#585: My church community is angry at me for dating an atheist.

Movie Poster Art from The Wise KidsDear Captain,

Last Fall, I began dating an awesome guy. He’s nerdy, a real feminist, and is just as much in love with me as I am with him. Things have been great and we both know how to use our words to make things even better. As it stands, we’re both in this for the long haul and have discussed plans of moving in together when I graduate from college and eventually of getting married. I am so excited about life with this guy.

My problem is that I come from a super conservative Christian sub-culture and my boyfriend is an atheist. While I’m super cool with his personal views on religion (and he is of mine as well, yay!) most of my friends, family, and people I interact with at church have made it their business to go out of their way to tell me to end things with him. Everyone sees my relationship as something wrong and offensive to God. In their eyes, they’re just helping me “do what’s right” but it’s emotionally exhausting and always makes me upset with the people.

As it stands, there’s literally nothing these people could say to me that would actually make me break up with him. But I’m tired of having to act nice when people tell me off for dating someone who isn’t a Christian. Since you are the master of awesome shut-down scripts, I was wondering if you might have anything up your sleeve for people trying to get me “out of my sinful relationship” when this (super hurtful) behavior is considered acceptable (and encouraged) within the sub-culture I am in.

(On a side note, I’m planning on joining a much more awesome denomination/church when I graduate from college, but as I am going to a college funded by this denomination, I’m stuck in place for a year.)

Thanks for your help,

Happily Dating

Dear Happily Dating:

I think this is one of those cases where the best snappy comeback is frank sincerity.

  • “I’m very happy with Boyfriend, thanks for asking.”
  • “That really hurts my feelings. Please stop.”
  • “It is not okay for you to tell me who I can date.”ย 
  • “That’s not actually your business. Back off.”ย 
  • “Your concern is misplaced. Please stop talking now.”
  • “I refuse to discuss this with you.”
  • “That wasn’t an invitation to negotiate, that was me telling you to stop talking about this.”

If it’s like, a really sweet old lady or someone you really don’t want to offend, try “Hmm that’s interesting” or “Wow I’ll think about it” but know that there is no perfect feel-good way to say “BOUNDARIES!” to people who are trammeling yours. If you can, whatever you say, use a flat tone and repeat yourself like a broken record. Make it very boring to bring up this topic with you.

With this group, it sounds like WHATEVER you say that is not “Oh yes you’re right thank you so much for your kind concern, I will do what you say immediately” will be taken as a) the HEIGHT of rudeness and b) proof positive that this boyfriend is a bad influence on you and that they are right to try to separate you.The game is sort of rigged so that if they win if you break up with him, they win if you go all out trying to convert him, and they win the longer they get you to pay attention to them and the more you try to convince them that he’s great, because it gives them the illusion that you care about their opinion about this and that they have power in this arena. Any of those outcomes validates the idea that they were right to speak up.

A victory here isn’t getting them to agree with you, it’s getting them to stop bringing it up, or, when they do, to cut those conversations very, very short. So say something short and conversation-ending and then do what you have to do to actually end the conversation if they keep going.

  • “I’ve asked you twice to stop bringing this up. New topic, now.”
  • “You’ve made your opinion very clear. I still disagree with it. Stop.”
  • “This is exhausting to talk about. I don’t want to go through it again.”
  • “This is not going to alienate me from my boyfriend, but your refusal to actually listen to me is alienating me from you. Right now. Stop.”

Be boring and sincere. Repeat as necessary. Move away. You’ll find a cooler church next year. If you haven’t seen it, allow me to recommend The Wise Kids, an indie film directed by Stephen Cone (and art-directed by my genius friend Caity Birmingham). It’s about coming-of-age in a small, conservative church community, and while there is indeedย pressure to conform to certain beliefs and behaviors, the big stuff is handled with love, compassion, and respect.




83 thoughts on “#585: My church community is angry at me for dating an atheist.

  1. Another angle on scripts in this situation besides the Captain’s excellent variations on “Boundary. Here. Now.” might be something along the lines of, with a mystical smile, “God works in mysterious ways sometimes” or “Who am i, who are any of us, to go against the leadings of love in our hearts?”.

  2. Ahhhhh, that whole unequally yoked-thing. FWIW? I’m married to someone who does not share my religious beliefs, and we’ve been perfectly happy together…for over a decade and still ticking. ๐Ÿ™‚ When everyone else literally pays my bills and spoon feeds me, maybe then they might have a say so, but as that is unlikely to happen… LOL…Pretty much everyone from family to friends have all learned to STFU. ๐Ÿ™‚ The Captain’s advice is spot-on, and I am loving the snappy comebacks…

  3. It sounds like you are sincerely Christian yourself, so you might try something like “I’ve prayed on it, and I’m comfortable that this relationship is working for me and for my faith.” If that’s a more or less accurate statement. In my experience within a Protestant faith community, that kind of language is hard to argue with, maybe the same is true in yours?

  4. Chiming in behind Violet: the Captain’s scripts are excellent, but somewhat more tuned to the frequencies of Radio Mainstream, where you need to be getting through the somewhat rarefied receptors of Mystery Religion Science Theater 3000.

