Can an atheist and a believer build a strong, lasting marriage? My girlfriend and I are terrific together. Her family loves me and everyone else says we're the perfect couple. There's just one catch: she's a strong Christian, but I don't believe in God at all. Do you think the religious differences between us pose a serious problem? Personally, I could care less what other people believe as long as their hearts are in the right place. What are our chances of building a relationship that will go the distance?
You're wise to be asking this question. When it comes to choosing a marriage partner, people often react simply on the basis of emotions. Many times they don't give any real consideration to the long-range ramifications of that decision.
It seems obvious that you and your girlfriend have a strong friendship. You enjoy one another's company and have highly compatible personalities. Those are important ingredients when it comes to building a lasting relationship and laying a firm foundation for a successful marriage. But in a situation like yours it's still important to think things through on a deeper level.
Why do we say this? Because in the final analysis the challenge you're facing is bigger than a mere difference of "religious opinion." It's not just a question of your willingness to "tolerate" someone else's beliefs. It's a matter of dramatically contrasting worldviews. And when worldviews collide, the results can be devastating for a marital relationship.
Here's why. Marriage is a partnership. It's an arrangement within which spouses have to learn how to cooperate, work together, and hammer out mutually satisfactory compromises. They have to do this on an almost daily basis, and in response to a wide variety of practical problems. When two people are operating on the basis of two different worldviews, they can't help but approach those problems and decisions from two very different angles.
Perhaps you don't think this is a serious issue. It's easy to see why. As an atheist, you assume that there is no higher authority. There is no supernatural point of reference. As far as you're concerned, it's just a question of "what works." But your Christian girlfriend has a very different perspective. She lives her life in the light of a transcendent standard of moral and spiritual values. Her aims aren't merely pragmatic in nature. Ultimately, her goal isn't simply to please you or gratify herself. Instead, she wants to honor her Lord and Savior. If you take the view that her intentions are nothing but superstitious nonsense, we can almost guarantee that you'll eventually reach an impasse. There's a real danger of disconnect in the way the two of you will feel about each other in the long run.
It's easy to overlook all of this now. But if you and your girlfriend do get married chances are good that the potential for conflict will only increase with time. For instance, when it comes to raising children, tithing to a church, or dealing with serious illness and death, her approach is likely to be very different from yours. This is why the apostle Paul advises Christians not to be "unequally yoked with non-believers" (2 Corinthians 6:14). Life's decisions are tough enough when two people share the same belief system. But the situation can become intolerably difficult when their worldviews are diametrically opposed.
One last thought before closing. We're an evangelical ministry, and we're committed to a biblical worldview. We believe that marriage and family are good, positive, and beneficial in and of themselves. But we're also convinced that they can only achieve their full potential "in Christ." The same thing can be said about every aspect of human life. We won't apologize for making such an assertion. As we see it, the quality of human life as a whole – and that includes family life – has been compromised as a result of sin and mankind's fall from grace. The family, like every other aspect of human existence, needs to be redeemed. Jesus Christ, the Divine Redeemer, has come first of all to reconcile us to God and lead us to heaven. But He also wants to give us richer and fuller relationships with one another here in this present world. As He said, "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).
Bottom line: before taking another step forward in this relationship, we'd advise you and your girlfriend to get some expert advice from an objective third party. Sit down with the pastor of her church. Have a serious conversation about how you envision your life together and how you will deal with life's issues. Seek out the services of a trained and licensed marriage-and-family counselor who can help you gain a clearer sense of the bigger picture. Call us. Focus on the Family's Counseling department can provide referrals to qualified Christian therapists practicing in your area. Our counselors would also be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you over the phone.
The Real Face of Atheism