Atheist Dilemma: Reaching Out to the SEB Community

I’ve always considered myself an Atheist teetering on agnosticism, but never really had a reason to think there might not actually be a God. It was only when I really became interested in Science and the world and less interested in pop-culture that I actually thought about it. That and the death of close friend made me start to think.

I met my girlfriend (now fiance) 5 years ago, before I started thinking more about life and the world. At the time I didn’t really participate in any churches or faiths, I just didn’t really care one way or the other and it never occurred to me I should care or should think about it. Out of respect of my fiance I attended church with her and her family on a few occasions.

The church is a Christian denomination, it’s called Trinity Church, and has a very modern appeal. At first I thought it was a normal church and not much seemed all that bad. Then came the day when the preacher said in his sermon, “Now you have all the other religions and ideas out there. And it’s not that these people are bad or evil, just that they are all wrong and going to hell!”

This was after I had been there 3 or 4 times. I was infuriated at this and really the event for me was a culmination of little things that lead to it. After the service I was driving with my fiance, then girlfriend (this was a couple years ago) and I told her I was upset about what was being said in the sermon. Coming from a Unitarian Universalist (UU) background I was very much against this, besides the obvious wrongs of such a statement.

At the time I remember my fiance stating something to the effect of, “Yes, I know, it upsets me too.” And not much more was really discussed. Then after another problem with the church about a year later I told my fiance, “I am never going to that church again. I really can’t stand what they preach. And to make matters worse they teach this ideology to little children that don’t know any better.” I was very much against what the church was doing and wanted little to do with it. I just couldn’t keep pretending I cared.

We got into a little discussion (well I guess an argument) and she said, “Well they’re Christian! What are they supposed to say!” Referring to me bringing up sermon on everyone else is going to hell from a year ago. I said something to the effect of preaching exclusivity is wrong and it essentially teaches hatred and bigotry. Another important thing to keep in mind here is the story my fiance told me of how the church had a sermon 6 years back (before we hooked up) that on Mother’s day told everyone how Mother’s Day is a day to remember what the Mother has done for the family and to show her love, but it’s still the Mother’s job to cook, clean, and take care of the family. ON MOTHER’S DAY!! I was told this story a few years before this argument.

So anyways, we are getting married and it will be by a UU minister from the local UU church. Which I am happy about because it will cater to both of us. But I am worried about her Christian background and my Atheist background. Not because neither of us couldn’t make it work, but because we haven’t really had a conversation about our beliefs. At least not one that wasn’t started from a fight. My fiance seems to have a harder time than I do at keeping the emotions out of things, and I’m thinking she may not be as moderate of a Christian as I once thought, for as liberal as she is.

So I don’t want to offend her, but I want to talk to her about our beliefs. I want to get it all out on the table and discuss whatever either side wants to discuss. I want her to know that I don’t really care if she believes in God, so long as her faith isn’t hurting herself or others, but I care in the sense that she and her beliefs are important to me. To me our love for each other is and should be stronger than all this. I’m just worried that if we don’t discuss anything now, it might snowball to something worse down the road. Conversely I am worried about what such a conversation could lead to.

So after making you all read this now we get to the important part… Any advice on how to go about this? Has anyone had such a conversation before? If not, have you had a similar one with a sibling, parent or close friend? I am just looking for some tips, because I tend to screw up these types of conversations and this is one I really want to get right… At least as best I can.

If you don’t have any tips but would like to tell a story I would love to read it and maybe others here have a similar dilemma they could use some advice on.

Thanks you to those of you that will leave comments I really truly appreciate it and I will respond as time permits. And thanks Les for giving Atheists a community. This blog has helped me in many ways and really has done a lot for me. I appreciate it. Happy Holidays everyone!

29 thoughts on “Atheist Dilemma: Reaching Out to the SEB Community

  1. Webs, here are some wishy-washy answers, straight from the advice columns grin  The obvious first comment is that if you don’t think you can talk to her about this, then that’s not a good sign for your relationship.  You won’t be able to dance around it for the rest of your lives together. 

    Another thing to bear in mind is that having children tends to bring religion to the forefront, even if it was never an issue before.  People are funny that way; they tend to get more passionate about what their children are taught.  So even if you avoid any fights about this now, it may all come out if you decide to raise children together.