    I would suggest utilizing what a friend of mine refers to as the Religion Windowshield Screen. You know those silver sun-reflective folding screens that you put in your car’s windshield on hot days, to bounce the reflected heat of the sun away from the interior? It works like that. You erect a shiny barrier of manner and thought that bounces all those concerned, loving rays right back at the sender. Parrot back their language, their manner, all the while radiating absolute sincerity and saying stuff that can’t be controverted:

    “God is really moving in my heart when I pray about our relationship. I feel guided.”
    “I am thrilled to be living as a witness to this man.”
    “God is my rock in this relationship. I go where He leads me.”
    “The Lord sure is moving in mysterious ways with him.”
    “I feel an opening is imminent.”

    Note that this approach is tricky – if you imply you’re trying to convert your boyfriend, they might want progress reports; if your church is authoritarian, they may insist that only Leader / Congregation can interpret your faith to you and your own interpretation is flawed. On the other hand, these scripts may work to deflect the people who are truly just meddling on the outskirts. Meanwhile, you can practice the more brutally honest approach with family members and close friends.

    Good luck deflecting the meddlers until your graceful exit, and congrats on the happy relationship.

    1. These are great. Competitive platitudes! I could not get any of them out without being wicked sarcastic, which has its own appeal but probably isn’t what the LW is looking for.

      I would not in any way imply that “an opening is imminent” though, b/c any indication that she might be trying to convert him would be like blood in the water for sharks.

      1. I’ve learned to use the “mystical” smile when people ask me questions or express opinions I don’t choose to address, but I also just don’t say anything in response, or sometimes just softly chuckle. It feels really uncomfortable to do this at first, because we are conditioned that it is rude not to answer a question or otherwise respond to someone who directs an utterance at us. But what it does is force the other person to take responsibility for the awkwardness of their question or judgment if they choose to press it. Repeat as necessary. If they are really persistent, they will ask you why you aren’t responding. Then you can say, “Really?” This makes it clear that they are the rude one for exploiting the conversational norm of responding for their nefarious disingenuous ends and for refusing to take a hint, and not you for declining to respond.

    2. ..and as a sincerely religious person myself, I want to clarify I am not encouraging you to “lie with religion.” But it sounds like the meddling is arising from two places of conflict: first, you’re denying an authoritarian sub-culture by rejecting your church’s idea of “acceptable behavior” and substituting your own judgement; and second, you’re putting your soul in peril by being intimate with an atheist while not actively trying to convert him. I would hope that putting a lot of verbal energy into the parts of your faith that are sincere – that God is with you, that you feel sincere love for your faith, that you value religious guidance – them away from the idea that he is putting your soul in danger by focusing on the parts of your faith that are solid and not open to controversy.

      1. Yeah, I think the tricky line here is finding something that you can say sincerely and that does represent your true feelings (I’m assuming you would feel uncomfortable saying something deliberately insincere – on the other hand, if you feel OK saying something insincere, I don’t think you owe them sincerity!), but isn’t so honest and open that it invites discussion or greater analysis. Something that at heart represents the truth of how you stand in this relationship in relation to your faith, but then refined until it’s slightly hardened into something you don’t feel so much personal investment in, is the way I have dealt with similar-ish situations.

        Good luck!

      2. I agree completely.
        It’s not lying for a Christian to use words of faith to speak about their relationship.
        Her faith is what is relevant, and if she conveys complete sincerity in her faith that this is God’s plan for her, she takes away their power.

    3. Or, for something that combines the “shut it down” attitude with the Christian-friendly words:

      “That’s between me and God.”

      Less space for them to explain that sometimes Satan can lie to us and make us only think we’re feeling God’s guidance, etc.

      1. Seconding “that’s between me and God.” It’s a very sweet way of telling someone to mind their own business while reminding them that your relationship with your guy has not destroyed your relationship with God (contrary to all the fears that may be motivating them).

        I used this one to great effect when I was in a similar situation. My situation had the added ick factor that the guy who was pressuring me about being unequally yoked with my boyfriend (now husband) clearly seemed to want to save me so he could have me for himself.
        So many layers of creepy.

        1. Looking back on my teenage years, I have unfortunately been guilty of doing that myself. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ I’m not proud of it. It taught me a lot, though – especially “don’t interfere with other people’s love lives, it rarely ends well”.

    4. I think this strategy is great, and fighting meddling with implacable reflectivity is brilliant. That said, as an atheist, if my partner went around saying any of these:

      โ€œI am thrilled to be living as a witness to this man.โ€
      โ€œThe Lord sure is moving in mysterious ways with him.โ€
      โ€œI feel an opening is imminent.โ€

      I would be pretty upset. In my neck of the woods at least, atheists already deal with near constant suggestions that they are broken, wrong, amoral monsters who don’t know their own minds, whose lives have no meaning, and who just need some Good Christian to convince them to stop being so stubborn and admit they actually really do believe in god after all. To someone who believes any of those things, the lines highlighted above would implicitly suggest the LW agrees with those assessments. Obviously, the LW’s boyfriend might feel totally differently (my official papers granting me powers as Uber Atheist Spokesheathen seem to be lost in the mail), but I would feel like any implication that I would eventually see the error of my ways and adopt their faith would be deeply disrespectful. It’s just one of those dangerous zones where someone in a relatively privileged position can easily, if inadvertently, step all over the dignity of the person in the minority position. Even if said in the spirit of enforcing the LW’s own boundaries, I think that being respectful of your partner means not reinforcing their marginalization, whether that means a male partner speaking out against misogyny, or a religious person not accidentally confirming anti-atheist misconceptions.

