Love Without Faith…

How to handle it when the religion question comes up during a new romance and you’re not a believer.

By Bob Strauss

“So, do you believe in God?”

I stared across the table at my date. Up to that point, she had been peppering me with the usual assortment of getting-to-know-you questions: Where did I go to school, what kind of work did I do, etc. As I recovered from my shock, I realized there were two ways to answer this last query: either by feigning nonchalance (“To tell you the truth, I haven’t given the matter much thought”), or, as I proceeded to do, by blurting out the first thing that came to mind (“No! What are you, kidding?”).

Later that evening, alone in my apartment, I conducted my usual first-date post-mortem. I decided to split the blame fifty-fifty. “Do you believe in God?” is the kind of question eight-year-olds ask each other on the school playground, hardly an acceptable conversation starter between two adults. On the other hand, loudly ridiculing another person’s belief system (in a crowded restaurant) isn’t quite the right way to go, either.

The point is, if you’re an atheist or agnostic, dating a person with religious leanings needn’t be a non-starter—as long as you approach the situation with a minimal amount of sensitivity and tact. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Be respectful. When a gal tells you she was raised Jewish (or Catholic, or Hindu), she’s invoking not only a specific faith but an entire community, including parents, friends, and teachers. Even if she’s not all that religious, if your first impulse is to critique the provenance of the Old Testament or the logic of not allowing priests to marry, she’s likely to react on a personal level and write you off as an irreverent crank.

Know your comfort level. Faith usually isn’t an all-or-nothing affair; for most people it operates on a sliding scale. I was raised Jewish myself, and though I pretty much lost all my religious leanings by the time I was 13, I can see myself settling down with a slightly-more-Jewish gal who’d like to impart some of that cultural heritage to our kids. But even if I was struck dumb with lust, I couldn’t expect things to work out with an Orthodox Jewish woman who expected me to attend temple every week and keep kosher. If the religious gulf looms too wide, chalk it up to fate and move on to the next prospect.

Don’t pretend to be what you’re not. To expand slightly on the above point: Guys, especially, have been known to say or do anything in pursuit of a certain goal (which, for delicacy’s sake, I won’t specify here). Not only is pretending to be more religious than you are dishonest (as well as vaguely sacrilegious, even from an atheist viewpoint), if the relationship progresses you’re going to have to do some spiritual housekeeping sooner or later.

Leave some room for mystery. Although I’ll never be convinced of the existence of a white-bearded Biblical deity sitting on a heavenly throne, as an avid student of physics and cosmology, I’m open to the possibility of parallel universes and extra dimensions. So lately, rather than lecturing dates about my disbelief in God, I’ll allow that this world may not, in fact, be All There Is. In my experience, this reassures gals that I do have a spiritual side, which is often what they really want to know.

Bob Strauss is a freelance writer and children’s book author who lives in New York City. He’s also written the Dinosaur guide on, the online information network owned by the New York Times.
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