Hey mom, I’m an atheist — How atheism affects relationships

Coming out of the atheist closet

“Are you sure you don’t wanna just tell mom you’re gay or something instead?” 

Instead of telling her he was an atheist, that is. That is the question Tim Jensen’s sister asked him when he came out to her as no longer identifying with the faith of his childhood. His sister was of the opinion that their mother, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would be more accepting of homosexuality than she would be of atheism.

“Unfortunately I’m not (gay),” Jensen said. “What can you do?”

Jensen grew up in Nampa, Idaho, around a large population of LDS members. His own family is “hyper conservative.” It was around the time Jensen was a senior in high school that he decided to start thinking on his own, as he put it.

“My siblings know, my mother does not — I’d be afraid to tell her,” Jensen said. “So for the most part my siblings are okay with it, my mom not so much. She said some less than awesome things regarding atheists, so I figure it’s probably best not to tell her.”

Jensen said he still visits his family, but can only handle being home for two days before he’s ready to leave again. He doesn’t participate in prayers. He stands with his arms folded hoping no one notices he hasn’t closed his eyes and bowed his head. Holidays are about religion with his family, so he sits and waits for the religious discussion to die down.

“(My atheism) hasn’t caused a terrible strain to the point of disowning,” Jensen said. “Granted, if I told my mother, she would definitely lose one son. So I just don’t.”

It wasn’t until March of 2012 that Jensen even told his siblings about his atheism.

“It was actually making me really depressed knowing I had to essentially live this big lie in front of my entire family,” Jensen said.

His lack of religious belief has even affected his romantic relationships — specifically with a girl who he labels as staunchly Catholic. While their different opinions on religion didn’t bother him, Jensen said they were a big deal to her and she broke off their relationship after about two months.

They decided to give it a second try, but that didn’t go well either.

“We got back together and then less than a week after my dad’s funeral, she decided to end things with me again,” Jensen said. “For the same reasons — can’t be with an atheist, she was ashamed of me. It doesn’t make you feel good. Acceptance from someone you care about is kind of important and when they reject you based on something like that … you know. It kind of sucks.”

The interfaith landscape

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a former Wall Street Journal editor who recently had a book published by Oxford University Press entitled “Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America.” The book was based on a nationwide survey she conducted, which found an interfaith marriage rate of 42 percent in the United States. A Pew Research study found 65 percent of the religiously unaffiliated (atheists and agnostics included) in America are in long-term relationships with someone of a different faith.

Despite the high numbers, Riley said people often don’t think about the implications of what it means to be in a long-term relationship with someone of a different faith.

“Interfaith couples tend to marry without thinking through the practical implications of their religious differences,” Riley wrote. “They assume that because they are decent and tolerant people who don’t have anything against people of another faith — and even commendably appreciate religious diversity in their communities — that they will not encounter difficulties being married to someone of another faith.  Unfortunately, being in an interfaith marriage provokes conflicts and requires compromises that merely living near, working with or being friends with someone of another faith does not.”

Christian meets atheist

His mom is a Christian, his father is an atheist and their interfaith marriage didn’t work out.

“My parents divorced when I was four,” Stephen Burleigh said. “My dad is pretty much an atheist … My mom is pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum, so I don’t know how they ended up together. So I got two different sides. I grew up with both of them, going back and forth.”

Burleigh is a student at UI and the vice-president of Freethought Moscow, an affiliate of the Secular Student Alliance. The only real churchgoing Burleigh did growing up was when he was in high school after he got in trouble with the law and was on probation.

“One of the ways I could get out of doing one of the service duties was if I went to church,” Burleigh said.  “So I started going to church, I went there for about a year.”

Religion comes up with his mom, he said. But it’s usually in response to passing comments he makes about religion getting in the way of progress or science.

“My mom will remind me that it’s not all religious people,” Burleigh said. “It’s good to be reminded that not all religious people are the same and you can’t just generalize them.”

His mom is very progressive, he said. Pro-same-sex marriage. Pro-choice.

“She basically thinks that Jesus would despise all the Republicans these days and despise the actual Christians,” Burleigh said.

She still sometimes pushes religion, though. It’s an important part of her life, Burleigh said. She has a degree in theology and sings in the church choir.

“But I think she’s coming to terms with that I’m probably not going to be religiously affiliated,” Burleigh said. “She might be slightly disappointed but I think she’s accepted it.”

The atheist landscape 

Atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic in society, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review, with a large gap between acceptance of atheists and acceptance of other minority groups. While there are many stigmatized groups in American culture, rejection of atheists is persistent.

“For example, while rejection of Muslims may have spiked in post-9/11 America, rejection of atheists was higher,” the article said.

The American Mosaic Project Survey cited in the article posed the question, “I would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group …” and listed different racial and religious minority groups. Forty-seven percent of respondents chose “atheist,” making it the most rejected of all the groups. Fifteen percentage points below that, was “Muslim,” followed by “African American.”

“This (question) is a standard measure of group prejudice, with reluctance to accept intermarriage typically interpreted as an indicator of underlying intolerance,” the article stated. “We interpret it here as a measure of personal trust and acceptance, an evaluation of who is thought to be capable of being caring and moral, able to make one’s child happy, and to treat other family members well.”

Coming to terms with atheism

Burleigh said although he tells people he is an atheist, the truth is — as he puts it — he’s idly indifferent.

“It seems like if the way you get into heaven is to telepathically believe in some deity … then screw that guy,” Burleigh said. “I’m not going to worship him anyways, so there’s no real point.”

He hangs out with Christians and converses with them regularly. And to him, it doesn’t make much of a difference what they believe.

“Religiousness helps some people, helps them feel better about themselves, might give them an excuse to be charitable,” he said. “I guess it’s really frustrating to see they are trying to affect society.”

This is his second year at UI and Jensen said he feels like he can be himself here.

“(Back home) not so much, but I come up here and I’m me,” Jensen said. “I don’t have to shelter myself from everything. I can really study what I want and be who I want and do what I want and hang out with who I want.”

Would he ever date someone who was religious again?

“I totally would,” Jensen said. “It doesn’t bother me, it shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s really just on their end, if they aren’t going to accept me for who I am then that’s on them.”

Kaitlin Moroney can be reached at arg-news@uidaho.edu


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