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Intimate Relationships: Nonbelievers and Believers

Over the past couple of months I’ve received maybe seven or eight emails from readers – some on the blog and others not – about marriage (two in the past 24 hours).  Not about what the New Testament says about marriage, but about what these emailers should do with *their* marriage.     Each of these was married to someone who was a faithful, committed, religiously conservative Christian of one kind or another (evangelical, Catholic, Mormon), but the emailer had, a while back, moved away from their earlier faith commitments, and now considered themselves agnostic or atheist or both, and weren’t sure how to handle it the marriage situation.

In some cases the question was: should I tell my spouse?  In others it was: how can this work?  In others it was: how can I convince them that their views are full of problems and help them see the truth?

I am not a marriage counsellor, as some of you may have noticed.  But I do have a lot of experience with questions like this, and have pretty firm and clear opinions about them.   Since I’ve gotten inquiries like this for some years now, not just recently, I thought I may as well say what my views are publicly.  These views, by the way, apply, mutatis mutantis, to other close relationships: obviously partners at all sorts of levels, but also parents, children, long-time friends, etc.

My own personal view is that everyone is welcome to have their own personal views.  Even if  they are someone close to me and I think they are completely wrong.  So what?  They think *I’m” completely wrong, so we’re on even playing ground here.   “Yeah, but I’m right and *she’s* wrong!!!”    OK, that’s where we start getting into trouble.

Good relationships are built on love, trust, and respect.   If you don’t love a person deeply at numerous levels, trust that they have your best interests in mind just as you have theirs, and respect their views, their beliefs, their decisions, their commitments, their sincerity, and so forth – if you don’t love, trust, and respect the other, the relationship is not going to work.  Of course you can’t make them other person love, trust, and respect you, but more often than not if you act that way toward them they will be more inclined to act that way toward you.  Someone usually has to put down the barriers, and if you yourself are not inclined to do so, the other will put up even more barriers, taller ones, thicker ones.

People are naturally disinclined to be completely open and honest with others, since it leads to the possibility of being raked over the coals.  Oh boy do most of us understand that one.  But without openness and honesty, the relationship ain’t gonna work anyway, or at least it will work only superficially, with no depth.  Granted, that’s where most relationships are, but it’s not really the ultimate goal.

So to stress: relationships are NOT about who is right and who is wrong and who can prove it to the other and everyone else they know.  That’s a televised debate in front of a national audience.  It’s not a personal relationship.  Or at least one that is loving, satisfying, and long lasting.

My view is that if you do not agree about religious issues, you really need to be open about the differences, be willing to talk about them, and be completely sympathetic with the other person’s point of view – to the point of entering into conversation with them about things they are thinking about in respect to their point of view, not simply to accept that the view is there.   That is, you need not simply to agree that he’ll go to church and you won’t, but to be willing to talk to him about the sermon that day if he wants to, or discuss a crisis of faith he is having – not in order to convert him to your view but to help him work out as well as he can the view that he himself is most comfortable with given what he knows and things and believes.

People want to feel respected for their views, and they want partners, family members, and friends to show their respect, not grudgingly but actively and eagerly.

What if the other person doesn’t actually *know* your views, and you are highly reluctant to tell them what you really think?   THAT is the most difficult situation, since usually the reluctance is related to other things, such as children (what would we do *then*??) or other family members or social circles (we’ll lose all our friends!) or even employment and career (I’m a pastor and I’m losing my faith).

And that is where my very strong general advice (be completely loving, trusting, and respectful) is not completely helpful in every case.  To be sure it is still applicable in many, many cases.   If the situation is that you’re afraid of losing a girlfriend or boyfriend, for example, or that your wife or husband will no longer love you, then MOST of the time (not *every* time) the reality is that you do not have a relationship of trust.   You cannot both know another and be known by them while hiding away an important aspect of your life, keeping it secret from someone you’re trying to be close to. Sorry, it doesn’t work.  The only way to be truly close is to be open, and secrets about things ongoing in your life (as opposed, theoretically and sometimes, to things in your past – I’m not speaking of those kinds of things here) make it impossible to be open.  That means it is impossible to be completely close.  More or less by definition.

I’m NOT saying that therefore it is necessary in every case to spill the beans.   It is possible that you, like many others I have known, would prefer to be in a less than completely honest relationship because the goods outweigh the bads.  It happens and no one can make the decision for you.   One other thing to consider, though (as many people do), is that your decision to keep a secret like that is a violation of trust and it means your partner/friend/family member is in relationship under false pretenses, that you have intentionally imposed.  That can’t be good.  But maybe you think it is better than otherwise.

