Should Atheists Date Religious People?

Should Atheists Date Religious People? October 4, 2019

When I was in college – and I really have no idea how I did this – I worked at YVR airport. I had a full academic course load and then went to the airport at night and cleaned planes until morning. I do not recall if sleep really ever happened. I do remember, however, being in such a sleepless stupor that my boss once appeared to me as Hulk Hogan… but that’s a whole other story.

I also had the extreme pleasure of peeling the NHL’s used condoms off the ceiling of their plane. The exact jet I speak of flew none other than the Number 99 into Vancouver when he played with the Kings. I was excited waiting on the tarmac. I held onto the bottle of degreaser in my hand as the LA Kings disembarked before me. Then I saw him. The Great One. Canada’s pride and joy. Gretzky rushed past me with barbecue sauce on his shirt, leaving a trail of overpowering, expensive cologne in his wake. I couldn’t wait to tell my brother.

My excitement soon turned to horror when I saw how Gretz had left his plane. I don’t know what it is about human beings, but it would appear that once you’re 30,000 ft in the air, y’all turn into beasts of unbridled filth. Even Wayne Goddamned Gretzky and his royal pals had no chill in the air. 

Regardless, though, of how much of your vomit I had to ladle out of sinks, seat pockets and overhead bins, I truly loved the job.

A few weeks into it, I was sitting in the lunchroom with Sitara, the woman who loved me so much that she brought me homemade Fijian food for lunch every day. Shovelling roti in my mouth and moaning in absolute unparalleled pleasure at how incredibly good the stuff was, I looked up to see a man I thought was Goran Visnjic, the Croatian wet dream from TV’s ER. It wasn’t uncommon for us to see celebs on the job, coming and going from planes, but in the lunchroom? That was strange.

Before I could get up and wipe the spinach off my chin, I was being introduced. This was not Goran. This was his extremely close look-a-like, and my coworker, Ramzi. He’d been off with a broken hand longer than I’d been working there, so I had never seen him before. I stared, spinach just resting there. He must have thought I was… slow.

After I said “hi” for the third time, Ramzi finally asked if I was okay and then promptly told me the spinach on my chin was hot. In a silky Middle Eastern accent, no less. So, naturally, I ignored the spinach once again and asked him where he was from. He said Iraq, grabbed a napkin and wiped my chin. I was in love.

From that point on, we were pretty inseparable. The job, which was officially titled “groomer”, had a lot of downtime. Some days we’d have an 8-hour shift and one 5 minute turnaround clean during the whole 8 hours. Ramzi and I would talk and talk and talk during all of our downtime.

He told me the story of how he, as a Kurd, escaped Iraq under Hussein’s rule. It was pretty intense and involved him leaving his Mom behind at the Turkish border, walking through Turkey to Greece and eating wild plants just to stay alive. All when he was only 15-years-old and alone. It was gut-wrenching. I told him I wanted to write his story for him.

He started to come to my apartment to work on the story, and before we knew it, we were officially dating.

It did not last long.

One night, he told his mother about me during a phone call from Iraq. She was fit to be tied that he’d picked one of the only two non-Muslim girls at our job to date. She kept telling him any time they spoke that he could not marry an infidel.

When he told me this, I just about jumped out of my skin.

“Marry? Who the eff said we were going to marry? I literally just met you!”

He agreed that it was silly to be talking about this so soon, but as time went by, he would speak about Islam and marriage more and more.

It became increasingly uncomfortable.

Finally, one day, during a discussion with him about Islam, I referred to the prophet in a way he deemed disrespectful, and he lost it. He got so upset that he let it slip, “If you can’t even respect my wishes about my own religion now, how will you ever make a good Muslim?”

I was in complete shock.

“Ramz, I’m not going to become a Muslim. It will never happen.” I tried to be gentle.

“Then why are we dating?”

“You tell me.”

And with that, it was over. There was more to it, unrelated to religious belief, but ultimately, that’s what came between us. 

