many times,” and then left me for the night saying (over text) “Sometimes I can’t stand to reason with you.”

I don’t know what to do, sir. I do NOT want her to change, and I do NOT want to change. This girl is everything to me. I don’t want religion to stand in the way. I need help. Basically, I’m in love with a Christian girl, and I don’t want to switch sides. How do I make it work?

-Tormented Teen

Dear Tormented Teen,

I deeply want to ease your torment, and I also feel helpless to do so.

I understand torment. The first time I fell in love was three of your lifetimes ago, but I still remember it vividly.  It was overwhelming because I had never experienced anything like it before. It was both wonderful and awful at the same time. The awful parts were because she and I were not fully honest and frank with each other, and that was because we were not fully honest and frank with ourselves.  She and I were at the effects of our desire and our fear.

Desire is always, always accompanied by fear. We long for the desired thing, and we fear either not getting it or losing it.  We might try to ignore the fear, but it still can strongly censor what we say to each other, and censor what we think to ourselves. We can end up mistaking wishes for truth, or not distinguishing hope from reality.

I also understand that asking a 15-year-old who is in love to think soberly is asking a great deal, and I’m saying that with complete respect. I’m sure that as you say, you have a deeply logical brain, but despite the often-used analogy, the brain is not really like a computer. It is chemically based, and its most powerful chemicals have nothing to do with logic. It is subject to the effects of testosterone, adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, to name just a few. Passion trumps reason almost every time. It makes for great literature and painful lives.

Your girlfriend’s passion for you and her passion for her religion are in conflict. Your passion for her and your logic whispering in your ear are in conflict. The fear of loss that always goes with desire is causing both of you to not be fully honest and frank with each other. That conversation about her going to church sounded to me like she was hinting that she wanted you to go with her, but she held that back. It sounded like you wanted her to be more rational and more responsible for her own needs, but you held that back and expressed it indirectly by teasing her about her song.

Hinting and teasing about this is not going to work. You must face your fears honestly and frankly within yourselves, and then discuss the fearful things honestly and frankly with each other. It’s a possibility that you’ll lose each other by being honest and frank, but it’s almost a certainty that you’ll lose each other by not being honest and frank.

You’re right to insist that couples should talk about these kinds of  things as they come up. A tacit agreement to not discuss an important issue gradually becomes a division between them. You have already shown some good effort to make it safe for her to be honest and frank. Now continue to show her by your own example. Tell her, “This is scary for me to talk about, but I care about you too much to let it silently grow between us.” Don’t pretend to be confident or to have all the answers. Let the vulnerability of your genuineness give her permission to offer you the same.

You must be true to your principles and convictions, just as she must be true to hers. You both might be able to adjust to your differences, but you both must want the other to have their integrity. This is where you will find how deep your caring is. A shallow caring simply wants to be with the other person. A deep caring wants whatever is true and best and right for both of you, even if that means not being with the other person.

To be fifteen is wonderful and awful. To be four times older than that, as I am,  is wonderful and awful. To be in love at either age is wonderful and awful. The fear of loss for what we desire never goes away. The only thing that changes is how that loss might happen.

I wish both of you well, and happiness in your journeys.

Here are some related posts that might be of help to you:

Ask Richard: Being Frank and Honest With My Girlfriend About My Atheism

Ask Richard: Clarity and Honesty in a Relationship With a Christian

Camels With Hammers: Asking Richard Wade About Whether Believers and Non-Believers Should Avoid Marrying Each Other

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://billybobsbibleblog.blogspot.com/ billybobbibb

    The Bible teaches “be not yoked with unbelievers”,  and if she believes this scripture, your future with her will be short indeed.  You describe her church as the “holy roller” variety, and they are taught that God, the Bible, Christ and salvation are the number ONE priority, above education, relationships, everything else.  Unless you change your life to be immersed in HER world, she will never be happy, and pretending to be Christian would probably make you very unhappy.

    My ex-wife (of 18 years) and I divorced over religion.  I’m an atheist, yet my current girlfriend considers herself a Christian, just not the fundamentalist, literalist kind.  And we get along well, even when debating religion, because for us, love comes first, not religion.