    Finally, you say that you’re not good at talking about things like this and you want to get it right.  Let me point out that it’s just as much HER responsibility to “get it right” as it is yours.  If she can’t talk with you about it in the spirit of generosity and understanding that you both deserve, then that’s another BIG danger sign for your relationship.  Sure, you might goof up and say something awkward—but if she doesn’t forgive you for it, she’s not doing her part to keep your relationship healthy.

    Try talking about it with a simple, “How do you see us handling religion together for the rest of our lives?  What if we have children?”  and see where it goes.  And figure out what you absolutely can’t live with, because you can’t count on changing her mind.

    Good luck!

  2. Webs, I’m a confrontational man by nature. As a kid I was bullied and extremely emotionally volatile – but if there’s something I’ve learned from that it’s that, in general, nobody cares how you feel, what you think, or, for that matter, what your intentions are. I strive to do better than that in my personal relationships, but to do that, communication about my feelings and hers are paramount. When that communication is missing, that’s all I have to go on – consequences. It becomes important to me what the consequences of my actions and her actions are, and to understand that, still, requires communication. It is not something you can play guessing games with.

    Having said that, and having revealed that I always espouse a direct discussion of the matter with those involved, I’d elect taking up this conversation on the front that, as GeekMom proposes, children will bring this issue up again – typically at a far more difficult time in the relationship. You can’t address a conflict by running from it, and this one will catch up to you.

    Be respectful in your approach. Don’t demean her in any fashion (this can prompt the argument to fall to mudslinging and ad hominem something awful). At the same time, move to cause her to make value judgements. You can have almost entirely different belief systems about the world – they are merely a means through which ones values are expressed. If you can agree on what’s important, then the rest can fall by the wayside because, well, it’s not important.

    And don’t get me wrong – it can be hard to challenge religion because, most often (and I hope this isn’t the case with your fiancee), it appeals on an emotional level. When I challenge someone’s religion, I’ve come to expect that I’m hurting that someone on some level – it’s certainly been the case that they’ve gotten defensive as such. But, if I had to open this wound and get to the disinfection, that’s how I’d do it. Try to agree on what’s important. Forgive the rest.

  3. Hi Webs,

    I do think you and your fiance need to talk.  Yes, before the wedding.  The fact that you are worried about this, and afraid of offending someone you know well enough to consider marrying, makes this look like a big issue.  You need to know each other better.

    A couple with different religious beliefs can have a happy marriage, in my opinion, and especially if their “religion” has little to do with their real life.  When a person’s religion is a part of his person, it isn’t quite as easy.  I have to wonder about your fiance saying that the sermon upset her also, because I’m thinking it might not be for the same reason it upset you.  Maybe for her, it is upsetting but nonetheless true.

    Better to get things cleared up now than finding bigger problems down the road.  I like to think that married people are so naturally open and honest with each other that they inevitably and accidentally offend each other, once in awhile.  While you both should be respectful, I think you both need to be that open.

  4. Everything everyone else said pretty much echos my feelings.  My only concern is that your love for her may try to soften the talk to much.  We want to be as polite and respectful to the people we love and we tip toe around issues in concern of offending them.  You need to be upfront and as honest with her as possible on this because – as much as people like short marriages out there – this is with the intention of being partners forever.  There is no “once the rings are on the fingers she can change your mind”.  Make sure she’s not holding out on that hope.  I know not all women are this way but a big portion of them feel they can change a man.  Be careful of that. (Btw, my fiance’s mother believes that he’s just “going through a phase”.  Make sure this isn’t something she believes also.) 

    I do have to say that in five years I am amazed that this subject never came to a real discussion.  Then again, I was always careful of whom I dated and the dedication to their faith if there was one.  I was raised going to church and I know how uncomfortable it made me and the anger it sparked… and the last thing I wanted was to date someone who brought that to the relationship.

  5. I’ll definitely advise hashing this out ASAFP.  To avoid it being a you-vs.-her thing, it might be best to couch it in terms of raising your hypothetical kids.  That could even have the added benefit of helping you understand exactly why that church is so important to her that she continues to go even though she doesn’t stomach some of the dogma very well.

