Ask Team Practical: Questions of Faith


Finding your way, through conversations and compromises

by Elisabeth, Contributor

Q: One of the biggest hurdles in my relationship is the fact that I am Christian and my partner is atheist. We’ve had endless conversations about this disconnect: how to compromise without feeling like we are each sacrificing what we believe (my general belief in God and his belief in NOT believing), how to potentially raise children, how to navigate family traditions on both sides, etc. These talks are always terribly charged and stressful for both of us—I’m the one to constantly bring it up, because it’s important to me, and he doesn’t understand why I keep asking him to be someone he’s not.

I’ve tried to explain that I don’t expect him to start believing in God. I just want him to support me in more tangible ways, because faith is a point of connection for me, and I at least need my spouse to care about why it matters to me and show some interest in that part of my life. His opinion is that he supports my faith, so why does he have to “do” anything further?

I finally said that I needed him to at least agree to coming to church with me on Christmas and Easter, and after much debate, he agreed—and then proposed. I said yes, because I love him and we have a great life together, and I very much valued the fact that he was willing to compromise.

Except it doesn’t quite feel like compromise. A few months after our engagement, I asked if he would be willing to come with me a few times to some new churches, so I can pick one to regularly attend (by myself). He said no, got very upset, and mentioned that maybe we shouldn’t have gotten engaged yet, because he already was at his limit of what he was willing to do. I was hurt and immediately pushed back with, “Compromise is an ongoing thing, you don’t just do it once and then you’re set for life.” We had a very emotional argument about it, and then I shut down because I felt guilty—I had given him a tangible ultimatum, and I know it was hard for him to agree to it, but he did out of love for me. But even though I technically got what I wanted, it doesn’t feel like enough.

I’ve suggested therapy, since this is such a hot button issue in our relationship. He brushed it off, saying he would think about it… and two months later, it hasn’t come up again, mostly because I can tell he prefers to avoid these talks, and I’m sick of being the only one to bring up the fact that this is a problem for us.

Additionally, we both want a family, but I want faith to be a part of my children’s lives. He says he will support that, yet I don’t quite believe him, because when I ask how he feels he can support future kids (a.k.a., are you going to drive them to Sunday School? If we pray at the dinner table, will you participate? When a four-year-old asks about God, how are you going to respond?), I don’t get an answer. I am nervous that this will be a constant battle, and the arguments we have about it now make me feel uncertain about marrying him.

How will we survive in the long term if we’re at such odds about religion, and I’m the only one who wants to talk about it? Is it silly to fight so much about how our different views of faith affect kids and situations that don’t even exist yet? Am I asking for too much? Should I settle for the compromises he’s able to give, rather than the ones I ideally want?

Anonymous

A: Dear Anonymous,

“Even though I technically got what I wanted, it doesn’t feel like enough.” You’re right. It doesn’t feel like enough, because it doesn’t sound like it’s enough for you. And you are right, and brave as heck, to say out loud that it makes you feel uncertain about marrying him.

I’m writing this to you from the other perspective, as a less-religious person who married a deeply spiritual one. My partner K has an incredibly strong attachment to her church. She attends services almost every Sunday that we’re in town. She’s an active member of the vestry, has toyed with the idea of seminary, and works in the faith-based world. I’ve gotten used to seeing my Laura Ingalls Wilder books tangled up with titles like Why Christianity Must Change or Die. It was clear from early on that if we wanted our relationship to be a serious one, we’d have to consider issues of faith. Because I’m not as spiritual or religious as she is, and I won’t ever be. I don’t always “get” religion, and I’m not always interested in finding out more. This is a major difference between us.

But I find her commitment to her faith admirable. In her little corner of Christianity, she’s found incredible support, a place where she can simultaneously return home and move forward. Her faith has made her a curious, questioning, and brave person. I find all of those things appealing about her, and respect them. I suspect that your faith, too, played a big role in making you into the articulate, confident, lovely person you clearly are.

Quite simply, K and her religion are inseparable: there is no K without her faith. And I happen to really like K. So while I may not be committed to living a fully spiritual life with her, perhaps the way she hoped her ideal life partner would, I can commit to being part of an evolving conversation about faith and respecting her in figuring out what that looks like in our relationship, and that compromise is enough for her. Right now that means we got married in her church, and every six weeks or so I bike ride to church with her, catch up with other folks over Entenmann’s soft cookies at coffee hour, and partake in our newly established tradition of Post-Church Tacos. And I graciously take on the role of Head Pancake Project Manager on Shrove Tuesdays (since I love a party, and love being important).

But I know that this is going to change and shift in the years to come. I talked to APW’s EIC Meg, who’s part of a interfaith family (she converted to Judaism before she got hitched, and recognizes a lot of these conversations as familiar), and she said, “Sometimes you think you’ve figured it out, and then someone’s relationship with faith changes and you’re back to figuring it out together. It’s going to be a series of renegotiations, big and small, forever. The one thing you have to commit to is talking about it, forever and ever.” Put another way, it means all of us are perpetually in the grey zone, where compromise can be real messy and painful, but if you’re both willing to exist in that discomfort with each other, you might come up with some solutions that aren’t even on the table right now—but feel satisfactory to both of you. It sounds like you’re trying your hardest to articulate to him why this is important to you and what your hopes are, as honestly and lovingly as you can. But the trick is, you’ve both got to get to the point where you can figure out if you can figure out how to talk about religion.

That’s why I’m glad you’ve brought up couples therapy, and I hope you’ll keep considering it, because learning how to communicate is critical to getting both of your needs (spiritual or otherwise) met. You, me, Meg, and a ton of other couples out there are all looking down the road of many repeated conversations about religion (it’s nice to know you’re not alone, right?), and it takes work to keep these conversations from getting defensive and tense. (Um, and mine still are sometimes, even with all those “I” statements.) Which is why this post about finding a couples therapist resonated with me: “Couples therapy is about learning how to communicate with each other in a safe, healthy way. A couples therapist can help you to understand: What is the pattern you keep falling into that gets you stuck? How can you fight together effectively? You’re going to fight. You’ve probably read elsewhere that it’s not that happy, healthy couples don’t fight—it’s how they fight.” You both deserve to have a partner who, if not toeing the atheism or God line right there with you, respects that these beliefs are key tenets, and is committed to exploring how you both can pursue those values, alone and together.

As you pursue couples counseling—or just a lot more talking—you may realize that there is only so much each of you can compromise. Not only is that okay, it’s important to be able to admit that to yourself and your partner. There’s a vegetarian I know who couldn’t date an ardent paleo-eater, but could date someone who agrees to clean all the meaty pans promptly after the occasional chicken dinner. I was okay marrying someone who loathes camping, because I can still take to the woods with any number of other camping zealots while she stays at home in bug-free comfort. But I still remember the time I went on a date with someone who wasn’t a feminist because she hated labels, and I politely ended the date before my drink was even finished. We all have limits. That’s fine. But you, and your partner too, are going to have a lot of conversations to begin figuring out where your limits are and whether compromise is actually possible. Getting help with those hard conversations is a pretty good idea.

Plenty of couples negotiate interfaith partnerships beautifully, and make space for new, meaningful rituals in in their families. And the two of you may well be able to find your way out of this. First you’ve got to figure out if you’re starting from a place of mutual respect and honest communication, so you can negotiate something so important to both of you.

Team Practical, How have you found compromise between differing views of faith?

If you would like to ask Team Practical a question please don’t be shy! You can email: askteampractical [at] apracticalwedding [dot] com. If you would prefer to not be named, anonymous questions are also accepted. Though it really makes our day when you come up with a clever sign-off!

Elisabeth

Elisabeth is an MPH working in public health in New York City. Her old okcupid profile said she’s really good at: fixing socially awkward situations at parties, return trips to Ikea, whipping up excellent mac and cheese on camping trips, leaping into the ocean, being chronically late, and having Friday night adventures all over Brooklyn. In September 2013, she married her introverted, punctual K.

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  • KC

    If you’ve got big differences, you *have* to be able to talk about them and continue to talk about them. *Have* to. Differences of belief affect tons of life decisions (from what I would consider the Big Ones like “what do you say when your 4 year old asks about God” down to less aack-y ones like what nonprofits to give to or not to give to, or what tiny traditions you have in your home).

    Where does your money go? Where does your time go? Is it okay for him to ask you to skip church to go out to brunch with friends? How often? Is it okay for him to *assume* you’ll skip church for brunch with friends? If he’s signed up for Christmas and Easter, does that mean at “your” church or is he allowed to hunt up a church that maybe has shorter services or fewer faith-based things incorporated into the service? Euugh, basically. There are many things that will have to be decided, and they will not magically all be done and decided someday, both because life keeps happening and because people change. For me, starting on the same page on some of the Big Ones for me (what we both think is important: faith; people are more important than money, broadly; community is valuable even if it’s a pain in the neck) was a prerequisite for getting married, because so many decisions flow out of what your values/priorities are. (a lot of people have “having or not having children” on that list of Core Things, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker for either of us either way at that time, so we just made sure we could talk about it and we’ll figure it out when it’s a live option)

    Anyway. The things that are most important to you need to be mutually respected if not shared (and ideally, shared!) and you *certainly* need to be able to (or figure out a way to) talk about the things that result from those. (and premarital counseling: good stuff)

    I hope all goes well.

  • Caroline

    I think this is so true. In a relationship like this, you will ALWAYS be discussing religion. The compromise will never be made and done because it will change. And you have to figure out what you can’t live without (ie, if they can’t make these compromises then the relationship can’t work for you) and the things you can compromise, even if you don’t like it. And there will be HUGE compromises, because the gap between a deeply religious person like myself and the letter writer, and atheists like our partners is pretty big.

    Our compromises have looked like all sorts of things: how often he comes to services, how we keep kosher, how we spend our money, how we spend our time, our sex life, what holidays we celebrate and how, when we take time off work for holidays…

    Some compromises change over time : we had a Christmas tree our first two years, and now we don’t.

    Some compromises require creative solutions: we invented a secular January holiday based on an inside joke(Winter Guinea Pig’s Day) on which to give presents, have a big meal with friends and drink eggnog (his family’s Christmas traditions). We also go to family to help them celebrate Christmas, but don’t do it at our house.

    Some compromises neither person is super happy with, but can settle on: he would like to eat pork at home, I would like to have two separate sets of dishes for meat and dairy and only do kosher meat on them. We meet in the middle.

    And the biggest piece of advice I have is that sometimes, the compromises are not equal. In our house, it isn’t always quid pro quo. It is very very clear to both of us that on the religion front, he has done 85% of the compromising. That means that it is extra important that I am appreciative of the compromises he has made, since they are significant. It might be you who has to do most of the compromising, it might be your partner, but in life, things don’t work out evenly sometimes.

    You have to learn how to communicate about religion, and you have to learn how to respond without hostility and to actually consider it when your partner asks for a compromise which is way outside your comfort zone. There will be fights, and you have to be committed to work through the fights and actually work on the issue. A therapist can be really helpful.

    • anons for now

      “the compromises are not equal” is absolutely key here, yes forever. It is very uncomfortable to be on either side of that 85% (I’m asking him to make another?! vs my partner is asking me to compromise again?!) because the guilt and the reluctance and the overall tension make this just not fun. But. If you’re both 100% into your marriage and 100% into communicating about things well, that 85% may be workable.

      I’d want to find out whether or not it was through counselling before we got married, for sure.

    • Elisabeth S.

      “Some compromises neither person is super happy with, but can settle on” — I remind myself of this all time, and not just about the religion piece. Do I want the dishwasher loaded a particular way? Yes. Will K load the dishwasher, semi-grudgingly? Yes. Do we have clean dishes? Then fine.

      • Same Problem Here

        Ugh, the dishwasher thing is so unnecessarily infuriating sometimes.

        • Erin

          The Oatmeal has had a couple of really funny cartoons on this. I particularly enjoyed the following:
          http://theoatmeal.com/comics/senior_year

        • Sara

          The dishwasher is literally the one thing that my parents argue about. They disagree on a lot of things, and I’m sure they have arguments in private. But the issue of bowls on top rack/bowls on bottom rack have devolved into huge arguments multiple times.

        • Kathleen

          Apparently it’s up there with money in terms of the things couples argue about most often.

    • pajamafishadventures

      Please, tell us more about “Winter Guinea Pig’s Day.” It sounds delightful!

      • Caroline

        We’ve only had one thus far, but it happens in early January. Last year (the first annual) we had about 15 people over for a drinks and appetizers party on erev winter guinea pig’s day (the night of/before), and exchanged gifts the morning of. Eggnog was intended to be a major component but it turns out no one sells eggnog after New Years and my recipe is too much work for 15 people. Hopefully I will find a recipe which works better for a crowd.

        The key components are food and friends and family, eggnog, and a low key familial gift exchange.

    • Lauren from NH

      Another angle you are hinting at here, that I think is crucial to modern marriage, is that your partner cannot be all things and you should not look to them for all things. We all have a community of friends, family, and peers for a reason. Expecting your partner to be 100% of everything you need/want is too much. I think that is something that breaks relationships. So maybe church is something you share with your family of origin or you become more involved and make friends in the congregation and your partner’s involvement in your faith is minimal. Now on the other hand, religion for the OP may be one aspect of her life that she NEEDS to be able to share with her partner, which is okay too. Everyone has their deal breakers or said in a more positive way, their must-haves.

      • Caroline

        Absolutely, that was my point, that it is very important for the letter writer to decide how much of their faith life they need to share with a partner, and whether their partner can make that compromise before they get married. For me, I am okay not sharing my faith with my partner if my partner is able to support it and participate with me in some very significant ways (social participation, attending services a few times a year, keeping a semi-kosher home, and actively helping raise the kids Jewish). I can turn to friends for actually sharing my faith.

        But the letter writer needs to decide what they can and can’t compromise on before the get married. I decided that I was okay with the compromise that we don’t cook pork or shellfish on our dishes, but probably won’t ever have two sets for meat and dairy. But not having active support in raising the kids Jewish would have been a deal breaker for me. The letter writer needs to decide where their lines are.

    • Jenny

      Yes the 85%! At my bridal shower one of my aunts said, marriage is not 50/50, it’s 90/90. Sometimes you;ll be doing the 90, sometimes you’ll be doing the 10, but it’s rarely even. I so often think about this because it has proven so true time and time again.

      • Angela Howard

        My great-grandparents told my parents before they got married that if each partner believes they’re doing 75% of the work, it is probably about even. I try to remember this when I feel like I’m doing more than my share – that my partner probably feels the same way!

        • BR

          Oh man, I needed to read that today. I will be trying to keep this in mind.

  • InHK

    I was in a similar situation to yours about five years ago when I was 20. I was a Christian – A’s atheism was important to him. We talked (and fought) about kids, marriage and values for years. I always brought it up.

    The gulf between faith or lack thereof is hard to traverse. I kept trying to get him to change and just agree with me already! The kid thing – ugh. I’m glad A is forgiving, because I said some mean stuff when I was beat and angry during what felt like circular conversations. And he was not going to lie to our hypothetical four-year old about his beliefs, which really irked me for a time.

    The talks were hard and I thought I should break things off a dozen times. But A, my now-husband, personifies Christian values like patience, kindness, forgiveness and generosity. Who he was and what he valued, not his faith, was more important to me. His lived values, I decided, were more important to our marriage and the imaginary children than the time he didn’t spend in church.

    My story wraps up neatly – I’m not a Christian anymore. I’m now “spiritual, not religious.” (I came to this on my own, A didn’t “convert” me.) But even though we’re both “nones”, we’re still compromising. Will our imaginary offspring go to Unitarian services? I say yes, A says no. When we get there, we’ll have to talk until we can compromise.

    • Katey

      I’m so sad to hear that you don’t consider yourself a Christian anymore. Although I know you say very clearly that A didn’t ‘convert’ you, it seems that constant compromise perhaps made drifting away from your faith an easier option?
      I am a Christian, and choosing a Christian husband was an absolute non-negotiable. Jesus is the absolute core of my life, and I couldn’t be married to someone who didn’t support and share that priority.
      I really don’t want this to come across as judgey. I’m truly very saddened to hear that you’ve abandoned your salvation. But please do pray about and reconsider returning to your faith. I will pray for you too. I want nothing more than for as many people as possible to accept Jesus’ gift of salvation and eternity with him. I would be thrilled to meet you there.

      • anons for now

        I’m very uncomfortable seeing one commenter petitioning another commenter to change their religious views over the internet. That’s not really related to the advice sought above, nor in line with the general conversation about thoughtful communication and understanding…

        • Katey

          I would love to speak to InHK through a more private mode of communication, but for obvious reasons that is impossible. I don’t want to seem inappropriate, but as a Christian it is my job to share what I know to be the truth. It breaks my heart to see and hear of people who once followed Jesus but no longer do. I’m sorry to make anybody uncomfortable. I know my commenting here is unlikely to lead to any change. But it just might, and that would make it worth it.

          • Katey, it’s within reason to ask someone for their email, or ask for a way to speak to them more privately, and I’d suggest that in the future.

