They say that politics can create strange bedfellows. However, nothing creates stranger bedfellows than falling in love. The question is: can it work for the long-term? Can a Catholic and a Protestant live happily ever after? Can a Muslim and a Jew? Or could an atheist and a Christian?
I believe that the answer to all of the above is yes, for the very reason that I believe peace amongst (the majority of) human beings is possible. We are all capable of reason, when we choose to employ it. We are all capable of understanding and empathy. Thus, we are all capable of tolerance and acceptance. These are the tools most needed for a successful relationship.
Does your husband hog the covers at night? Does your wife have the habit of leaving all the lights on when she leaves a room? Does your lover always forget to use a coaster? Probably. We learn to overlook these things, to see past them. To remember that, no matter how annoying this person is being right this minute, we still love them. Even when there is yelling, slamming doors, or sarcasm, ninety-nine times out of one hundred we still know that they'll calm down, they'll be back, and things will go on.
Naturally not all relationships work out. If they did, we'd all be married to that cute kid in our third grade class we used to like to share our dessert with before we went to recess and threw sand on them. Some of the relationships that don't work are mixed faith relationships, or faith and no-faith relationships. Is the difference in belief the cause? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It all comes back to the acceptance.
If your Christian lover can accept that you are an atheist and you will always be an atheist, then they can learn to accept you and love you completely as you are. Likewise, if you can learn to accept that your lover will always believe there is a higher power watching over him/her, and that no words of your can sway them, then you can begin to learn the same things.
Trust is another important issue in relationships. Do you trust your husband when that old college girlfriend comes to town? Do you trust your wife when she's working late with that rich, young boss? Do you trust your lover not to pressure you into a belief you don't feel? Can they trust you not to try to talk them out of the beliefs they have chosen for life?
My boyfriend and I live together. We share our home, our bills, our belongings, and our lives. We do not share our faith or our politics. I am an atheist. He is a Christian. I am a liberal, he is a conservative. Do we fight about our beliefs about religion? No. We never have. Now ask me if we fight about politics. The question of whether we live by minority rights or majority rule will actually bring on a much more heated debate than the question of whether there is a god or gods. He knows that I have come to my conclusions, and I know that he has come to his. We accept it, and because we love each other, we have moved past it.
The only way that religion or lack thereof can become the most important thing in a relationship is if you allow it. Discuss with your partner your different beliefs. Help your partner to understand yours, and listen carefully when they describe theirs. Once you understand each other, you can begin to accept. Once you accept, you can begin to trust. Allow each other to be exactly the people that you want to be. Just as you would support your lover if they chose to change jobs, support them in their faith decisions. They do not have to be the decisions that you would have made, because you are not the same person.
If your partner chooses to rise early each Sunday and go to church, relish the time to read the Sunday paper in bed without someone trying to steal the editorials. Allow them to hang their crucifix in the bedroom, as long as you can hang your free thought poster. Be sure that your home and your lives as lived mutually are balanced, that you both have freedom of expression. Be open enough to discuss prayer in schools with them without recourse to words such as "religious fanatic" and having to hear back, "godless heathen!"
The key is to talk, to listen, to discuss, and to try to understand. Love your partner for everything that they are, including their faith. Trust them to love you in the same way. Your lack of faith (or faith) is a part of you, and it is you that they fell in love with. If your partner is not willing to work with you on these aspects of the relationship in the same way they would the division of labor around the home, then you have to question how important the relationship is to them. You also have to wonder if they fell in love with you, or with the person that they hoped you would become.
The types of relationships discussed here can work. It takes a lot of talking, a lot of listening, and a lot of loving. It isn't easy, but the things worth having often aren't. Think on this as well: if you leave the person you love over faith, you might spend the rest of your life looking for that perfect atheist bride or groom. You might also spend that time mourning the beautiful relationship that you threw away. These are difficult issues, but the main questions are simple.
Can you work to understand? Can you learn to accept? Can you learn to trust?
I hope the answers are yes.
August 18, 2000
Update: I was married to my Christian love on August 11, 2001. We had to make many compromises in order to find a ceremony that would work for both of us. We settled on a secular ceremony, in a secular place (a generic special events center), with the ceremony performed by a Christian minister. My husband and the minister prayed together before the ceremony, so that I did not need to be involved, although my mother did join in. Those compromises are just an example of the compromises we have made in our lives together, and will continue to make as time goes by. Successful relationships between those of differing beliefs can work. I am living proof of that.