In any event, YOUR case is different from every other that has ever existed.  And so I am decidedly not telling you what to do.  If there were a one-size-fits-all equation for these things, we could just plug our personal data into a computer and be told what to do.   But I will say that if two people truly love one another they will figure out enough common grounds to make it work, if it’s possible.  Sometimes, lots of times, it’s not possible.  A whole bunch of us have been there.

Well, these are just a few of my thoughts.  Two final things.  First, in response to comments that may come in on this post, I will not be willing to talk about the specifics of my own marriage, which is a private matter, as are your relationships   Second, I will not be able to pretend I *am* a marriage counsellor and get involved with your personal situation.  My reflections here are general, not any kind of advice specific to one person or another.  And I’m not qualified to hang out a shingle.   Still, lots and lots of people are.  There is nothing better for a good marriage — let alone a not-so-good one — than a good marriage counsellor!

I am, however, happy to respond to general comments and questions, as always, before getting directly back to what I *am* qualified to deal with: the New Testament and the history of early Christianity!

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  1. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  March 8, 2020

    When I met the woman who became my wife, I was a believer and was attending a local seminary. 13 years ago I lost my faith after we had married. My wife is still very much a believer, and although she accepts that I no longer have a belief in Christianity, ( or any other belief system), she hopes I’ll come back as she puts it. In spite of our differing viewpoints we have a very happy marriage.

    I feel guilty at times however, like I’m letting her down. This post has been extremely helpful for me and my thanks to you.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 8, 2020

    Interesting and brave. Good luck!

  3. Avatar
    leobillings@cox.net  March 8, 2020

    The wise one once said: ‘Sometimes kindness is better than truth’.
    But the stoic disagreed.

  4. Avatar
    flshrP  March 8, 2020

    Gabriel García Marquez — ‘Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life and a secret life.’

    No exceptions.

    Because of that third life we never really know each other completely.


  5. Avatar
    Judith  March 8, 2020

    If, when we marry, we become “one flesh” in God’s eyes, then wouldn’t the faith of the believer have to suffice for both? Am not expecting an answer but I do wonder.

  6. Avatar
    Jeff  March 8, 2020

    I have been quite fortunate in my life that my wife has been open to my loss of faith. I think because it’s been such a slow process for me that she was not caught off guard. I consider myself lucky. In the lives of others it’s been the opposite, especially if the doubter was in the ministry and wants to get out. For that an organization called The Clergy Project, https://clergyproject.org/, is available.

  7. Barfo
    Barfo  March 8, 2020

    I became a born again Christian at around the age of 18 but I delved in and out of being a Christian (in the walk) for most of my life. I lived most of my life in a normal and secular fashion with an occasional swing back into church going and Bible reading. My Bible ended up collecting dust on my bookcase shelf and I didn’t attend church. When I first married I was young and my wife was secular for the most part but then she became involved (born again?) in a Pentecostal church thanks to the association with a neighbor. She drastically changed (eliminating our house of sugar because it was from Satan…etc) and I had a hard time coping with her fundamental views. After about 13 years of marriage she informed me that God had told her to divorce me.

    We divorced and I married a woman who was similar to me in my religious views. We believed but did not actively live a Christian lifestyle with church involvement and rarely discussed religion. For some reason about ten years ago I felt the need to become baptized. She supported me and we attended church for a bit and then as usual it all wore off. About three years ago I read a report of an event that prompted me to investigate the validity of Christianity. At first I became fascinated with the prospect that Jesus was a myth. However, after watching Bart debate Robert Price I adjusted my focus and became absorbed in Bart’s books and through his scholarship and ability to teach I was able to reach a viable verdict. I eventually shared my experiences with my current wife and she took it in stride. Our relationship has not changed one iota. On occasion she will read a Daily Devotional Scripture to me and when I respond, “did you know…..” she just plugs her ears and says, “Blah, blah, blah.” She doesn’t what to hear it. I can only laugh.

    Anyway, we still do well together despite having a different belief system, but my wife has a very level headed disposition about her when it comes to Christianity….no extremism. There are no negative issues within our relationship as a result of our different religious situations.

    • Avatar
      mtavares  March 9, 2020

      Good stories Barfo. Especially laughed at the “she plugs her ears” part. For a while I’ve boiled this down to us all having different temperaments. More recently I read Scott Adams’ (creator of Dilbert) Win Bigly where he talks about the idea of filters. He defines them as perspectives that help us do two things: be happy now and help predict the future. He humorously walks through different filters he’s had during his life (christian, atheist, and some random other funny filters included). Well worth reading those few pages if it’s at your library.