Ramzi is a beautiful human being, inside and out. He was hilarious, fun, and so open-minded and willing to learn about the new culture he had found himself in. He did not attempt to hide me from his family and jumped at the chance to tell his Mom about me despite knowing how she would react. The way he would look at me, with his soulful brown eyes, I knew I meant a lot to him.

But it still didn’t work between us because indoctrination is hard to shake. Ramzi adored me and didn’t even behave like a devout Muslim, missing prayers on most days. At one point, he also told me he didn’t think he believed anymore. Despite all of these things being true, he still let these ideas come between us. Ideas that didn’t mean much to him anymore but that were pounded into his mind so well, he couldn’t let them go.

In the time since I’ve thought a lot about how things ended with Ramzi. I’ve done a lot of thinking in my life about how relationships are affected by conflicting positions on religion. Much of it because I’ve been asked for advice by many readers who are in interfaith relationships.  

Just the other day, I got this one: 

I’m dating a man from a Muslim background. his parents are very religious, they never met me, and he is always fighting with his mum and lying to her where he is and who is he with. I’m trying to explain to him that I respect his faith; however, if we move forward and decide to have children, I don’t want our kids to be raised Muslim. I’m happy for them to be introduced to all of the religions and once they are old enough to decide themselves, I will support them. What are your thoughts on dating a religious person with even more religious family? Is there even a change of this working out? 

I think the first thing that is important to recognize is that we tend to view these sorts of situations through rose-coloured glasses. You are attracted to this man. You care about him. You wouldn’t be dating him and talking about kids if you didn’t want this to work out, and so you are definitely looking at it all with a bit of a bias. One of the ways I like to try to strip myself of my own personal bias is by imagining a friend in the same scenario and sorting out what advice I would give him or her. 

With that said, I want you to put aside your differences in religious perspectives for a moment. Let’s just take a look at the fact that your boyfriend is actively lying about you to his family. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not eager to share you with them, but what it does mean is that he’s capable of repeatedly lying to people who are important to him. 

In the future, it could be you he ends up lying to. 

You cannot build up a relationship, something that requires trust, on a pile of lies. 

For this reason alone, I would forget him. It doesn’t matter if the lies are inspired by someone else’s religious bigotry. These are lies. Period. Lies have no place in a successful, happy relationship. 

What’s more, if we look at why he’s lying, it makes everything much, much worse. Essentially, he’s demonstrating for you the fact that he’s not willing to stand up to his family. You have to see that if he can’t stand up to them about dating someone outside of his faith, he’s not going to be able to stand up to them when it comes time to marry someone outside of his faith. He’s not going to be able to defy their wishes when you have kids with him, and you want them to be raised in a secular way. 

Once his family does find out, what is their reaction likely to be? Even passive-aggressive comments get to be too much to handle after years and years of them. Are you always going to be trying to prove your basic decency to these people? Will they ever truly see your value? Think of every holiday, every milestone, standing amongst a group of people who think you are corrupting their son and the reason he might not find his way to paradise with them in the afterlife. One dinner is easy to endure. Maybe even a handful. But you’re looking at a lifetime of being looked down upon by your significant other’s family. You had better believe this is going to be a very abundant source of conflict between you and your boyfriend for the entire length of your relationship. 

You are being given a rare opportunity to glimpse your future with him, and I can assure you, it’s not going to be easy. 

Something that also must be considered is the fact that people change. I’ve said this in each and every piece I’ve written offering advice about interfaith relationships. Change can be a great and wonderful thing, but for someone who is a moderate believer now, change can come in the form of increasingly devout adherence to dogmatic religious beliefs. One of the most significant catalysts for personal growth is becoming a parent. When you have a child, you want to give your child the absolute best you possibly can. Your priorities automatically change. 

