God is Love? Relationships In a Godless World
Miri Mogilevsky, Ania Bula, Ian Cromwell, Jamila Bey, James Croft

Ian introduces the panel by explaining the pithy phrase that “god is love” but that we have evidence of godless people who do love. How do we square these things?


Ania blogs at Scribbles and Rants, is studying to be a sexologist and has been with her partner for 3 years. She finds relationships very interesting

Beth hosts the Godless Bitches podcast and her husband is also part of a godless podcast. Together 4 years, married 2.

James Croft works with Humanist Community of Harvard and blogs at Temple of the Future. Sees humanism and human relationships as very related: came out after a great struggle during a humanist trip, and humanism allows him to be what he is. Romance is spreading humanism (bow chicka wow wow. Humanism=STI??)

Jamila is a reporter and news host in Washington DC, married 8 years, 1 child and 1 stepchild.

Miri writes Brute Reason, often writes about sex and relationship often about how we can be more communicative and skeptical about them. Gets into consent. Identifies as queer and polyamorous.

Ian highlights that many people don’t understand how atheists can have relationships. So does your lack of god belief have an impact on your relationships of all sorts?

Jamila is the only parent on this panel. The godlessness most affects her parenting because she doesn’t believe anyone else can have her kids’ best interests at heart the way she does. But she also would never have to pull an Abraham. In terms of her marriage, she doesn’t have to tell her husband that he’s the second man in her life. Also naps are sexy.

Ania did not identify as an atheist when she first began dating her boyfriend. Her boyfriend did. This sparked many discussions and eventually she came to terms with her atheism. It’s made their relationship better because they grow together as they explore issues, particularly social justice issues. Other people’s inability to understand atheism has damaged relationships. Family didn’t understand that certain things were offensive or insulting. No more set rules about what’s an ok relationship.

Miri has had similar experiences but she’s never been religious. She did absorb a lot of religious ideology. It was a relief that without religion there’s no reason she has to get married or have kids. Many people assume these things, but they’re not a requirement even if we want to do them. Having no afterlife means that we have to make the most of the time we have with people now. This was part of the reason she chose to be poly.

Beth says the way she was raised, marriage was like a 3some with man, woman and God. Now there’s no intrusion. Plus they came together through Atheist Experience.

Ania has a story! Her parents got engaged after 2 weeks of dating and married 2 months after dating (1 month of which her dad was in Austria). They met at a ball thrown by the church. When she asked them how, they responded that because they met at a Catholic ball they knew they had similar philosophies, so they knew it would work. Although it’s worked out, that’s still a little terrifying.In godlessness you don’t get that assumption. You’re forced to have discussions about issues and you’re more aware of the fact that perspectives can change.

James is hopelessly single 🙁 🙁 🙁 He has two thoughts: when he pursues relationships he tries to keep the core value of humanism in his mind: every person is worthy of moral dignity. The purpose of relationships (particularly romantic) is to try and get the best out of them. His role in a relationship is to get them to be better then they would have been otherwise. That’s the most important moral characteristic of relationships. There’s a lot of scope for being more critical and skeptical about relationships because many of our images of relationships are not helpful. Recognizing that he’s idealized romantic love is helpful for him. The biggest thing for him was coming out as gay (grew up non-religious). Getting involved in queer culture blew open the doors to different kinds of relationships. James finds the intimacy and encounters between people who briefly pass each other to be inspiring/spiritual.

Jamila followed all the rules of how girls were socialized because she thought Jesus wouldn’t like it. Without God she thinks more about what she and the other person would get out of each experience. She wishes she had had that sooner. Most of her regrets are the names of beautiful boys she didn’t take up to her room. She has friends who say things like “I am waiting for the bridegroom”. She’s the demographic that’s the least likely to be married. She wants that, however she is not beholden to waiting on a bridegroom. She doesn’t have to be without sex because Jesus doesn’t like it.

Jesus did say love your neighbor…and if your neighbor’s really hot??

Ian asks if you were not currently attached for those who are, would you consider dating a religious person?

James doesn’t consider religion a dealbreaker. He wants to be very strong on this. He would be concerned if someone said it was a dealbreaker. He doesn’t think metaphysical beliefs count as values, and values are most important. James wants to touch Catholic boys, but certain forms of religion might be deal breakers.