      • Barfo
        Barfo  March 10, 2020

        I will look for that book, thanks. I find encouragement reading about others who have walked away from their faith and share their experiences. I have it pretty good though as me and my wife are extremely happy together despite me becoming a non believer. It’s not like what I heard a comedian say years ago…..”My wife found religion after we got married but I didn’t. Our relationship was like that of an Amish woman being married to a Elvis impersonator.”

  8. Avatar
    HawksJ  March 9, 2020


    Was your mother ever a fundamentalist, and if she was, how did she handle it as you broke away – and how did you share that with her?

    My mother is, and the most important thing in the world to her is that her kids (and grandkids) share her belief system so that they will too be saved (and that particular belief system is the only way to be saved). What I have struggled with – agonized over, really – is how to tell someone you love that they have failed in their life’s mission. Or even should you? What is the harm, other than personal inconvenience, in letting them believe that their children share their faith?

    For as long as I have been following you (about 10 years now), I have wanted to ask your thoughts on this family dynamic. Thank you in advance!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 9, 2020

      She was a very conservative evangelical Christian — became far more committed after I became one myself. That was the first time I realized, over a period of years, that it was most important to love one another and build common grounds. WE ended up talking about basketball more than religion, and it did wonders for our relationship, which has been very strong ever since.

  9. Avatar
    cbauer13  March 9, 2020

    Thank you sharing your thoughts on this subject. Most belief systems/philosophical points of view have limitations. Most selfishly, “I am glad to be alive, regardless of the consequences!”

    And, I am glad that there are people in the world like you – who make it much more interesting!

  10. Avatar
    dr.bosch  March 9, 2020

    A poem about absolute truth:
    He who still abides by a dogmatic view,
    considering it best, supreme in the world,
    and hence he proclaims all others as inferior—
    by this he does not become free from disputes.

    In whatever is seen by him, heard, and cognized,
    vows and rites done—he sees profit in these;
    and so from his grasping at that very view
    all others he sees as worthless, as low.

    Caught in one’s view and considering all other views as inferior—
    this attitude is considered by the wise as bondage, as the absence of freedom.
    A good practitioner is never too quick to believe
    what is seen, heard, and sensed, including rules and rites.

    A good practitioner has no need to set up a new theory for the world,
    using the knowledge he has picked up or the rules and rites he is practicing.
    He does not consider himself as “superior”, “inferior”, or ‘equal” to anyone.

    A good practitioner abandons the tendency to cling to views
    He is free and does not depend on anything, even on knowledge.
    Among those who dispute he never takes sides,
    to the various views he does not recourse.

    Having no bias for this extreme or the other extreme—
    either in this world or in the other world.
    He has abandoned all dogmas and
    no longer has the need to seek for comfort or refuge in any theory or ideology.

    A real noble one is never caught in rules or rites.
    He or she is advancing steadfastly to the shore of liberation
    and will never return to the realm of bondage.

    Sutta Nipata 4.5 from the Pali Canon (Buddhist Scripture)
    This is one of the oldest existing Buddhist sutras to be compiled.

  11. Avatar
    AndrewB  March 9, 2020

    Hello, Dr. Ehrman,

    I have read the bible, and it seems conflicted on this issue. There is a lot of content that says Christians (and Jews) should not marry unbelievers. But also convert them (that part mostly just the NT). I’m guessing the over-arching biblical position would be: conversion first, then marriage? Lest there be unequal yoking? (The yoke being the faith – or maybe the views of marriage. . .)

    Also, in your experience in the church, how serious would you say the split was (is?) between different denominations of Christians marrying in the US? Like “Never a Catholic and a Protestant!”


    • Bart
      Bart  March 9, 2020

      Which parts of the Bible are you thinking of that say Christians should not marry unbelievers? AS to your question: I really don’t know!

      • Avatar
        AndrewB  March 9, 2020

        I guess I misstated. It’s more the Jewish part that suggests not marrying unbelievers. Paul makes some comments about sticking with someone who is not a believer, but its the earlier part of the bible where all those men were supposed to leave their non-Jewish wives. It was something quoted to me by a Christian, and I took it to be something maintained by some Christians (a suggestion of not marrying a non-believer).

        • Bart
          Bart  March 10, 2020

          Ah, yes, the draconian policies implemented by Ezra after the people returned from exile in Babylon. Quite devastating on personal lives, actually. The only passage of relevance in Paul is actually one of the two I’m heading toward in the current thread (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1), which I, like most critical scholars, think is an interpolation — i.e., a passage Paul didn’t write that was stuck into his letter later.