      (Hi Awkward Army. I’ve been reading a long time, but I’ve never commented before.)

      1. This is a good point — LW, before bringing out any lines that indicate an intention to convert, you might want to run them by your fella first. Based on what you’ve said, it doesn’t sound like you actually want to convert him, and I hope he’d understand that you are saying those things to get people to leave you alone about your relationship, but better to be safe than to accidentally hit a trigger.

        Myself, I favor the kind of response wherein I earnestly and sweetly refer to the many, many times Jesus exhorts people to follow him, compared to the very few times he tells people to believe something, but that’s partly because I enjoy debating orthopraxy versus orthodoxy and partly because I usually know Scripture better than the person trying to tell me I’m Doing X Wrong, and entirely because I do earnest and sweet really well and it cracks me up inside.

      2. I dunno. As an atheist, I kind of love these responses. Hoist by their own platitudes, as it were.

    5. Ouch. These platitudes really don’t work for me.

      It might be a culture difference (I’m Orthodox Jewish), but to me, as written, these responses sound really smarmy. I’d have a heck of a lot of trouble sounding sincere with any of them, and even more trouble _being_ sincere. Worse than that, I can’t imagine these lines actually stopping any meddling acquaintances who think my spiritual well-being is their business. An observation: religious people of my acquaintance find quick references to scripture and theology a whole lot more convincing if they’re the ones making them, than if you are. (Possible exception: If you are a Rabbi. Possible.)

      If I had to couch boundary-settings in religious terms, they’d be more along the lines of:

      “My relationship does not go against my beliefs. I’m not interested in debating the issue.”
      “I’m not saying there aren’t issues and conflicts to deal with, but I’m dealing with them, and I’m happy with where we are. This isn’t up for debate.”
      “I’ve discussed this with (my parents/my pastor/my rabbi/OTHER) and I’m really happy with where I am. It’s a long discussion, though, and I don’t want to have it right now. This isn’t up for debate.”
      “You might not intend to, but you’re insulting my faith and devotion to God. Please stop now.”

      Here’s the thing, though. Even most of my rephrasings are a step back from the Captain’s, because they acknowledge the meddler’s “right” to inquire about my spiritual well-being. As long as you grant that “right”, they can keep digging and being “just concerned.” And lines like “God is my rock” or “I feel guided” are, in this sense, even worse, because they actually purport to be answering the question – which leaves you wide open for further discussion (“Oh, but have you considered–” “But what about when you have kids?” “Here’s a link to five hundred YouTube sermons about the evils of atheism, thought you’d enjoy :D”).

      If you are living in a community where both (A) people feel entitled to meddle, and also (B) any resistance to people’s meddling is going to be seen as offensive or impious, then that’s a really bad situation. That’s just inevitable, unswerving, pressure against you. (In some cases, pointing this out explicitly to people will help.)

      One other suggestion, though: If you really are looking for a non-confrontational shut-down for “You’re doing something I think our religion disapproves of,” a pretty decent one is to change the topic to some other religion-related subject that you feel totally awesome with discussing. That’s kind of saying “you don’t need to worry or to doubt me; I am still totally committed and religious.” For me, that would be mentioning something I’d studied recently, or the weekly Torah portion, or something going on in my synagogue’s community. For you, I assume it would be something else, but pretty much anything demonstrating that you’re just as strong as you ever were will probably work pretty often, and be a decent deflection.

  5. Agreed with all those providing more Christianese-friendly responses. I think you can also use a fallback catch-all message that can be delivered more sweetly than some of those Jennifer suggested, such as saying very sincerely, “Thank you for sharing your concern.” And then nothing else. They may continue to sputter out their concerns, but if you say again, “Thank you so much for sharing your concern” it should be clear that you’ve heard them but that they’re not going to get any further discussion from you. If they are angry, mean, or overly rude, by all means deploy the shut-down responses above, but if you’re trying to preserve relationships while still holding your ground, I think a broken-record, very sweet, “Thank you for letting me know how you feel” can help.

    1. I have found the broken record method very useful. My standard response to attempts at boundary-breaching from well-meaning folks these days is, “I hear your concern, and I appreciate the care that motivates it. [Subject change.]”

      1. Even better when it’s not actually motivated by care, but just nosiness or concern-trolling.

  6. If you want to, you can them that you have prayed over 1 Corinthians 7, which says that an unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the belief of their wife/husband. St. Paul, bam, done. Okay, I know, you’re not married to your dude at this point. But it is in the Bible that Christians and non-Christians are totally allowed to be married to each other, no problem. In. The. Bible. It doesn’t say that the unbelieving spouse is sanctified because they totally might start believing or anything like that. It treats their unbelief as a permanent state and just says, yep, go ahead and stay with them if the two of you are cool with it–God is not upset by this. (Okay, this is my paraphrase. But still, you can check for yourself how accurate you feel I am being in my paraphrase.)

