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Questions: Can a Mixed Marriage Between an Evangelical and Atheist Succeed?

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I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me. All questions will be answered in the order in which they are received.

Michael asked:

Based on your deep learning and long experience, what do you see as the primary obstacle(s) in a marriage involving an evangelical (who came to the faith well after marrying) and an atheist/agnostic? And, given the scriptural warnings against such a union, how would you evaluate the chances for such a union to succeed? Thank you.

How often have you heard the statement “opposites attract”? Polly and I are very different from one another. She was a wallflower when we met, while I was, on the other hand, outgoing and talkative. Forty-three years later, Polly is still quiet and reserved, while I am, well, not that. 🙂 Over the years, an interesting thing has happened. Polly and I each developed hobbies and likes different from those of the other. But, we also developed hobbies and likes we share.

Both of us were Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Christians when we married. Twenty-nine years later, we walked hand-in-hand out of the doors of the Ney United Methodist Church, never to return. Today, I am an out-and-proud (and vocal) atheist. Polly is an agnostic who rarely talks about her unbelief. I can say this: her dislike of organized religion is much stronger than mine. I know, I know, hard to believe, but it’s true. I may be the outspoken atheist, but if I ever said to Polly, “let’s go to church today,” she would blister the paint off walls with curse words her IFB mother has never heard her say. 🙂

Our marriage has survived all these years because I am awesome. Or maybe I am delusional. 🙂 That was a joke, by the way. We share many common goals and ideals. We enjoy one another’s company. Our politics and religious views are similar. But, ultimately, it is the things we hold in common that are the glue that keeps our marriage together.

It is commonality, not differences, that typically attract one person to the other. This is why I recommend that people marry men or women who hold similar values, morals, and beliefs. Sure, all of us know couples with disparate values, morals, and beliefs who have been married for years. Such couples find a way to make things work. However, we also know numerous couples who divorced over dissimilar values, morals, and beliefs. No couple wants to spend their days arguing about politics, religion, or any of the other things that people argue about. And no couple wants to compartmentalize their lives, unable to talk with their spouse about certain things. (I deliberately paint with a broad brush. I know there are exceptions to the rule.)

I would never, ever recommend that an atheist marry an Evangelical Christian. The risk of conflict is too great. I am not suggesting that an atheist should never marry someone religious. It depends on the religion, how devout the person is, and the likelihood the person will become more religious over time. I know atheists who are married to mainline Christians. Their marriages seem to be successful and happy. Typically, the mainline Christian spouse is a universalist, so there are no worries about threats of Hell or evangelization. I have had two atheist friends die over the past two years. Both of my friends were outspoken atheists. What did their Evangelical families do after they died (one person was married, the other was not)? They ignored their final wishes and had funeral services for both of them. I have no doubt my friends were screaming and rolling over in their graves.

What about marriages where one spouse becomes an atheist or an Evangelical years later? Can such marriages “survive”? The short answer is yes. I know that some of the readers of this blog are in “mixed” marriages. They entered marriage equally yoked together as followers of Jesus. Then, years later, one of them lost their faith and deconverted. Some of the people I am talking about are “secret” atheists. Many of them even attend church on Sundays with their spouses and children.

That said, I have corresponded with numerous atheists who were/are married to Evangelical Christians. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for me to receive another email from them months or years later that says they have either separated or divorced. They either found they couldn’t make their mixed marriages work or decided that they didn’t want to spend any more time in a relationship where their significant other didn’t share their interests, values, and beliefs.

I have written several posts on this subject:

Let me conclude this post by addressing the “Scriptural warning against believers marrying unbelievers.” While I don’t care one wit about what the Bible says on anything, I do recognize that the Good Book occasionally offers sage advice. In the case of mixed marriages, the advice given in the Bible is generally sound.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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11 Comments

  1. Avatar
    BJW

    Yeah, I can’t see the marriage between an evangelical and an out and proud atheist/agnostic working out. I’m just glad that my husband and I went from being conservative Christians to unchurched together.

  2. Avatar
    Obstaclechick

    I am curious if Polly would ever want to tell her story. You were the very vocal one about your beliefs, while she quietly had a lot going on in the background. But maybe she prefers to keep it that way!