            While your questioning someone’s current faith in a public forum is not against our comment policy, to be called out in such a way in public is very uncomfortable, and sometimes very insulting—telling someone you’re “disappointed they’ve abandoned their salvation” feels like a judgement that the religion/spirituality they’ve decided upon is completely invalid.

            In short, it does not fall in line with what we’re trying to discuss here, which is an understanding and comfortable/equitable discussion of everyone’s faith systems, or lack thereof.

            I’m letting these comments stay for now, but please consider how you’re approaching people of different/altered faiths. I understand why you feel you must approach people, and why you feel compelled to share your own faith, and that’s admirable. However, it’s very demeaning to be approached like this (and I have been approached like this many times) and to be judged for your choices by someone who has no interior knowledge of your life.

          • InHK

            I’m only replying to you, Lucy, but I hope the other people that commented on this thread will see it. Thanks for all the supportive notes.

          • Violet

            Specifically as to how to approach people (as per Lucy’s point):

            Katey, I don’t know as much as you do about praying or Jesus, but I do know a lot about psychology. Psychologically speaking, this kind of speaking out for Jesus is extremely unlikely to effect a change in someone else. First, challenging someone’s statement (ie. that A did not convert her) is likely to put someone on the defensive, and make them less open to your thoughts. Second, stating what you have done in your life is only evidence of what you chose, and given there is no other context for who you are or your life choices, means you’re not a particularly persuasive witness in this medium (in your community where people know who you are, much more powerful. When I realize someone I’ve known a long time whom I respect is Christian, THAT is powerful). Third, telling people what to do (ie, pray) when they haven’t asked you is also unlikely to effect a change. It makes it appear as if you feel you know better than they do, even if that’s not your intention.

            If it is your job to share what you know about Jesus, maybe these pointers can help you have a better chance of succeeding. Otherwise, if you’re not witnessing effectively, praying yourself might be the better way of going about it.

        • Anon too

          Agreed. This makes me highly uncomfortable also, and I don’t feel it is in the spirit of the supportive comments I’m used to amongst the APW community. InHK clearly wasn’t asking for help or advice regarding her religious beliefs and I think this needs to be respected regardless of your own feelings about her comment.

    • Lawyerette510

      Thank you for your honesty and candor here. It is too bad that you taking the opportunity to share your experience is co-opted by someone else to criticize your personal choices. Additionally, the idea that your beliefs would not have evolved had you married a Christian strikes me as insulting to your autonomy and whatever personal experience you had that lead to a shift in your perspective.

    • JDrives

      You are really brave to share your journey with us and I add my voice to those grateful for it. I imagine it was a difficult process for you and I wish you much joy as you continue on your path of redefining your faith.

  • Rachael

    I’m a Presbyterian pastor, so I feel like I need to jump in here. I see this all the time- in my congregation, among my classmates when I was in seminary, in my family. Its just a lot more common than you might think.

    I want to add here that the arguments thrown around about the dangers of being “unyoked” as it were are not a part of my theology or ministry. It will be important for you to find a church that will not treat you and your partner as something to be fixed-they are out there, I promise-but it might take some searching.

    I’m a huge fan of couples counseling but I also suggest talking to a pastor about this, alone or with your partner if he is willing. A pastor will be able to give you some guidance about how they’ve seen it work, reassure you that you aren’t alone, and possibly connect you with some other families in the congregation that are in similar situations.

    • anons for now

      Agreed! I think talking to a pastor who you feel great about and trust could be really helpful – they’ve almost certainly seen this before and might have useful advice.

    • Elisabeth S.

      Rachael, it’s great to hear you normalize this dilemma for all of us negotiating interfaith relationships. Thank you!

    • Jessica

      This is a great response, and I want to say that I grew up in one of those churches that doesn’t try to “fix” couples with only one partner who attends service, etc….they are indeed out there, and you’ll meet other people in similar situations at the church.

    • Kelli

      This, THIS is why I love APW so much. I have bookmarked all of the
      conversations you have started over the years about the intersection of
      relationships and faith, and I read some of the comments from time to
      time. Exactly one month from today (!!!), I, a Christian, will marry my
      wonderful atheist fiancé, and I couldn’t be more excited. As I read over
      this post, I see a lot of myself in it. I know that in my own
      experience, I grew up in a conservative Christian faith that taught me
      to see things as very black and white. You were either in or you were
      out, and if you were in, you certainly didn’t choose to partner up with
      someone on the outside. It has taken me five years — and plenty of
      tear-filled “discussions” with my partner and others — to realize that,
      in fact, we all vacillate somewhere along the spectrum of faith at
      various points in our lives, and it would actually be foolish to
      fetishize the idea of finding a mate who shares your exact religious
      beliefs. As Meg said, life will be one long series of compromises, so
      why should faith be excluded from that? For me, I have seen this played
      out in my own life, as my parents, who grew up in the same Christian
      denomination and started out on the same page regarding their faith,
      ultimately divorced because my dad decided he no longer wanted that
      life. Marrying a person primarily because they share your same religious
      beliefs is not always the answer.

      The other thing I have
      discovered is how healthy it is to TALK about these things! I think
      religion and faith, in particular, feel like such a deeply personal
      issue, that it’s easy to feel like it’s something you’ve got to keep to
      yourself and figure out on your own. I spent far too many years alone
      and in anguish over my interfaith relationship. In recent years, I have
      talked more openly about this issue, and lo and behold, A LOT of people
      are going through the same thing. Not only does this discovery help me
      to feel more normal, but it also provides me with some great examples of
      other strong, thoughtful people who are making it work.

      As a
      sidenote, the reason I put this as a response on this comment, Rachael,
      is because I am currently church shopping, and I don’t know a lot about
      Presbyterians. I’d love to find an open, loving church that wasn’t
      trying to constantly convert my soon-to-be husband. Are Presbyterians
      the people I’ve been looking for? :)

      • MDBethann

        KT, I don’t know what part of the country you live in, but many Lutheran churches are open and welcoming as well(not all though – there have been some divisions in the Lutheran church over the decades and even in the last 5 years or so – some are very conservative & some are not), if you aren’t set on a particular denomination. A resource to look for a Lutheran church in your area (if you are interested) is the ELCA’s website at http://www.elca.org. Other denominations to consider would be the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ (UCC), and the Unitarians (though I can’t speak to that one from personal experience).

        • Teresa Janelle

          United Church can be a good place to go too! (different from UCC). Often tending towards UU but more Christian in their loyalties.

      • JB

        I attend a UCC church (ucc.org) and would highly recommend giving one a try. There are a lot of interfaith couples in my UCC church, and rather than being ostracized, they are embraced. People openly talk about navigating differences in faith in values and also have a great deal of respect for other faith traditions. My minister often talks about the things we can learn from our Muslim and Jewish neighbors.

        A handy metric is to look for churches that are gay-friendly. If they embrace LGBTQ people, they’re very likely to be open-minded and accepting.

      • Alison O

        You might enjoy learning about your local/nearest Unitarian Universalist church.

        • Katherine O.

          Want to second this! I am the product of an interfaith marriage and uu was a good compromise for my parents. It may be too religion-lite for you, but it worked for my Presbyterian/atheist-jewish parents.

      • Kris

        I just want to add another voice in support of checking out UUs. My husband and I are both atheists (I was raised one, he “came out” as one as an adult), and we like them (A UU minister officiated our wedding!). I hear Episcopalian and Unity Churches are both very open/liberal while still hewing to a more traditionally Christian theology.

      • Rachael

        Kelli,

        Church shopping is really hard! Especially because there is such variety within denominations, you really can’t be sure of what you’re walking into on any given Sunday. Besides the fact that it just takes a lot of courage to go to a new place where you don’t know anyone. I would start with the churches around where you live- send an email to the pastor and ask them to describe what they believe and see for yourself if it would be a good fit. All churches want to grow and welcome new people, but not all churches will be the right place for you.

        I love the Presbyterian church (I’m PCUSA- there are different kinds), and I would definitely recommend checking some out, but I am obviously biased. I think you could find what you’re looking for in any mainline denomination- by that I mean PCUSA, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, American or Alliance Baptist, UCC, UU, or Catholic. Its important to know that no one church/group can claim to be the only one that’s open and affirming.

      • Teresa Janelle

        I would personally put in a plug for Episcopalian/Anglican, since it’s not a confessional church (I was confirmed Presbyterian, and it is – that is,it’s bound by a set of explicit common beliefs as laid out in various catechisms and confessions) but rather a creedal one (affirming the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds). This means that there is a HUGE range of what it means to be Anglican/Episcopalian. There are unspoken lines of unity, of course. But the main thing that unifies us is the liturgy of common worship. I would recommend seeking a broad-church or lattitudinarian style rather than a more evangelical or anglo-catholic one. My church has an invitation to communion that makes everybody welcome “those who have much faith, and those who want to have more; those who follow Jesus, and those who fear they have failed”. Church will always, in my opinion, be more for the in-group than the out-group – and if about the out-group, it’s about making the out-group like the in-group – but I have found a liberal, accepting home in the Anglican churches I have found so far (not all though! they range! you have to look around to find a good fit). In my opinion and perspective, Presbyterians tend to be quite conservative; however, again, they vary from congregation to congregation and there are many liberal ones out there.

        • Guest

          Just want to reiterate that while the way you’ve described Presbyterians might be how you perceive the faith tradition, its really dangerous to make broad generalizations about a tradition you no longer participate in. My hackles are up because what you’ve written is actually inaccurate.

          • Teresa Janelle

            The thing is that there are no “facts” on the faith tradition of Presbyterianism. I had a very good experience being Presbyterian; I didn’t leave because my congregation was too conservative for me. But I AM aware of branches of, or congregations of, the Presbyterian church which are. As I said, they vary from congregation to congregation.

    • Rev. Sarah

      YES!! Your partner does not need to be converted or convinced or anything else– finding a community that can support you both on your varying levels of commitment and faith is important. There is a wide variety among churches even within specific denominations, so try out a few to see what fits (and don’t be shy about the whole “My Partner is an Atheist” thing, to see how people react). As a UU minister, I’ll make a plug for Unitarian Universalist communities and also the United Church of Christ (the “God is still speaking” folks). Best of luck.

      • Carrie

        Another plug for UUs!
        My husband is a fairly staunch atheist, while I had “converted” to Buddhism before we met. (In quotes because it’s really not the same as converting to an Abrahamic religion.) We went through a lot of those religion conversations, and eventually came to the conclusion that we both wanted to be part of a church-like community (especially in the future when kids enter the picture) but he wanted nothing to do with standard Christianity. In the end, we totally lucked out because our local UU fellowship is exactly what we were looking for — an awesome community and spiritual support that doesn’t dictate or judge.
        Neither of us ever thought we would be the kind of people who went to church every Sunday, but we do now!

    • Alice

      I totally agree, although this plan is definitely contingent upon finding the right pastor etc. My grandfather is a Presbyterian minister, but is totally accepting of his children’s atheism, agnosticism, and Buddhism, respectfully. And perhaps his willingness to talk about it resulted in such a wide range of belief systems for his children. That said, he is probably not the norm.

    • mackenzie

      Just wanted to give a shout out to the Presbyterians in the house!

  • Katey

    I think that it is essential to decide before entering a relationship which is more important: that person, or your religion. A successful compromise can only be maintained for so long, in my experience.

    In the case of Christianity, believers are explicitly told not to marry unbelievers, because as they have fundamentally different world views, they will have a very strained relationship full of needless compromise. (That’s in 2 Corinthians 6:14, if anyone wants to check it out.)

    For a Christian, Jesus must be the absolute centre of their life. He is both their saviour from separation from God, and the one on whom they model their behaviour.

    To marry someone who does not share these beliefs is very painful. Marriage between two committed Christians can be a beautiful thing, but in a couple with only one believer, they can often find themselves torn. Sadly, the acceptance of Jesus’ salvation is often sacrificed for a happier marriage. From a Christian worldview, this is a tragedy. Rejection of salvation means permanent separation from God, a far worse thing than a difficult marriage.

    I understand that choosing not to marry an atheist who you truly love would be the most difficult thing in the world. But, as a Christian, it’s what has to be done. And if Jesus is truly the most important thing, then he has a better plan. (Jeremiah 29:11)

    • Let’s stay away from absolutes in this discussion. I understand that it’s your belief that separating from an atheist partner is a requirement of your faith, and that’s your decision, but this conversation is not about telling the letter writer what she “must do” to be considered a Christian.

      • Atheist

        This comment feels like a violation of the comment policy (tone, possibly attacking). Why is it still up?

        • Are you referring to my comment or the one it’s in response to?

          • Atheist

            Katey’s. Although she’s expressing her personal beliefs, her tone and wording come across in a way that is -literally- damning many people in the thread.

    • Violet

      Part of this is that “Christian” can means LOTS of different things, so it gets pretty dicey dispensing advice on how to be a good Christian, pretty quickly. We don’t know enough about LW or her specific Christianity, and she isn’t explicitly asking for this kind of advice.

    • Lawyerette510

      You do realize there is more than one way of being Christian, yes? You have your interpretation aka your faith, and that is personal to you. You may find others who share that belief, but you will likely find many others in the universe of Christianity who have different beliefs. Because that’s what you are talking about, your beliefs/ interpretation/ opinion/ definition of Christianity, which is not an absolute.

  • Violet

    Oh gosh, everything Elisabeth said. It’s not always about just the issue itself, but also whether both people even agree there’s an issue that needs to be discussed.

    I’m not an atheist; I’m sort of areligious. I grew up in a church that spoke another language, so I never “got” anything out of it. My life was without religion, and so it stayed. I think if you’re religious and you’re trying to have a conversation with an areligious person, they might not even understand what you’re talking *about,* on a gut level. It would be like asking me to converse on a symphony I just heard if I was tone-deaf. BUT. If my partner loves symphonies, I would go. Because it was important to him. I might not have the most to contribute (or anything to contribute, really) discussion-wise, but that doesn’t mean I get to ignore the issue.

    Your partner’s issues are yours, and visa versa.

  • KT

    I was in a relationship like this for several years, except I was the Atheist. (I’m no stranger to the Christian church, my father is a pastor, and we attended church regularly growing up.) My boyfriend/almost fiancee was an extremely devout Christian, who attended seminary. We were thinking seriously about marriage and also had all of these premarital discussions which always turned into heated arguments. It is really important that you talk this all out; children, family, future goals, etc. No, it is no silly.
    My breaking point was discussions about children. It scared me to hear how he would talk to our children about religion and his personal beliefs. That was something we could not come to an agreement on, and we had to end the relationship. But I am so glad we had all those talks ahead of time. You need to know what you’re in for. Couples counseling is definitely recommended!

    • Lawyerette510

      KT, I think you raise an important point: it is ok to acknowledge that compromise may not be possible in a relationship and to know when that is a deal-breaker.

  • Rachel

    This advice is spot on, and I especially think the second last paragraph (“there is only so much each of you can compromise”) is really important.

    I’m an atheist, and so is my husband. For me, I couldn’t commit to building a life and raising children with someone who believes in a higher power. Religion and faith is not something I can understand, and that means that despite my best efforts, there would always be a huge part of my partner’s life that I just couldn’t comprehend. For me, I couldn’t cope with that. But that’s me. There are lots of interfaith couples who make it work, and it’s a matter of figuring out if you’re one of those couples. Not to sound like an echo, but I do believe professional counselling is probably the best way to work through that.

    I’m not going to suggest that I’m representative of all atheists here, but I do believe I’m representative of a moderately large percentage when I say: It’s really hard to truly understand faith and religion if you weren’t raised to. On an intellectual level, I understand that if you were raised to believe in something from a very young age, that belief is likely very entrenched and deep-rooted. It’s very real. But if you’re like me, and you weren’t raised to believe in a higher power, it’s really, really difficult to understand what that level of faith feels like. And how central it can really be to someone’s life. I can say I understand, but I really don’t, and I never will. I may get the concept but I’ll never get the emotional or spiritual side of it. For me, that would always been a huge gulf of understanding between my partner and I (if my partner was religious), and I would find it too significant to overcome. I would feel like there was a whole level of who my partner is that I could never be a part of. But again, that’s me. And this may be a Canadian thing, where religion plays a much smaller role in public life and it’s much more common to be raised without religious influence. Perhaps in the States, even those who identify as atheists have more exposure to religion (as it’s a bigger part of public life) and as a result feel differently.

    So again, I’m not saying that it’s not possible for interfaith couples to make things work. People do it all the time, with great success. But I am saying there’s a deep challenge there, and professional help can go a long way towards getting to the core issues and starting to work through them. Compromising is important, but it’s even more important to get to the root of why the compromise has to happen, and why it’s hard for each of you to get there. A good counsellor can help with that.

    • Rachel

      Just want to say, as someone coming from a faith perspective, I agree. I knew I needed someone who not only understood and respected my core beliefs, but shared them to a significant extent. Someone who did not share those beliefs would not, I think, be able to truly understand me. I am impressed by the love that makes it possible for interfaith couples to overcome those barriers, but for me they were impassable.