For Beth it is a dealbreaker because her job is to get people out of religion. As a woman she gets her pick of atheist dudes.

Miri falls somewhere between. She would hesitate to say that it’s a dealbreakers because few things are dealbreakers for her. It is very very rare that she feels accepted and affirmed by someone who’s religious. She’s not just an atheist, but she talks about being an atheist and she’s gotten so used to people calling her offensive when she mentions her atheism. It might be her own baggage because she’d see rejection in their talking about their religion. There would be tension in things, e.g. if they had kids.

Ania agrees with Miri. It’s not a dealbreaker, but chances are it informs certain beliefs that she wouldn’t be able to tolerate. She’s also find that religious people tend to be fine with her until she brings up her atheism, then they don’t want to put up with her. She wouldn’t want to have to censor herself.

Jamila at first said absolute dealbreaker, however #1 her husband probably does believe in God. “We are God” is his belief. She is in a relationship with a theist. Were she not to be married, she couldn’t have a relationship with a Christian black person in America. There’s a lot of baggage that comes from this and she doesn’t think she’d ever be welcome at dinner or wherever if she couldn’t say “thank you Jesus”. She has never interacted with black Christians in America who could even entertain an atheist as part of the family. She wouldn’t want a child raised in that. She does like hanging out with Jewish people. Dealbreaker there is genital mutilation.

Ania wants to highlight one of Jamila’s points: it may not be a dealbreaker for us, but for many people it might be.

James wants to reiterate that he wasn’t judging but it was his personal position and he can understand how different situations would make something a dealbreaker or not.

Ania points out that as a gay man, many religious people have to give up some religious beliefs to even be in a relationship with him.

James agrees and says that what attracts him to religious men is the extreme passion for social justice they have. Passion is sexy. Something about reinterpreting religion and reinfusing religion with different values makes it much more acceptable to him.


How easy is it to find partners if you’re not willing to date a theist?

Miri’s met most of her friends and partners through atheism, so no problem. She realizes that’s a privilege.

Ania has no problem finding atheists, she’s on Ok Cupid. Finding feminist partners is harder. She doesn’t want her relationships to be social justice 101.

Miri wants to agree that atheist relationships don’t magically work out, but because of things like Ok Cupid she actually often gets uncomfortable when a guy says they’re an atheist and so they should get together.

How does being a public atheist figure play in to your relationship? Did it factor into your getting together?

For Beth it was everything. She grew up Southern Baptist, then listened to Atheist Experience. She started a blog and wrote out everything she was feeling. Emailed Atheist Experience and started talking to Matt. Their backgrounds are very similar. They’re both ex-Christian atheists. That’s a big deal. That similar experience is what it’s about, not just the atheist lack of belief.

Ian wants to know about shame and the role that shame plays in our relationships. He was raised Catholic and being taught about relationships was basically just SHAME. Since coming out as atheist, it’s been a journey towards what he actually feels comfortable with. So did you ever feel shame, did your move away from religion affect shame, or do you think shame is a good thing in relationships?

Jamila always thought there was something very wrong with her because she couldn’t experience shame. She’s found that those who throw off religion often revel in the fact that they don’t have to be ashamed. There’s a book by Deborah Feldman about leaving orthodox religion. There’s something familiar about the experience of having sex with her husband for the first time and not knowing what to do. Many women feel useless if they aren’t virginal. The liberation of moving away from shame, particularly in sexuality, is amazing.

Miri distinguishes between shame and guilt. Shame is imposed from others. Guilt is about wronging someone else. Guilt is extremely useful. Shame is imposed from without. She feels the same as Jamila in that she didn’t feel shame. She felt guilt, but not shame. Shame says “I am wrong and who I am is wrong”.

Ian requires James to be unBritish and speak before someone else.

James took 10 years to accept he was gay and he doesn’t understand why. He was in theater for his young life and went to a college affectionately called “homo town”. James now refuses to feel ashamed when he doesn’t need to be. He recognizes it and rejects it. He’ll do what he feels ashamed of and then publicly announces it.
In therapy this is how you are taught to stop feeling shame.
Dealbreaker for James is if the partner tries to make him feel ashamed for anything or judges him. He detests culture of shame.