    • Avatar
      dankoh  March 9, 2020

      When reading the Hebrew Scripture, bear in mind that it is as much an ethnic or tribal document as a religious one, and that marriage rules have as much or more to do with tribal exclusivity as they do with concerns that marrying someone not Israelite will lure them away from the Israelite deity. Also that Scripture spans a thousand years or more and is not consistent throughout.

  12. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 9, 2020

    “How Religion Poisons Everything” Subtitle of Christopher Hitchen’s book “god is not Great.”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2020

      I loved Hitch. But disagreed with him on this one. Religion doesn’t poison everything. People do. And some of them use religion to do it.

      • Avatar
        Karl666  March 10, 2020

        I’ve felt very fortunate to have found both Hitch and Bart. For as incisive as his ideas were, it’s always seemed to me that he (and, especially “New Atheists” like Dawkins) pick fights only with fundamentalists. This is low lying fruit; and, as far as I’ve seen, they all refuse to engage the way that modem textual criticism has informed a lot of Christianity away from the nonsense of fundemtalism. And so I think they avoid harder questions bc of that; anyone can make fun of snake charmers! Man, I would have loved to see a debate w Hitch and Bart!

        Bart: “Book” idea – find one of hitch’s better, comprehensive debates, chop out the almost inevitably poor Args by his opponent, and edit in your responses…

      • Avatar
        TheologyMaven  March 11, 2020

        A loud and hearty Amen to that, Bart!

      • Avatar
        clerrance2005  March 12, 2020

        Prof Ehrman,
        Is religion the creation of man? If yes, can’t we attribute some of the ‘poison’ to the some of the themes and concepts of religion it. I do however agree that Religion is not all poison and that there is quite a number of good in there.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 13, 2020

          I wouldn’t say it was a “creation” in the sense that the microwave was. But I’d also say that obviously the answer is yes: if there weren’t humans, there would be no religion.

  13. Avatar
    Thespologian  March 9, 2020

    I would posit that as it pertains to “religion,” most views are rarely backed by adequate education with “faith” being the presumed edifying authority. Debates and differences over god would be better served when contributing parties begin with an admission of their own ignorance of the subject. That can clear some of the regrettable tempestive air that fans its way to a foul stench.

  14. Avatar
    dankoh  March 9, 2020

    I will add two general observations. First is one that I got from one of the first women Episcopal priests, one of the wisest persons I ever knew (dead now, alas): There is no such thing as a perfect match. You make your choice, and then you make it the right choice.

    The second is my own observation: The key to making any relationship work is to Pay Attention. (Sometimes that requires leaving the other person alone, by the way.)

    Oh, one more: Every relationship has at least one fatal flaw. The key to success is in recognizing that and working to make sure it doesn’t destroy the relationship.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2020

      Great advice all around. In the last Paragraph I’d emphasize the words “at least” (!) (seriously)

  15. Avatar
    DrBooker  March 9, 2020

    For your Mormon followers, here are some helpful
    1) Marriage on a tightrope
    2) Mormon Stories

  16. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  March 10, 2020

    Lovely post, thank you. My wife believed, and “bible studied” while I actually studied the Bible (with lots of help from you, Hitch, Dawkins and others). We could laugh about it, luckily, and tease each other (as I can with my big-believing 91yr-old mother). My only statement when pushed by other believers (not family) is “There is ONLY ONE thing important in religion, and that’s Freedom of Religion. You do you and I’ll do me. We both (and so Muslims and Hindus and Jews and anyone else) MUST have that freedom.”

  17. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 12, 2020

    If only religious and non-religious people will both come to a point of tolerance for each other; and come to appreciate that love, peace, unity, justice, empathy and humanity are the focus, our world would have been a better place. Interestingly these things ( love, peace, unity, justice and humanity) are quite universally agreed on, even across the various religious and non-religious divides whereas religion itself isn’t.

  18. Avatar
    SGoldleaf  March 15, 2020

    Sometimes, we need to be willing to let a relationship go. I, for one, make my beliefs known to anyone I consider even close to starting a romantic relationship with–it’s a dealkiller for most believers, as it should be, but I think that anyone who’s comfortable retreating to “It’s God’s will” as an acceptable response to their own stupid life-choices is not someone I can rely on to take my side in a pinch, or even to explain their reasoning (beyond “God’s will”) in a way that makes a shred of sense to me.

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