    1. I’d actually discourage invoking that verse, b/c it will just open the marriage can of worms. A strict interpretation of that verse is that it’s only okay if the two of you were married BEFORE you became a Christian. Which is not an argument the LW is likely to want to get into.

      Don’t use specific verses if you want to shut down a conversation/argument; it will only escalate the “discussion”, because there are almost always multiple interpretations, and it’s unlikely the people you’re arguing with are going to have the same interpretation. It’s fine if you want to have a debate/etc., but since that’s what the LW is trying to avoid, it’s probably best to avoid handing people more arguments to work with as they try to make a case against the LW’s boyfriend.

      1. Seconding this verse on being a provision for people already married or made to marry by their owners (slaves).

  7. Seconding all the wonderful people who are coming up with Christianese responses. I grew up in a conservative environment myself and was asked to leave the worship team, was slut shamed for a v-neck lined top, the works. I feel for you, LW, and hope that everyone’s wonderful advice can help it feel less horrendous.

    The only advice I have is to not take this personally. People make really personal remarks and judge you personally, but they come from a place of religiosity and it’s not really about you. Their comments reflect more of them than yourself… which I suspect from your letter you already know, but it bears repeating.

    Good luck.

  8. I had a similar situation way back when I was 20, in undergrad, and living in the heart of southern baptist culture. Where I lived even if you were another denomination (which I was) it didn’t matter, you couldn’t escape that worldview and its tendency to peep into your business all the darned time.

    Anyway, a bunch of my college friends flipped their shit and said some really mean things to me when I started dating a Jewish guy. They didn’t intend them as mean, of course, and yet…

    The contribution I have to this discussion is: if any of the people in question are actual friends of yours (as opposed to just church acquaintances) you may wish to consider dealing with them slightly differently than the others. I loved some of the deflection suggestions above, but I think with your actual friends, if they’re good friends, you may be able to risk being a bit more honest with them and letting them know that what they’re doing is hurtful. They’re probably doing this because they’ve been told they have an obligation. When they run up against the reality that performing this so-called obligation is hurtful to real actual flesh and blood people they care about, some people will actually learn from this and change their behavior.

    I was fortunate to learn this about a couple of my friends. One of my friends, C, had said a thing that really hurt my feelings. Being 20, instead of saying anything directly, I told another friend about what C had said and how much it had bothered me. The other friend told C about this, and C took some time to think about it, then sought me out a few weeks later to apologize. It was cool to discover that, although there were a great many people willing to just be shitheads about religion to whoever was in their path, I did have some friends who were willing to put a higher priority on our friendship than their supposed religious obligation to be a shithead.

    Good luck, LW! Glad to hear this is a time limited problem, it does suck to be in the middle of, but won’t it be great to be done with these people when you can be?

  9. LW, boundaries may not really be recognized as A Thing in this subculture, so whatever you figure out will need to be sustainable for you. You’ll likely be doing it over and over, even with the same thing. I wish you strength and patience ๐Ÿ™‚

    You may find some encouragement of this blogger Alise, who definitely helped me reconsider my biases on this topic: http://alise-write.com/
    She writes about a lot of other great topics as well, but I found her through this interview about her mixed-faith marriage. http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-a-mixed-faith-couple-response

  10. “I’m praying about it,” is another good all-purpose response to get out of the conversation. (And probably true, even if that prayer is “Please, God, don’t let anybody give me a hard time about Boyfriend today.”)

    I definitely agree with the suggestion to avoid citing specific verses. Getting into a proof-texting war is usually not a good idea. For one thing, anybody can grab verses out of context and make them mean whatever they want (and, let’s be honest, people who try to use their religion to control others have probably had more practice at that than you have). For another, it gives their comments too much legitimacy. If your position is that it’s between you and God, then it’s between you and God.

    For close friends and family members, you might want to have a more in-depth conversation. Not that you have to, but that it might be worthwhile if they’re at least somewhat reasonable. Still not accepting their premise that you have to break up with him, but honoring their concerns a little bit. They might be worried that dating this “bad influence” will cause you to fall away, or that you won’t raise children in the church. On the first point, you can probably reassure them. On the second, you can at least ask them to slow down the Planning Your Whole Life Right This Minute train in a way that shows you’re still committed to the religious beliefs you grew up with. (Maybe “Whoa! We’re nowhere near that point yet! But *if* at some far future date we want to get married, we will definitely make sure we’re on the same page about any potential children’s religious upbringing.”)

  11. Spouse is agnostic. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian sect, my faith is much less… constrained now. It’s focused on using Christ’s teachings on a day-to-day basis to be a better person.
    I believe my life with Spouse helps me to do that, and that I am a better Christian with him than I was before.
    When other Christians question me about Spouse, that’s what I tell them. They feel the conviction of my words, tell me that I’m a witness to him, the Lord moves in mysterious ways, etc, and move on.

    LW is the authority on her relationship with both her partner and God, if she owns it, most other Christians will respect it.

    1. I hope I’m not out of place here, but could someone explain to me what it means to “be a witness” to a spouse? English is not my native language, and while I was raised as a Christian myself, I can’t figure out what that’s supposed to mean.

