Friday, May 13, 2011

Dating Someone of a Different Faith: a recipe for tragedy?

Black Socrates knows someone who will think that this blog post is directed at her. It's not, but our conversation did cause me to revisit this issue.

What is a tragedy? It’s a story in which someone (or something) great is destroyed or falls apart, often for reasons beyond anyone's control. King Oedipus marries his mother, kills his father and puts his eyes out. And, tragically, he could have done no other (well, he didn't really have to put his eyes out, but you get the point). Romeo and Juliet's deaths result from a failed attempt to continue a romance forbidden by each of their families. Because of their love and the beef between their families, Romeo and Juliet were tragically led to commit suicide (obviously, ending their relationship).

In the first example, a great king is destroyed by fate. In the second, a great relationship falls apart because of a family feud. Notice, however, that while Oedipus could do nothing to avoid his tragic demise, Romeo and Juliet could, and did, take steps to prevent their tragedy. They were not completely complicit in the demise of their relationship. They fought for what they had.

Some tragedies are inevitable. Others, we can take steps to prevent.

Here's another type of tragedy: a potentially great relationship falls apart because the parties involved have different religious beliefs.

Now, my question is this: are tragedies of this type inevitable or can they be prevented?

First, let's get clear on the type of situation I have in mind. Jamal and Jasmine meet at a party, they go out a few times, have great chemistry, similar interests (surprise, surprise, they both hate Tyler Perry movies) and agree on the big issues (abortion, gay marriage, progressive taxation, etc). But one day, Jamal, a somewhat committed Christian, finds out that Jasmine is an atheist. He decides that this is a deal breaker and, reluctantly, stops seeing Jasmine.

I’m going to argue that Jamal should have taken steps to prevent this tragedy. That is, that one should not view a difference in faith as an automatic deal breaker.

Let’s assume for a second that the god Jamal believes in exists and does not want him to seriously date or marry a non-Christian. Jamal cites 2 Corinthians 6:14 as evidence for the latter claim:

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”

Remember, we’re assuming that Jamal and Jasmine are great together and could come to love one another. If Jamal knows this, it seems that Jamal should view god’s restriction as unjustified, just as Romeo viewed as unjustified the restriction that prevented him from dating Juliet publicly. He should rebel against this god as Romeo did his family.

If a tragedy does result from this situation (say god temporarily paralyses Jamal every time he attempts to go out with Jasmine), the blame should fall solely on god (as it does on the Montagues and Capulets). In other words, Jamal shouldn’t be complicit in the tragedy. He shouldn’t view Jasmine’s atheism as a deal breaker.

Let’s now consider another situation, one in which Jasmine drops Jamal when she finds out that he is a Christian.

Of course, Jasmine wouldn’t end things with Jamal because she believed it to be god’s will, but she could have other reasons. Say she just has an extreme hatred of religion and can’t stand to be with somewhat who believes in god(s). In fact, say Jasmine finds herself unable to fully respect religious people and always feels the need to correct their beliefs. She’s really feeling Jamal, but doesn’t believe that she could ever come to love him knowing that he is a Christian, and cuts things off.

Jasmine too should take steps to prevent this tragedy from taking place. Jasmine should recognize that people end up believing in god for all types of reasons: because the belief makes them feel good, because it allows them to cope with some tragedy in their personal lives, because they grew up religious and were never placed in a situation in which they were required to question their beliefs, because they fear death, etc.

While she may not respect Jamal’s beliefs, she could come to understand why he holds them and, in turn, come to terms with that part of his life. As long as Jamal isn’t a religious nut (not bombing abortion clinics and refusing to listen to hip-hop “because it’s the devil’s music”), Jasmine should not let his belief in god (in itself) be a deal breaker.

If a tragedy results from this situation (say Jasmine’s atheist friends sabotage the relationship), Jasmine should not be complicit in it.

(Of course, there’s always the issue of children. Jamal will want to raise his kids in the church, while Jasmine will likely be appalled by the idea. But, I’ll address this issue in another post. Really, I think it can be easily resolved.)

Clearly, we only have so much time in this world. Regardless of what you believe about death, you know that death will be the end of this type of existence. Folks aren’t dating in heaven.

While you’re here, don’t be complicit in a tragedy. Don’t let a difference in faith be an automatic deal breaker.


  1. Clearly Socrates, you have never dated someone who was seriously religious, bordering on fanaticism. It is a recipe for disaster and should be avoided at all costs. The example of Jamal and Jasmine that you provide above, is really optimistic. He is not a zealous christian and she is not rigid in her atheism so they will have successful relationship because they are both willing to compromise. If a person is truly an devout Christian, Jew, muslim etc. They wouldn't even consider dating someone of a different religion because it would compromise their relationship with God which supposedly is an important aspect of their being.

  2. But what is love? And what is religion? To some, love may simply be physical attraction or unconscious codependency. What if religion is actually malevolent, sinking one so deep in self-deception that no "real" progress in truth-seeking can ever result?

    Because I am interested in truth-seeking, I could never have a "serious" relationship with someone who defines self so narrowly as to be labeled with a religion: "I am Christian"; "I am Muslim"; "I am a Buddhist." I would ask: "Is that all you are? Is that all you believe? Is that what you KNOW or what you HOPE?" In other words, if you aren't actively truth-seeking, what meaningful things would we have in common? How could we "love" each other, other than through superficial similarities?