  • Sparkles

    Atheist over here, and one of the things that jumped out at me about your requests of your partner are things that maybe don’t have any meaning for him, but are very meaningful for you. You say that you feel like he’s agreed to some of your requests, but they feel empty. I think it might be helpful to examine WHY you want him to participate in these particular rituals. Because they might be feeling empty because he’s not seeing them the same way you are. But maybe together you can find a way to make them meaningful to him without appealing to religion itself.

    Why is it important that he pray with you before meals? To him these are just words, and to you you are opening up lines of communication with your higher power. I’m married to an atheist, but both of us come from really Christian families and we both feel it’s important to respect our families beliefs. I know that I pray with my family at big family dinners and we prayed before my wedding dinner, because it’s a tradition. As an atheist, I can wrap my head around tradition, and I can’t wrap my head around talking to something I don’t believe exists.

    Do you want him to come to church at Christmas and Easter, because you want to be able to show him off to your community, because you find it important to be together with your family at that time? I guess what I’m trying to get at, is that it might be easier for this conversation to happen if you consider aspects of these rituals you want him to engage in, that are part of something other than faith. I know I would find that easier to process.

    • CJ

      I was also thinking…at least some atheists I know have had very negative or traumatic experiences with church or other religious practices in the past. This does not sound like it’s the case for you and it may not be the case for the OP’s partner of course, but if it is might not just be that going to church or praying before meals don’t have meaning for him, they may be actively hurtful or difficult for him.

      • Lauren from NH

        As an agnostic, I get rather bristly where it comes to the us vs. them, saved vs. not aspect of religion that some people really focus on. I just do not believe in othering or judging people. My partner who is Christian, does not believe in this aspect either. Yet some of the rituals he is familiar with, baptism to name one, in my very limited view are very strongly based on this concept that I am at odds with.

        My point is that with an atheist or agnostic (not the same btw) it’s not necessarily just indifference or lack of belief they feel where it comes to religion. They have belief systems of their own, that may or may not be at odds with one religion or another. As Sparkles alluded to, belief and practice often happen in tandem but they can be separated, and digging deep to understand the difference would hopefully help the OP communicate with her partner.

        • Kris

          Yes! Very important point. My husband and I have been gently wiggling out of going to church with his family when we visit (they are Baptists) because we wouldn’t be able to abide by sitting though such a sermon (“Gay/atheist/not-us people are going to h*ll!!!”) and don’t want to cause a scene.
          LW’s fiance may be very uncomfortable at church because either her church or others he’s been to have explicitly or implicitly told him that he (or more generally atheists) will be tormented in eternity. Even if you don’t believe in an after-life, that is still very hurtful and excluding. She might not have even noticed it, if it did/does happen at her church.

          • Violet

            There are lots of potential reasons someone either anti-religion or indifferent to religion might not want to attend church. For example, I am not religious, but respect people who are, so I’d consider it disrespectful to take Communion (even though I was baptized and the Episcopal church my partner occasionally attends permits me to have it), because it would be disingenuous. I think it would be disrespectful to think, “Oh, I’m drinking wine,” while everyone else is thinking something else about it.
            The real crux here is I don’t think he’s told her what his objections are (or else he has, and they’re not in the letter). He has to at least talk about these things for them to get anywhere, right?

          • Kris

            This is true. He either needs to start talking. Or she needs to start listening. Probably both :)

          • Julia

            test

        • BeeAssassin

          There are definitely some “us vs them” aspects of religion that, if a person subscribes to them, make me wonder if a true partnership with a non-religious person would ever be possible. I knew a pastor who was married to a non-Christian. I once asked her whether she subscribed to the belief that non-Christian’s would go to hell, and without hesitation she said “yes.” It was stunning to me that she could simultaneously hold that belief while being married to her (supposedly hell-bound) partner; but what was even more stunning was that her partner seemed to be ok with being married to someone who had mentally put him into an “out” group. They did eventually divorce, and I always wondered how much religion/lack thereof played a role in it.

          • Alyssa M

            I can’t speak for the pastor, but I can absolutely explain how another person(myself) who holds those beliefs can be with an atheist partner.

            My religion is not hell-insurance. I’m not a good person that gets to go to heaven because of it. I’m a flawed person just like every other person on earth. It is a relationship with God that I choose out of free will. The benefit of that relationship is forgiveness/heaven/etc. Every other person, including my partner has the free will to choose that relationship or not and it is entirely up to them. My partner chooses not. It makes me sad, yes, but it doesn’t decrease my respect for him or my ability to love him. It does not make him, in my eyes, “in an ‘Out’ group.” Just a person like anybody else who makes his own choices.

            You may still think that’s crazy, but it’s how I believe. And my partner understands it, and is happy that I respect his disbelief in God. It’s how it works for us.

          • Kelly

            It’s the same as how one can be friends with non-Christians. I don’t see hell as a punishment; it’s just the place that non-Christians end up. It’s not necessarily banishment or a terrible thing; it’s just a consequence of choices. I choose God, therefore I end up in a place with God. Someone doesn’t choose God, therefore they end up in a place without God, aka “hell”. I think the word itself is far more contentious than it needs to be.

          • anon

            But… isn’t hell where non-Christians will suffer for eternity? That sounds fairly contentious to me.

          • JB

            Some believe hell is eternal torture; others believe hell is simply separation from God. The latter is, obviously, much less traumatic to think about.

    • Jessica

      Right, including the very important social aspect of church…..you could frame it as a very important community to you, and so it’s important that he get to know them a little, and they get to know him a little if nothing else but for the sake of knowing the important people in your life.

      • Danielle Marie

        This is the compromise my husband and I reached. I am involved in the church choir and attend mass and practices every week. My husband is an atheist, but comes with me to church once every few months when we have a social after mass. He says he enjoys the time for quiet reflection and getting to hear the 5 and 6 voice part choral anthems we’ve been working on for weeks. I love that he and the other important people in my community can to get to know each other better over donuts after mass. I think framing it in terms of sharing community was really helpful for us.

      • Alyssa M

        I explained to my partner several years ago that attending church alone made me sad because it’s a family activity to me. He offered to meet me after church for Sunday Dinner and attend with me on major holidays. He is 100% willing to be a family support system/part of a community I need, where he is not willing to be a regular churchgoer.

  • CJ

    This is a really interesting question, one my partner and I wrestled with a lot before we got married. I think the difference for us is that he is from a Muslim background and I’m from a Christian one so we were able to find common ground on some basic ideas that were important to me, like “God is good and God loves me” and the importance of prayer. Neither of us has converted and religion in general is something we still have to have conversations about all the time–but it’s an ambiguity and a messiness that we’ve both chosen to embrace. If I’m being honest I feel that my own personal faith is always in a state of flux anyway, so it’s great to have a foundation of honest conversations about it with my partner so we can process stuff together.

    But he is also someone who tends to like to avoid conflict and difficult conversations, so for a long time I always initiated every conversation about faith and he was always reluctant. It took a long time for me to to get through to him that an important way to make me feel loved was to engage with me in these questions.

    Also, this post reminded me of this interview with an Atheist-Christian couple I read on a blog about religion a while ago, might be helpful: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-a-mixed-faith-couple-response

    • I grew up in a Christian-Muslim interfaith family, and your comment sums up life in my family. My mom believed one thing, my dad believed another, but there was a lot of commonality & overlap between them. They allowed us kids to experience both and come to our own views on faith.

      I do think that it can be easier to have an interfaith relationship than one between an atheist and a non-atheist. In an interfaith relationship, there’s a layer of commonality – you both at least believe that there is a God/Higher Power, so your partner may be more willing to do things like attend services, have prayers, etc. With an atheist partner, it’s possible that doing those things will be too uncomfortable or difficult for them. You don’t have even a foundational layer of commonality when it comes to faith, and that can sometimes be too wide of a gulf for even the most well-intentioned couple to overcome.

  • Rosie

    Keeping lines of communication open about issues of faith and religion is difficult but in the long run I think it’s very healthy. My husband and I identify as the same faith, so problem solved, right? In fact, we’re both constantly changing and evolving our views which means that we have to have similar conversations to those described in the letter every now and again. People’s views on spirituality do change, so if you can talk about it and compromise right from the start I think it puts you in a good place.

    • JDrives

      It actually surprised me to find that although my partner and I are both Christian, we approach our faith quite differently. Turns out we have a LOT to talk about!

  • JB

    This is a really big issue for interfaith couples but it is not unique to interfaith couples.

    My partner and I both label ourselves Christians but practice our faith in very different ways. We constantly talk about things we’re reading and learning, new insights, or interesting things we hear other people say. We ask questions, we get uncomfortable sometimes, but we’re always learning from each other.

    So I guess my caution to the writer is not to construct a fantasy in which you have a Christian partner and so you both believe all the same things and see everything the same way, because there’s no guarantee of that. Both partners have to work on communicating about beliefs and values, because no two people’s will be exactly alike and everyone’s will shift over time.

    • pajamafishadventures

      Yup. A friend recently went through this with her husband. She’s always been a devout, practicing protestant and he’s always been a devout, practicing Catholic and with neither of them interested in converting (not sure if that’s the right word to use for inter-Christian shuffles) they had the same issues to navigate. How would they pray, where and when would they go to church, how would they raise their kids… same conversations the LW is having, slightly different flavor.

      • Teresa Janelle

        They might find some support in interchurchfamilies.org ! There’s some great stuff there, especially on protestant/RC relationships, and issues like eucharist and baptism and raising children, especially where both partners are devout and practicing, and wish to remain devout and practising in their own tradition. No two couples come to exactly the same compromises, because they are different people, in different contexts!

    • Kelly Mine-His

      This is a thing for atheist couples, too! I 100% believe in free will and chaos, my husband is more of a determinist… we both ultimately believe it doesn’t matter and we experience free will either way, so we keep living our lives as good people. Being on the same big-picture plain doesn’t guarantee completely identical belief systems!

      • Alice

        That’s an excellent point. My hubby and I are both un-religious. I think about being an atheist a great deal, talk about it, and describe myself as such, including what it means to me, and how my personal moral code should be structured. Hubby doesn’t like the label, but also isn’t really agnostic, so he just doesn’t think about it and follows his gut in ethical dilemmas. We’re still able to have great discussions about it, though.

    • JDrives

      Super cool that you shared this – thank you. I am in a really similar situation. Just last night my partner and I had a very long, sometimes heated discussion where we found we disagreed with some aspects of our shared faith (and I got creepy feels when APW read my mind again and had a post on faith in relationships the very next day). It was an AWESOME conversation that we want to continue as part of getting to know each other and growing spiritually. I think we both gave each other things to think about, pray upon and revisit Scripture on so that next time we talk, we can continue sharing our evolving beliefs with each other.

    • Teresa Janelle

      I’m in an interchurch relationship (Anglican/Roman Catholic) and have found some good support through interchurchfamilies.org. But it’s not always easy! It’s hard to accept differences. And it’s easy to blame our different practice on our different denominations…yet like you say, no matter how outwardly similar two people might be, there are ALWAYS going to be points of difference and challenge and compromise!

  • Mary Jo TC

    I’m a Catholic who married a ‘deist.’ This is what ongoing religious compromise looks like for us. Super early on in our relationship, he asked if that would be a problem, and I told him that my non-negotiables were that I’d like to get married in the church and have my children baptized. He was fine with that, or at least that was far enough in the future that it didn’t worry him at the time. 6 years later, we got engaged, a year after that we got married in a Catholic mass. That included Catholic pre-cana and NFP training. When our baby was born last year, we baptized him.

    He supports me in my religion without practicing it himself by doing these things:
    -accounting for the fact that I go to Sunday mass every week in our common household schedule, including caring for the kid at home while I go off alone to church. Generally I go to church alone because it’s easier than wrangling a toddler.
    -attending social events that involve a religious element, like family weddings, baptisms, funerals, etc.
    -attending church with my family when we visit them, every 6 weeks or so, including holidays. (Lately he spends most of the time in the cry room with the kid anyway).

    I think things will get harder and more awkward when our kid(s?) are older and we have to answer questions about God and church. Also, I’m probably going to want to do a simple prayer before meals, and I’m not sure he’ll be comfortable with that. I like the way Liz emphasized that there has to be a commitment on both sides to making this an ongoing conversation. It’s never settled. But when you make big agreements, like the one OP and fiance made and the one me and my husband made, those become extra important, and should be respected. I think OP’d fiance felt betrayed because he thought he made an agreement that would settle it once and for all in return for a big concession, but it was never going to be ‘settled’ and I don’t think he understood that.

    • Jade

      Heyyy I’m a deist marrying a Catholic guy! We’re going along the same path thus far; we’ve already done the pre-cana and we’re getting married in his church, and any kids we have will be baptized. I also go to church with him and his family when I can. There’s a lot about religion (and Christianity in particular) that makes me uncomfortable, but I don’t have any strong convictions either way, so it’s easy for me to adapt.

  • Claire

    I am in a similar relationship, I am Catholic and my husband is more agnostic than atheist, but as others have said, he just feels like “he doesn’t get much” out of religion. Is it possible to draw a comparison to something else that he enjoys, that you participate in because you love him?

    I had a hard time explaining to my husband why I wanted to come to church with me sometimes, until I realized there was a somewhat silly example- football. He is a HUGE sports fan, I honestly didn’t know the Super Bowl was the last game of the season until I started dating him. Yet, he likes me to watch the games with him. He has bought me jerseys, and tried to explain the rules. One day I finally said “WAIT. This is exactly the way I feel about church!! It’s not necessarily that I want you to believe something you don’t (I will never turn on a game when he’s out of town) but I want you to share something that is important to me.” It was an odd analogy, granted, but finally it made sense to him. Maybe you can find common ground in another interest? Obviously religion is packed with deeper meanings, way more caveats and details, but it helped us start the conversation in a way that wasn’t filled with the “are you trying to help me find God” overtones.

    • p.

      This is a great point. My therapist talked about how it’s good for one person in
      a relationship to do things that the other person is more interested in
      because it’s educational: person #1 gets to see a new side of person
      #2; they get to learn something new about the person they love. And that
      idea is probably harder to see in this context (it was for me) given
      that many people who are not religious (like me) have had religion
      pushed on them for years so we tend to be very wary of anything that
      smacks of it.

      • Claire

        Exactly! I think it helped us finally see it in the light of doing something that the other is interested in, and get past the “pushing religion” aspect. Annnd football season is very much pro- unhealthy snacks, so maybe it has its upsides!

  • Emily

    Great advice, Elisabeth! My own story is that I met my wonderful (atheist) husband while I was studying Christianity in divinity school several years ago (I have a Master of Divinity). Neither of us were interested in converting the other (I was a pretty liberal Christian and he didn’t have any interest in talking me out of my faith), but we had lots of great, deep discussions about what the other person did and didn’t believe and why.
    Long story short, by the time I finished my degree, we had gotten engaged and I was an agnostic (which meant we never actually got to the really tough questions about how to raise kids as a mixed-faith couple). We’ve now been married for a couple years and I would say I’m pretty much an atheist too, which I am totally comfortable with but never would have imagined when we started dating! Which goes to show that when it comes to religion and spirituality, it can be really hard to predict the path that you (or your partner) will take over the course of your life.

    It sounds like this issue has been painful for you, and I think that the suggestions of counseling and finding support in your faith community are good ones. I also urge both of you to go into your talks in good faith (as it were) and to try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes – neither of you have come to your beliefs (or lack of belief) lightly, I’m guessing, and the more you can strive to understand the other person’s perspective, the better. (Not that you aren’t already doing this!)

    One last resource I would highly recommend is the new book In Faith and In Doubt by Dale McGowan – I just read it and it’s excellent. It’s all about how religious believers and non-believers can build strong marriages and families, and it includes a number of interviews with real mixed faith-non-faith couples. (Dale is an atheist who married a Southern Baptist – she is no longer religious, but was for a long part of their [happy] marriage.)

    Best wishes to you and your partner – this is tough stuff and kudos to you for reaching out for help in sorting it all out.

  • MK

    Well, marriages certainly can survive with wildly disparate views. My mother says that every election, her mother would say cheerfully, “Well, it’s time to go cancel out your father’s vote!”
    On a more serious note, I would just like to highlight an underlying cultural assumption that is so pervasive that most people I know believe it to some degree, even if they think that they believe the opposite: we tend to think that atheists don’t believe in anything. Many of my friends self-identify as atheist, and they all have incredibly well-thought-out, strong moral systems, that they have developed through thorough study, conversation, and life experience. They are people who find wonder and joy in the world.
    I point this out because I genuinely believe that, despite the (not insignificant) point of theism, you two most likely have a compatible moral system, and your ideas about how to treat people are also probably quite compatible.
    As a gentle follow-up question: if your fiance was muslim, jewish, or buddhist, would you have thought it was appropriate to ask him to come to church with you? The answer may, in fact, be yes (for example: “I hope to pass my faith on to my children and I want him to understand what I believe”) but the answer may also be no.
    This is a tough one, and only the two of you can decide what is right for you and your future. I wish you both love and joy through the conversations ahead.