      1. “Being a witness” is Christian-ese for spreading the gospel. See John 1:6-9 and Acts 1:7-8

      2. Hi, lengarion! Broadly, witnessing is when your beliefs (internal) and/or your actions (external) demonstrate to a non-believer the power and goodness of [Deity / TheTrueFaith] in an inspirational or persuasive way. If, for example, a deceased person is referred to as “a powerful witness” at their funeral, it could mean that they did highly visible charitable works with the church, or volunteered a lot as a missionary and actively taught the faith as a lay person, or just lived what was considered an exemplary tenet-abiding life.

        That word will mean very different things to different sects, so there’s room for confusion. See (http://catholicdoors.com/faq/qu293.htm) versus (http://www.gotquestions.org/effective-witness.html).

        In the US I hear “witnessing” spoken more of in the context of protestant or evangelical faith practices. In the context of this post (which appears to draw from that background) I think “witnessing” in a marriage would mean your spouse has a ringside seat to your travails and religious practice. Because your faith is so powerful, they see firsthand how much strength / serenity you draw from your [Deity] and [Church], and are thereby silently inspired to convert, or at least believe.

        To be super-clear: I am religious but not a Christian. From my perspective, if I consider someone to have witnessed their faith to me, I mean that I saw them perform acts of sincere lovingkindness without making those acts conditional on a belief in their dogma. This would not count as witnessing in some sects (see links above), but it works for me. ๐Ÿ™‚

        1. It is my definition now as well. ๐Ÿ™‚

          I’ve met too many beautiful, giving, love-filled people of different faiths, who are living what my childhood church would call a spirit-directed life (as in being filled with the Holy Spirit) to get hung up on dogma. They were witnessing for their faith, and I think at that level for the concept of faith.
          It takes a huge amount of trust to live that purely without being worn down by the small everyday cruelties we inflict on each other.

  12. LW, is there any concern about losing funding for your final year if your choices don’t meet with the denomination’s approval? As you mentioned it parenthetically at the end of your letter I’m assuming not but if funding is a factor in how you respond to these people I think you might need a game plan tailored to diplomacy (or killing time) lest you get stuck with tuition.

  13. I’ve found a bland, polite, non-engaging response often works well for this kind of thing. My favorite being “Thanks, I’ll think about what you’ve said. So how about [New topic]?” And it’s even honest… I will think about it, for 2 seconds before I disregard it!

  14. Depending on where you are geographically, your most winning smile and:

    “Your concern for me is just so touching; bless your (little) heart, it brightens up my day every time ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ ”

    can communicate STFU, as well.

    Alternately, slow-fade the people who are refusing to leave the matter of your soul in your own hands.

    1. Just noting that it depends on where you live, how openly, “bless [your/their] heart” actually means “what a tool” — the further South you go, the more open this message is, no matter how sincerely you say it (it can be WORSE the more sincerely you say it!). [Thought this might need clarification — I was surprised myself when I found that not everyone knew the implications of this phrase.]

      On the other hand, that can be quite useful!

      I favor silence and the slow-blink stare, but it’s been a long time since I had to deal with Church People who, I know, feel that they have a right to be all up in your business.

  15. My favorite line is something to the tune of, “Isn’t it funny how everybody has their own opinions about religion, and everybody thinks their ideas are correct?”

    This is the politest way I have found of saying, “I have a different religious opinion than you.”

    1. I’ve seen that one crash and burn sometimes, but when it does it creates an ENORMOUS BEAUTIFUL FIREBALL OF OH THE HUMANITY of people who think any opinions but theirs are pure Satan.

  16. I’m a big fan of just flat ignoring this nonsense. Sometimes I’ll do an odd pause, as though the recording has skipped, and then just continue as though they didn’t just say Horribly Offensive Thing. If you include the pause, it’s important to not use that time to make eye contact: just literally freeze with eyes focused either on a distant point or the middle space, then carry on.

    Alternatively, I sometimes just pretend they said something else entirely:

    “Good morning, Miss Nora.”
    “Dear, you should come to the picnic this weekend! We can find you a nice Christian boy and get you away from that godless heathen.”
    “Next month, I think? I’m sure Father David would know when they leave.”

    (this is particularly fun for me, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea)

    1. I am intrigued by your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.
      Re other people’s responses, I agree with the Captain that it has to be clear that their intervention is not welcome even if that means sacrificing niceness. “Thank you for your concern but I know what I’m doing” still means “you were right to express your concern”, because otherwise why thank them for it?

      1. I recently shut down a really offensive display of poking into my health and violating my boundaries from a wootastic yoga teacher (did you know that if you have allergies, it is because you want them and benefit from them??? ME NEITHER) by, when repeating “thank you for your concern but that is not the case” several times didn’t work, saying very clearly “I comprehend your belief system but I am into evidence-based medicine”.

        Apparently some people think “thank you for your concern” actually means what it says, and not “please eff off on a flaming pogo stick”.

        1. Oh golly, I guess the body-wide itching that keeps me awake almost every night is just here ’cause it’s fun! I’m so glad your yoga teacher straightened you out on that. Good reply, at least. Sorry you had to use it. Ugh.

        2. Recently I was walking down the street in Berkeley when a woman stopped me and said, staring intently into my eyes, “Did you know you can increase your karma by not wearing shoes made of animal products?”

          Without thinking, I said the first thing that popped into my head: “That seems unlikely, but thank you for letting me know.”

