Soulless Soul Mates

Can an atheist and a believer have a happy marriage?

Can you have a happy marriage if you have different beliefs?
Can you have a happy marriage if you have different beliefs?

Photograph by Comstock Images/Thinkstock.

Now here’s an absurd hypothetical: If I were a single, straight, atheistic male (in reality I’m neither single nor straight), would I be inclined to look for a similarly godless woman with whom to settle down and rear a batch of little baby Berings? I’m torn. Sure, I’d probably be “happier” with a fellow atheist. But there’s also something to be said for marrying a zealot.

On the one hand, I’d no doubt be irritated by my very religious wife’s supernatural beliefs. On the other hand, the very fact that she believes strongly in some divinely imposed morality should influence her behavior behind my back. She may well be suffering a very bad case of the dreaded God delusion, but perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing for her atheist husband. After all, my faithful, imaginary wife would then be operating under the assumption that cheating on me would not only hurt her family if the affair ever came to light, but would result in eternal damnation or perhaps an unhappy plague of this-worldly misfortunes even if it didn’t. Never mind if she’s crazy. I’m a pragmatist, so what she believes to be true is all that matters.

This rule of thumb, that behaviors are motivated by beliefs independent of whether or not those beliefs are true, works just as well for atheist women seeking nonphilandering husbands, and probably also for gay people looking for monogamous partners. In the case of gays, however—and this is why I rendered myself straight in the example—the evolutionary stakes of infidelity are much lower than they are for heterosexual cheating. For straight couples, shared biological offspring carry both parents’ genes, so the risk of a man being duped into raising some other guy’s kid while thinking that he’s “investing” in his own biological child was, and still is, a major adaptive problem for human males. By contrast, children may be adopted together by a gay couple or come from surrogacy arrangements or previous relationships, but in no case can the partners have an equal genetic investment in the child that’s greater than zero. So if my partner cheats on me with another man, or my lesbian friend’s partner cheats on her with another woman, sure, it would probably sting. In the long run, though, such betrayal would have a negligible effect on our genetic success. Try as I might, I can’t seem to cuckold my partner, Juan.

Now, now, Dawkinsian atheists, I know what you’re thinking: You certainly don’t have to believe in God to be faithful to your spouse; marriages are built on mutual trust; religious people cheat, too; and so on. Of course you’re right about these things, but we’re still in the emotionless realm of the hypothetical, remember, and all else being equal, if you’re simply trying to minimize the chances of landing an adulterous partner, you might as well stack the deck in your favor by marrying the woman who “knows” that God would get really mad at her if she misappropriated her genitalia. This isn’t just my being a contrarian, either. There really is evidence from controlled experiments showing that religious thinking and church attendance leads to moral behavior.

Still, I concede that the irreducible alchemy of romance makes my cold logic rather difficult to apply to individual marriages. There are more things to a person—and to a relationship, one hopes—than religious beliefs. But since atheistic bachelors and bachelorettes are very rare specimens (there are no exact statistics available, but just 1.6 percent of the U.S. population self-identifies as “atheist”), deciding just how important it is to find a godless mate is indeed a real issue. If, unlike hypothetical me, it’s terribly important for your partner to share your rigorously rational worldview, then you might find a match made in heaven at one of several online dating sites catering to single atheists:,, and (which promises you a “deity-free romance”).

Because we don’t have any real data on the relative success of atheist marriages or rates of infidelity, and only a few surveys that include marriages between nonbelievers and believers as part of a much larger pool of “interfaith” couplings, we’re stuck in the land of speculation. Given that 95 percent of married couples with children report some religious affiliation, this empirical lacuna is sadly par for the course; from a scientific perspective, we know very little about atheist behavior and psychology in general.

Studies do show, unsurprisingly, that religious homogamy—the extent to which married couples share the same religious beliefs and participate jointly in religious practices—is reliably, and inversely, associated with relationship discord. The greater the disparity in belief and practice, the less stable the marriage. But in this increasingly secular society of ours, a gross match in belief or disbelief in God may do just fine. In fact, there’s a growing trend in which exact denomination matters considerably less for marital satisfaction than does the degree or type of belief. Unless she’s from Northern Ireland, for example, a Protestant woman should get on better with a Catholic man than a Jewish one, since only one of these people is waiting patiently on the Messiah. Still, Protestants may have more in common with religious Jews than they do with strident atheists, and of course a Christian-Jewish wedding might end in bliss. This wasn’t always the case—not so long ago, Christian lawgivers deemed copulating with Jews and other unrighteous souls equivalent to bestiality, and Jews historically haven’t been fans of mixed marriages, either. (I tell you this as Yishai, the watered-down Jew sired by a lapsed Lutheran.) But times are changing. And the above trend works for those on the depleted end of the religious belief scale, too. A shoulder-shrugging agnostic or lukewarm “spiritual but not religious” person, for instance, would probably be able to tolerate an atheist spouse better than a dead-set Muslim could ever hope to do.

If you really want to go the distance in the till-death-do-you-part clause in the vows—or at least avoid spending the rest of your life with someone who thinks you’re none too clever—you’d be wise to find someone just as emotionally invested, or disinvested, in your particular religious views as you are. Sociologist Scott Myers hits the nail on the head here, I think: “Religious homogamy is a couple-based trait that optimizes marital companionship by reducing the need for a spouse to search for similar views outside the marriage.” Again, although we don’t have any real data to go on, this should hold true for homogamous atheist couples, too. And that’s why I’m not quite willing to commit to my make-believe zealot wife; the perfect imaginary atheist bride might be waiting for me with bated breath.

Even without religion, the most compatible couples will inevitably butt heads over everyday things like raising children, the division of household labor, major financial decisions, and work responsibilities. Throwing God into the mix can either ease tensions (if both parties happily defer to the same theological canon or religious authority in how to handle such disputes), or make it exponentially worse (if one party thinks that a priest or rabbi or whatever has as much authority as the teenage waitress at the local Friendly’s, while the other thinks this individual has a direct line to the Creator’s mind). There are loads of things to disagree about in a marriage, but it must be extra hard to kiss goodnight the person who’s still huffing and puffing over some ambiguous scripture, or mumbling about your being a moral nihilist under their breath, or who’s been badgering you all day over the fate of your everlasting soul.

God, that sounds awful. You know what? Screw my hypothetical genes. If the little baby Berings weren’t really mine because my atheist wife had cuckolded me, then the hussy and I would still have a lot of fun raising our darling heathens together.