    • Lawyerette510

      MK, I think you hit the nail on the head with this. In reading I was struck by the letter writer’s lack of acknowledgment that atheism is its own set of beliefs- a belief that there are no deities. I was befuddled by the seemingly very quick evolution from attending church 2x a year to trying out churches together. On the one had I get it can be scary to enter a new environment without anyone else, but on the other it also seems to ignore or diminish the belief system of the partner. Similarly, asking a partner to engage in perpetuating beliefs that are contrary to her/his own with children is a lot to ask. It is one thing to say “are you ok with my teaching our children my belief system?” or “will you support me in terms of not undermining my efforts of teaching our children my belief system?” or “will you respect my efforts to teach our children my belief system” (along with a discussion of what undermining, or respecting means to each person) compared to “will you actively participate in my efforts to teach our children my belief system to the exclusion of yours?”

      • Kris

        I got that feeling too. There is something very disrespectful of his beliefs in her wanting his assurance that he would support her in raising the children Christian. If my fiance had been Christian and asked that of me, I would say “no. I can’t. I won’t participate in teaching them something I believe to be false (that there is a God). Just as you wouldn’t want to participate in teaching them something you believe is false (that there is no God).” But then again, for ME, choosing a partner with matching beliefs was very important (in large part because I wanted children and passing my (atheist) beliefs to them is important to me).

        My feeling from this letter is that they need to try Unitarian Universalism and if they both like it, go forth and raise little UUs. If they don’t like it, they may need to part ways so she can find a partner with more compatible beliefs to raise her future children with. But asking an Atheist (and not just a “meh @ religion” person) to participate in raising children as Christian seems fundamentally disrespectful in a way I’m not seeing a solution to.

        • Lawyerette510

          I think the difference between an atheist and a meh @ religion person is key for people to keep in mind. Also, I think examining UU could be a good option for letter writer and her partner at least to facilitate conversation about organization/ community and what the significance/ implications of that is for the letter writer and her partner.

          For me, I’m somewhere between a generally vague belief in an over-arching divinity that is void of judgment and agnosticism that would probably be well described as “meh @ religion” while my husband is similar, both of us come from religious families (mine is loosely United Methodist from a liberal congregation and his is Christian Scientist). While we were decided on not having kids, we did talk about what would happen if one of us decided to explore religion (not necessarily returning to roots, but maybe UU or non-western religious traditions) and if that would be something that we would each be ok supporting in the other (although not necessarily participating in). We did agree that it’d be something either of us would be ok supporting the other in exploring/ pursuing if one of us felt moved to do so.

          • Kris

            “a generally vague belief in an over-arching divinity that is void of judgment”

            I’d bet you’d like the UUs. I mentioned this elsewhere in the thread, but my husband and I hang out with the UUs occasionally (enough that we identify as Atheist Unitarian Universalists, and donate $$$ to them every year) and were married by a UU minister.

            The major philosophical idea that caused Universalists to split away from other Christians (the two Us were separate for a long time before merging around 1900) was that of universal salvation through Christ (ie he died for EVERYONE’s sins, not just people who believed/”accepted Jesus in their hearts”). After merging with the Unitarians (who broke away from Catholicism around the same time Lutherans did because they did not agree with the Trinity doctrine), they became very secular. Modern UUs believe that being good/just is what matters and that wisdom can come from many sources (all religions) and so they don’t much resemble their original Christian roots anymore. (Totally not trying to proselytize, just sharing. I find their history really interesting)

          • Erin E

            UU’s for the win! I just wanted to share that I was raised in a UU church for exactly the reason above (two parents of differing faiths) and I think it was an awesome environment for kids… in Sunday school we learned about world religions, we learned to respect and tolerate other beliefs and we learned about the importance of working for social justice. Great lessons, in my opinion!

          • Acres_Wild

            I’m glad to read this! I’m one of the aforementioned “meh @ religion” types, engaged to a liberal Catholic, and we’re strongly considering raising any future children in a UU church. I’ve done some reading about UU youth education, and it sounds amazing – exactly in line with our beliefs and the values we want to pass on. Glad to hear you enjoyed it!

          • Lawyerette510

            I’ve dabbled with the UUs before and you are so right about how interesting their history is.

            Actually one of the things that made the biggest impact on changing how I felt about the religion in which I was raised was becoming friends with another young woman in high school who was not only raised UU but really active in their activism and youth-lead stuff. It totally rocked my world.

            At this point, I’m not sure I’m emotionally ready for a belief-community, as funny as that sounds. One of the patterns I repeat in my life is going in full hog with an organization (or person), investing time and energy, being totally enamored with it, then real life happening, resulting in my disappointment and disillusionment. I’ve taken great strides to moving past this pattern when it comes to people, but feel like I need a little more work before trying it out on a organization/ community/ congregation level.

          • Teresa Janelle

            All of the suggestion to follow UU is great, and I hope it can be helpful; but as a religious Christian myself who I think would identify with the author’s struggles with wanting to raise her children Christian, I’m not sure it would be satisfying. If she wants to teach her children her religion, rather than secular humanism (which is basically what UU teaches, from what I can tell), it’s still an issue. If secular humanism was enough, there wouldn’t be such a gulf between her and her s.o. Just my read on it though!

          • Lawyerette510

            I think you make a fair point. I think UU has come up so many times in these comments for a few reasons 1. It’s come up as a suggestion for others who are sharing related-but-not-the-same experiences and 2. It has the potential to be a compromise between a Christian congregation and nothing.

            I understand the desire to raise children in the same religion of one of the parents, but I think one thing this letter writer needs to consider is if that is negotiable, because her view (that there is one God, that God has a son, that God’s son is the savior of man kind, that eternal life exists and the only way to it is through God’s son) is the polar opposite of atheism (that there is no divine/ no god/ no eternal life). I don’t know how I would handle that situation if I was either one of them, and it sounds like for you that it might be a deal breaker, and I respect that.

          • Teresa Janelle

            I have no personal experience with the UU, just some online research, nor do I know the couple…so it could work, as you say! I just wanted to throw out another perspective on that particular possible compromise. For me, it wouldn’t work…but for another couple, it might be a way for both of them to teach their beliefs to each other and their children while being part of a unifying community that helped them think about their beliefs and live better. Maybe going to a UU together, while she attended a more traditional congregation of her choice, would work if UU on its own wasn’t enough.

          • Kris

            I can totally see how UU’s secular humanist message might not be what LW want to teach her children. That’s why I said that if that isn’t a good fit they may be fundamentally incompatible as co-parents.

            Story time: My husband was raised by baptists. I was raised by atheists. He grew up seeing morality as coming from religion/church, and continued to do so even after deciding he didn’t believe in God. I, obviously, didn’t see it that way. This led to some odd philosophical discussions (and some tears) when we were dating about the source of human understanding of right and wrong, good and evil.

            I tell this story to say: having sifted through this with my husband I can totally understand if the LW thinks that her kids need the community and structure of a church to help them form a good inner moral compass (they don’t. But I understand why she might think they do, and why providing what she believes necessary is very important to her.) If that’s the heart of the issue, UUs may be the solution that honors both partners. If she feels she need church to help lead them to Christ/Salvation, UUs may not work out, and I’m really not sure there IS a solution that honors both sets of beliefs.

    • emilyg25

      Yes, this. I’m a non-theist and my lack of belief is in itself a belief system, with values and practices that I feel compelled to follow, and that has been carefully considered over many years of thought and exploration. It’s not simply an empty hole that can be filled with something at no cost to me. I even get uncomfortable in very, very liberal religious environments like Unitarian or Quaker services because I feel that my presence there is an implicit acknowledgment of something I don’t believe in, but I don’t believe in -nothing-. So yeah, I don’t think the letter writer is quite grasping how big a deal this may be for her partner.

    • KimBee

      Yes! This is why I prefer to think of myself as Humanist rather than atheist. The label ‘atheist’ defines a person by what they do not believe rather than focusing on what they do believe. I didn’t see anywhere in the post what compromises she was making to honor her partners’ belief system. Why can’t their children learn that different people have different faiths and that honoring others’ POV doesn’t necessitate subverting your own beliefs?

    • Alice

      Yes! This is so true. I am an atheist, and also a vet in training, which requires a constant examination of my personal morals and ethics. And I can’t remember how many times I’ve been condemned and dismissed by people of various faiths, simply for being ‘godless.’ This is both unjust and hurtful. I’m lucky enough to be related to some very lovely, accepting Christians as well, so I try to keep an open mind about it, but not everyone has this perspective.

      For anyone who is interested, there is a really, really, really good documentary by Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss called “The Unbelievers,” that very eloquently explains how atheists can experience wonder and personal ethics. It’s on Netflix here in the UK right now, maybe in the US as well. Good viewing for people on all sides (although possibly controversial because of the topic).

  • Laura C

    It sounds like it’s just so hard to know how this works out because your partner doesn’t want to talk about it. Which means we as readers don’t know what kind of atheist he is — does he not believe without putting a ton of philosophical contemplation into it; does he have a significant mental structure of atheism; does he, as someone else suggested here, have really negative experiences with religion that make it painful to have these conversations with you? Those are potentially important differences.

    As well, I read this and wonder about your side of the compromise. Are you willing to try to understand where he’s coming from, particularly if his atheism is something other than a simple absence of faith? (And if he’s willing to talk about it.) If you get to raise the kids in your faith, does him supporting that mean he can’t talk to them about his beliefs? Because while you would be compromising in marrying someone with whom you don’t share a religious and religious-community life, that’s a compromise you’re making with yourself, and I wonder what compromises you’re willing to make with him, to validate where he’s coming from. None of which can happen if he won’t talk about it, of course.

  • Jules

    Sparkles has a great point about figuring out WHY certain things are important. I wanted to add something in case you decide to pursue the counseling route, though:

    1. Find a neutral party. If you’re Christian and he’s atheist, and you go to a counselor at your church, it may not feel very neutral. You just need someone to help you ask the right questions and mediate for you because this is a hot topic.

    2. Get more specific with yourself. Example: “show some interest in that part of my life”. What does that mean to you? To him?

    It’s a little worrying that his technique is avoidance since he does have a strong opinion on it, so I think the way you ask to go to counseling is important (or if you don’t, maybe there’s a good book with exercises that you can dedicate time to reading together). I don’t think this is a silly fight at all – if one partner thinks it’s important, the other needs to at least come to the table to discuss it. It’s not so much figuring out every last detail; it’s figuring out what #2 means to both of you. (Do we tell kids that the Bible is not literal, or do we read them Noah’s ark stories? Do we pray together? Do we ever attend church as a family?)

  • Acres_Wild

    This is something we’ve dealt with a bit as well, as my fiance is Catholic and I’m… agnostic, I guess? It hasn’t been a major conflict, though, because we’re on the same page as far as our actual values, and for us, that is what’s most important. I would go to church with him if he wanted me to, because I think it’s a fascinating cultural exchange and full of interesting traditions, even if they aren’t really meaningful to me. I imagine our kids will be baptized and have some kind of religious instruction when they’re young. But, we’d need to find either a very liberal Catholic church or some kind of alternative religion like Unitarianism. Luckily, we live in a big city where both of these are pretty accessible. If finding a more inclusive church is an option for the letter writer, it might make her fiance more comfortable with the whole idea.

    Also, for the letter writer, I think couple’s counseling would really help. We did a few pre-marital sessions and both of us were nervous but ended up loving it. We had some difficult discussions, but it really feels so much safer when there’s a neutral party there to support you both as you say what you need to say. We had a couple of issues kind of like this where we’d just stopped talking about it because it always ended in a fight, and our therapist really helped us get to the bottom of the conflict and see where the other person was coming from. Overall, it was an excellent experience and I think we’re much kinder to each other now when we have arguments.

    • Alyssa M

      My relationship is right there with yours… except I’m on the other side. I am a Christian, and it’s very important to me, but my partner is an atheist. For us it has been mostly a non-issue because our values are the same. A big part of that is respecting each other. He respects my beliefs and I respect his disbelief. He supports and encourages my church attendance, accompanies me when I feel I need a family presence and in return I do not try to convert him or make him justify himself. I don’t make demands about prayer or church attendance and I am thankful when he chooses to attend with me.

      It sounds to me like the major conflict for the letter writer is that she does NOT respect her partner’s atheism… she doesn’t sound like she’ll be really happy unless he is a Christian, or at least exploring Christianity…

      • Acres_Wild

        Yes! That’s a really good point. I think respect is key, and especially respecting that the other partner is committed to whatever they believe and not likely to change. That’s big for us too, and both the letter writer and her fiance sound like they might need to work on it.

        Also, another thing that occurred to me is that for us, the relationship works because the religious person doesn’t force the non-religious person to participate. If he wanted me to pray at the dinner table with him, as it sounds like the LW wants her fiance to do, I would be uncomfortable with that. Clearly, there is a variety of religious-ness that is compatible with having a non-believing spouse, since many of us are making it work… but I don’t know if the LW’s variety is that kind.

  • Meredith

    I would love to hear from someone who was raised non-religiously or is currently raising their children non-religiously. My husband and I both come from Catholic backgrounds and a small town where pretty much EVERYONE is a practicing Catholic. We are no longer religious (I don’t want to commit to the word athiest yet) and I do not see us becoming religious anytime soon. Many people say, “oh you’ll probably go back to church when you have kids.” I just don’t see why right now. No kids yet, but someday I want them to be raised to form their own opinions, but be respectful of our families Catholic life. Do we teach them religious stories when they’re kids? Do we begin going to church again, just to give them the exposure? I don’t doubt that non-religious couples can raise morally strong children, I just personally haven’t seen it done and would love to hear how your life was! Especially holidays like Christmas and Easter.

    • LM

      I was raised non-religiously. My mom’s family is Catholic and my dad’s is Jewish but neither of them practice and I don’t think they seriously considered going to religious services when they had kids (although my mom’s family would have liked it). We learned religious stories the way we learned about Greek myths and other stories. I know we had a children’s bible, and books about different holidays, but for us, celebrating holidays was more about being together as a family and having our own family rituals. My parents were always very clear about their values and sense of the world; it just didn’t involve a religious component.

    • MDBethann

      Given that there are so many religions in the world and so many religious stories, and that you both come from religious families & live in a community that is fairly religious, it might not hurt to expose your future children to both the Catholicism practiced by your families and community and other religions (Protestant Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc). Exposing children to different faith systems and beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean placing one above another, but it may make it easier for children to understand their classmates & friends when they talk about church, and it may make them more aware & understanding as they grow and engage with people from all sorts of different backgrounds. It may also help kids if they feel sensitive and shut out of church activities that their friends go to – being an “other” is hard on kids, so at least having some knowledge of what their friends do and why their family doesn’t do those things is probably a good idea at the very least.

      One of my BFFs and former college roommates is Jewish. I never went to synagogue with her, nor she to church with me, but we both learned A LOT from one another because we were able to have open, non-judgmental conversations with each other about our respective faiths. Understanding the basic tenets of faiths outside of my own moderate, Lutheran form of Christianity has made it easier for me to at least see the perspectives of others, even if I don’t agree with them. But if I hadn’t learned to be accepting of & inquisitive about other belief systems, I don’t know that those conversations would have been possible for me.

      • Rachel

        I think this is great advice, regardless of the faith paradigm being practiced by the parents.

    • jhs

      I was raised non-religiously, and the basic idea was just that my parents answered my questions but never pushed me in any way. We had a kids bible around so I saw some stories, but my grandma also told me stories of the Hindu gods, and a lot of my friends were Jewish so I went to Hanukkah parties. They explained that these were things some people believed, but not everyone, and I was allowed to make my own choices, even if it was nothing (which is what it ended up being).

      We did celebrate Christmas, but there was no god involved. It was just presents and dinner and flamingoes on top of the tree instead of a star or angel.

      • Meredith

        Awesome! I love that you had a Children’s bible and flamingos on a Christmas tree. :) That route sounds nice.

    • Rachel

      I was raised non-religious as well – in an area where not that many people were devoutly religious, but the broader culture was influenced by Christianity, in the sense that the dominant holidays were Christmas and Easter (and Canadian Thanksgiving, but that lacks the religious association). So we celebrated Christmas and Easter, but not in a religious context. Both were celebrated as a time for family to come together from across the country, and share a meal and do something good in the community. I believe that I understood the religious origins of the holidays, but I can’t remember a specific conversation with my parents about it as a child (although I’m sure there probably was one).

      My parents always emphasized the importance of volunteerism and service to our community, both in words and actions. Volunteering was always a part of my upbringing, and incorporated as part of our traditions. My parents may not have ‘trained’ me to believe in a religion and its associated values, but they did go out of their way to ensure that I was raised to be accepting and open-minded to different races, religious, sexual orientations, abilities, and so on. Moral lessons were taught through actions, and also through story-telling and discussions (there’s no shortage of non-religious stories that teach moral lessons, these days).