For me, I was doing a lot of travelling, living in other countries and meeting new people, learning new languages. I thought for sure that when I had baby, I would raise him as a fellow globetrotter, maybe on a sailboat as we floated with carefree abandon from port to port exploring this world. But that’s not what happened. Everything changed when he was born. Everything. Suddenly roots mattered. I recalled looking back on my own childhood and wanting to give something like that to my own child. All of my priorities shifted when my baby boy came into my life, and I could never have possibly predicted these changes before I was a mom. 

For people who are just moderately religious, these changes can and often do come in the form of taking their religion more seriously. Now, they have a whole other soul to protect from eternal damnation. What’s more, they can tend to, like I did, look back on their childhood and want to give to their children what was given to them. For people who grew up religious, this looks like worship, prayer and religious tradition.

What all of this means is that no matter how moderate your boyfriend is now with his religious beliefs, when you have kids, these things can change. They often do change. Of course, that change can be in the other direction, and your boyfriend could end up becoming more secular, but people are creatures of habit and tend to cling to that which they know. Especially when it comes to parenting. We often become the sort of parents our own folks were. 

What this means for you, is that though your boyfriend might assure you now that his religious background will play no part in his parenting, that sudden and life-altering sense of obligation and responsibility that washes over us all upon becoming a parent may be just the thing he needs to start taking his religion more earnestly. It means you might be heading into a future tug-of-war between raising your babies Muslim and raising them secularly.  

You have to ask yourself the tough questions: 

What will your response be if he asks you to pretend to be Muslim to appease his family? 

What happens if he insists on sending your children to a private Muslim school? Can you cope with that if it’s a deal-breaker for him? 

You also need to think about how this might look in a custody battle. I know it’s unpleasant to think about that, but, realistically, your differences could be a threat to your relationship down the line, and if it happens after you marry and have kids, you’re going to be sitting in front of a judge explaining your atheism. I’ve had so many messages from so many heathens out there who are sure they lost custody of their children, at least in part, because they were non-believers. They just got really unlucky with judges and found themselves arguing their case in front of justices who had old-fashioned ideas about what good parenting entailed. In many parts of the world, not taking your child to your local place of worship is on the same level as not feeding them. 

I loathe the old saying that the heart wants what it wants. Sometimes what the “heart” wants is not suitable for our future children or us. Sometimes what the heart wants is a recipe for disaster. 

Today, I’m with an atheist man, and though I cared a great deal for Ramzi at the time, the feeling of being accepted for exactly who I am with my significant other is unbeatable. I do not have to worry about how I speak of religion. I don’t have to argue with him about what we teach our children. When my daughter came out of the closet to us and told us she had a girlfriend, I am so, so glad I was standing next to a secular man. Our reaction was pure joy, and there was not a moment of discomfort. The two of us beamed with pride in a united front, equally overjoyed to stand behind this perfect, beautiful girl.

So, if you’re asking for my honest reaction, it would be to tell your boyfriend it’s over and look for a man with whom you share the same core beliefs. Of course, the possibility exists that things will work out just fine between you two, but the reality is that at some point, it’s going to cause conflict. You have to be honest when you try to imagine what that conflict might look like, how it might manifest, and how well you and your future kids are going to come out of it. 

If we’re being realistic, you don’t come out on top. The atheist rarely comes out on top.

My opinion would be the same if he were a Christian man lying to his family about you. For me, the biggest red flag is lying. I think my position might differ if your significant other weren’t lying about you to his family. 

I want to know what advice you’d give to this kind-hearted lady. Let me know in the comments! 

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  • valleycat1

    What I would say to this woman is that there is no one perfect life mate for her. And even if there were, this guy obviously is not it, for the reasons you set out in this post and the fact that she is uncertain enough that this could work out that she has written in for advice. She should cut her losses and accept that this is not the best relationship for her, take the time to grieve the loss and move on.

  • Jim Jones

    By the time you’ve sorted out if you’re each straight, gay, bi or whatever; top, bottom, switch or vanilla; carnivorous, vegetarian or vegan; dealing with 3000 sky myths and variations seems exhausting.

