Love Story

A weekly commentary by Hemant Mehta, adapted from his blog "The Friendly Atheist."

Feb. 10, 2010

Kate is a dyed-in-the-wool atheist. She was raised in a non-religious home, but had relatives who were Christians. She recalls her aunt once yelling at her mother over Christmas dinner because Kate had not been baptized. Kate began calling herself an atheist when she was old enough to explore the issues on her own. This wasn't a big deal in the community she lived in, where religion was kept private and most people she knew were not very religious to begin with.

Still, Kate was very outspoken about her non-belief in God. She had a Darwin Fish symbol on the back of her car. She admits she sometimes sought out Christians for the sole purpose of starting an argument – and she would make jokes about Christianity. Not often, but it happened.

It wasn't until she went to college that she learned her views on religion actually put her in a minority. When Kate moved into her dorm room her freshman year, she was greeted with cut-outs of Christian sayings that were placed on the wall. Her religious roommate couldn't have been more different. As hard as they tried to get along, it was difficult. It didn't help that the roommate told Kate she was going to hell. When Kate appealed to the roommate to be nicer, she responded that since she was already "saved," she didn't have to be nice.

The dorm wasn't Kate's only source of religious strife. The Campus Crusade for Christ chapter was a "large, intimidating presence" at her university. A separate group put up a banner in the central part of campus on April 1. It read, "Happy Atheist Day: Psalm 14:1." (That verse states "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.") When a student ripped the poster down, it was he who was vilified, not those who put the poster up mocking non-believing students.

Kate managed to endure the Christian environment through the social support network she had back home, but that support was several hundred miles away.

Her experience with Christians finally changed during her junior year of college. She met a guy named Erik in one of her Spanish classes and they became friends. Though, as with many college acquaintances, once the class ended they lost touch. They didn't reconnect until a year later when they found each other on Facebook.

When Kate saw Bible verses on Erik's page and Erik saw the phrase "I'm proud to be an atheist" on Kate's, it was a shock to both of them. They decided to go out, but neither brought up what they had seen on Facebook. However, a couple of outings later, they realized just how different their views were. Erik was a devout Christian who led a Bible study group. Kate owned several books about atheism and later joined her campus's freethought group. They wondered: could you date someone who wasn't on the same religious (or non-religious) path as yourself?

Yet, as Kate and Erik got to know each other, they found that they shared interests and beliefs on just about everything outside the realm of religion. They were becoming good friends and a tight bond was forming. Not long after, they began dating, which was as surprising to them as it was for everyone who knew them. Their relationship helped them to be more tolerant of those who held different viewpoints.

Kate says she learned how to speak appropriately around Christians. When she had previously heard Christians tell Bible stories, she wouldn't hesitate to say, "Do you really believe that?" As she began to know more about Erik, however, she discovered there were educated Christians in the world.

Erik changed as well. Before meeting Kate, he had held the view that all atheists were the product of a bad childhood experience with religion or the result of abuse in the church. Essentially, he believed atheists were atheists because they hated God or Christianity. Through Kate, he learned that it was possible to be an atheist based on reasoned, logical arguments. It was a well-thought-out system of (non-)belief. It wasn't always the result of a bad experience or a case of teenage rebellion. Erik didn't agree with the arguments, but he admits many of them do have merit.

It was a tough transition for the couple, but they began to get used to their differences.

Now try to imagine the reaction of Erik's parents when they found out Kate was an atheist, a month after they had met her for the first time.

"But, Kate can't be atheist!" said Erik's mom. "She's nice, and I get along with her!"

At the time, his parents thought his attraction to a girl who is an atheist was just a phase. When they found out he was serious about this relationship, they attempted to stop him, telling him that if he married an atheist he would be disobeying God. They were worried that Kate would change Erik's views about faith.

They just wanted what they thought was best for him. When that didn't seem to be working, though, they focused their energies on Kate, trying to help her accept Christ as her savior. They told her how much they cared about her, but they were worried about her not sharing their son's faith. They were also scared. Their dream of having Christian grandchildren was slipping away. Even worse, they were afraid they would lose their son and not see him in Heaven.

At one point, Erik stopped speaking to his parents.

He understood where his parents were coming from: he, too, had once believed that, deep inside, everyone wanted to be a Christian – it was just a matter of having the opportunity to hear the gospel. It never crossed his mind that other viewpoints could have merit. They weren't expecting rebuttals, and when they heard them they didn't know what to do.

Once, around the time Kate was filling out applications for graduate school, Erik's mom invited her over for "girl time." It was going to be just cross-stitching and tea, Kate thought. But during the meeting, the mother brought out the Bible and began reading a verse about how God was in control of the situation. Erik's mom also mentioned how she wished Kate believed in God as it would lessen her stress about  grad school applications. Kate nodded politely, but felt irritated.