      As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I’m in Canada, and therefore, my experience is going to be a bit different. There are certainly religious people here, but religion still plays a much, much smaller role in public life here than it does in the States. I don’t think my parents ever really felt a need to keep me particularly informed about religious stories (outside of the ones associated with holidays) that are outside their beliefs because I wasn’t likely to be exposed to them much in the public sphere – but I can understand that if you’re in a really religious community, there might need to be some more conscious exposure to religious stories to allow your children to have a deeper understanding of the stories and cultural expectations that are prominent outside their home. My parents didn’t shield me from religion, and they made sure I learned about a variety of religious traditions, but that was more for broader cultural interest, not because it was necessarily important to my ability to fit in.

      • Meredith

        Thanks for the advice. You’re absolutely right about the volunteering. Come to think of it, my mom volunteered often, and now that I’m an adult I feel her attending mass was more because it was the norm in our small town. My husbands family is more the one who thinks, Catholic way or the highway. My husband and I live in Austin now, while I’m sure it’s more religious than Canada, being in the south and all, it’s got a wide variety of people and families. So I think here we will be able to expose our children to a variety of lifestyles, religions and volunteering.

    • lady brett

      we’re athiests raising other folks’ kids who have been raised christian, so we try to be very respectful of that, but also of our own beliefs. any religious acts the kids want to do are fine – they pray at dinner if they like, they sometimes pray at bedtime, they ask to go to church once in a while and go with my in-laws.

      the harder part is talking about it, of course, especially as they’ve been taught to phrase all of their questions about the world from a “why did god do it this way?” perspective. i try to provide as wide a variety of answers as i can, and to make sure that any religious ideas are always phrased as someone’s opinion: “well, some people believe ______, and other people think _____, and i think ______.” it’s been fun to share greek mythology with them (my favorite), while also continuing to tell them the stories they were raised with, but also introduce them to the idea that not everyone thinks what their family thinks.

      for the more scientific questions (“why did god make clouds?”) i usually use “i don’t know, but clouds are _(science!)_.”

      • Meredith

        Great advice! Thanks. I’m curious what you mean by raising other people’s kids? Are you a foster mom? Sounds like another interesting story that should be shared on this site!

      • JB

        I teach Sunday School at a very liberal church were I know children are taught a variety of things about God. So I turn around questions like “Why did God make clouds?” and ask things like, “Why do you think God made clouds? Do you like clouds? What do clouds make you think about?” Science is good, too. But sometimes it can be really good to feel out what the child is thinking and feeling.

    • Laura C

      This is such an interesting question to me since I was raised non-religious but with super strong values. (Strong as in important to me, not as in mine are better than yours.) At some point I realized that my parents’ politics sort of filled the role of religion in our lives — informed our values, but also socially, people my parents were working on political projects with were sort of the equivalent of church friends in that maybe you became close individual friends with them and maybe you didn’t, but you were at each other’s houses for potlucks and organizing meetings and such. But as to how values were conveyed … in the home I think it’s similar to how religious values are conveyed. When kids ask questions, you tell them about your values. You make sure they see you living your values. If they do wrong, you talk to them about why it was wrong and how that fits into a broader belief system. It will be harder if everyone around you is doing these things in a church context and you’re not; you might want to think about if there are ways to be around other people you respect who are raising kids not in a church, since community is so important.

      • Meredith

        That’s great advice. We no longer live in the small town we grew up in, but our parents still do. We live in Austin, where there’s a wide variety of families. Right now we do not know many other young married couples. My aunt suggested we find a non Catholic church to try when we have kids, because that’s the best way to meet other young moms. Any ideas on where to meet non religious young couples or moms for when that time comes?

        • Laura C

          I have a friend who met a group of women through a … I want to say it was a breastfeeding class. Something related to becoming parents that was a structured class that had a specific approach and philosophy about parenting, so the people she was meeting there had at least that point of connection as far as their views. A group of them kept getting together with their kids semi-regularly for at least a couple years that I know of, maybe more.

        • Lawyerette510

          There are lots of moms’ groups out there, I imagine somewhere like Austin has plenty. In Oakland many of my friends have really found great support in moms’ groups facilitated by the hospital or birthing center they did their prep and births at.

          • Meredith

            You’re right. I’m sure there are things like that here that I’ll find out about when the time comes. I shouldn’t worry about stuff like that yet, but I’m a little bit crazy. haha :) thanks!

          • Katie Fulmer

            austinmamas is a great yahoo group. I mean outstanding! Very involved, you will find out everything you need to know about raising kids in Austin and how to find your like-minded communities. Welcome!

      • Sarah

        Yes, this was my family too. We were raised with really strong political values. My politics and my morals are completely intertwined. Very interesting stuff!

        • Meredith

          Now that we’re adults, my husband and I are very interested in politics. I see us going more along the lines of you and Sarah’s upbringing with our future kids. Some people (my in-laws) intertwine religion with their politics. I like that you both specify you intertwine morals with your politics.

    • Lauren from NH

      We learned morals like any other kids. You say please and thank you because people like nice people and nice people have manners and show gratitude. You don’t necessarily need god to enforce good behavior in children. You can use the golden rule without Jesus. Treat others how you would like to be treated. You just need to explain cause and effect. Teach them to question and think for themselves and you will have a dialogue about right and wrong and religion and everything else.

      Giving kids a basic overview of the world religions is probably a great idea, not just for religious purposes but to start early fostering tolerance of a diversity of people and cultures. Religion only came up for us on Christmas and Easter…okay let’s be honest just Christmas. We went to Christmas Eve Catholic mass for my grandmother (dad’s mom) and she and my father without fail would fall asleep every year. As we got older this got less boring and more hilarious. But we were rather familiar with the basic Christmas religious stories as a result though not much else. There are lots of good non religious Christmas stories. Our favorite picture book was The Polar Express. Oh god and we all loved A Muppet’s Christmas Carol, my dad especially. A Christmas Carol especially teaches that Christmas is a time of generosity without needed to appeal god or faith.

    • Lawyerette510

      I can’t speak from first hand experience, but as an adult I have come to know many wonderful individuals who were raised lightly associated with Unitarianism. Their families tended to focus on social justice, respecting and loving others, valuing thoughtfulness and education, etc and those friends have said that they enjoyed the community aspect and celebrations etc of being part of a “church” but without the emphasis on salvation etc.

    • pajamafishadventures

      Not the target audience as I was raised Christian (even though my father was an atheist), but even though I have grown-up to be an atheist myself I am extremely glad, as someone who studied literature and culture, that I had a Biblical educational background because I had a leg up on all the Christian symbolism that gets crammed into everything. Of course, while I haven’t tried it on my own children (cuz I don’t have any) I think that they can receive this kind of knowledge without being raised explicitly religious. Encourage religious education as an education on a thing that informs so much of the world, just make it clear that you don’t follow that doctrine and don’t expect them to

      • Sarah

        This is how I would approach it. I’m an atheist raised without much religion, and I think education *about* religion is really important. I went to college never having read the bible, I realized I had a gap in my knowledge and sought to correct it by taking religion classes. By the end of my first year I had read the entire bible, and chose to continue studying it. It’s just so important to understanding world history, our culture, other cultures, ourselves, and the list goes on…I would recommend this kind of study to pretty much everyone, and certainly my own kids.

        • MDBethann

          That’s pretty awesome. Even as a practicing Christian, I’ve read chunks of the Bible, but there are some books that I just can’t get through (and I’m an avid reader).

          I think it is particularly important that if any of us are going to be critical of a particular belief system, we should at least try to read its foundational texts for ourselves (if they exist – apparently there are still some faiths, like the Yazidis, that don’t have written religious texts)

    • april

      I think it’s alright to pick and choose a little bit. I was raised by my not-so-religious aunt, so most of my early exposure to religion was through music, art, and literature — the aspects of religion that were most meaningful to her. We weren’t regular church goers, but we’d go to a few choral masses and performances of religious music each year. She also gave me a beautiful illustrated book of biblical stories when I was young. The result was that – while I’m not very religious myself – I have a deep respect for Christian teachings and traditions.
      Children are way more perceptive than you think. If you drag them to church each weekend just because you feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do, they’ll pick up on that and there’s a good chance they’ll wind up not liking religion very much. If you expose them to religious ideas or rituals that are actually meaningful to you (even if that meaning is as simple as ‘I like going to Christmas Eve mass because it’s fund to sing Christmas carols”) you’re children are more likely to find it meaningful as well.

      • Katryn

        Great point! I was raised without religion, but Christmas is my favorite holiday, because of the way it’s a celebration of peace, joy, family, and community, as well as the beautiful colors and lights. It’s probably also the one time we connected with our cultural heritage (it’s definitely the only time I’d serve pickled herring!). I enjoyed going to church occasionally with family and friends, because it was interesting and different.

        My boyfriend, who was raised in a very religious family, now has much more ambivalent (and even negative) feelings about anything related to religion, because he was forced/guilted into going to church and participating in religious activities that he was never really comfortable with.

        I think if you teach your children your beliefs while still allowing them the freedom to explore their own, they’ll find the path that’s right for them.

        • Lizzie C.

          Same situation here! I enjoyed going to Christmas Mass with my grandma because the candles and greenery and music were beautiful, and going with my in-laws is always interesting from my non-militant atheist point of view (even if their church isn’t as pretty as my grandma’s). But my husband, who calls himself a “recovering Catholic,” would be perfectly happy to never set foot inside a church again. So much guilt, apparently.

    • Alice

      I was raised non-religious. My mother is the agnostic daughter of a Presbyterian minister (she’s incredibly close to her dad still), and my dad was raised a devout Jew but is now… possibly a bit spiritual? One time we were listening to Handel in the car late at night, and he said that he could believe that there was a god who inspired that music. That’s the only time he’s ever mentioned any beliefs to me.

      We celebrated ‘Christmas’ and ‘Chanukah’ growing up, in the sense that we lit the candles and did the tree and presents. My parents told us the respective stories, but more like legends then as truth. We knew even as kids that they were just stories to my parents. I realize that this may seem disrespectful to people who truly believe, but this was my parents’ way of exposing us to traditions without requiring that we believe them. We occasionally went to my grandparents’ church if something significant for my grandfather was going on, so we were exposed to it but not expected to participate more than sitting respectfully. Likewise with Quaker meetings once or twice a year, an uncle was a member.

      I think the most important thing for us as kids was that everything was open to discussion. When I decided around age eight that I was an atheist, my parents said great… why? And I had to think about it. And I still think about it on a very regular basis, and re-define what it means to me. My brother considers himself agnostic, but has re-defined his faith or lack thereof several times over the years. But the constant, open, non-judgemental discussion was essential in giving us the confidence to define our belief systems for ourselves.

  • Kristina

    So, I don’t know how your fiance feels about religion, other than that he doesn’t have one. But as an atheist or agnostic myself, I know that I would feel threatened by some of your requests. To someone who is very resistant to religion, being asked to go to church, to pray at dinner, etc. might feel like their partner is trying to convert them. That would scare me.
    It also sounds to me like you aren’t sure what would really satisfy you. If he helps you pick a church, but then doesn’t participate further, will you be okay with that? If he is honest with your hypothetical children about his lack of faith, will that cause another fight?
    I’m lucky that my fiance and I mostly agree about religion and spirituality, but if he were religious and pressing me about it the way you describe in your letter, I would worry that he was trying to convert me. I would also worry that it would be a point of contention until I either gave in or ended the relationship.

    • Lian

      I was trying to think of how to phrase my response, but you did it perfectly. The letter and response seem to focus a lot on “He doesn’t want to talk about it! Avoiding these conversations is bad!” and I agree that these are conversations that need to be had, but it’s also important to figure out why it is so hard for him to talk about these things. Maybe the letter writer is verbally stronger than the partner, and he worries that he will end up acquiescing to whatever the letter writer wants because he can’t come up with ‘good’ reasons why he shouldn’t… even though attending church (once? Regularly?) and telling his children about how great God is are things that go against his beliefs.

      I am sure the letter writer means well, but reading the letter I felt like he/she really wants the partner to do all these religious things with them, and that may not be something the partner can do while staying true to himself.

    • AMarie

      I had much of the same feeling. It also feels like the letter writer got the compromise she initially wanted, decided it wasn’t enough, wanted to change the terms, and is being very pushy about it. I get that these are important things for couples to discuss but frankly I can see why he may be wanting to avoid it.

  • jhs

    I think you need to think about whether you want him to be there to support you, or whether you want him to feel the same way you do. You say that you don’t expect him to start believing in god, but you also say that nothing feels like “enough.” It’s probably because it’s clear that he’s doing this because you’ve asked, not because he’d be going by his own choice. Perhaps the “enough” is that you want to feel like this is important to him in the same way it’s important to you, but that will likely never be the case. I’m not sure where that would leave you on compromise, but you might have to ask yourself what your “ideal” would look like, and work back from there.

  • jashshea

    Digging into the comments in a bit, but wanted to pick on one thread: Saying grace/prayer before meals.

    I’m most accurately an atheist. However, I bow my head when my husband’s family says their prayer. Why? Because that food got on the table somehow, so when they thank God, I thank the farmers and the truckers who got the food to the local store and the person who paid for/lovingly prepared the food. Language is important to me, so I don’t say the prayers, but I’m fine with my own contemplation/thankfulness.

    Maybe an opportunity for an occasional non-religious grace would make the non-religious partner feel more included.

    • lady brett

      ha, that is exactly what we do, instead of “grace” we do “thank you to the farmer.” as the kids get more educated on food and food systems, it branches out from thanking the cook and the farmer to the farmworkers and sunshine and water to the cow and pig and chicken, to factory workers and truckers (sometimes when we eat junk we thank the scientists too).

      • I mean, I personally would like to thank the scientist that came up with the definitely-not-cheese, but still somehow delicious (I try not to think about it’s potential ingredients) packet in macaroni and cheese.

      • JDrives

        That is all kinds of awesome.

    • MDBethann

      I think bowing your head is the right thing even if you don’t pray because it is a sign of respect for the beliefs of the others at the meal table, even if you don’t share those beliefs. Attending church is definitely different, but maintaining silence/bowing head/not eating while someone else at the table is praying is a polite and respectful thing to do – kudos to you!

      • jashshea

        I always figured it was better than being conspicuously absent, right? :)

        Longer story: I grew up in a lapsed Catholic household, so we didn’t do much prayer at dinner, but I had friends who were various Protestant strains as well as Hindu, Muslim, & Jewish. I always tried to note their traditions and (hopefully respectfully) mimic their actions. Just like visiting a foreign country – take note of local custom and try to hit the right notes.

        I’ve always loved the “traditions” aspect of religion/church, but the higher power portion never really spoke to me. For example: When I visit churches on vacations, I light a candle in remembrance of my grandparents or others. For me, the connection between remembrance and God simply isn’t there, but I recognize that it is for others.

        • Lizzie C.

          I light candles for lost loved ones too, even though I’m an atheist. I think of it as a meditative act rather than a spiritual one.

    • Lisa

      Sure, I could do this. Bow my head and thank the harvest. Thanks aren’t the problem, God is:).

      • Elisabeth S.

        We’ve started a pre-meal tradition of three slow breathes, to center ourselves at the table, and then telling each other about one thing that happened that day for which we’re grateful. I like it a whole lot. In fact, K last night just started in on her potatoes and I, the non-devout, had to say “WE HAVEN’T HAD OUR THREE BREATHS HOLD UP PLEASE.”

        • Lawyerette510

          This is an awesome tradition! It’s so inclusive and gives each person space for their own experience while connecting and becoming present at the table with everyone.

        • Violet

          I find this beautiful.

        • Lawyerette510

          I think my original comment disappeared into the void, but just wanted to say this is a fantastic idea!

    • Alice

      I grew up attending (very occasionally) Quaker meetings, and this was always what I did. While I miht not be contemplating the same things everyone else was, I don’t think a little silent reflection ever did anyone any harm, and I actually found it quite pleasant. Also, if we’re considering UU churches, as an atheist I’ve also always found Quakers to be very tolerant, in my admittedly limited experience.

      • A single sarah

        When I dated a devout athiest, he took me to the Quaker meeting he grew up in. It was obvious that he hadn’t been in a long time, but it worked as a religious space we were both comfortable with. Silent meditation can be great for that, but I’ve found that the religious origin of the meditation matters to me. Wishing letter writer and others peace in their search.

      • dragonzflame

        My late grandfather grew up Quaker. Apparently, when they did their silent contemplation, he’d sit back and think about trains until it was time to leave.

    • JDrives

      This is really, really cool to me. I’m of the saying-grace kind myself but I love gratitude in any form – it’s so peaceful. I applaud you for finding a way to respectfully participate in an important ritual with your husband’s family while being true to your own beliefs.

  • lady brett

    so, as a rather, um, devout(?) athiest i just want to include a very personal perspective. not to say that any of this applies to the original questioner’s partner.

    the compromises that you mention, which fell like the barest of “give” to you, would be *hard* for me. on the one hand, as someone who was once very religious, actively participating in religion i do not believe in feels extremely disrespectful to the people who do believe it. and on the other, christianity specifically, as the dominant religion where i am, is overbearing and intimidating and emotionally difficult for me. some of that is based on my personal history, some of it is based on broader history, and a great deal of it is based on the fact that christianity is *everywhere*.