  • persephone

    I would emphasize the lying part, as you did. If he’s willing to lie to his family, apparently all of his family, then lying to his partner would mean nothing to him. But the issue that arises, and this is also the result of gender and patriarchal religions, is that he will expect you to do what you’re told and follow him into whatever he decides to do. It won’t be just the usual societal patriarchy; he will have his religion, and generations of family, backing him up on this. You will ALWAYS be wrong. ALWAYS. No matter how he treats you, if he sticks with his family, they will back him up. I’ve seen too many women who ended up having to not only fight their ex, but his family, in a divorce that involved child custody. My cousin’s children were taken by their father out of state and he ignored court orders to return them. His family fought her at every turn, pouring money into lawyers, and hiding the children with different relatives when she would go there.

    Of course, we don’t like to think about divorce before we’re even married, but it’s a factor, and a big contributor in many divorces is different belief systems. You will end up fighting for your relationship and your children every day. No one likes to fight every day. It’s stressful and destructive. You deserve better.


  • Raging Bee

    If the guy is lying to his FAMILY about his girlfriend/intended, it’s almost surely because he doesn’t want to stand up to them or have any kind of conflict with them. And if he’s that eager to avoid such conflict, then sooner or later he’ll cave to his family (probably just before the wedding, just to get them to come to it and give him stuff), and from then on it will be them pushing him to “lead” the charge against his new wife. There’s only one valid option for the woman here, and it’s best expressed in one word: EJECT!

  • Michael Neville

    It’s the lying that stood out to me. If someone will lie to their parents about things important to those parents then they’ll lie to their spouse about things important to the spouse.

    I worked as an accounting manager for one company for over ten years. I only fired two people in that time.. One lost his job because he stole some money. The other made a mistake and lied to her supervisor and me about the mistake. I didn’t fire her for the mistake (if she hadn’t lied I’ve have told her to fix it and if asked about it a couple of weeks later I probably wouldn’t remember it). I fired her because I couldn’t trust her honesty. Thinking about it, I fired both people because they were dishonest.

  • I think an atheist faces a double whammy in a relationship with not only a theist, but a theist from a very different culture. A western atheist might have difficulty with a Muslim atheist (yes, there are Muslim atheists). Some religions (Judaism is probably the best example) have become more cultural than theistic. Islam isn’t there yet… but it could easily head in that direction.

  • Martin Zeichner

    Good story. Well told. Definitely worth a read.

    The original question, “Should Atheists Date Religious People?” intrigued me. It seems to me that the answer is “Yes, unequivocally. Everyone needs to grow. What better way to learn about other people than from your mate?” Life is much too short to stay locked away in your own ideological bubble. Whether it is atheistic or religious or something else.

  • Lady Alexandra

    I’m a theist, though not a Christian, and when I date one of my big points is that they tolerate my religion and its expression. I don’t ask them to worship with me, or to follow the everyday practices that I do, but I ask them not to put their drink down on my altar or sneer at my faith when I mention that I have plans on the evening of the equinox. Some people, theists and atheists alike, can’t manage this, and so I don’t date them.

  • SecMilChap

    My late wife was “recovering RC” when we met in 1967 and married in 1972. She resumed activity in the RCC in 1978, after a serious period of aberrant behavior. She only asked once about my disbelief and was satisfied with “…it’s an itch I don’t need to scratch…” We traveled for years in our RV, and I’d use HamRadio to find Mass time/places for her each week. I’d talk to the world in the RV whilst she attended to her religious duties. It was never a problem between us. What led me to separate from her was her return to unacceptable behavior and her inability to work it out in counseling. We were still married when she died three years ago, and I’m quite sure that her early death was consequential to 7-10 years of childhood abuse, which manifests in many women in middle age after a successful life through late adolescence and an adult career. The abuser was a defrocked RC priest. The difference between us in religious belief was unimportant, but what was done her by a coreligionist was.