Ania grew up Polish Catholic. Polish community is VERY shaming: everything is reputation based. She used to make herself feel better because she was certain each partner she had sex with would be her future marriage partner. Then she felt she needed to go to confession.

James is so miffed he never got action as a choir boy.

Ania couldn’t admit she was bisexual even though she loved boobs (YAY BOOBS!) She came out to her parents as an atheist studying sexology all in one go. Dad’s reaction was that it was ok because she had a boyfriend at the time. Always felt she had to feel ashamed: so badly that when she had some fear of pregnancy she wanted it to be ectopic so she could get an abortion without shame.

Ian’s father was a Catholic priest. Left priesthood because he was required to give women in his parish advice about birth control.

Beth is like Jamila, fairly shameless. People told her she was an atheist because she wants to sin all the time. BUT being told pre-marital sex is wrong and having a sex drive does lead to cognitive dissonance and requires her to look into her beliefs.

Ania used to be ashamed of excitement and would apologize or shy away from joy or good things. She would feel it even when it wasn’t warranted. She still struggles with it. Apologizes for everything and feels she SHOULD do it.

James thinks she might be British.

Ania’s Canadian so it counts. Understanding how much damage it does is part of what drives her humanism and social justice.

Ian wants to shift topic. We have a couple people who are married, some who want to get married, some who maybe don’t. What does marriage mean in the context of atheism?

For Jamila marriage is her promise to the dude she married that they’ll be together and have the best time they can, and when they’re having a rough time they’ll do their best to honor each other. Life is hard. It’s nice to have something to smile and laugh about: they want to do that for each other.
Seeing parallels here with James’ aim to make the other person better.
Also legal stuff. But it’s whatever they want it to be. It’s a day by day being with each other to make life a little sweeter.

For Beth, marriage is a public declaration of how serious they take their relationship and the intent to be permanent. Also they got a big party. Also legal reasons. Also family. It takes away issues.

Miri agrees with Beth, but she thinks it’s wrong that we view things in such a way that marriage has to make things easier. We should recognize as a culture that other types of relationships can be just as meaningful. It bothers her when her family judges a shorter relationship. It’s hard for people to feel others take them seriously when they’re not married. For Miri it’s a way to force people to see her relationship as legitimate. She would like to say vows, she would like to design a ceremony, she would like to include readings from texts that she finds inspiring. But because there’s no deep religious significance, she doesn’t feel she has to do it.

Ania says legal aspects are REALLY IMPORTANT. Tax benefits, insurance, divorce…these probably shouldn’t be exclusive to marriage, but they are. She does want to get married because it’s a fun way to celebrate love and commitment with friends and it’s a good excuse to have a big party. As atheists you get a lot more freedom to do fun stuff.

James generally shares these perspectives. It would be great to have a reconception of how people can become related to each other legally. Marriage ceremonies are wonderful opportunities to publicly announce to others what is important about their relationship with each other. He recently conducted his first marriage ceremony and they wanted to signify to the community the importance of their relationship and enroll the support of the community. It was great to write a personal ceremony. He’s wholly in favor of people having ceremonies to tell each other that they commit, they should do it regularly.

What advice do you have for atheists who want to change their relationship status in some way?

Miri says the general social advice is to lower your standards. That makes it so much worse. Being with someone who’s bad for you is SO MUCH WORSE than being single. Take time to evaluate what you’re looking for (who and the kind of relationship). Even if you do want conventional things it’s worthwhile to think about it. When you’re single become MORE picky.

Ania agrees. If you’re looking for someone with similar values, get involved with the community or create events. Generally events are geared towards older individuals. This can make it difficult for those who are looking for relationships. Join ok cupid, starting a campus group, going to conferences.

James says it’s good to be ok with being single sometimes, even ok with not looking. Maintaining clear boundaries is good too. If you go out and tell people you’re not looking for a romantic relationship they may not listen unfortunately. James loves dating, even if it’s a bad date.

Ania suggests reading people’s profiles if you’re on a dating website.

Ian says the word penis instantly charms everyone.

Beth has advice for people in relationships. She hasn’t had long periods of singleness. Don’t be afraid to be single. Don’t be afraid to work on your platonic relationships: she was too into romantic relationships and now she misses out on friends.

Ian asks: do you have advice for older people?