    • Lauren from NH

      Yes and some Christians get rabidly offended when Christianity recedes even an inch from total social domination. Did you hear about the Fox News freak out over the beer can Festivus pole last year?

    • Kelly Mine-His

      I absolutely agree with this. Sometimes people who are inside a faith can’t see just how overwhelming it is from the outside. And the fact is, atheists are actually an unpriviledged minority in this country, and imposing your culture upon him may feel really, really bad.

      I think the things you are asking him to do might be a lot harder than you think. I am an atheist and so is my husband, but my extended family is very, very Christian. While I can participate in rituals somewhat easily as part of family tradition, he is visibly uncomfortable even entering a church and refuses to ever say a prayer out loud. If my partner were asking me to do the things you are asking, I’d probably react in much the same way as him – I’d do it for love, but I wouldn’t like it.

      It sounds like you also have some compromising to do. OP – could you accept it if part of respecting and supporting his “faith” was letting him not participate in yours? That’s really important, too.

    • Meg

      I’m very much in the same boat. As a recovering former catholic now atheist, I make a point of not accepting communion when having to be in a church for a family event (Wedding, baptism etc). My family has complained about it…but I’m doing it out of respect to the church.

      • Sarah E

        Oof, yeah, Communion. When you technically know you’re not supposed to, but neither are most of these other people who also didn’t go to confession that week, had sex out of marriage, got divorced, etc. And then your family will ask you and then you have to discuss these really personal things that you don’t want to discuss. . . .total rock/hard place situation. Fist-bump on navigating it.

      • Alyssa M

        Your family may not like it, but I really appreciate and respect your choice. I’m not Catholic so the rules are much less strict and we take communion much less often, but it’s a very sacred ritual to believers and you’re treating it with a respect that means a lot to me. I have asked my partner not to participate when the situation arises for just that reason.

      • MDBethann

        Good for you. And you shouldn’t have to defend yourself either. My dad is a Lutheran pastor and there was one family in his first congregation that was very involved and active in our church – the mom and 4 kids were Lutheran, but the dad was raised Catholic, and even though he attended our church every Sunday with his family, he never, never went up for communion because he was Catholic. I’ve been in lots of other Lutheran churches over the years and seen lots of other people not go up for communion either. I don’t know that it is easy for them, but I always appreciate the respect for the ritual & belief system, much as I appreciate the respect from those who bow their heads during grace at a meal even if they aren’t praying too.

    • BR

      Yes, I feel similarly. It would be incredibly hard for me to even agree to go to church for major holidays. To me, as a staunch atheist, part of my belief system includes the fact that organized religion has been and still is the cause of some (most?) of the worst acts of human aggression and hate and violence throughout history. I have no problem with spirituality or people having faith in a higher being and I do not believe that your average religious person or church is an awful thing, but I, personally, want no part of that system. It would be incredibly difficult for me to agree to participate in services at an institution I feel strongly against.

      I tend to avoid religion conversations with people I’m not close to, as I don’t want to offend them or be told I’m going to hell (which happens – not a pleasant feeling despite my lack of belief in hell). Unfortunately, it’s a lot more difficult to avoid these conversations with the person you plan to spend your life with, so I agree with the suggestion to find a therapist who can help walk them through the conversation, especially in regards to raising children.

      Religion and politics are two things I’m not sure I could have opposing views on with my partner, so I feel lucky that this is not an issue with us. That said, despite my atheism, I also still identify as a cultural Jew, and I’m still struggling to figure out what role I want this to play in my life and the lives of our future children. It’s not an easy topic.

  • AMarie

    As someone who is in a similar situation, to me it feels like the letter writer got the initial compromise she wanted, and it’s pushing for more that is pushing her partner away.

    I am atheist. My fiance is Catholic. He’s less devout than the rest of his family, but it’s still important to him. If he goes to church, cool, that’s fine. It’s his choice. But I won’t go, and I won’t go to any church-related functions. When we visit his family I don’t pray before meals or any of that.

    Our big compromise was agreeing to marry in church…and the church he and his family attend is very conservative and the number of classes they want us to take before we could get married (not to mention the cost) made us have to push back our wedding because it was simply not possible to complete them in a reasonable time frame. So now even that much is up in the air, and we’re considering finding a different, less strict church, or just doing a justice of the peace wedding (what I’d greatly prefer).

    Here’s the thing, though. In situations like this, it always feel is like it’s the nonreligious partner that’s expected to compromise more. If you go to church and your partner doesn’t, you lose nothing. But if you make them go with, and it’s something they don’t believe in or are incredibly uncomfortable with, you are essentially asking them to compromise a large part of who they are. It’s essentially the same as asking you to NOT attend church because they don’t want to or don’t like it. That would be seen as unacceptable, so why is the other way okay?

    The other thing is that it is okay if you and your partner do not share every aspect of your lives with each other. It’s totally okay for one of you to go to church and the other to stay home and watch football. That’s totally fine.

    That said, I definitely agree with the suggestion of couples therapy for the letter writer – because both her and her partner have things they need to work out.

    • Sarah

      I agree that it is really uncomfortable to be asked to go to church as an atheist. Though I respect religion and religious people (and have even studied the bible academically), I don’t belong there! It’s really uncomfortable and makes me feel like an impostor. I don’t know the hymns, I don’t know the prayers (nor do I want to say them, that would be phony), I don’t know the rituals, and I feel like an outsider. Even for weddings and such. There are only a couple of times I will ever go to church: for weddings, and during Christmas because its really important to my fiance’s mom, who we spend Christmas with.

      I’m not saying that every atheist feels this way. I think its different for everyone probably. This is just another perspective.

    • Elizabeth

      I would respectfully push back to your conclusion that the nonreligious partner is always expected to compromise more than the religious partner, and disagree with the statement “If you go to church and your partner doesn’t, you lose nothing.” When your faith is a deeply ingrained part of your life, and that same faith tells you to marry a person of a like mind and grow together in that faith (and perhaps, that God should act as a third member of the marriage), I imagine it would feel like a HUGE sacrifice to eschew that tenet of your faith and have a nonreligious spouse. Not to mention lonely.

      Point being, this is a great struggle for both the religious and nonreligious partners. I don’t think we are in a position to assign “my sacrifice/struggle/compromise is greater than yours” labels.

      • “I don’t think we are in a position to assign ‘my sacrifice/struggle/compromise is greater than yours’ labels.”

        This, exactly. To put another example to it—both my partner and I are nonreligious, but our parents are all Christians (Methodist/Presbyterian), practicing at various levels. Bryan and I do not plan on baptizing our children, should we have them, for numerous reasons.

        This is something my parents in particular have very strong feelings about, and it’s not something they can just say “that’s fine, do what you want,” because they’ve already agreed to that tenet of their faith where they raise and support their family in the name of the church, God, etc. They will eventually come to terms, I hope, but that doesn’t discount that it’s a very tough thing for them to wrestle with. And I imagine that it’s going to be much tougher for them to come to terms with, than it will be for me.

        • JDrives

          I hope when the time comes, they can accept and support your decision with grace.

  • Lisa

    Oof. Atheist here, and I could never go to church, pray, etc. because I don’t just not believe in God, I actually have a spiritual approach to the world which celebrates There Is No God. I worship the random, the ephemeral, the trust in what we cannot know.

    So I probably wouldn’t even have fallen in love with you, truth be told, in which case my advice is useless. But just know, from where I sit, this would be an irremediable problem, if my lover expected me to share a faith that actively works against the world I love so dearly.

    Again, a heartfelt atheist isn’t at all similar to someone who just isn’t very religious. I’m not sure which camp your partner falls into.

    • lady brett

      oh! thank you, thank you for writing this. it is a perfect phrasing of something i have never put into words!

      • Lisa

        Glad to have some company:).

    • Rachel

      “[A] faith that actively works against the world I love so dearly.” – This is really well put.

      As an atheist, I accept that people are religious and I accept their right to be so. But that doesn’t mean I accept religion, more broadly speaking, as a larger institution. I understand that there are huge variations in how individuals interpret their own religions. I understand that a person can be liberal, feminist, progressive, and still Christian (or insert other religion here). But that individual choice does not mean that that religion, as a whole, and in its original intent, is not actively trying to work against much of what I consider to be morally right. I can fault the larger institution without faulting the individuals who make their own individual choices within it (much like I can fault the policies of a non-democratic government without holding the citizens of that country personally accountable).

      To simplify, does it offend me if other people go to church, pray, or participate in religious activities? Absolutely not. They have every right, and I respect that right. But would it offend me to be expected to participate, in any meaningful capacity, in the practices of a religion, such as attending services, or participating in prayer? Yes, absolutely.

      • Lisa

        Well put in turn. And thank you.

    • Sarah

      I’m with you. I could never baptize my children (this is like a really hard line for me, I’m not baptized it would feel like they were apart from me), nor attend church in any regular way. I feel phony in a church setting. The prayers make me uncomfortable so I don’t say them, but I always feel that I’m conspicuous in my non-participation. It would be disingenuous for me to do anything like pray in my own home and teach my children to believe in God. I will teach them plenty about religion…but about *all* religions and traditions.

      For me its more personal than religion being against my world…I don’t really think that per se, I just can’t find myself within it. It doesn’t ring true to me. It feels false. I couldn’t live like that, but, that’s also why my partner is agnostic.

    • Alice

      Isn’t the universe just amazing?

    • Alison

      Yes yes yes. I am an atheist and I cringed at the letter. I respect others who are religious and the roles that religion may play in their lives (for many people, it is a great influence), but at the end of the day, I think I am right and they are wrong. The whole idea seems really strange and unrealistic to me, and I don’t think I could marry someone who believed in it – at some level, I do think less of them. My belief that there is no god is like my belief in evolution, or the fact that homosexuality is totally okay – obviously, not everyone believes the same thing, but in my mind, it is 100% true and objective.

  • pajamafishadventures

    I wonder if middle ground might be found in attending a Unitarian Universalist church together?

  • Gina

    I am also a Christian. Before I met my current husband, I was in a long-term relationship with an atheist. The strongest advice I have is to know what you want. For me, I decided that while it was completely possible for me to be with someone who was also Christian but less- or more-spiritual than me, it would not have worked in the long term for me to be with my ex. There were too many issues–raising kids one of the most important, but how we approach life on a day-to-day basis probably THE most important–that never would have resolved because neither of us was willing to budge.

    I think you are realizing something you already intrinsically knew–your faith isn’t just about going to church on holidays. It is something more dynamic, fluid, and deeply a part of you. It is something you wish to grow in and incorporate on a daily basis. And it is hard to do that with a partner who simply does not share your beliefs. I really think you need to think and pray about what you want in a marriage, and decide–perhaps with the help of a counselor, spiritual mentor, and your partner–if you are comfortable with marrying your fiance. Never assume he will change– you have to be okay with him remaining an atheist. And only you can know that.

  • Rev. Sarah

    I am an ordained minister, and my partner of fourteen years and husband of four years is not a church person. When I first started seminary, I had to negotiate and come to terms with the kind of church-husband I would have… one who supported me unconditionally, who is curious about my faith and how it influences who I am, but one who won’t be in the front pew every week. And I’m okay with that. I know that as we continue in our relationship and in my relationship with my faith, this will be a point of negotiation and compromise. If/when I become a minister in a church, how much does he need to participate (Answer: not a lot, but he will need to make an appearance for Big Events, etc)… What about when we have children? (Answer: TBD) It’s like any other part of our relationship (sex, money, health, household commitments)– it gets negotiated and renegotiated as our lives change and flow. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. And YES, couples counseling helps enormously.

    • Rachael

      I am an ordained minister also, serving in a parish. My husband is much less religious than I am- I would call him nominally Christian at best. This is the one time I think that female pastors have an easier time than male pastors. My congregation “gets” that men have a life outside the church, because men are expected to have a career. In my experience, there really aren’t very many expectations placed on pastor’s husbands simply because churches don’t really know what to do with them. If the situations were reversed, and we were dealing with a pastor’s wife who was less religious, there would be more issues and pressure on the relationship from the outside. Its not fair and totally sexist, but congregations have more expectations about a “pastor’s wife” role than a pastor’s husband. That’s not to say the two of you won’t have to work it out for yourselves, but at least there won’t be the added layer of what the congregation expects- or at least no one in my limited circle of clergy friends has run in to it.

  • Laura

    I’m taking the letter writer at face value that she’s not trying to change her fiance’s fundamental belief system, but there seems to be an undercurrent of “if I had just found someone who shares my beliefs, we wouldn’t be having these struggles” in her letter. And while it’s true that many of the fundamental differences would be avoided, she might be surprised at how many of these difficult conversations were popping up even if her partner was also a practicing Christian.

    In my own relationship, I am a practicing Catholic, as is my husband. While this solved a few of the big issues facing the letter writer (got married in the Church, go to Mass every week, etc.), we’re still CONSTANTLY negotiating other aspects of our relationship and faith life.

    The fact is, faith isn’t static. It’s constantly changing, and each person’s relationship with faith and belief alters over time. I argue with my spouse about how we’ll raise our children, navigating religious holidays with family, how my faith influences my actions and political beliefs, prayer before meals, charitable donations to certain religious organizations, whether and how to express our beliefs in various interpersonal situations, and on and on. That’s before we even get started on the nitty gritty of what we believe and how we interpret certain aspects of faith!

    Compromising requires a commitment on the part of both individuals to revisit these conversations as often and as open-mindedly as necessary. I’d be more concerned about an unwillingness to have the conversations than the actual content of those talks and compromises.

  • Kelly

    Going by what’s in the letter, it seems like the writer has already decided that future children WILL go Sunday school and WILL pray at the table, and future husband can choose to “compromise” and play along or “not compromise” and not participate. Either way, it seems like his way of knowing the world will not be validated. No wonder he’s defensive and avoids these conversations. Letter writer, you ask you FH, “how will YOU respond when a child asks about God.” Shouldn’t there be a “we” in that question? Obviously, you’ve had much deeper discussions that we don’t know about, but it seems to me like there isn’t much compromising happening on your end. I agree with the idea of counseling, but it needs to be something that is approached as equals, and I bet it doesn’t feel that way to your fiancee.

  • Rebecca (Germany)

    I’m a very staunch Atheist, so I may be blinded by that here, but I am having a hard time seeing where the letter writer is compromising here. Going to church alone is not a compromise in my book – it’s not something you actively do unless you think that “allowing” your partner not to go with you is something he should be grateful for.

    Really, really think about what you want here – it sounds like you talked about it, he accepted a compromise and then after only a few months, you demanded more. And a lot more – going to church pretty regularly instead of twice a year. At that point, I would stop seeing it as a compromise, because it doesn’t sound like two people moving their positions towards each other.

    “doesn’t understand why I keep asking him to be someone he’s not”

    The way he phrased that is pretty telling – he’s wondering why you are asking him to *be* someone he’s not – not just to do some things, but to actively be different. Of course he’s pushing back on that if that’s how he’s perceiving this.

    And as an Atheist, a side note : going to church as a nonbeliever can be a huge deal, especially if it isn’t for high holidays where a lot of nonbelievers are there with you. For me, it’s extremely uncomfortable because I keep having to say and sing stuff that I believe to be untrue and hear stuff that I believe to be wrong. For example, at my nephew’s baptism I had to listen to a creationist speech. I studied Evolutionary Biology at college.

    And then sometimes at church you get people asking you what you think about these things, having to sometimes lie through your teeth to keep up the peace. It’s really not a small thing to ask for.

    • Guest

      Side note to your side note: I’m a non-theist and I even get uncomfortable in very, very liberal religious environments like Unitarian or Quaker services. So yeah, I don’t think the letter writer is quite grasping how big a deal this may be for her partner. My lack of belief is in itself a belief system, with values and practices that I feel compelled to follow. It’s not simply an empty hole that can be filled with something at no cost to me.

      I wrote that as focused on myself because I don’t want to speak for the LW’s partner, but perhaps he feels similarly.

    • MDBethann

      I think these things are part of why the counseling recommendation is so, so, important for the LW and partner. Based on what she wrote, it sounds like she doesn’t fully understand why he’s an atheist, and from the way she describes his avoidance of discussions about their respective beliefs, I think that’s a big part of the issue. She knows why she believes in God, but unless she just omitted it, she doesn’t seem to know or understand why he doesn’t believe in God, and as many of the atheists in the comments have shown, there are a variety of reasons not to believe. But unless they communicate with one another about the WHY behind their respective believes and really, really listen to one another, reaching some sort of understanding that they both can live with strikes me as being next to impossible.

