Mixed Marriages with Atheists & Theists

Are They Doomed or Can They Work?

Question:
Can mixed marriages between theists and atheists work?

Response:
This question is asked equally by both atheists and theists. Marriage is one of the most intimate and most serious relationships a person can have in their lives; it is thus understandable that people wonder if the gap between atheism and theism will create further differences which prevent individuals from making a marriage work.

Similar questions are legitimately asked with regards to gaps created by social backgrounds, race, and many other issues.

This isn't an easy issue to address because so much depends upon the particular situation which people find themselves in and the nature of the people involved. Thus, the most direct answer must be: "it depends." A mixed marriage between a theist and an atheist can work, but their success depends a great deal upon their ability to overcome certain barriers which may, but need not, arise.

  • Importance of Respect & Tolerance
    One barrier which can prevent a marriage between an atheist and a theist from working is the issue of respect and tolerance. Without some minimal amount of those two factors, it is difficult for any relationship to survive; when such fundamental matters like the existence of god(s) is at issue, they become even more critical.
  • Differences over Religion & Religious Doctrines
    If anything comes between an atheist and a theist it probably won't be theism itself. Instead, one of the things most likely to cause problems will be religion - not every theist is religious, and not every religious person is a theist. What this means is that specific doctrines and dogmas are most likely to cause problems and will have to be watched closely.
    • Dating between Atheists & Theists
      Of course, most marriages are preceded by dating and courtship, a time in people's relationship with each other when matters are less serious and more provisional. At this stage differences over theism and religion are less likely to cause problems, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be watched closely.

      « Advice for Atheists | Importance of Respect & Tolerance »

      One barrier which may prevent a marriage between an atheist and a theist from working are the issues of respect and tolerance. Without them, it is difficult for any relationship to survive; when fundamental matters like the existence of god(s) are involved, they become even more critical.

      Obviously it is not necessary for a married couple to agree on everything — if they did, the marriage would probably end up very boring, intellectually speaking.

      Instead, what we are talking about is a willingness not just to agree to disagree, but also to agree that the other person isn't evil or stupid for the position they have adopted but you have rejected.

      Your partner might be mistaken and they might not be rational about it, but they should not be treated as if that mistake is for anything other than honest and fair reasons. After all, you aren't perfect either and there are surely things you are mistaken about or ideas which you have adopted for less than perfectly rational reasons.

      A very important aspect of this is not spending all your time trying to convert one another. Exploring differences is certainly good and there is nothing wrong with debating the issues where you disagree, but going to great lengths to try to change the other person is often a bad idea no matter what the topic.

      When it comes to theism or religion, trying to change your spouse is likely among the worst goals you can have.

      It makes much more sense to focus on what you already have in common rather than trying to manufacture new agreements. If you love a person, you should love them for who they are rather than for who you wish they would become after you have had some time to work on them.

      « Are Mixed Marriages Doomed?

      | Differences over Religion & Religious Doctrines »

      To be fair, if anything comes between an atheist and a theist it probably won't be theism itself. Instead, one of the things most likely to cause problems will be religion - not every theist is religious, and not every religious person is a theist. What this means is that specific doctrines and dogmas are most likely to cause problems and will have to be watched closely.

      As discussed previously, in order for a marriage between a theist and an atheist to work it is necessary for both to be able to not only tolerate one another’s position, but to respect them as people as well.

      An absence of respect for the person you are married to will kill a marriage quickly. Because of this, the doctrines which are most likely to interfere with a marriage are those which encourage or cause the religious believer to lose respect for their spouse.

      For example, there are many religious people who believe that a marriage must be based on God and/or that a married couple must always put God first — but a marriage between an atheist and a theist obviously won't be able to do that. Another example would be the common Christian belief that only Christians will go to heaven and that atheists certainly will not, an obvious problem if such a Christian is married to an atheist.

      There is a very good chance for conflict in a marriage if such doctrines come into play. It isn't unreasonable to argue that when a person makes their religion a significant basis for a marriage and their (prospective) partner doesn't share that religion (for whatever reason), then the marriage is in trouble from the beginning.

      If you are concerned that your differences with someone might prevent a possible marriage, it would be a serious error to focus solely on the fact that one of you is a theist and the other not, or even that one of you is religious and the other not. Instead, it is necessary to take a closer look at the specific doctrines and dogmas which the religious person holds and consider how they might affect that person's perspective on non-adherents and a marriage with a non-adherent.

      « Importance of Respect & Tolerance | Dating between Atheists & Theists »

      Of course, most marriages are preceded by dating and courtship, a time in people's relationship with each other when matters are less serious and more provisional. At this stage differences over theism and religion are less likely to cause problems, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be watched closely.

      When it comes to dating, you must step back and decide what you are looking for in the relationship: is it just for companionship and fun, or is it a prelude to something more serious and permanent?

      If the former, then as long as the differences in religion and theism aren't already interfering there should be nothing wrong with ignoring them and continuing to find happiness one another's company.

      Let sleeping dogs lie, as the old saying goes, and enjoy the relationship for what it is.

      However, if your general goal in dating is to find someone with whom you can build a long-term and permanent relationship, then you cannot afford to ignore differences on such serious matters like religion. Obviously that isn't something you want to bring up on the first date (at least, if you are still hoping for a second date!), but at some point you may look at the relationship and realize that it could become very serious.

      At this point you will need to take stock of how compatible the two of you are before matters progress much further. If you have questions or concerns, the two of you will need to sit down and talk about them.

      It is unlikely that you will be able to resolve any differences immediately, but if you are both otherwise committed to each other and approach your differences with love and respect, then you should feel confident in your ability to work things out like adults. If you do, and if you can manage similar resolutions to other differences, then if you get married your marriage will be much stronger for it.

      « Differences over Religion & Religious Doctrines | Advice for Atheists »