Yes, atheists can marry theists – there is no law against it. Although several churches, especially the Catholic Church, will not marry their adherents to non-adherents. Try to convince a priest of your local Catholic church to marry a Catholic parishioner to an atheist.
While there are no laws against it and many churches could not care less (Perhaps they secretly hope the marriage will convert the atheist?) I personally do not recommend this type of marriage. Allow me to elaborate…
The problem is that someone has to give up his or her beliefs completely, keep them in check, or both have to significantly compromise on their beliefs. Many times, they have to keep their beliefs hidden or subdued in order to keep the arguments at a minimum.
When the difference is religious beliefs (such as a Christian marrying a Muslim) at least there is a common thread; a belief in god(s).
When the religious difference is the lack of belief, then the problem becomes more complicated. One of the couple will feel pressured into discounting their beliefs for sake of the other’s beliefs or making compromises that they normally would not make in order to “keep the peace.” Either way they are giving up their beliefs for the wrong reasons.
I know a few couples that have made it in their marriage by keeping the subject of religion off limits. One goes to church on Sunday and the other stays home. One says grace before eating and the other digs right in. One says prayers while the other is falling asleep.
There is a catch: they do not have kids. When children enter the equation, things start to get complicated.
How will they raise their children? Will they raise the children Christian or atheist? Who will make that determination? When children are born then religion will become a hot topic in the house. A topic that will force someone to cave in, which can cause an underlying resentment in the marriage. Resentment can destroy a marriage from its foundation.
Can it work? With hard work and lots of compromise, understanding and giving up a little of one’s personality – yes. Do I recommend it? Nope.
I know more couples that have divorced because of religious differences. Recently in the news was the break-up and divorce of Ted Turner and Jane Fonda after Jane Fonda was born-again. They could not live together amicably after Hanoi Jane found God. Jane was cheating on Ted – cheating with an invisible man.
Besides the public limelight of Ted & Jane, I know of many everyday couples that have suffering marriages because of religious fighting. I know of many everyday couples that are divorced because of that fighting. One of the couple becomes an atheist and the other does not. One becomes born-again and more devout (the most radical Fundamentalist is a born-again) while the other remains liberal or a non-believer. This major social clash causes major conflicts (especially when children are involved) and resentment.
I will grant the exceptions. I will even grant that in some countries this does not seem to be much of an issue on the face. A recent writer from Brazil informed me that in her country there is no strife over this issue. However, when I raised the issue of children she said that most children went to Catholic school, regardless of the parent’s religious differences.
When it came right down to it, the issue of raising children in a religiously mixed household was still an issue – even in the very liberal area of Brazil – whether it was a in-your-face social issue or not.
In America, we have made it an in-your-face social issue. Catholic schools and private religious schools compete with public schools. They bicker amongst each other and their denominations. Many churches have their own schools. Where I live there are two Baptist schools, one Assembly of God school, two “non-denominational” schools, and four Catholic schools. That does not even begin to touch all the religious colleges in the area; from Jesuit to Baptist.
Parents brought up in different denominations or with differing religions and religious beliefs, bicker over which school the child will attend. One thinks a public education is better but the other parent wants the child to learn Creationism instead of biology.
Even in my house, where atheism, agnosticism, and Unitarian Universalism reign supreme, the children are often the brunt of arguments of religiosity. Is it okay for them to go to Sunday school with a neighborhood friend? What church is it? How radical is that church? Can they attend the Vacation Bible School their friends invited them to attend on Sunday?
I often look back on the arguments we have about my children when it comes to religion and laugh. I laugh because it all seems so trivial compared to the arguments that occur in a mixed house. Imagine the strife created when a Baptist mother tells the Catholic father that her children are not going to Sunday school at the church of the whore of Babylon!
While I jest, this issue is a serious one for many couples in the United States – where religion plays a prominent role in the social structure of our society. Religious pressure from family and friends and within the marriage can create resentment and hostility – two things that can destroy a marriage’s foundation.
As I said above, I will grant the exceptions – as not everyone is so deep into their religion that they create a problem where no problem should exist. I have received several emails from religiously mixed marriages that aver that they are doing fine. Out of all of the ones that I have gotten – only a very small percentage had children and of those only a couple had children that were in school.
The non-mainstream religions tend to do the best when it comes to raising children and working out these issues of religious education for their children. Buddhists, Wiccans, Pagans, Unitarian Universalists, and other “minor” religions seem to work the religious education issue out more efficiently.
Looking at those statistics it seems that perhaps religion is not really the issue that creates the strife – perhaps it is the dogma. The more dogmatic religions have the hardest time resolving the marital and religious education issue.
As for me, I allow my children to go to religious gatherings with their friends. I trust that I have raised them to think for themselves. Obviously, I draw the line in some cases. I did not let my children go to an Assembly of God church with their friends because the church in Mobile is radically fundamentalist and participates in rituals that I consider unethical.
I wish everyone that gets married the best of luck. I wish you even more luck when children enter the equation, especially in a household with opposing religious views.