      This might not be the best comparison in the world BUT (based on what I’m reading in the comments):
      It strikes me that in the same way that couples without children are told “you’ll change your mind” or “just wait until you have kids” even though said couples have very, very good reasons for remaining childless, unless they communicate those to other people, the understanding isn’t there. Without a rationale, it can be hard for people who have children or want children to comprehend why someone would want something different than what they want. I think religion, marriage, etc. all have that similar societal aspect to them – EVERYONE gets married, EVERYONE has kids, EVERYONE believes in God/gods, or so we’re told over and over again within our communities/societies. Unless we have open minds that different people do things differently than we do and communicate with others about our choices (not justify them, just say “I am doing X because of Y” and then ask “I see you do not do X; why?”) it can be hard to understand why someone would want to do something different than the way you do it. Knowledge is so helpful – you may not agree with the difference, but at least you can understand how the other person got there.

      • Yes this! So much.

        In that vein… I do not want children. My mum desperately DOES want grandchildren, and I am an only child. Which has led to some… tense… conversations between us.

        There was a time in my life when even being asked to hold another person’s baby made me feel like I was having motherhood forced on me, because I would just tense up waiting for the first “See? You LOVE babies, you’ll be a great mother, you’ll love being a parent when you finally do it!” if I dared do so much as smile at the poor wee thing.

        If, at that point in my life, my mum had asked me to spend time babysitting her friend’s kids… just during the holidays… and then a few months later wanted me to start volunteering with her regularly at a centre for needy children… and then started making noises about how we should go browse Mothercare together just for fun. Well. You can imagine how it would feel to me like she was trying to convert me to parenthood by stealth. Especially if every thing I said no to ended with a blazing row where “compromise” meant me doing what she wanted.

        Which sounds a lot like what the LW is asking about.

    • Teresa Janelle

      I wonder if somehow it got communicated that the LW’s partner was more open to her faith than he actually is – whether he intended to communicate that or not. Or if the LW is realizing that her faith is way more important to, and integral to her, than she realized. She may – rightly or wrongly – believe that going to church doesn’t require him to believe any of the things that he would be going through the ritual motions of. I know I would have a really hard time attending a very conservative service (as a liberal Christian, myself), and have felt extremely uncomfortable when I was dating more conservative Christians and tried to attend their churches. To the extent that I would cry after every service!! My discomfort mostly stemmed from realizing that these people and I had vastly different approaches to faith and to the world, and that was highlighted by the type of place they chose to worship in. Maybe the LW is experiencing a fundamental gap between the two of them, and not sure how to close it, how to feel “seen” and understood…and feels that attending church would fix it (imho, it wouldn’t at all; it would just highlight the differences and increase the tension). You’re right. It’s NOT a small thing to ask. I think another way that it’s hard to see whether and if the LW is compromising is that being an atheist, while a belief system of a kind, is in many ways about an ‘absence’. There is no regular community or gathering to join, no culture to become a part of, which are the easiest and most obvious signs of compromise. I wonder what compromise, in a healthy way, could look like for this couple…there are so many faces of it. The key is, whether any of those faces of compromise are acceptable to them both.

  • This is a great topic! It’s not *exactly* the same thing, but I can relate as probably the biggest moral difference/belief system difference my spouse and I have is that I’m vegan and she’s not. She’s always been incredibly supportive and proud of me and loves all the food that I love, but it is something that comes up now and again – especially with making kiddos on the horizon and how all of that is going to work out.

    • Lizzie C.

      I think that’s a helpful analogy, and not just because I’m in the same boat. ;)

  • Sheila

    Really well said, beautiful advice.

  • anon

    One thing that strikes me as troubling about this (and others have touched on similar issues) is the general lack of respect that the OP and her partner seem to demonstrate towards each others’ beliefs. They seem to tolerate each others’ positions, but toleration isn’t enough for something as important as religious belief (or committed lack thereof). I tolerate my partner’s interest in crappy sci-fi movies but would glad if one day he outgrew them. He’s fine with that because sci-fi movies aren’t central to his identity. But, if I felt that he merely tolerated my religious beliefs or that I merely tolerated his agnosticism that wouldn’t work for us because those are core components of who we are as people. The fact that he has such a hard time seeing why church is important to you strikes me as a problem, as big of a problem as your desire to change him into the believing person he isn’t. This seems like a dynamic that will get worse as you have kids. I think there are plenty of healthy, happy kids in relationships were church is something you do with mom and dad isn’t into it, but if there is clear tension between mom and dad on this issue kids will notice. It will damage not only their relationship with their parents but it will also affect their views on religion. Is that something you want? Can you come to a better place of compromise on both sides? It’s true that compromising is not something you do one time and then it’s over, but it’s also not something to be treated as a forward movement towards the position you really want at the expense of what’s important to your partner.

    • Alyssa M

      I love your response! This is very much what I was trying to form coherent thoughts to say! For something this essential you need more than tolerance. My partner and I work because we respect and support eachother’s very different beliefs… if he was just tolerating my desire to go to church… or I was trying to convert him… it wouldn’t work.

  • AH

    One book worth checking out is Naomi Schaefer Riley’s “Till Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is transforming America”. Its well-researched, and does a great job talking about the complexity of interfaith marriage, as well as a lot of cool demography stats. One of the points that really resonated with me was how a person’s faith and connection to faith communities is generally at its weakest when we’re at the dating stage of life, and then issues that we thought weren’t that big a deal while dating turn out to really matter to some people later in life, especially around births, deaths, and holidays. One of the other big takeaway for me was that children raised in interfaith household rarely had a strong (the book breaks down the index she uses to calculate strong) spiritual life as adults, even if they were raised in one of the parent’s faiths.
    Both these points confirmed for me (a Catholic turned atheist/cultural catholic turning slowly into a little Polish church lady who volunteers at Bingo) that I wanted a similarly lapsed-but-still-culturally-connected Catholic partner, who would agree to raise our children Catholic and have a Catholic wedding and be open to greater church involvement in the future- all decisions that would have never been important to me five years ago. But I had to change my dating mindset to only dating people with that type of background – which was uncomfortable to admit to myself, but ultimately, was important enough to me to do.
    (And I found him, by the way).

    • jashshea

      HAHAHAH LOL @: “cultural catholic turning slowly into a little Polish church lady who volunteers at Bingo”

    • 39bride

      So true! Neither my husband and I were attending church when we first met. He was raised Catholic until he “got old enough to tell my mom I wasn’t going anymore and she couldn’t make me,” and I was from a Protestant denomination but had wandered off. The closer we got to each other and considered the possible future, the more we felt pushed back toward religion for answers. And yet, I was deeply wary that he was turning to religion as a way to appease me (I’m a pastor’s kid). We compromised and started attending (at his request) an Episcopal church but talked a lot about how the theology differed from what I’d been taught and soon were drawn back to my childhood home church.

      Looking at it three years later, we don’t see how we would have the relationship we do without our church/faith undergirding it all. Our family life (recently expanded by Guardianship over young relatives) now revolves around the church and it is such a source of comfort, strength and connection for us. For both of us, it informs are worldview, our vision of our individual value, and our “mission” in life. It didn’t seem important when we first started dating, but looking back I am more grateful every day that we share this because it’s now fundamental to life for both of us.

  • Amy Elizabeth

    I’m so confused… Didn’t this post run last week? I’m certain I’ve read it before.

    • Alyssa M

      It posted for like a minute or two one morning. I went to comment and it was taken down before I could submit.

      • Amy Elizabeth

        Ah ha! Thank you :) Feeling less crazy now…

  • Sarah

    This discussion has got me thinking about my parent’s relationship and their stances towards religion. From my observations, its been an evolution over time, with a LOT changing over time. I think that with marriage, if you can find room to be flexible that is really best, especially with things that have the propensity to change over time, like a person’s spiritual/religious beliefs.

    My dad grew up Jewish and my mom grew up semi-protestant, but her parent’s weren’t church going people, only her grandmother was, and she was hugely influential in my mom’s upbringing. My mom, to this day, describes her as being a true Christian. She was one of the only people who accepted my dad when my mom started dating him as a teenager, him being Jewish and all. (I always forget that people were still prejudiced against Jews in the 70s).

    My mom converted to Judaism before she married my dad, and their early years with us were spent raising us as Jewish kids; Jewish holidays to the exclusion of Christian ones that were in my mom’s background, attending synagogue, identifying as Jewish, etc.

    This all changed when I was 11 and we started attending a UU church. I don’t really know why the shift happened, but my mom initiated it, and my dad had fallen away from Judaism for one reason or another, and he went along with this. We started getting Christmas trees but celebrated winter solstice. Then, a couple years after that we just flat out started celebrating Christmas. I think my mom missed her childhood traditions. Somewhere in there my dad started practicing Buddhism, and my mom also participated in some of that. Then there were a few years where my dad was hanging out with orthodox Jewish men and learning things from them, and my mom didn’t have much going on in the religion department.

    NOW, in a complete departure, and 30 years into marriage, they both attend a really liberal Presbyterian church, whose pastor does more academic type sermons, incorporating literature and stuff, and they both love it. My dad, raised Jewish, never baptized, etc, recently joined as a member where he professed his belief in Jesus Christ as a man (but not as his eternal savior), and the church was totally cool with that.

    I think there needs to be room for change and evolution in a marriage. I’m pretty sure that at the beginning of my parent’s marriage they thought they would be Jewish forever. That’s not what happened, clearly. At the same time, you can’t ever count on a person to change. It’s a very strange balancing act. My best wishes to you in figuring all of this out!

    • Heather

      Fascinating. Props to your parents for being so open to trying all kinds of new things. That is just so cool.

      • Sarah

        I’m getting married next year and my dad gave me some interesting marriage advice a couple weeks ago… He said that at first you have to agree on all the basic things (like, how many kids to have, etc), then you have to give your spouse room to change, because most people have no idea what they really want. Which, seems really conflicting…but I think that’s the point.

  • Jenna

    I am absolutely sure the letter didn’t mean to come out this way, but I have to admit I kind of read it as “I want him to do this, and this, and this – – basically everything I want. If he won’t do those things I’ll be very upset and I’m very upset that he doesn’t really want to do them, or does only some of them, or does them but is unenthusiastic.”

    I bet you actually are willing to compromise and not get everything you ask for, but for me anyway it’s not coming out in this letter. Maybe it’s just how I read it.

    I’m an atheist married to a secular person (basically an atheist who doesn’t care, whereas I am actively skeptic). I would not have been opposed to marrying a person of faith, but I am kind of on his side here. If my partner had faith and wanted all of that from me, I would probably – to be really, sadly, bluntly honest – end it. I’d go to church on Christmas at least (Easter…maybe – I’d go on Christmas mostly for the music and candles). I might attend other churches to help him pick one out – using my “is this a liberal congregation or not” spidey sense.

    But I don’t think I could ever be persuaded to participate in prayers around the table (even with my family I just bow my head and say nothing – not even tradition can get me to say words I do not believe), nor would I be okay with raising kids “Christian” (but I don’t want kids so that hardly matters) – I’ve always felt if I had kids, they’d be raised to choose for themselves. That means with an interfaith couple, exposure to both faiths (or non-faiths as it were) but no pressure or expectations either way. I don’t think I would be able to compromise beyond that and I would not be willing to pretend to said kids that I have faith or pretend that I think it is important to pray before a meal (nor would I be willing to make my hypothetical kids do it – that would be their choice). In terms of “being interested” in my hypothetical partner’s faith – I’d be interested insofar as I am interested in them and what they care about and why, but I don’t think I could ever be, or feign being, interested in the faith in and of itself.

    So, think to yourself maybe? At what point are you asking him to “fake it”? Is that fair? Would you fake it for him and go to a skeptics’ meeting, pretending you’re totally down with that?

    So, I guess, coming down to it – you want X, Y and Z and maybe A and B too. You got X. You might well get Y. But as hard as you want Z or A or whatever, you might just have to accept that you are not going to get those things.

    You can ask for compromise but if you don’t get it, your choices are basically accept him for who he is, or leave.

    It would be great if he agreed to therapy, but I suspect he may fear it’ll be just another arena where he has to defend his desire to not do things he doesn’t believe in. Perhaps try to find out of he is feeling defensive in that way, and if so, drop the offensive maneuvers?

    I’m sorry to be so blunt. I really do wish you all the best.

  • Grace from England

    I just want to say that as an atheist what I have found frustrating about discussions around faith is how quickly my beliefs are dismissed. As though, because I’m not religious, that not being religious isn’t an important part of my life, or that I shouldn’t state my lack of religion with as much emphasis as someone states their faith. There are lots of people who manage to make religious-atheist partnerships work but I think step one has to be understanding that atheism may be as important in the atheists life as religion is for their partner.

    • Violet

      I think you’re right that atheists’ beliefs are too roundly dismissed. I also think people like me (Lawyerette and Kris were using the term “meh @ religion” which I think is cute/appropriate for my situation) sort of undermine you, without meaning to. Being generally apathetic about the whole thing, I don’t have beliefs either way, don’t begrudge people who do either way (fortunate not to have ever had traumatic experiences with religion or been excluded from a religion because of who I am). Because of your comment, I think from now on I’ll try to do a better job making sure people don’t interpret my apathy as “atheism,” because it’s not. I haven’t thought about it carefully, and my lack of belief is not tied to who I am, the way it is for a true atheist.

      • Grace from England

        Yes exactly. Apathy is fine, but atheism and apathy are not the same.

        • jhs

          I also think that atheism and apathy are different for different people. I feel like I fall somewhere in the middle of the above description: I don’t begrudge people for being religious, and respect everyone’s personal choices, which seems more in line with apathy, but if someone tried to get me to attend a place of worship (outside of a wedding, funeral, or other family/friend “event” like that) I would immediately bristle at it. I may be more on the meh side of atheism, but that doesn’t mean you can expect me to completely go with the flow.

    • Alice

      I’ve recently been trying to be more vocal (or perhaps less… secretive is the wrong word, I love to discuss it if asked directly, but avoided bringing it up unless asked) about my atheism. Because I have some pretty interesting, inspiring thoughts about this incredible world we live in, and a pretty strong and constantly evolving moral code. But this can be awfully hard when people dismiss you, or even tell you you’re evil, and might as well be a child-molester (I wish I was making that up).

  • Sarah

    I see a lot of people pointing out that she should be more understanding of his atheist values (fair point) but I don’t think that’s the core issue here. I think it’s more about his unwillingness to communicate about it. It’s totally fair if what she’s asking is too much for him. It’s also totally fair if what he’s willing to do is not enough for her. They may just be incompatible because of this, and that’s ok. But they need to TALK about it and figure it out. It’d be hard to me to take my partner’s beliefs seriously if he never talked about them with me and never told me why they were important to him.

  • Teresa Janelle

    I speak as a deeply committed Christian when I comment here, for context. My comments are my own experience, and I know that they will not necessarily be relevant to everybody.

    Here’s the thing. It sounds like the OP’s religion is to her similar to how mine is to me: that is, inextricable from her being, a thread wound through all she is and does. It isn’t simply an activity she does on Sundays. If it was the latter, it wouldn’t be so hard that her fiance was so resistant to religion. And it goes beyond religion, it goes down to whether she feels SEEN, understood, accepted for who she is. Is he putting in an effort? Does he really understand how important this “religion thing” is in her life, or is he just trying to avoid the issue by not talking about it?

    Interfaith marriages can work. Absolutely. But they are also a very very hard road. For myself, my boundary is that I cannot compromise by dating a non-Christian. It’s hard enough to keep faith in a very secular world; I cannot keep it alone. I need somebody to walk by my side, who can encourage me and lead me and be led by me, who can struggle with me and rejoice with me and share in my religious community.

    My Dad always told me, when giving me dating advice, to think about what would happen when the worst things happened. What if you’re married for a few years, he would say, and you lose a child? His argument was that we would need the same fundamental value system, we would NEED to share it, because we would need to turn to the same places when we were in freefall.

    You don’t necessarily have to have the same religion to share a value system. But in my opinion, you need to share a value system. If you lose a child, and one of you finds deep consolation in prayer and your faith community, and the other one of you cannot deeply respect that – maybe, in fact, refuses to have religious elements in the funeral, maybe even ridicules the instinct to turn to faith – it strikes me that it could be nearly impossible for a relationship to survive that.

    So I would enocourage the OP not to give up, but to keep listening to those questions. Do figure out what your values truly are, and what your significant other’s values really are. How far can each of you compromise? Have those conversations about “what would you tell our child if they asked you about God”. They are going to have to be had, sooner or later. Rather have them now, when you can do something about unacceptable answers, than later, once you have made your decision. If your s.o. won’t do couple’s counselling, I would encourage you to seek out counselling for yourself – from a mental health professional, from a pastor, from a spiritual director, or all of the above – to help you figure out who you are and what is core to you. One of the chaplains I interact with just reminded me to be gentle with yourself; that inner freedom is deeply important (for both of you); and to be consistent. Go slowly. Go gently. Do not rush into this and do not rush away from this.

    I pray “shalom” for you, Anonymous. May you find peace, and may all be rightly ordered in your life.

