The Humanist Dilemma: When Do I Tell Dates I’m Atheist?

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To Share or Not to Share: I see you sometimes answer questions from young people about whether, when, and how to tell their families they have become nonbelievers. My question is: When should I bring that up with people I’m dating, or hoping to date? I’ve found that if I mention it right at the beginning it can be a non-starter. But I’ve also found if I wait until the relationship is more established it can result in an angry break-up. So I’m not sure which approach is better. Of course, I could just keep it to myself indefinitely, but I’m worried about having to go along with someone else’s beliefs indefinitely. What do you recommend?

—Timing Is Everything


Dear Timing,

Actually, timing is not everything. What you and the other person in the relationship want is everything. My guess is that the people who turn off when you identify as a nonbeliever are themselves believers and they don’t want a romantic relationship (or possibly any relationship) with someone who isn’t. I’m wondering if you have been timing the announcement of your views with theirs, or if they shared their belief system with you but you didn’t reciprocate—perhaps hoping that to know you would be to love you, and your different worldviews wouldn’t matter. Or maybe you were hoping if you held off they’d eventually come around to seeing things your way: “You’re right, there is no God!”

Revealing your nonbelief to a date is like revealing you want ten children, or revealing your position on a hot-button political issue, or that you’re only willing to live in a city or on a farm. Leading with it may immediately turn off someone who could possibly (or not) have converted to your views once you had the opportunity to enlighten them. It could also be said you’d be saving everyone time and emotional energy if you said something sooner rather than later.

Some people who practice a religion are not that invested in only dating those who do the same (although closing in on marriage and family could be a different story entirely). But the sooner you identify yourself, the sooner you’ll know if your love interest will reject you along with your perspective—or if it’s no problem, or that he/she is also an atheist (or agnostic, humanist, etc.).

I don’t advocate that nonbelievers only date or associate with other nonbelievers. We learn a lot about other people and ourselves when we get to know those with different perspectives, especially when there are many things we like and love about them. It helps us figure out who we are and what’s important to us, what we can live with and what we can’t. No relationship is without its conflicts and differences—it’s the order of magnitude that is crucial. Some people can’t bear a neat-freak or a slob, others are just fine as long as the tolerance is mutual. There are many successful interfaith or faith/nonbeliever unions. But it’s important for both parties to recognize these differences and figure out how to deal with them, if indeed they are both are willing to deal with them.

The longer you stay in the closet, or stay with someone who doesn’t wish to be with a nonbeliever, the more likely you are to have a painful parting when the dissonance can no longer be ignored (often when you meet the family and realize there are more expectations or prejudices than you—or your partner—can handle).

I encourage people who are already in a committed relationship (i.e., marriage, children) when religious incompatibility becomes a problem to try to find a way to accommodate their differences. Sometimes people don’t realize how strong their beliefs are or will become over the years and in response to evolving circumstances. But before marriage and children, I adamantly advocate against going forward into a committed relationship when there is evidence of significant, irreconcilable conflict in your religious views, or no evidence to the contrary. It usually gets worse, not better, with time.

You don’t have to show up for blind dates wearing a scarlet ‘A’ on your chest. But just as it’s advisable to mention at some fairly early point that you love or hate kids, or that your parents will be living with you, or that you never miss a comic book convention and expect your partner to go with you, you shouldn’t allow too much time and intimacy to accrue before at least hinting about your views and getting a reading on your companion’s. As with most things, I lean toward full disclosure and informed consent early on. If what you want is a resonant relationship and not just a series of dalliances, it’s better to swiftly dispatch pairings that promise to short out due to religious differences, and focus on those with more potential for compatibility and longevity. Even when it comes to romance, it’s wise to be realistic and pragmatic rather than expecting a miracle.