    In any case, very best of luck in navigating this treacherous ground in your relationship.  Finding a compromise that you both can respect in yourselves and each other will (IMO) only make the relationship stronger in the long run.

    Totally unrelated:  I’m back on Ubuntu.  Dearest upgraded my motherboard, and OpenSUSE 10.3 couldn’t deal with the new VIA chipset, or so that’s the diagnosis.  Neither did OS 10.2 or Fedora Core 8.  Gutsy’s muuuuuuch more cooperative about the extra-wide monitor and KVM than Edgy was.  MySQL gave me fits, but that’s another story entirely.  On the plus side, at least I don’t have to put up with YaST anymore.  Yay for


    sudo apt-get install

    ! wink

  6. Unless religion is something that comes up in your life on a regular basis, there is nothing to say.

    She knows where you stand, you know where she stands and that is enough.

    Nothing good will come from challenging her about her religion (she will see any attempt at discussing it as a challenge.)  It will do nothing but cause bad feelings.  You will be able to live your entire life with her in happiness without really talking about it.

    Take it from someone in a mixed relationship that is many years old.

  7. Hey Webs,
          My Fiancee and I are getting married Dec 15th.  We have known each other for over 20 years and through various relationships and been together for 7.  we have 6 kids.  My F is a pagan of sorts and practices irregularily.  I have been refered to as a Militant atheist largely I think becasue I frequent SEB.  It’s laughable because I am actually an apathetic atheist.  I have choosen to allow the kids to be fully educated in the Pagan beliefs of my other half and to participate in her rituals.  i choose not to.  We have a long history of friendship so I don’t worry about it.  At some point I fully expect some/all of my kids will come to me and ask questions as they cannot miss the fact that I do not participate.  Their mom does not hide my disbeliefand I will happily answer when they come to me.
    This path should probably not be followed lightly.  I know my belief structure is in the minority and I don’t “need’ my children to see the world my way.  I trust my “wife” deeply and I am not worried that I will be painted as “The devil” for my lack of faith.
    I do not envy your current position and I truly hope you find the balance that can make it work for you in the long term.  Patience and understanding are your allies.  If you both want to make it work you will find the middle ground.
    Klegg

  8. My wife is Christian, and she knows exactly how I feel. In fact I am typing this sightly hung-over after having our born again Christian neighbours round for dinner, where we had a long discussion on my non faith, and wanting to know why I wouldn’t believe.

    Basically, what Lobo and Klegg said.  It’s not going to be a problem while there are no kids. She hasn’t tried conversion up to now, and seems to accept your position, and is marrying you anyway.

    BUT

    How upset is she going to be when the kids ask why you don’t go to church with them, and you answer?  They will ask why you don’t believe, the answer to which could upset your wife, especially if they end up taking your position.

    Now my kids are 9 and 11, and surprisingly these problems haven’t come up, or even been discussed, I suspect because I don’t make objections to my wife taking the kids to church when she goes, plus she is very liberal about most matters, so her faith is related to Jesus’ love, not the whole bible- certainly she never rails against the evils of evolution, and she is comfortable with my eldest’s belief (reached by himself) God did the Big Bang, and the rest happened as science says (Despite NanoDud telling me I was evil for making him believe this- it wasn’t me who put this in his mind).

    You and your fiancee possibly need to discuss how any children will be raised, and who will be upset if the kids follow the other’s stand.

    THIS IS NOT GOING TO BE A DISCUSSION YOU CAN HAVE LIGHTLY.  How will it leave the relationship if she insists the children must be raised in the church, an you are not to discuss an atheistic point of view with them?

  9. Please talk to her.  My wife and I suffer greatly from religious differences and it’s been rough.

    She wants to bring up our children to be religious, while I consider teaching religion to children to be lying at best and child abuse at worst.  Teaching children about religion is great, teaching children religious principles as facts at an age when they are incapable of distinguishing between facts and opinions is not acceptable to me.  So far, we aren’t having kids and aren’t really talking about it anymore either.  We’ve discussed it at great length but have come to no compromise so far.