  • Wazzy

    I’m a Liberal Atheist married to a Republican Christian – My husband refuses to discuss politics and religion with me – however he did – many years ago – concede every argument we’d ever have over it – saying  I knew more about those subjects than he does – We’ll be celebrating out 18th wedding anniversary on New Years Eve – 2 people who are completely opposite can make it work – if they want it to work – and there’s so much more we can discuss – religion and politics are not the only 2 subjects . . .

  • Tortuga Skeptic

    Poor kid.  I’ve been like that girlfriend and I have to say, there is usually no good news in the short term.  It sounds like she doesn’t want to break it off with him either, but she is in deep conflict because of her church.  The fact that she doesn’t want to go to any other one is very telling.  My first serious boyfriend was my Senior year of high school (look, I really just didn’t have the patience for boyfriends) and he was Mormon and I was Assemblies of God.  My church had my head so full of nonsense. It wasn’t that there was no love for him, it was the fear for his soul and the frustration that he could not see how important it was he be saved the right way that drove a wedge in our relationship.  
    All the strength of emotion we have in our teen years we often feel in religion too, if we are sucked into that type of thing, so it is almost like being torn between two people you love.  I’m not sure that there is any useful advice to give this young man at this point, just that it will get better later.  The one Atheist I dated was a short relationship in high school, but left a lasting impression.  Good luck, and make sure you have plenty of people around you can talk to about this stuff.

  • Anonymous

    My wife was a bridesmaid for her bests friend, who went to church with her family but was in actual practice not very religious. She met her Billy Graham book totin’ husband, who, at the rehearsal dinner practiced his oath. He would hold her second only to Jesus.

    We’ve not been friends with them since. Now, her blog is full of Jesi (the plural of Jesus) in virtually every sentence. She went from a high school science teacher whose intellect I respect to a preggo brain dead fundy.

    If your girl is that fundy one of you will have to change. It is just impossible to live with that level of stupid for the rest of your life.

    Sounds harsh, and as noted in the post, it is virtually impossible to think clearly at this point in your life and relationship. There are more fish in the sea, some of which will put you before an undead carpenter.

  • http://cannonballjones.wordpress.com/ Paul

    My advice would be to end it, try to get over it and realise – not to sound patronising or condescending – that you’ve got your best years ahead of you and there will be many other girls far better suited to you. I was in a similar relationship very recently with a girl who I loved and still do love very dearly. Unfortunately she too is of the holy roller mould and there is simply no flexibility there. As billybobbibb points out, any future you have with her will be short-lived unless you’re both on the same wavelength where religion is concerned.

    Don’t sell yourself short. Only accept a relationship where you and your love will always be placed before deities. You deserve nothing less, same goes for all of us.

  • Mihangel apYrs

    TT

    you are both hurting now because you do care for each other.  It hurts worse than anything else you have ever experienced: the first time is the worst, but it never stops hurting each time you split up.  Unfortunately that is probably what you will have to do. 

    Her faith will always get in the way – marrying in church, raising children would have to be in the Xian ideal: these things aren’t trivial to a committed Xian, they are matters more important than life or death!  Unless she can subsume her faith to the extent to be with an atheist who won’t change, and unless you can make all the space she needs it will go nowhere happily.

    It’s easy to say you’re young, and there’s lots of other girls in your future, that doesn’t help now.  However, I would hope you are both too honest to try and cobble together a relationship where important things are hidden, ignored, or acted out resentfully.  So you have to either negotiate honestly to find a way that you can both be happy, or you must walk away from each other, while keeping mutual respect.

    Only you can decide, but be honest in what you want.

    You have my best wishes, and my guarantee that the pain does go away eventually

  • http://lovejoyfeminism.blogspot.com Libby Anne

    I was that fundie girlfriend. My atheist boyfriend was beyond patient, and probably crazy for dating me. We argued about religion, science, and politics nonstop (and loved it – we were both great debaters), and two years after we started dating I admitted to myself that I was an atheist. I married that wonderful atheist guy, and three years later we have a beautiful daughter. We were both in college at the time, though.  And we were really lucky.