  3. Avatar
    Troy

    When I was dating, I would date a religious person with the caveat that “you will not drag me to church” and you may take any children we have to church, but they can elect at 14 to not attend. That puts it right out there, if they can tolerate that then they aren’t churchy enough for it to matter, if they can’t they can find somone suitable. That said, knowing what I know now about the IFB, I would have excluded them from consideration. It is an entire syndrome of ignorance, right wing politicis, and “family” values (really just call it like it is hate values) and toss in hypocracy.

  4. Avatar
    clubschadenfreude

    I couldn’t be married to someone who thought I deserved to be tortured eternally. Husband and i have been together for 32 years. He was nominally a Christian when we met. Then we both looked at other religions and finally both decided that there were no gods.

    • Avatar
      dale m.

      Perhaps “deserved” is a strong word. They would want to “turn” you for fear of what their god would do to you if you didn’t bow to Him. It would be very difficult for them to be in love with 2 opposing forces. I speak from experience.

      • Avatar
        clubschadenfreude

        Deserved is not too strong of a word. Christianity is based on that exact belief. No good vs evil aka believers vs non-believes, no Christianity.

        If they believe in such vicious garbage, they do not love anyone.

  5. Avatar
    dale m.

    I was with a lovely evangelical for 30 years. Of course we were constantly at odds with our philosophies. It doesn’t make it any easier. Her family were all evangelicals who married atheists. Her grandchildren were a mixture. All in all, I was very happy and enjoyed simply being with her. It was a challenge. I had no qualms about going to church with her but she always stopped me at the door because she knew that it would be somewhat of a trial for me. She was also afraid of the congregation. I also met with her pastor (I liked him instantly. A very descent stand-up kind of guy).

    Go figure.

  6. Avatar
    Brocken

    I think that marriage can be problematic even between different so-called Christian denominations. A devout Baptist or any other type of Conservative Protestant might have difficult marrying a Roman Catholic, just as a Roman Catholic trying to enter a marriage with someone indifferent to religion in general might be in for a rude awakening. I wound up learning about the latter in somewhat of an secondhand way. In Roman Catholicism in theory the two parties are supposed to get married by having an Catholic priest performing the ceremony and at least two witnesses. There are marriage preparation classes that are also supposed to be attended. One Catholic man told me of his son’s upcoming marriage to some Non-Catholic woman. The marriage was to be civil or non-religious marriage ceremony. In a bit of unkind and cynical philosophy, and I wasn’t being very sensitive at the time I said this, I told this man that if his son’s marriage went bad it would not count as an actual marriage in the eyes of the Catholic church. This man who told me of his son’s impending marriage was not a real close friend of mine. Sad to say less than 100 days later the young Catholic man’s wife exited the house they were in and she didn’t come back. I do not know if they ever reconciled or if he later married someone else.

  7. Avatar
    velovixen

    I was married, briefly, to a Jewish woman who was educated in yeshivas, prayed and attended synagogue. By that time, I had “exited” the Roman Catholicism of my childhood and the Evangelical Christianity of my youth. But I was not a full-blown atheist, or even agnostic. Still, it was difficult: She insisted that I take Judaism classes, convert and attend synagogue, if only “for the sake of” the children she wanted to have.

    She grew more religious over time–becoming a sort of “Jewish evangelical” (It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that she voted for Trump)– and decided (to, quite frankly, my relief) that I never could be religious enough. We split; she married an Orthodox Jewish man and, within five years, had four kids. The last time I talked to her, she and her husband were discussing a move to Israel.

    I simply cannot imagine what life would have been like if she had been an Evangelical Christian–especially given that one reason I got married was to avoid dealing with my gender identity and sexual orientation. I think she also was trying not to deal with her sexual proclivities (which, I belelieve, were bisexual-tending-to-lesbian) and was trying to please her family, who were conservative Latin American Jews.

  8. Avatar
    Autumn

    When my parents got married in 1950 my mom was Catholic and my dad was perhaps already an atheist. The truth was that my mom already didn’t believe. To please her mother they were married by a priest but hadn’t done precana classes. They discussed the question of how they were to raise kids and were in full agreement. My dad signed the undertaking to raise their children Catholic and they were married in the Study because daddy wasn’t Catholic.

    They didn’t raise us as Catholic. My mom was perfectly happy. Her mother on the other hand, was absolutely terrible to my dad until she didn’t know who he was due to advancing dementia.

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Bruce Gerencser