  10. Webs,

    Paul, in a letter to early Christians in Corinth admonished them: Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?(2 Cor. 6:14, KJV).

    The OT verse that Paul likely had in mind and reformulated in his letter was this one: “Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” There is some basis for this in that one is seen as a “clean” animal and the other “unclean.”  However, the more pragmatic reason not to yoke the ox and the ass, is that it is a hell of a lot harder to plow a straight row.  Nothing makes things clearer than a good ol’ farm analogy.

    Should your fiancee’ marry you is the more pressing question.  She has likely examined the question long before you, apparently answering the question in the affirmative.  You’re just a little slow on the draw, but that’s okay. wink

    I will hazard a guess that what she sees in you has given her confidence to allow you to hitch your horse to her wagon.  Whether that is a fanciful imagination on her part, well, I shall leave that assessment to her.  cheese

    Sit down to talk with her.  Before you do though, ask yourself what does she see in me and in us that gives her reassurance that the two of us, having different beliefs, can fashion a partnership of strength, trust and hope to withstand the trials and tribulations we both will most assuredly face, individually and together, as we move forward in life?  Then ask yourself what you see in her.  Is she good people?  What does she bring to the table? Is the whole greater than the parts? 

    I suspect that whether she believes in the Trinity is of lessor importance than the answers to those questions.

  11. Webbs – I too come from a UU background (our minister was one of the authors of the Humanist Manifesto) which is in a big part responsible for the what I believe to this day. Have you and your fiancee attended a UU service together? Did she find it not “christian” enough? If you haven’t both gone to the UU service together you might try it for a couple of weeks to see if it would be an acceptable solution.

    I agree that talking it out before you get married is important. However it is absolutely no guarantee that when the subject comes up again afterwards that any agreements made premaritally will still hold up. Most people will say anything before marriage to keep the plans going forward, sometimes even telling themselves that “I’ll have a couple of years to change their minds later”.

    Good luck! It’s a difficult issue.

  12. Consi – Well said.
    I loved the Farm/western slant it made me smile.  I wear my cowboy boots to the office everyday. (Alberta)

  13. My wife is a Wiccan, and I am, shall we say, a skeptic wink

    Neither one of us attends a church, although when I grew up, I was basically forced to attend (Church of God 7th Day for anyone curious).

    We discussed the religion bit before we got married, and as long as you speak calmly, and aim towards a clear understanding between both of you on what your beliefs and goals are, everything should work out.

    Like many here before me have said, it’s a communication thing wink

    Personally, I have no objection to what someone else believes, even though I am apt to tell them that the idea of some invisible sky fairy is amusing smile

  14. Lots of good advice here, Webs.  I too would have a talk with her before the wedding- asking how she would deal with the kids’ religious upbringing is a good idea.

    Mixed marriages can work.  And so can mixed living in sin- my partner is a lapsed Catholic but still a believer, and I’m an atheist.  There were a few arguments about sending the kids to church, and allowing them to drop out of religion classes in school, but I think we did a pretty good job of not pressuring them one way or another.  Of course, Adam and Rosalind, now nineteen and seventeen, are atheists…

    Anyway, best of luck to you two.  And remember what a pretty savvy guy once said:  “by their fruits ye shall know them”.  If both of you are tolerant and loving, and behave correspondingly, then whatever notions you have about religion are secondary.  It works for us.

  15. Wish I had some useful advice to offer but all the cool kids pretty much covered it.  If her religion is really important to her, be prepared for non-rational response.  It’s going to boil down to what you see in each other.

    I second the idea that UU might be a good destination for any mixed-religion family.

  16. Thank you everyone for your comments. Some more background first:
    I think part of my worry with discussing this issue is the appeal to emotion. We have been together over 5 years, so we both know each other well and are committed to the relationship. I was also successful in talking her into going to a UU church about a month and a half ago, and she likes it. We have already booked the minister to do our wedding.

    I have a good idea of how the conversation will go, but I figured other people might have some experience with this. I am glad to see I was right!

    Geek Mom: Thank you for the comments on children and my fiancee’s responsibility to the discussion. Both are excellent points.

    LordKlegg: congratulations to you and thanks for your comment.

