Atheists Stigmatized in Friendships and Romantic Relationships

Atheists Stigmatized in Friendships and Romantic Relationships

Duane McClearn

July 2020


This essay is a continuation of a look at the Big Survey of atheists, in particular the 4,000 or so from the U.S. Many of the respondents wrote of their experiences of being shunned, denigrated, or otherwise mistreated when they revealed to friends or romantic partners that they were atheists.

First, let’s peek at a sample of atheists and their friends:

I came out to my friends [as an atheist] and I was actually told that being an atheist is worse than being a Nazi.

–Respondent 2342, a 26-year-old, male, nurse in South Carolina


I had a friend and colleague who said she could no longer be a friend to me because I am an atheist. Further, my patients often assume that I am religious (like the vast majority of people in my community) and I am certain that my practice would suffer if my beliefs were shared with them.

–R 2809, a 52-year-old, male, psychologist in Alabama


Friends that I have had for over 20 years, when I debated them (and won) on the veracity of the bible– when I admitted to them that I was an atheist, four friends that I have shared some of the best, and worst, times of our lives, decided I was no longer worth knowing.

–R 2821, a 46-year-old, male, upper-level manager in Texas


I have recently lost friends whom I believed were close to me. They demanded that I respect their religious beliefs while at the same time refusing to respect my atheism.

–R 3284, a 40-year-old male, database administrator, in Texas


My best friend does not know I am an atheist. I will not tell her because I do not want to lose her as a friend. I witnessed her destroying a friendship with someone when she found out he was an atheist, and she told me she could never be friends with one. Her main reason is that she believes they have no morals.

–R, a 27-year-old, female, graduate student, in Wisconsin


A close friend of 20 years told me she can longer be friends with an atheist.

–R 3262, a 57-year-old, female, asset manager, in Michigan

Some notes of interest: We observe friendships that are (or seem) solid until the atheist’s lack of belief is revealed. This one aspect of the friendship is enough to poison it in the believer’s eyes. The atheist is willing to live with the mismatch of beliefs, but the believer is not. One respondent (R 3284) even states that his religious friends demand that he respect their beliefs while they refuse to respect his. The seriousness of the lack of belief in the eyes of the faithful (at least, many of them) is shown by the believer who states that being an atheist is worse than being a Nazi (presumably, this is meant to be extremely bad). We see atheists keeping their views hidden for, quite rightly, fearing the loss of friendships. Incidentally, these few comments by respondents were just the tip of the iceberg. Of the thousands of American atheists who responded to the survey, many hundreds wrote in responses to specific open-ended questions, such as the one about friendships. One frequent pattern emerged: a reluctance to divulge to friends one’s atheism, followed by shunning and denigration when, or if, one did.

Psychological studies have shown that relationships do best when the partners have much in common, including personality characteristics, interests and attitudes about politics and, naturally, religion. So it is not surprising to find that many of the respondents indicated troubles in the realm of romance when their non-belief was raised.

In two cases, I started dating and told the man I was not christian and he eventually stopped dating me when he found a Christian. The second man was okay with me not being Christian, but when he found out I am an atheist, it changed his opinion about me negatively even though he thought just prior to that that I could be “the one.” This is when I joined an atheist group for support. I have been an atheist since high school but pretty much kept my atheism in the closet among most people due to discrimination until this year (I’m 59).

–R 2459, a 59-year-old, female, adoption social worker, in Michigan


I was in a relationship with a believer. She was raised Catholic, but did not attend services regularly. Her parents were fervent believers and very active in their non-denominational church. Her parents did not approve of my open atheism and while I was respectful of their beleifs, I did try my best to answer any questions that she or her parents had. Eventually, she ended the relationship because she “could not see herself in a long-term relationship with someone who didn’t at least believe in a god.” That was over a year ago,k and I have not tried to get back into dating because I live/work in an area where Christianity is taken very seriously and I don’t want to have to live through that kind of rejection again.

–R 2958, a 28-year-old, male, engineer, in Indiana


[I have experienced] massive marital discord and disconnect from having a spouse that is extremely devout evangelical fundamentalist.

— R 371, a 56-year-old, female, retired attorney, in Washington


The only really negative response that I’ve received was from my husband and his family. I am now in the process of a divorce.

–R 3228, a 35-year-old, female, college student, in Arkansas.

As with friendships, many hundreds of respondents wrote of their experiences in romantic relationships. What is presented here is a small sampling. The pattern was similar to that with friendships– strife and rejection.

Many atheists are rejected by family (as discussed in a previous blog), or friends, or romantic partners. Some are rejected by all. As you might imagine, this can carry a heavy emotional burden. For believers who imagine that atheists pass through life in a care-free, hedonistic manner (which is the view of many believers), such is really not the case. The bulk of atheists feel hassled and stigmatized for their lack of belief in God, often from the very people that they care the most about.





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