    • JDrives

      This was thoughtfully written. I think you’re absolutely spot-on about how sharing a value system is important, if not essential, when the proverbial shit is hitting the fan. I had some low points this year and struggled with being angry with God, and it was such a relief to be able to share that out loud with my partner and he understood and supported me while I worked through it. My previous partner told me to my face he thought people who believed in a higher power were delusional. One relationship sustains me through troubled times; one relationship made me feel smaller (three guesses as to which is which!). Like you, I believe this applies regardless of what faith you adhere to. Being on the same page, or at least being respectful and understanding towards each other if there are disagreements, is crucial.

  • Ashleyn

    I’m a little late, but I had to think about this for a little while. I’ve got a few questions and few opinions, so the easiest way for me to not get jumbled is to just go point by point through the letter..

    You say you’ve already had “endless discussions” regarding this topic and the resulting issues. How do those discussions end? Have you both already come to any agreement or decision in these discussions? I guess I’m confused because from the sentiment of his that you expressed was that he feels you’re asking him to be something he is not. Could it be that he feels you’ve already discussed this at length and he has expressed his feelings and beliefs to you, only to have you bring them up again later when his feelings have not changed? I realize that you can’t always wrap up every argument or heated discussion in a bow and move on, and I also realize that this is important to you and that’s why you want to discuss it. That’s a good thing, and those discussions are important, but it sounds to me like he feels he’s already had them – so that’s why I’m wondering how these previous discussions ended.

    Next, I think he does support your faith. Has he ever made disparaging comments regarding your beliefs or the fact that going to church is important to you? Has he ever made fun of your beliefs or you in any way? Has he ever actively scheduled something or asked you to do something during times he knows you would be at church? It sounds like he is quite comfortable with your beliefs and your wish to attend church, as long as it doesn’t interfere with what he believes (or doesn’t believe). What specifically do you want him to do when you want him to provide support in “more tangible ways”? Maybe he is being supportive in his way, but is not comfortable with becoming more involved.

    To me, that means that his agreeing to go to church with you twice a year is huge. I am not necessarily an atheist, but I am not religious for very personal reasons, and just going into a church is a HUGE deal for me. I am profoundly uncomfortable and have been in any church of any denomination I have had to attend for whatever reason, be it a wedding or a funeral. Those are the only occasions that would induce me to enter one and sit through a sermon, speech, ritual, prayer, hymn, etc. I don’t know if your fiancee feels that strongly – probably not – but even so, his agreeing to attend church with you AT ALL, I think is a huge concession. It was only after you reached that compromise that he proposed. And then you asked for more. I think that puts him in a terrible position, and I don’t blame him for questioning if the engagement was too fast at that point.

    That’s the thing about compromise. Yes, it is fluid and needs to be revisited sometimes, but compromise means that neither of you get everything that you want. He’s not entirely happy to go to church at all, you would prefer it if he went with you more. So you agree on twice a year for the largest holidays. That IS a compromise. That’s what you agreed to and what he agreed to. Why should that change? What changed in your current circumstances that makes you think that compromise needs to be revisited?
    I get that visiting somewhere you’ve never been alone is hard. But this is somewhere that you’ll be attending alone. He’s not interested. I realize this example doesn’t carry the same weight, but after a recent move, I had to find a new ballet studio to attend. There are lots of different teaching methods and studio styles and I had to find one that I was comfortable with and liked enough to attend every week. This is something that I do alone, that my partner doesn’t participate in and isn’t really interested in. It never even occurred to me that I would ask him to come with me to visit studios, when he knows nothing about it or has expressed any interest, even though I am socially awkward and groups of new people that all know each other but don’t know me make me nervous. This example is a situation in which my partner is casually disinterested, not actively opposed to attending. Think about how much you are really asking of him when you ask him to go with you.

    I’m not going into the whole future kids situation, because I’ve already written a novel, but that conversation is something you definitely need to have with a qualified moderator. I think you need to have a plan in place for that before you get married so that you both know you are on the same page and in this together. It sounds like you both love each other very much and want this to work – I hope that you’re able to.

  • Kelly

    I was thinking over this exact thing today.

    And I realised, in horror, that our difference in religion is what’s holding me back from loving him completely.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. My FH and I are extremely compatible in all areas of life but one. In my understanding, you can only end up in heaven if you believe in it. So in thinking about the rest of my life, FH is there, but in the afterlife, he’s not, and…well, that makes me hold a part of myself back.

    (You could argue that heaven is your perfect place, with whomever you want there, but that’s not how I see it.)

    Has anyone else struggled with this? Knowing that you will only love someone for a time, but ultimately, it’s not forever?

    • Violet

      I don’t believe in an afterlife, and that never bothered me before (Consciousness is exhausting! “Forever” is inconceivably terrifying!). Once I met my now-husband, how I realized I loved him was that I realized I began to dread death. So yes, I know what you mean. I still love him completely, but it’s a hard thing. To love in the face of death. https://apracticalwedding.com/2012/03/being-brave-in-the-face-of-fear/

    • Sarah E

      My understanding of the afterlife is different, but here are my thoughts:

      To me, each human has a slice of the Divine in them (however the individual interprets/names/understands divinity or sacredness). It is this, the slice of Divine that lives on, not our consciousness, not our ego, not our body, nothing that is our individual self, only that which is unifying and same in us and all of the universe, call it love or God or the Unknown. So yes, this one individual will cease to exist, but so will you. Your personality, your thoughts, whatever makes you Kelly will cease, and that slice of Divine that lives in you will be unified with all other Divinity that exists.

      When I first learned and came to understand and accept this philosophy, I was really really sad, as I truly and heartily wish to see some of my deceased loved ones in heaven. But as I continue to meditate on it, I will see them, but see very truly that Divine essence that is them, with the very essence of Divinity in me.

    • SChaLA

      My FH and I had a really emotional conversation/argument about this a couple years ago. Or rather, I was emotional and he was really, really zen and said a lot of very logical things that I found very jarring.

      We’ve moved past it now, but it does still trouble me sometimes.

    • Rachel

      This is hard – my personal belief is that our choices do not end with death, and that further growth and change can occur after we die.

  • JLK

    This letter could be about my family. My mom is an atheist and my dad is a devout Catholic. A requirement for them before they got married was that, if they had kids, they would be raised in the church. Every week, until I moved out of the house at 18, my brother and I attended church with my dad while my mom stayed home. Easter and Christmas were the only 2 exceptions when my mom would attend, but she did not participate in the prayers or communion. At any big holiday, my dad would say a prayer before dinner, but this did not occur on a regular basis. I think the key, in my family at least, was that both my parents agreed on the particulars early on and then stuck with them. I rarely hear them discuss religion – they each do their own thing while mutually respecting the other’s opinion. However, that mutual respect is important. I hope that you both can find it. Good luck!

  • Brit Anon

    The first sentence of the comment below mine made me laugh + reminded me of my grandparents, who apparently agreed not to vote as my grandfather was a tory (conservative) + my grandmother a labour supporter…my grandmother would then sneak out during the day + secretly vote (she was a stubborn + sneaky woman, one day I’ll tell you about the time she wandered the rough pubs of Manchester in the late 1930s in the middle of the night looking to bring her extremely alcoholic stepfather back home, and knowing that he was a staunch Irish Catholic, sought out a priest, at 4am in the morning, to come and witness her drunk stepfather swear on the bible that he’d never drink again…) .

    Anyway, to the topic at hand, I think that it’s a difficult situation. Atheism is a part of the person you’re going to marry, and it’ll affect your future children’s perspective as much as yours will. Tho I’m not sure if you can raise your children to be Christian or Athiest, frankly they might become buddhists or muslim or agnostics. You have no control over their beliefs, and that’s not something to worry about. The strongest Catholics I know were raised by staunch atheists- one of them a senior lecturer in athiest philosophy! And none of this affected their family ties at all because morality and love can be separated from beliefs. Their parents made them the wonderful people they are, and their parents being athiest was a part of that. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing if your beliefs are combined with how you love and do good in the world – far from it. However you might want to consider how much being an athiest is a part of your fiancee, surely, you love him for his atheism – not despite of it?

  • z

    Well. I once had a boyfriend who refused to discuss certain topics. Eventually I got so frustrated I demanded to know, why why WHY won’t you discuss them?!?!? His response: “if we discuss them, we’ll break up.” That opened the floodgates, we discussed them, and sure enough, we broke up.

  • SChaLA

    Sigh. Oh, this.

    I grew up Episcopalian and drifted away from the church (but remained spiritual) in college, where I met my agnostic partner. When he proposed, I was elated, but also overwhelmed with anxiety, and a huge part of getting through that, in addition to going back to therapy, was returning to church.

    My fiancé grew up in a small, Midwestern town where the town churches–and it goes without saying that these were not Episcopalian or UU or even Catholic churches–were the center of social life. His father fell terminally ill and died when he was a teenager, and he says that the self-described “people of faith” in his town did not rally around his dad like they promised they would, and then were judgmental of my FMIL, who never remarried, for living as a single mom. Between that trauma, my return to the church, and the fact that many of our attendants are aggressive atheists, this has been a big sticking point in the wedding.

    Interestingly enough, it was him who floated the idea of having an Episcopalian ceremony, and that’s the path we’ve chosen. He and the priest who is marrying us get along well, and we’re doing premarital counseling with her where he’s opened up about some of his church stuff. We’ve talked about how we are going to raise our future kids in an Episcopalian/agnostic home (alternating church with Mom and staying home with Dad, until they’re old enough to decide for themselves–and I know they’ll probably pick staying home with dad, because that’s what I would have done if I’d had the option as a teen). I know that he’s 100% okay with me going to church, and supports it.

    Still, it’s so bittersweet to go to church on Sundays by myself. I want to share the beautiful music and liturgy with him, and let my friends from church meet him. He attends some major services with me (Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, Easter Vigil), and likes them okay, but he’s not ready to go every week with me, and I don’t think he’ll ever be. It’s hard because the Episcopal Church is a huge part of my personal history, and it’s been such a comfort for me recently.

    I think what’s most important is that you two just respect each other’s beliefs. We both have friends who are, frankly, pretty cruel about religion of any kind. I could never be with someone who belittled my faith, and I would never belittle my fiancé’s agnosticism. Every Sunday is a learning process, and as long as that’s not a dealbreaker for us, we’re okay.

  • mackenzie

    This is super hard. My parents had a marriage that was full of sort-of compromises when it came to religion. He drove me to Sunday school and would join us on holidays like Christmas and Easter, but it never felt like either of them were happy with the arrangement. As my mother’s faith was passed on to me, it actually was a source of distance between my father and I. He didn’t believe in it and didn’t see its importance and therefore didn’t necessarily agree with the decisions I was making to pursue my faith. This was probably all exacerbated by the fact that I was an only child and everything felt like choosing one side (mom’s) or the other (dad’s), but I’m pretty sure it sucked for everyone.

  • nonreligious

    After reading the post, I wonder if the writer is ever really going to be satisfied with her atheist partner’s compromises. Part of being a couple is compromise on both sides.

    I am non-religious but familiar with Christianity. My fiance is Catholic but grew up in a Protestant-Catholic household, so he is comfortable with both. Knowing the negative Catholic view on marriage to non-Christians, I was very distressed about getting more serious with my fiance and how that might affect his interaction with his faith. We did have a discussion before getting engaged, and he is ok with my non-religiousness. We’re not getting married in a church though a pastor will be our officiant. He has no desire for me to convert. He does plan on raising our future kids with Christian values, but like his parents, he will give them the option of being baptized if they choose rather than doing it when they’re babies.

    I know it will be different when the kids are actually here, but so far he has respected my non-religious views. I respect his desire to attend church when he wants, which is rare, but I’m never guilted or forced to go with him. We are incredibly compatible, but if the religion issue had been a bigger issue, I would have stepped aside to allow him to find a better mate and to save my own sanity.

  • Jenna

    I’m curious how many others here – speaking in consideration of the future children of the letter-writer and her fiance (as it seems they want them) – were “raised Christian”.

    What did that mean for you? Did it mean you were raised to understand what it was all about, or that you were raised to “believe” in it, in other words, that you weren’t given a choice or weren’t told you had one?

    I, unfortunately, was raised the latter way and I would caution any parent about doing so (although, on the other hand, I won’t say that parents don’t have the right to pass on their belief systems to their kids – but there are moral teachings and religious teachings, and while they can be intertwined, they don’t have to be. The former – moral teachings – are essential. The latter – religious teachings – you have every right to raise your kids with them, but be aware that they may not suit your children and that your children will, eventually, have a choice).

    My husband was raised…well, not even the former way, but in a “we believe in God, but we aren’t into church”-and-thats-the-end-of-the-discussion way.

    As a result, I am actively atheist and a little uncomfortable around religion, although I respect that other people have those beliefs and will not mock them. I was told what I HAD TO believe and it had a bad impact, because I didn’t believe it. Ever. I decided I was an atheist in elementary school, no joke, and when I “came out” as one in my twenties, my family was shocked. Why? They had never realized that all those years I hadn’t believed at all but had gone through the motions because they hadn’t given me a choice. I was not allowed not to believe, it was presented to me as the only option, and it took years before I could be honest that it wasn’t for me.

    Had that not been the case and I’d been raised with the right to choose, and not known I’d be lectured and to some degree insulted openly if I’d said something earlier, religion & I might not have such an antagonism-tinged relationship.

    So, just from my experience, I strongly recommend not raising your kids this way.

  • Amanda

    I find it so comforting what you say about things shifting and changing. My beliefs started a major upheaval starting a year and a half before I met my guy, and they are still in flux. We respect each other’s beliefs, but I have been scared of the, “Will you support me raising our offspring my version of Catholic?” question. How can I ask that when I don’t know what that will even look like? I don’t even know if I would attend church if no one paid me. But I love being part of the community.

    It’s nice to know I don’t have to have it all figured out.

  • Sarah

    Sometimes these things can’t work out, though. At some point it may be important to say, the way we want to raise children is different. The way we want to participate in religious activities is different. Maybe you still love the other person, but if you both want your lives to be so different (leaving questions about beliefs aside) maybe it won’t work out in a mutually satisfactory way. I’ve seen families become places of tension and dysfunction by the time the kids are old enough to make their own choices, children becoming casualties. Sometimes differences in beliefs can’t be overcome.

  • Guest

    OP, I don’t want you to feel attacked by these comments. Many come from us Humanists/Atheists who have long defended our belief system, and it is a belief system. We are sensitive and we want to be advocates for your FH. With kindness and gentleness, remember he’s a whole person, too, and both of you need to be considered. If there’s not room for two whole people in the relationship, allow yourself to do what I think you already know is the right thing.

  • Speaking here as someone who has a faith, albeit not one of the Big Three and not one that has official buildings or regular community ceremonies.

    I think the thing I find myself wondering, and what might be something for you to think about, is what, specifically, do you want the spiritual side of your relationship with your partner to be like? Because you don’t expect him to become a believer or to convert… but you wanted him to attend services at Christmas and Easter, which he agreed to, except that didn’t feel like enough. And you wanted him to participate in visiting churches with you to find one you like, which he (eventually) agreed to, except that also doesn’t feel like enough. You speak of compromise, but you only mentioned things HE agreed to do for you – not the compromises you, too, are making towards his needs in this matter.

    So maybe what you need to do is sit down and really think – in a perfect world, where your partner had no reason not to want to, what level of participation would you want him to have in your faith? What is it you’re NOT asking for, but actually want? Do you actually want him to attend weekly services with you, regardless of whether he enjoys them or gets anything out of them? What, specifically, is it that you want his presence at church with you for? Is it about spending time with him? Is it about sharing a part of your life that is important to you with him? Do you, deep down in your secret heart, hope that if he is exposed to enough of the beauty and love and community of your faith, that he might develop some religious feelings himself? Are you making a large, unspoken compromise on what you want, without admitting it either to him or to yourself?

    It might also be worth talking to your partner about WHY he doesn’t want to do more than he’s already agreed to. Speaking as someone who has different religious practices to most of my peers and family, it can sometimes be difficult, if you’re an atheist or not a member of a mainstream faith, to not feel pressured to conform and convert by the people around you. If your partner has had negative experiences of being forced to attend services by parents, or in school, or of having people he met at services try to convert him and treat him more like a pet project than a person, his tension around your requests that he be increasingly involved in your religious life might have a very real, emotional and important source to them. It might feel, to him, like a matter of you respecting his beliefs not just in words or on paper, but in your heart and actions.

    Either way, if you can work out exactly what specific ideal you really want, then rather than having repeated renegotiations and ultimatums about this, you could hopefully both sit down, talk it out fully, and find a level of compromise that you can both TRULY live with.

  • Anon

    I think that this is probably long past when someone is going to read the comments, but here’s my two cents anyway.

    /Should I settle for the compromises he’s able to give, rather than the ones I ideally want?/

    So…this isn’t a compromise. A REAL compromise is when you both give something up. In game theory, compromises are lose/lose. The way the letter reads to me, it sounds like as much as you love this guy, the faith part is not how you viewed your future married life–and that Sunday mornings are potentially going to be a lonely painful time for you. Yes, you can do some couples therapy, but you’re going to have to come to terms with what you can live with and what you can live without. And in this case, “me” comes first.