    LH: good point and I take the position and will discuss with her, that I think bringing kids into any sort of belief system before the child is old enough to know better is wrong. Be it Atheism or any religion. But I am willing to make exceptions
    such as the local UU church. And even a Christian church. My atheism is not any more important than our relationship.

    Consi: Thanks for the reply and the items to think about. I plan to write down a lot from this post and think some things over and try to decide what issues I want to discuss, and where I would like the conversation to go.

    You’re just a little slow on the draw, but that’s okay.

    I think so!

    I suspect that whether she believes in the Trinity is of lessor importance than the answers to those questions.

    Yes! I really just want to make sure everything (at least as much as possible) is out on the table before we get married.

    Queenmillefiori:

    Did she find it not “christian” enough?

    This is a good question. And after the first two services, I was worried. But now she really likes it and was hip to the idea of getting the minister to do our wedding. Which to me is a good sign.

    Zilch: Thanks for the words I really appreciate it.

    Cubicalgrrl: make sure you check out Amarok if you have music in mp3 format.

    If I missed anyone, sorry. I was looking for advice and got a lot of it. I plan to do a lot of homework and then when things wind down for me in a couple weeks, take the plunge and talk to my fiancee about this. I will post back with what happens for those interested.

  17. For my 2 cent’s worth I’ll have to say that if you can steer her and hopefully your future children away from the aforementioned hateful congregation you’ll be doing yourself, her, and your children a world of good.

    If she is going to fall out of faith into skepticism that’s something that will happen on its own. Instead focus on trying to get her together with people who believe in acceptance, kindness, and openness. Her comment about how the pastor spoke of exclusivity because he’s a Christian tells me that she hasn’t had any good exposure to moderation. It is out there, or so I’m told. smile

  18. Christianity can be parsed in very exclusive terms, or quite inclusive, depending on what tradition and what bible verses you happen to like.  If you find a congregation that emphasizes inclusiveness and tolerance it tells you something about them, just as with the reverse. 

    What people bring to a religion is more important than what the religion already contains.  Another way to say it is; it is less important what story they tell than how they tell it.

  19. Or, to put it still another way:  people will be who they are in spite of religion, not because of it.

  20. That’s what I liked about being raised in a UU environment. I was a mix of atheist, deist, agnostic, wicca, and maybe even a few that believed in the trinity but I could never tell (I was a kid). Each UU congregation is different but mine had no crosses or religious art of any kind. The sermons were humanist. The religious education VERY open. We learned about community and social responsibility. Volunteerism and activism were encouraged. In the middle school years we went to a different religious service in the community every other weekend and on the alternates we gave a report on the previous week, comparing and contrasting to the other services we had attended. We also studied religions and philosophies of Asian origin. We had music, art and even recess (2 hours is a long time for kids).

    Yep UU is probably responsible for my liberal leanings but it is also responsible for a lot of good things in my life. Even though I don’t attend services, haven’t in years, I try to live up to what I learned in those formative years.

  21. Which is why I am glad I was able to get her into a UU church. I am hoping that I can use it as a middle ground for the both of us. And growing up in the area (my family used to live here and went to the UU church for about 10 years) I can say the religious education a child receives at this UU church does more to help that child grow than to preach them one message of God.

  22. If what you post in your blog is any indication of what you normally make conversation about in real life, and you still haven’t pissed her off enough to leave then I don’t think you have much to worry about.  Besides, how often in life (in this hemisphere anyway) does one actually have to stand and state their spiritual beliefs to rectify a situation?  Anyway my point is, if it wasn’t an issue before then there’s no need to make it one now.

  23. Serious question – silly answer:

    Get yourself ordained (it’s free and instant on the internet.)

    Then, when and if you have kids and it becomes an issue, you can say you are the head of your own Church. I call mine the Church of the Question (because everyone should come up with their own answers.)

    So she can take the kids to church, then you can sit down with the kiddoes for a little rational think-out, then let ‘em make up their own mind!

  24. I was lucky enough to marry another atheist. I can’t tell you how nice it has been to not have to watch what I say or think, fearful of offending her mythical beliefs. We enjoy being able to talk freely about the universe. It frees us to shed notions of sin and god-given morality, to explore what it means to be human and why we act the way we do. priceless.