    The "loving" relationships I see in this world don't really impress me. I see a lot of abstract tolerance and enablers intoxicated by "love" to the extent that they prolong destructive, pathological relationships. I think that we know so little about ourselves that we can cultivate friendships with people we have nothing in common with -- not because we are benevolent and kind and tolerant, but because we don't know enough to be actually offended by false beliefs, lived lies, and delusions of all sorts.

    I am actually offended by religious people: offended that they would look to a "higher authority" to define them; offended that they have stopped looking outside of their assigned religion for answers; offended that they would think because we share the same human shell that we are on the same mission with the same thoughts and sensibilities.

    I just can't twist my mind around enough to make a voluntary relationship with a religious person worthwhile, unless that person was consciously searching for a way out of their narrow belief system and I was to help them through it.

  3. I just wrote a looooong response that was deleted by the google (probably for the best.) We should talk about this in person, though, because you are totally misunderstanding/misrepresenting the position of the believer on this.

  4. Sabrina, I appreciate your comments. Two things: (1) I do think that many religious people are seeking truth. Ask Meghan, she will tell you that Christianity isn't simply a set of beliefs, but a process.
    (2) I've learned (I think) to make contact with a person's personality. And I think I can now love people who believe differently than I do, because I can see who they are. Some people are really caring, some hilarious and some assholes. If I see good qualities in a person, I latch on to those and try to downplay our differences.
    We're all going to die. Life is better when you learn to get along with folks.

  5. Meghan, thanks for your comments and our conversation. Clearly, there's a point at which Christians and atheists become unable to communicate. I think we did pretty well before reaching that point.

  6. Why is it so justifiable for Jamal to ignore what he otherwise believes to be god's instructions? If he ignores the instructions of god he believes to be senseless, thus abiding by only the sensible ones, then doesn't he just write god out of the picture and live his life solely according to his own sensibilities? I think your argument downplays the importance of god's instructions in religion.

    I think the real solutions for interfaith marriages are either (1) the religions don't prohibit it or (2) people don't really take their religion all that seriously.

    I'll add that I'm firmly agnostic/aetheistic (depending on the definitions, another interesting topic), but I have no problem that my girlfriend is religious (somewhat) because there are many other aspects of her personality and our relationship besides religion.

  7. Real truth-seeking, to me, precludes the need for a label. Therefore, I am not atheist or agnostic or Christian or Jewish or a Satanist or any other conceptual group with pre-established ideas that I must accept in order to honestly be able to wear the label.

    It made little sense for Kierkegaard to call himself a Christian when he did more truth-seeking than probably 99% of the human population, including many atheists. And he was very critical of the christian church; but today he is claimed by it. A mistake of his if you ask me. At what point does your questioning undo your label?

    Jesus was also critical of the established church; now he is its centerpiece. I ask again: What if religion & the church are malevolent? Instead of helping people cultivate their OWN serious ideas, it helps them casually accept someone else's, and then defend those beliefs?

    People want to belong -- I understand that. But because of that, I am somewhat indifferent to kindness: I prefer authenticity. How can you be kind to me, or have a good personality towards me, if you don't know me? The check-out lady at the grocery store is "nice" to me, but she is nice to every customers -- not because she knows each customer extremely well and thus loves and respects each one, but because it is her job to be nice and has become, to a certain extent, automatic.

    I want a person to know me through and through before the are "nice" to me. I want them to singularly be on the truth-seeking path. Yeah, I would have accepted Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nat Turner, or Faulkner as friends, but only because their truth-seeking shined through the ridiculous religious labels they accepted during their lives. And they struggled within their narrow belief systems to the point that their writings often bared no resemblance to the writings of an actual Christian.

    I say, one of the first signs of a truth-seeker is to consciously contradict the label you have assigned yourself; the next is to discard the label itself.

  8. Michael,

    Thanks for the comment. I think my argument is best understood as an argument for the conclusion that, if possible, one should not interpret god's instructions as prohibiting inter-faith relationships.

    I think people also rely on arguments of this type to reach the conclusion that the god they believe in would not send good muslims, agnostics, etc to hell for being non-believers.

    The argument goes something like this: If such a god did exist, there would be reason to rebel against him. I don't have reason to rebel against the god I believe in. Therefore, a god that would send all non-believers to hell doesn't exist.

    Though, my argument could also be interpreted as an argument for the conclusion that one shouldn't be a Christian. Of course, I agree with that conclusion, but I haven't made a full case for it here.

  9. Sabrina,

    Great comment. I'll say this: I agree that there is a sense in which one should withold from labeling oneself while one is seeking truth. But, are we always to consider ourselves truth seekers with regard to all of our beliefs at all times?

    It seems that if one is a truth seeker, one should also have some notion of what it is to find the truth.

    Certainly we can always open up old cases, but it's okay to shut some. Right?

  10. I agree that old cases can be shut down. People have realizations everyday. But I don't think there is one person alive today who knows the entire truth of what we are and why we exist. And that is the truth that really interests me.