          About a block later I realized I was wearing canvas shoes.

      2. +1 to this. I think politeness is good, but you don’t want to reward/contribute to cultures of terrible boundaries by acting like they’re okay. In my denomination (Episcopalian), as well, there’s a “culture of niceness” that’s really a “culture of passive-aggressiveness,” and I find it very powerful to just say what I mean: “I know you care about me, but you need to drop this topic.”

  17. I see two issues to be navigated here.

    There’s a joke that Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the messiah, Protestants don’t recognize the Pope as the leader of the Christian Faith, and Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store. Among your “church friends”, it may be possible to negotiate a similar understanding: you don’t bring your boyfriend to actual church events, and when you’re out at non-church events, religion isn’t discussed. I suspect among your church friends/family there are plenty of “non-Biblical” behaviors that everyone just turns a blind eye to, and your dating life can likely be accommodated along with them.

    There’s a bigger worry I have, over the potential for spiritual abuse. When the LW says that their education is funded by their denomination and that “people” at the church are expressing disapproval, that raises yellow flags for me. Churches (their preachers, their volunteers, or any other affiliated persons above the layperson level) should never try to control who you date. If a deacon/elder/outreach minister/whatever is trying to do this, and they have the ability to interfere with funding for your education, that’s a very dangerous mix.

    1. I’d also be prepared for this to get elevated in uncomfortable ways. I’m from that subculture myself and there’s a clearly defined order (talk to the believer individually, talk to them in a small group, with the elders, in front of the whole church). Now that order SHOULD be limited to just if you have sinned against someone else, but some churches will interpert it as any sinful behavior and use that order of pressure/manipulation/confrontation to get you to change your behavior.

      Depending on how badly this could go for you school-wise, you may need to be prepared for several solutions. If you find yourself ambushed into a small group style intervention (and I’ve done this – so sorry!! – and had it done to me) just walk out. They can not make you stay there. If it goes higher and people with authority/power over your education, this might be a “fake it until you can get out” scenario. Say you’ve been praying about this (even as someone else said, it is just that you pray people would stop bringing it up) and without promising anything, use the Christian-ese to extricate as much as possible.

      But mostly if you can seem to use the platitudes to placate the individuals, then hopefully it won’t escalate.

  18. I am a major proponent of phrases that are code for “we are affirmatively changing the subject and not talking about this anymore.” In my family, this is called “let’s talk about animals!” (Which originated when my aunt, the youngest of 5, would try to get her older and politically minded siblings to talk about a topic she found accessible at the dinner table). In my friend’s house it’s “and then one time I found ten dollars!” (good for a “wait, you did? When? Where? That’s cool.” moment of distraction.)

        1. Actual, laugh out loud moment. I am mentally bookmarking this one for the next time I need a conversation escape hatch.

    1. It’s something similar in my family. If someone (usually my father) is stuck on a topic that we do not want to discuss, we will bring up something super obvious and shallow to ‘discuss’.

      “Aren’t puppies cute?”
      “Simply adorable! And kittens! So cute!” etc.

      It works well, and we move off on to a different topic after a brief moment thinking about adorable fluffy animals. (Sometimes it does devolve the conversation to ‘omg! adorable youtube video with cat you haven’t seen? Must show you now!’ but that’s only rarely.)

  19. Not necessarily advicey, but I highly recommend the blogger Libby Anne for her experiences growing up in an extremely conservative Christian home, going away to college, dating a non-approved boy, marrying him, becoming an atheist and a feminist and a mom, and living to tell about it. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/

  20. LW, just a paranoid thought, but you might also want to check that your school doesn’t have a morality clause or the like. If your church is giving you grief, and it’s run by the same denomination, be careful about them torpedoing your career. I’d investigate whether or not you can be expelled for not adhering to the faith’s dictates, and if you can what your options are about transferring.

    A lot of those little denomination-run, fundamentalist schools don’t take federal money and aren’t subject to federal protections, either.

    1. I think this is worth looking into. I think it’s highly unlikely to be directly relevant, but if someone does set out to cause trouble, a morality or conduct code would be the place to do it. (It’s not that DATING would be a conduct violation, but maybe something like sleepovers would be? After-hours visitors in a dorm? Etc). I know you’re not interested in making waves, but it’s good to know what waves someone else could (try to) make.

  21. I wished to add because I also was raised in very conservative Christian churches, and attended a college of the same type.

    My question, since it wasn’t explicitly stated in the letter, is the church you are attending connected to the college in any way? As in, is it the campus’ college or will people getting offended at you there have any effect on your standing at the college?

    The reason I ask is because the college I went to (and its attached church) might start with using verbal disapproval and “lets have a talk” in order to bring students in line, but if that didn’t work, they would move to threatening to expel them next. I don’t know if this is how your college works, but if you know of or have heard of this happening to other students, you may want to consider transferring. Its completely wrong, and you should be able to have your own beliefs without having your academics threatened, but many conservative evangelical/fundamentalist colleges will do this none the less.

    Hoping this is not the case for you! As a side note, I agree with those who advocate being honest about it. You shouldn’t have to lie or tell them what they want to hear just because they would rather not be disagreed with.

