Atheists are popping up more and more in the news these days. For the most part, it seems that a small but steadily growing stream of press is addressing the growing presence of unreligious, non believing members of our society who are outspoken and demanding their equal rights. This is just as it should be, we are crossing into an era of equality out of the quagmire of heightened inequality. You know, the Age of Aquarius.
Years ago, when I was trying the online dating, I signed up for eHarmony. Despite being a pro-marriage, Christian model, they claimed to be able to sort out what was and what wasn't important and match you up. I found that I didn't fit into too many molds there, either, and had frustratingly poor success. I believe that in a one year time, their connections led to three actual dates- and I believe two of the men were virgins or mostly asexual (I know one of them was). I expected to be set up with a fair amount of engineers, but mostly get set up with a lot of law enforcement and military. I have an "other" religion- as I identified as more quaker than buddhist back then- and I got a lot of atheists or non spiritual or extremely Christian and conservative. Yikes. Match.com was a little better, but not by too much, in that realm.
I think that what I found disturbing was that areas I found most important in a partner- tolerance of others, ability to have diverging views on god versus spirituality versus the place of religion in society, open minded about others' life experience- was completely ignored by eHarmony and also most of the men I would meet through Match (and two guys through a buddhist dating site that didn't go great either- too much, too much, too much). I don't need to agree with people on everything they believe in and do. I do need them to not try to make me agree with them by repeatedly engaging in arguments over who is more correct about politics, religion, god, whatever. When people have a deeprooted belief on the differences between men and women, that are ordained through god or written in the "stone" of DNA, they are just as authoritarian as those who are conservative in religion.
Idealization is really at the root of this. Forming an opinion that most closely resonates with what we believe, which is mostly generated by how we want things to be, is how most of us take on the big questions in life. What is a partner than someone with whom you must ask and answer some of the big questions? Atheists weren't copping out, but many of the respondents were vehement that belief was stupid, and I should know better. Of course, that wasn't based on anything I actually said than what they believed I must believe. The formation of any belief system requires a set of rules, and attachment to those rules being realized. And for marriage and children to happen successfully, that usually has to be pretty coherent between two people.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, my belief that I wanted marriage and kids changed over time when I realized that in order for me to make a "good wife", I would be more or less forced to adopt the beliefs and politics of the man I would marry. I rarely met men in the circles I worked and lived in that were single, and had any aspirations for either. This was a bummer, not because they didn't exist, but perhaps because the time frame for idealized marriage was probably when I was about 25. When I "expanded" my own values to include buddhism and other non-Abrahamic religions, I didn't have any better luck with dating. I got older, the men I dated got older, more set in their ways and less curious. I might have become more tolerant of bible lovers (after all, I live in a state with a high concentration of very christian people), but I also knew I couldn't live with it.
When I met my sweetie, we were at a birthday party of a friend of his-and I had actually more or less crashed at the invitation of another friend. The party was full of liberals, activists, spiritually inclined, sci-fi inclined, art making, freedom loving, socially marginal people. John was one of the "straighter arrows" of the bunch, it would seem. I was disappointed when he later mentioned atheism- as opposed to not believing- though not because I needed him to believe in god. I just didn't want to go through more discussions on whether or not one can be a scientist and also believe there may be a god. That isn't religion, for one, and for me has nothing to do with telling other people how to act and everything to do with personal experience. God can not fit into scientific method- and doesn't need to. Then again, many science like people don't understand scientific method very well, either.
It turned out it was totally possible for me to love an atheist, after all, and find more acceptance, love and understanding than I had found before. For one, there was no mold he was trying to fit me into. Early on, it was a little harder for me, because I had to let go of what my beliefs were about marriage and see what was really in front of me in the relationship I was in. Not religious, but part of the fantasy world that we are raised in- that there is "the one" and they are the "only person God has made for you to love and share" and if it is "right" it will "work out as it should and last forever". Of course, few people find this person. And fewer people yet get through it all without painful difficulties and deep soul searching. It may be their belief that keeps them married when love is feeling absent. I always wondered who they thought god intended the alcoholics and murderers for.
Almost all of us have fantasies about the happy looking, long married couple, the folks in their 70s and 80s that shuffle around together and help each other with their coats and still hold hands. At some point, they were much younger and they may not have started out so well as a couple. Or there may have been intervening years of emotional distance that were bridged with tragedy or counseling. Atheists are people who have a wide array of beliefs about marriage, children, monogamy, politics, war, eating meat, having guns, civil rights. Some are adamantly opposed to religion, others just don't have religion inside them. We know there is a part of the brain that is tuned in to the godlike stuff, and some people just don't have that part, some do, some more than others. Perhaps like an ear for music, a sense of god is something we are born with. Religion, however, is another matter entirely.
What I have found in these past three or so years of loving an atheist is more acceptance of myself and more love from another person than I had known before. We don't get to hide behind a scripture to tell each other what to do. We don't invoke the "way god made it" in order to justify sexist or racist behavior. We don't cut off parts of ourself to fit into the wrong uniform. Where I thought we would have more weakness, we have more strength, because we choose each other every day instead of feeling like it has been ordained. We attend to each other's cares and needs with more diligence, and allow more freedom to grow and explore. There is no belief to shield us when things are hard, and no mantra to chant when we don't know how to communicate.
Instead, with patience, we pause, we reflect, we wait, we ask, we reconnect. We learn instead of impose. We shuffle around together, holding hands and helping with the coats. Maybe we'll make it until we are old, but life cannot be predicted by the best of us. It seems, however, we are on the same road, together, and no one is pulling away. I am a lucky woman, and feel luckier as time goes by. I learned that the best realization of love would be letting go of idealization and staying in the present.