James came out late. He has some anxiety about his age: gale male culture is very youth obsessed. James is often attracted to people who are older than he is. We underestimate the extent to which age and maturity can be attractive.

Ania uses grandma as an example. Her grandmother got a boyfriend before she did. She met a guy and offered to cook him dinner a few times (older Polish men don’t know how to feed themselves), now they’re together. Look outside of classic dating strategy. Going to events geared at your age group is great.

Question from chat: How tying sex and dating to spirituality is not necessarily religious.

Miri says this is a holdover from religious teachings about sex: it’s not JUST sex, it’s a MAGICAL human experience. This is why people seem to be resistant to casual sex, sex has to have meaning and subtext. But in general people have a tendency to make things meaningful that aren’t necessarily meaningful. It’s hard to condemn this unilaterally, but we can push back against it because it leads to stigmas.

James agrees that it can lead to stigmas. Pulls from The Culture of Desire: talking about casual relationships. The chanciness of casual relationships is part of the joy: it sets aside much of the judgment and relies instead on a faith in another person. There is a HUGE amount of trust here: the fact that it generally works out takes on an element of the spiritual

Question from chat: is the atheist community phobic or unaccepting of non-monogamy.

Ania: it depends on who you speak to and hang out with. She knows a lot of polyamorous atheists and skeptics. There’s an idea that if they’re out about polyamory and atheism they’ll give atheism a bad rep.

Beth says almost everyone she knows in the atheist community is poly.

Miri got into atheism and polyamory at the same time and through the same people.

Question from chat: religious leaders can provide support for married couples, is there a similar resource for secular couples?

Ania thinks those resources are BAD. Someone who’s forced to be celibate can’t really offer proper advice about what it’s like to be in a longterm, sexual relationship with someone. There are a lot of great secular resources: sexologists, marriage counselors.

Miri cares a lot about this and wants to add that people’s perceptions of the community support they’ll be able to receive affects which community they’ll join and stay in. As bad as priests are, religious people know they exist free of cost. They don’t know they’d have this in secular communities. Professionals are difficult to access. Atheist community leaders would be very helpful. That’s a gaping hole.

James is training to be an ethical culture leader which is like a clergy person for nontheistic communities. He agrees that there’s something about being able to go to someone who shares your values and asking what do you think you should do about these issues in my relationship? This isn’t necessarily the appropriate thing to go to a therapist with. It’s important that they know when to say they’re not qualified.

Question from chat: James said metaphysical beliefs are not necessarily connected to values. But if metaphysical beliefs entail epistemologies which then entail values, how can you say it’s valuable to get a humanist perspective on relationships and not recognize how important it is for the relationship itself?

James rejects the move from metaphysics to epistemology to ethics. It’s an interesting question but too much for this panel.

Question from chat: Is pair bonding or even group bonding a holdover from religion? What is connection between sex and longterm relationships?

Ania says it’s really hard to answer fully without a lot of research, and we don’t want to jump into evo psych. There is some evidence that intimacy from sex does exist because of hormonal responses. There’s also a lot of people who are just happy with one person.

Question from chat: Does panel have thoughts on how to deal with religious family of significant other?

Beth says it depends on how crazy your particular family is. A big part of it is whether your partner TURNED you atheist or vice versa. Beth deals with it by not talking to certain family members. Sometimes you do have to withdraw from family. The child with religious family needs to be very direct about the fact that their atheism is their own choice.

Ania has had to sever ties with her family for some time. When she finally got back in touch she had to ask them not to bring up atheism or blog. She has decided to prioritize her relationship with her partner over her family. When she visits his family, she focuses on the similarity in values. If you can avoid certain topics it can be helpful. Don’t lie if they bring it up, but you don’t HAVE to talk about it if you don’t want to.

Question from chat: what if we abolished all benefits for marriage? Wouldn’t that solve all the problems?

Beth has no problem with it.

Miri thinks that abolishing marriage would be much more difficult and take more time than getting marriage equality. Thus more focused on equal marriage rights.

Ania says that legally it probably won’t be a possibility: this abolishes ability for partners to support each other through insurance, custody, etc. Amount of laws that would have to go into place to replace that, and the amount of harm that could happen if they were removed would be difficult to manage. It should be more open to more people and be more equality based. Abolishing religion’s influence on marriage is more important. State wants more babies which is why they promote marriage.