  22. Delurking because I have been exactly there. Although I never got very good at handling the conversations about the atheist boyfriend, I eventually did leave the denomination for a more liberal one (best decision I’ve ever made) and I had to talk to a lot of upset people about why I left.

    I found it really worked to use phrases like “I feel this is where God is calling me”/”this has been a real blessing for me spiritually” etc. I tried to find something to say that was true to my feelings but was also basically impossible for them to argue against, essentially.

    And really? If being with your boyfriend is leading you to become a more loving and considerate person, or leading you to have thoughtful conversations about your faith, or any number of other good relationshippy things, then I don’t see how that isn’t improving your spiritual life. It isn’t even a tiny bit lying to say my own atheist (ex)boyfriend was a good thing for my own spiritual life…just not in the ways people expected.

  23. LW, I’m an atheist too and doing my doctorate on ancient Christianity. In case you find yourself in a situation where someone just won’t let go and you want to get them to leave you alone, don’t be afraid to crack out 1 Peter 3: 1Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wivesโ€™ conduct, 2when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.

    The passage is hugely problematic in a lot of ways, but it may be a nice ace up the sleeve for dealing with people who just aren’t hearing you otherwise. Basically, you have a biblical precedent for faithful Christian women being with non-Christians and it’s enshrined in the bible.

    Best of luck with your situation!

  24. As another Christian – though Anglican, so not very like your current denomination I suspect – who had to “pass inspection” at her now-wife’s home church, the one she has attended since she was in Sunday School, full of people who love her very much, I like many of the responses suggested and will add that you can tailor which one you use.

    If this has been your church for most of your life you probably do feel that some people are entitled to ask – once – if you’re sure about this, some few maybe are entitled to actually start ONE discussion, but most members of the congregation need to just leave it alone.

    “I’ve prayed about this, and I will continue to” is a good answer for all three groups. Whether or not you want to add “and I love you for caring so much about me” is your call, you know? It depends on whether you want to back off from you entirely or just drop this subject.

  25. Dear LW, I am not sure that’s psychologically a good idea but my knee-jerk reaction to people like that would be: “With talk like that you are not makiing anyone quit their relationship, you are just driving them away from your denomination. Stop it.” or “You can choose to accept him as he is or you can choose not to deal with me any more.” Tolerance ends where tolerance is not given from the other side.

    As a side-note: Should you ever get married in church my suggestion on a bible verse would be 1 John 14,6: God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. This is pretty Christian, but I am a big fan of this passage, as love, peace, and thankfulness are all super! I used it at my Christian-agnostic wedding.

        Therefore, as Godโ€™s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

          1. Oooh, I like that one too! We’re both United Methodists and getting married in our church, but obviously not all of our guests are Christian and we’re looking to find a balance between what describes us and what won’t make our wedding guests squirm… and not being just totally the same as everyone else.

          2. Celette (we’ve run out of nesting): If you’re trying to be careful about not upsetting your guests, you might want to avoid talking about “God’s chosen people.” Some nonbelievers, or followers of non-Abrahamic religions, may be bothered by the idea that God has chosen only some people. And some Jews may not be happy with a Christian claim to be “God’s chosen people.”

            There’s room for a lot of theological discussion there among those of you who do find the concept meaningful, and you may interpret it more inclusively, but if you’re trying not to make your guests squirm, that might be worth bearing in mind.

          3. Vicki, the judicious use of ellipses is always welcome. (Paul has a rather hilarious way of referring to himself that sometimes needs to be left out, for example.)

  26. That’s icky on all sorts of levels and I’m sorry you’re being forced to live in such a disrespectful environment.

    I have two suggestions – the first is outright silence. Just act as if they never said anything. If they keep repeating it, respond something along the lines of a very calm “I heard you” and just carry on. This has the advantage of being really, really hard work for anyone trying to hold a conversation.

    The second is to totally agree with whatever they say in as short a form as you can. “Absolutely, you are correct *subject change*”. It’s really hard to argue with and has the advantage of making the person talking to you feel like a right nit.

    I really hope you can get out of there soon.

  27. It really depends on the congregation. Sometimes people will accept “I feel that God is blessing this relationship” or “I feel led by the Holy Spirit to be here” or “This is where I need to be right now.” Congregations that trust their members to discern God’s will for themselves (aka congregations that treat adults like adults) will understand this.

    Others… not so much. In the case of the more authoritarian groups, I’d go with a complete subject change. You’re in a Catch-22 with that bunch and you don’t have any good way out except “How ’bout the weather we’re having?” with the more casual acquaintances (which will probably convince them that you are just hard-hearted) or a firm “We’re not going to talk about that” with closer friends.

    I was in your friends’ shoes once, actually. Sorta. My (very Christian) friend was dating a Muslim. The problem was that his family would basically disown them if they got married. She wasn’t going to convert and he wasn’t either and both of them weren’t willing to write off their families. So essentially while they were dating she said that she knew it had no future. Some of our Christian friends wanted to kick her off worship team for “Being a bad leader” for dating outside the faith. I was more worried about her being in a relationship and falling deeper and deeper for a guy that she KNEW she was going to break up with, and not because he annoyed her but because of a thing they knew about now and could already foresee. Know what I did? I held my darn tongue except the one time she actually asked for my advice (then I said it wasn’t the Muslim thing, it was the fact that they both knew they would break up and it seemed to me to be unnecessarily painful to draw it out). I treated him like I would any boyfriend and gave the other students a piece of my mind (Something about let he who is without sin cast the first stone and a grilling about where in the Bible did it say “Do no date a non-believer”).