    • Zomgrammar

      People can change, and people can also live with their differences.

    • GregFromCos

      But to give him hope that she will change is unfair. It may happen, but is certainly not likely.

  • Scramble

    My grandparents made a go of it for 40 years-he was atheist and she was christian. She took their daughters to church until they were on their own, and all three stopped attending in their adulthood. I grew up in similar circumstances-my dad was a churchgoer and my mom an atheist, and like my grandparents, they agreed to expose us to both options and let us choose for ourselves when we reached out teens. Ultimately, we all stopped attending too. I can’t speak for my mom’s upbringing, but I can say that my own was generally free of religious tension between parents, and I will always be grateful for the resulting freedom and space I was granted in making this decision. Unfortunately, I can’t say what kinds of conversations my parents or grandparents had, what sort of compromises they made to make this work for them, but work it did.

    as I read the above comments, though, I see I do need to qualify what I say: the kind of christianity practiced by the churchgoers in my family is United Church of Canada, which is a very liberal, left-leaning church much more concerned with a person’s spiritual wellbeing than with follwing the letter of the bible. As the commenters above have noted, if your girlfriend belongs to a church that has convinced her you are literally doomed to hell unless you convert to her specific faith, then out of love and concern for you, how can she do otherwise but try to convert you? And given your beliefs, how can you do otherwise than resist? I agree with Richard, this is a conversation that needs to happen sooner rather than later, and you both need to be clear about your boundaries and limits-respecting yourselves is of vital importance. And, yes, as Richard says, that might have to mean letting the other go. This is a hard, hard truth, but self-respect is more important than almost anything, including a partnership. 

    A good quote, whose source I can’t remember, has helped me through tough times like this: “When you set boundaries, you let go of the outcome.”

  • Anonymous

    I know the following is going to sound diminishing and that’s certainly not my intention, but I’m fairly certain it will be shared by other adults on here.

    You are an atheist and you clearly put great stock in logic and reason. Good. I want you to do an experiment. Choose a sample of adults in your life (parents, teachers, family friends) and ask them if their current spouse or significant other (or former, if they’re single) is the same one they had when they were 15, 16 ot 17.

    I’m going to take a teeny little jump and predict that the vast majority of them did not “end up” with whoever made their heart jump at age 15. It does happen, but it’s not common. That doesn’t mean what you feel isn’t real, mind you, I’m sure it’s devastatingly real (as feelings are at that age), just that you should try, through the haze of your young love, to keep a sense of perspective. It’s very unlikely that this girl is the woman you marry.

    She’s a “holy roller” and you’re an atheist. I suppose you are aware what the people she looks up to, the people who guide every aspect of her life, tell her about people like you, like us? That we’re immoral, that we’re untrustworthy, that we’re controlled by Satan. Don’t think that these words don’t ring through her head, coming into pretty painful conflict with her feelings for one of these heathens. As more time passes it can become more of a problem.

    Sometimes, people’s paths cross at the wrong time. She may be great, she may be the best thing in the world for you….in 4 years. If she goes off to college (where religious fervor goes to die, in many cases) she may calm down from her religious zealotry and be in a better place to be with an atheist. Now doesn’t look like it’s the right time.

  • GregFromCos

    Tormented Teen,

    I think the ultimate question to ask is one about yourself. Are you able to truly put aside your reason about religion with this person? To be frank, making fun of her song was very mocking. Not necessarily a bad thing, unless you want a close relationship with this person.  Something that you will need to deal with (suppress) if you want to continue the relationship.

    If I were answering the question for myself. I could not do it. In my relationships, it is very important that I be able to be completely honest and open with my partner. Granted there are things that you can be open and honest about, and still disagree. However, religion is simply to large of an item in my mind to be able to ignore it.  Because ultimately, it comes down to how you see the world around you. Especially as you  start to think about how you would raise children (even though that is a long way down the road for you right now).