  • Brian Curtis

    Drawing on every “religious relationship advice” column ever:

    Yes, it’s okay to date a religious person, provided you understand what you’re getting yourself into and you’re doing it for the right reasons. Your role as a freethinker is to help rescue a lost soul from the darkness and confusion of religious belief. You’re here to save them, not ‘accept your differences’ and stay indifferent to the ruin they’re making of their existence. If your logic is strong and you truly care, you’ll show them the better, brighter path toward redemption that the two of you can walk together. And in the end, they’ll thank you for it.

  • ginger_katz

    No they won’t.

    Pursuing a relationship while thinking you can change the other person is a serious, serious mistake. The other person rarely changes. They may actually blame you for continuing the relationship under false pretenses — “you knew this about me while we were dating.”. If you cannot accept the other person as they are, faults and all, for any reason, you should not be together. Period.

    I’ve seen so many people try this and fail whether or not religion was an issue.

  • BrianN

    Yeah I would just steer clear of theists if you’re solid in your thinking and don’t want potential kids to be influenced. As an agnostic, while I know I don’t have conclusions that are irrefutable, I have made up my mind about the religions around me and don’t want my child to be indoctrinated. I did date religious girls for a while and that roadblock always showed up for me. Don’t assume anyone will change their beliefs for you whether through logic or love. Just best avoid it and go looking for what you would see in a long time partner. I found mine and it was difficult (I live in Utah.)

  • BrianN

    I realize this is probably sarcasm, which I agree it is ridiculous. Why would you pursue a relationship with the assumption you will change the other person’s beliefs, assumptions, anything? Religions aside, I think it’s sound advice to take a person for who they are at the time you are with them. While people can and do change, it’s usually incremental and at a snails pace.

  • ginger_katz

    Your advice was excellent, Godless Mom.

    When I was an undergraduate, one of my lab mates was a devout Catholic woman dating an equally devout Orthodox Jewish man from another uni. I don’t know how they met. They dated seriously for about 2 years and eventually became engaged. He gave her a beautiful ring. However, during their entire relationship he not once told his family about her. She was a secret. She told me that she had discussed this issue with him many times, and each time he gave her some excuse not to tell his family about her and their relationship.

    Finally, she laid down the law with him, so to speak.

    How can they possibly get married and raise kids (which they both wanted) in complete secrecy from his family? How will they raise the kids — Catholic or Jewish? How will his family react when they discover their relationship/marriage/kids? (Her family was fine with it, BTW.) She reasonably insisted they make some major decisions about their future. She told him that he was being unrealistic.

    So he told his family.

    He told her they would disown him if he didn’t break up with her immediately.

    So he broke up with her. Over the phone in under a minute. Matter-of-factly. He requested that she return the ring. To make matters even worse, he told her that he had known all along that his family would never approve of her but he dated her anyway.

    What the actual fuck.

    My lab mate was sobbing uncontrollably when I found her in the lab that same evening. She told me everything; prior to this we had not been close at all. “HE KNEW?! HE KNEW?!” she kept screaming. Why had he capitulated so readily to his family’s demands? Didn’t he love her? Had their entire relationship been a lie from the very beginning? (Yes, I thought, it was.) His breakup with her had been calm and businesslike. She was utterly devastated.

    She was in such a state that I was seriously worried about her hurting herself. I made her promise to schedule an emergency appointment with the uni’s counselling service. She agreed. She ended up in the hospital for a few days. I didn’t see her much in the lab after that. She was a senior so she graduated that spring.

    Let this be a cautionary tale for your advisee, Godless Mom.

    Prior to my colleague’s experience I had never considered whether or not I would date a religious person. Now I know I would never, not even an innocuous one like a UU or a Wiccan. I’m not saying that her experience would be mine, but as you noted people change during relationships. I can’t take the chance of a partner’s religion coming between us.

  • Jim Jones

    > Why would you pursue a relationship with the assumption you will change the other person’s beliefs, assumptions, anything?