    Are you completely on your own with respect to Christian friends, or do you have some more like-minded friends? (If you don’t, I can almost guarantee that there are other people like you who are heading for a more open congregation as soon as they can.) They can provide much needed back-up, since they have a slight emotional distance from the issue.

  28. Never underestimate the power of the single word ‘No’.

    And “yay” for you finding someone so awesome. I hope you have a long and happy life together.

  29. I came from a similar environment, LW, and went to a similar college. Back then, openly dating an atheist would’ve gotten me kicked out, or at least investigated. I’ve moved away from that environment and have been trying out more liberal and progressive churches in the past few years. But when I told my mom I was dating (then engaged to, now married to) an agnostic, she flipped. She was afraid for me and vocal about it. My therapist suggested that I share sincere things I loved about the relationship. I was dubious, but gave it a try. I told her that he had never spoken to me in anger, that he cared for my needs in ways I never expected, that I always felt safe to be myself with him. THEN if she had anything else to say, I shut her down with things like, “I don’t need you to understand this, I just need you to recognize my right to make my own decision about it.” Which she did, after a 2 or 3 attempts at bringing it up again failed.

    I’m by NO MEANS suggesting that most people deserve the full treatment here. But I knew she wasn’t just concern trolling, and trying to preserve some closeness in our relationship was important to me. So it may be helpful to have this kind of thing ready for those who are particularly close to you.

    For everyone else, I love the quick shut-downs listed. They’ll gain you a reputation amongst those in your current culture, but that might be a good thing! Good luck in finding a congregation that fits your faith when the time comes for you to be able to!

  30. Ah, LW! I USED TO BE ONE OF THOSE CHURCH PEOPLE! I dropped the “unequally yoked” verse on quite a few friends (some of whom are, by the grace of God, still my friend).

    As a person who used to hound folks for stepping outside the hedge of Christian Appropriateness, I offer a resounding endorsement of the “I’ve prayed about it” line. It accomplishes a few things:

    1. It conveys that yes, you are aware that God cares about your relationship.
    2. It conveys that yes, you’ve taken their concerns into consideration.
    3. It conveys that God is the ultimate authority to you and that even your church doesn’t trump it.

    Even if they think you’re wrong, telling them you’ve prayed about it lets them know you didn’t make the decision recklessly or without consideration of your faith. There’s also no real way for a churchy person to argue back. I don’t mean emotionally or logically–I mean it’s hard to form the words for a cohesive rebuttal to “I’ve prayed about it.” You can throw in that you’ll keep praying about it and if you feel convicted, you’ll do something about it. That pretty much always got me to shut up.

  31. Ahh, there’s so much I could say on this! I’ve been a Christian for 25 years, and I’m now a rather different one to the one I was in the past. I previously would have hassled you for dating an atheist. I’m sure you appreciate that the people doing it mean well, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying, and I would now consider such behaviour to be inappropriate and wrong. I’d say the only time when intervention in someone’s relationship is justified is if that relationship is obviously harmful to one or both parties, and from what you’ve said, that doesn’t seem like the case at all.

    A lot of people are scared of the non-Christian world and adopt a binary view – you’re either in God’s kingdom (safe and secure) or out of it (scary and nasty) and their view is that your atheist boyfriend will drag you out. I think this is an extremely fearful and ignorant way to look at it – I once went to a talk that was a little mind-blowing at the time but now makes perfect sense. There’s no “in” or “out” – we’re either moving towards God or away from him, and we can be at different places at different times in our lives, and that’s a good thing. We learn and grow and develop when we’re exposed to different ideas, and are challenged to think about where we are, and as such, it sounds to me like the pair of you could do great things for each other.

    I’m not quite sure how to deal with people who constantly harp on about it, but be confident in your choices and don’t be afraid to be yourself, and grow and change as you go through life. Nothing has to be forever. If, one day, you wake up and decide you don’t want to be a Christian any more, it’s not an enormous tragedy. It’s a personal matter for you to sort out yourself, and no-one has a right to interfere.

    I hope it all works out for you. It’s not easy, but there’s so much more to life than just whether you believe in God or not, and a lot of people in churches just don’t get that. You deserve a stab at happiness and if you find it somewhere, grab it with both hands. ๐Ÿ™‚

  32. One other thing that I don’t think anyone’s mentioned yet: you’ve said that most of your friends and family disapprove, but how about your parents and specifically your father? Do they approve? I know that in some Christian denominations what your father says pretty much goes, and that might be a conversation stopper if yours is one of them.

  33. I feel as if I know what specific church/domination you’re referring to, but I could be completely wrong. This is something that’s hard for people even when the other person DOES believe in God. My boyfriend’s family I think had some concerns (which he ignored) about the fact that I don’t participate in the church environment and community anymore, evne though I believe in God and always have, just have problems with the church community and the stress that comes with being judged a lot (not something I need). I think these have been good suggestions on how to say “Thanks, but no thanks, I’m fine, and my faith is fine.” Good luck with this, I know it can be really hard to deal with.

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