    Previous girlfriends were at least nominally Christian. I had to watch myself, my topics and presentation, to avoid stepping on a figurative mine. I still do with our families, and it’s a drag. However, there’s always that refuge in the arms and mind of my rational wife.

    It’s a tough search, but I urge true heathens to look hard for another one. It’s hard to suppress your true thoughts and feelings from the one you most care about.

    With that said, many religious folks really aren’t that religious. Peer into her mind and see if there’s the possibility of leading her to the truth… if she can live with it. Giving up the invisible guarding friend and facing a random universe can be too hard for most to deal with.

    Most of all, good luck! I wish you luck and happiness.

  25. Webs: I want to get it all out on the table and discuss whatever either side wants to discuss. I want her to know that I don’t really care if she believes in God, so long as her faith isn’t hurting herself or others, but I care in the sense that she and her beliefs are important to me

    Then show/tell her these exact words

    Also don’t let it get to you if it only ever makes you feel bad. Only challenge each other within the limits of your bond. Maybe invite her to SEB to challenge + get challenged by the rest of us without the blame falling much on you, that maybe we are in a better position to say what you cannot

  26. I got the chance to talk to my fiancee last Tuesday. Unfortunately it was on our way back from a funeral for a close friend that died, but at least we had the opportunity to talk. It was hard for both of us this last week and a half, but I think it felt good to talk about these issues for both of us.

    The whole conversation started about our friend that died and my fiancee and I were reliving some of the events from the funeral. She told me it was hard for her because she had a near direct line of site with the father of our friend which made it hard for her not to cry. I told her I broke down when the priest was giving me a blessing. I’m not sure what it was but whatever. We weren’t sitting by each other because I was asked to be a Pall Bearer, which also made it hard for us to some respect.

    The point of all of this is that this conversation lead to the next. My fiancee stated she wasn’t sure how people got through these types of events without God. I stated there was a flip side to that in that I thought it was fucked up how people could say our friend Maggie died because of God’s plan. To me that’s pretty fucked up. Maggie was the most amazing person I ever met and she died alone, in Nebraska, a place she didn’t even want to move to, by a deranged gunman, before she could say goodbye to the people she loved. What the fuck kind of plan is that?

    Anyways, I stated this, but in much kinder words and a softer tone. My fiance didn’t speak for a little bit and I think this statement made her think in a somewhat new way. I proceeded to state that “[…] if there is a God or some kind of omniscience being, I think there is a lot of things that are out of his/her control. What happened to Maggie was not a PLAN, but just a fucked up random occurrence. I think if there is a God it would be like Bruce in ‘Bruce All Mighty’ where Bruce takes over and suddenly he has 5 million emails in a matter of minutes. God unfortunately has to pick and choose and some things are out of his control.”

    This all again made her think and for a long time on the ride home we had a wonderful conversation. I told her at some point, it didn’t have to be right that very minute, I wanted to talk a little more in depth on our beliefs. She asked me what specifically and I brought up some of the questions I had and talked to her about my concerns. And we again had a great conversation. No yelling, screaming, fighting, or proselytizing. Just a civilized conversation on the funeral and issues of beliefs.

    I made sure to bring up children, as many here suggested, and she was very receptive to my thoughts on the matter. I told her I didn’t want the child to be brought up atheist or religious, but rather be given the opportunity to choose latter in their life. I said I have no problems with the child learning a little bit about such topics, but that I was very much against indoctrination. She already kind of new my stance on this and was fine with that. We both were also okay with our future children going to the UU church, which I think my fiancee will become a happy member of.

    So thank you all for your help, and I am glad to report my worries have been swept aside.

  27. Webs: Maggie was the most amazing person I ever met and she died alone, in Nebraska, a place she didn’t even want to move to, by a deranged gunman, before she could say goodbye to the people she loved. What the fuck kind of plan is that?

    An unexpected death can be kinder – the person + family isn’t in mortal fear (at least not for as long) or watching the clock counting down on them, and having to face their agonising families. There isn’t the same mental pain for the victim.

    I try to make it so that I don’t have to tell my family I love them, I want them to know that all along

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