    I wish you the best as you work your way through this.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    Tormented Teen,

    My advice, if you love her, is to keep dating her but respectively insist on discussing religion with her.  For the relationship to work out, you two must come to an understanding that isn’t avoiding the issue.  Be aware, as others have said, that most relationships at 15 are just “starter relationships” (but important never-the-less).  Also atheists do not yoke well with “Holy rollers”.  Although, some people do end up marrying their childhood sweetheart (and it works) and some atheists make it work with believers… just the odds are against it in either case.  I’d say keep dating her for the relationship experience.  If it works out, great.  If not, then you will be hurt, but wiser.  Keep your eyes open, though. There are most definitely other girls out there that are nice in all the same ways that she is nice, but not so religious.  Bear in mind that she may be thinking the same thing.  There are lots of guys out there are nice in all the ways you are nice, but more religiously compatible.  She may have her eyes open too.

  • Trace

    Dear 15. Good advice either way.

    I feel for you. If she is so much into her church (read social network/club) you should start thinking how you fit into THAT relationship now and later as the relationship matures.

    Who knows, you maybe able to pull it off, but as Dr. Laura (I know, I know, just bear with me) used to say to couples of mixed faith, if their beliefs are so important to them why stay with someone who does not share them.

    Others have made it, maybe you will too. If not, you won’t be alone and have lots of time ahead of you to build other meaningful relationships.

    Good luck to you both!!!

  • Oob

    It’s rather unfortunate how often theological differences seem to break up relationships. I was treated to a rather straight-forward message in my last one, during a relationship-ending debate.

    “I prayed to God that I’d finally meet a nice guy,” she said, “and He delivers me one, but makes him an atheist.” She finished by saying that she’d rather date an asshole who’s a Christian than a nice guy who’s an atheist.

    I realize most Christians aren’t so blatant in their disgust for atheism. The comment was rather surprising to me. Even though I don’t see religion as being logical, I didn’t think someone would put together a scenario where they’d consciously choose the illogical side of things.

  • skm9

    I don’t remember 15, but as an atheist I’ve had happy relationships with christian women, and one of my friends (atheist) has been married to a christian for 12 years and they way it works for them and the way it’s worked for me is when the believer doesn’t think that you will  go to hell when you die.  If they don’t believe that, or you can get them to a place where they don’t believe that, then the religion isn’t a dealbreaker.  At least in my experience.

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      This has been my experience as well.  I’m married to someone who considers herself a Christian but she doesn’t believe the “only one path to heaven” doctrine…

      • B-man

        Then she doesn’t follow Jesus.  She’s probably religious, but she worships an unknown god.

  • Dune

    I had exactly the same problem when I was 15. My boyfriend was religious and I was a newly converted atheist.  The tension just grew until our every conversation turned into him yelling and calling me an immoral spawn of Satan. He was such a nice,   smart boy. It was totally not like him. I’m married now, but I still can’t get over our break-up. We were a perfect match, everything would be just right if only religion didn’t get in the way. And it’s not his fault, believing just happens to people. It happened to me too, and it wasn’t because I was stupid and retarded and then suddenly became all smart and reasonable. It seems like our brains just decide one way or another on their own.

  • http://twitter.com/Dale_Husband_HS Dale Husband

    If the atheist guy and his Christian girlfriend were both Unitarian Universalists, they wouldn’t even be arguing over religion. There is room for both in that denomination:

    http://www.uuchristian.org/

    http://www.uua.org/beliefs/welcome/6633.shtml

    {For many Unitarian Universalists, Christianity provides insight and guidance. One of the shared sources of our faith is “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”}

    http://www.uua.org/beliefs/welcome/6191.shtml

    {Atheists are people who do not believe in a god, while Agnostics are
    people who think that we cannot know whether a god exists. Both groups
    are welcome in Unitarian Universalism.

    Today, a significant proportion of Unitarian Universalists do not
    believe in any type of god. Our congregations are theologically diverse
    places where people with many different understandings of the sacred can
    be in religious community together.}

  • Df

    Reminds me of:I don’t believe in Heaven,Whose peace the preacher cites:I only trust your eyes now,They’re my heavenly lights.I don’t believe in God above,Who gets the preacher’s nod:I only trust your heart now,And have no other god.I don’t believe in Devils,In hell or hell’s black art:I only trust your eyes now,And your devil’s heart. A poem by Heinrich Heine which I like quite well.


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