    It can happen, however I would be OK with just an accommodation: I do my thing, you do yours.

  • Jim Jones

    I wouldn’t assume you could change him/her. I would accept them, understanding the relationship on this point might not be perfect.

  • Jim Jones

    Sounds like you are saying being more religious indicates dementia? ;P

  • Jim Jones

    I’d be less amazed if I suddenly understood quantum mechanics than if I suddenly became a theist!

    And quantum mechanics is backed up by experiment and research.

  • Jim Jones

    Some guys seem to be self deluded about the ‘chase’ and marriage. The ones who are bigamists (and worse) are compartmentalizing more than the religious.

  • Jim Jones

    If you’d just remembered, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” you could still have been doing her?

  • Martin Zeichner

    Yes, there is no disputing that the predictions made by quantum mechanics agree with observations. The problem seems to be reconciling the equations of quantum electrodynamics (QED) withe those of cosmology (relativity) without eventually getting to a divide by zero situation (At least that’s how I understand it.). So we have several different string theories that propose different numbers of spatial dimensions.

    For myself, I can sorta follow the arguments that are presented in the books for adults, but when it comes to explaining the details, I’m at a loss without having the math in front of me. It’s like the explanations of Bayes’ Theorem of conditional probability that I’ve seen framed as the ‘Monte Hall Problem’. I can follow the arguments but I don’t fully grasp the issue once the explanation is done.

    It’s also like Feynman’s Line; “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

    In other words, the human brain is not equipped to grasp realities that are this far out of scale with what we have experienced on the savannas of Africa, or in large modern cities. So we take comfort in, and ascribe power to, old stories as metaphors for what we can’t explain.

  • Mark Jeffrey

    I don’t think the big issue here is religion so much as culture. That can be a far bigger hurdle to jump, especially if it entails a lot of change on the part of one half of the partnership, while the other stay more or less unchanged.
    I’m a Christian myself, enough so that I’m a trained lay preacher. My wife is an atheist, from a “fundamentalist atheist” family. However, we have plenty of other things in common, both being British ex-pats living in Switzerland (we met here), both have a strong interest in history, are both well educated, and have similar politics. When religion comes up in discussion, which it does, we can both express strong opinions and make arguments, but it stays on an intellectual level. My own faith is of the Wesleyan “think and let think” variety, and certainly not fundamental or literalist, so that removes the fear of hellfire you mentioned.
    I think the whole question comes down to the whole person and the whole relationship. Finding someone of common religion or non-religion is only one facet of a much bigger picture. In some cultures (such as the US Bible belt) religion may proxy for a whole lot of other attitudes, but in many places it isn’t so clear cut.
    So I think the advice you give is good in this case, but not for the right reason. It isn’t the religion that’s the problem in itself, it’s the whole cultural package that comes with it.

  • Mark Jeffrey

    That’s an example of a cultural mismatch. In some cultures it is recognised and expected that people will lie, and allowance is made for that. Nobody in such a culture feels especially sore about it, because it is normal and they do it themselves, perhaps to save face, for family honour, or to avoid conflict. But as a stranger to that culture it would feel extremely strange, and probably be a very serious barrier to a long-term relationship since such habits are very hard to break when they seem natural and right.

  • Mark Jeffrey

    Now you’ve gone too far! String theory is just a bunch of mathematical ideas backed up by no experimental evidence whatsoever (still, after 30+ years of work). It only gets press because too many of the physics community studied under professors who liked it, so more or less had to work on it if they wanted to get ahead or earn tenure. It’s almost as if it were a religion !!! 🙂

    (Yes, I’m pulling your leg, but it really does look like that to many of us)
    (Yes, I’m also a theist who knows how to entangle quantum particles and once made 5,000 entangled pairs before breakfast)

  • Mike Curnutt

    More like stupidity.

  • Mike Curnutt

    I would never consider dating a theist.