When Erik's father joined in the discussion later that evening (as Erik says, for "tag team evangelism"), the topic turned to evolution and how the parents' pastor had told them it was flawed for a number of reasons. When Kate heard the reasons, she knew exactly the proper explanations to respond with, but this time she kept her mouth shut. It was the polite thing to do, and for Erik's sake she wanted to keep the peace.

His parents kept their cool. They told Kate she wasn't a bad person. She was a sinner just like everyone else. However, what was an innocuous statement for them was incredibly offensive to Kate, who did not feel sinful at all. This conversation lasted for more than five arduous hours. (Erik describes this talk as the time his parents "ninja-evangelized.")

Several months later, his parents demanded that either Kate convert to Christianity or Erik put a stop to the relationship.  Despite these harsh words and Kate's belief that the parents were extremely misguided, she knew their intentions were good. They wanted the best for her, and to their way of thinking, the best involved God.

You may wonder about Kate's parents' reaction. Her mother told Kate not to change for Erik. That is, if Kate became a Christian only because Erik was one, it wasn't the right reason to do so. But her parents knew they taught Kate how to think, not what to think, so they were not worried. Both of Kate's parents told her they would accept her regardless of her decisions.

How does a relationship like this last? If you ask Kate and Erik, they'll laugh and tell you they have no idea. (That's not a joke; they're serious.) But it turns out they both share core values and a passion to find the truth, whatever it may be.

They also have strong communication and conflict resolution skills. They both strive to understand each other instead of trying to change the other. If an interfaith relationship with two passionate people is going to work, they say, you can't be under the delusion that you will change your partner. Not when it comes to faith.

They both also share values and morals, though the reasons for those beliefs come from different places. Erik is more liberal on social issues, and focuses on society's needs such as helping the poor. He sees the Bible as the best guide book for life, not a book filled with literal truths. As he says, he is a follower of Jesus, not the Bible.

Kate says that Erik helped her become a different kind of atheist: one who is more compassionate and understanding. Christians are no longer "the enemy" for her. She removed the Darwin Fish emblem from her car out of respect to others and stopped telling (or laughing at) jokes that ripped on Christians.

For them, love is conquering the barriers that arise between people with such differing beliefs.

Erik no longer sees atheists as a threat to his religion. Instead, he sees them as people who have well-thought-out beliefs. In fact, he says that one of the most difficult challenges to his faith has been Kate's continued atheism. He believed that if non-Christians were exposed to God's Word, or a kind Christian who could explain it well, or at least a good church, belief in Jesus' divinity was unavoidable. Kate was an exception to that unwritten rule.

Speaking of churches, they even go to them together. (Yes, that's churches, plural.) They spend time going to places of worship and discussing them afterward. Each visit provides them with an opportunity to discuss faith (and non-faith) in a positive way.

Kate once visited the church of Erik's parents, a Baptist church where the pastor made inaccurate statements about Christianity's origins and appeared to be hostile toward other faiths.

Both of them even went to a Unitarian Universalist church. This time, they had a positive experience. It was hard to disagree with what they were hearing – the church didn't seem to be taking a stance on the existence of God, merely how there was a need to nourish one's spirituality. When discussing the beauty of nature, Erik could see it through a Christian filter (nature was beautiful thanks to God). Kate could understand nature purely through the elegance of natural selection.

Kate and Erik joke about how forcing atheists and Christians to date would bring about more peace, tolerance, and understanding. Even without the close relationship, the idea that people with such different worldviews can get along so well is an important message in itself.

I asked them how they would raise children if that time ever came. While neither has a definite answer, they both feel that giving the child a broad range of religious experiences is best.. Erik wants to provide the child with answers from multiple sources – what mommy believes, what daddy believes and what others believe. Kate would prefer a more secular approach, but also understands the value of seeing the wider range of beliefs. She wants her children to know it's okay that their parents have different beliefs. Questions are also encouraged. It won't be easy, but it will have to be discussed, and they have time before the issue of children becomes a potential reality.

In the meantime, Erik is considering adding a bumper sticker on the car to replace Kate's old Darwin Fish. It would read: Jesus was a liberal.

Update to the story: They're engaged!



About Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist

(Hemant Mehta is the Chair of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) Board of Directors. He has worked with the Center for Inquiry and is also an SSA representative to the Secular Coalition for America. Hemant received national attention, including being featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, for his work as the "eBay Atheist." Hemant's blog can be read at and his book "I Sold My Soul on eBay" (WaterBrook Press) is now in bookstores everywhere. He currently works as a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago.)