Dear Doctor George...
I've been dating my boyfriend for 6 months, and we're very happy together, except that he is religious and I am agnostic. We discuss our differences and how they could affect our future (kids), and we agree that we will not try to make each other change.
Recently he told me the reason he would like me to believe in God again is that he loves me, and that according to his beliefs, I will go to hell if I don't believe, which makes him sad. He says no matter what I do, he will still love and support me. I told him I am open to trying to believe again, but it's hard. I am going to a college church group with him to see what it's like. I feel like I'm probably doing it more for him. I find it hard to imagine myself as being one of those people who has "I love Jesus" stickers on my car, or anything like that.
Although I acknowledge that there are many wonderful people who are religious, I've been disgusted by those religious people who are judgmental and base religion on shame, guilt and intolerance.
How can I get rid of my aversion to religion, or at least try to be more accepting of it?
... Agnostic Girlfriend
Dear Agnostic Girlfriend...
The first thing you we should confirm, if not for you then our readers, is the difference between someone who is atheist versus agnostic. An agnostic believes there's a possibility of the existence of a greater power, but that we either cannot know, or that we need to withhold our judgment until we do know, if this power actually exists. In contrast, an atheist denies the existence of a supreme being. That's an important distinction. If you truly are agnostic, you might be open to exploration. If you were instead atheist, there would be no point. Doctor George brings this up so that you can see what you are available for.
Likewise, it is reasonable to see what your boyfriend is available for. Even though he says that he will not try to make you change, it sounds as though he feels you are wrong to be an agnostic. That's an important thing to note. It is equally important to ask yourself whether you are secretly making him wrong for being religious. Doctor George isn't saying that you are. He is just asking you to make sure.
The next thing to consider is whether your boyfriend wants you to have an experience of God or his experience of God. If it's the former, and if you are willing, then we can talk about ways you can explore it. On the other hand, if it's the latter, then your differences in belief may interfere with your having a happy future together.
Let's talk about the first possibility. If your boyfriend is simply asking you to consider the existence of a greater power, then there are many of avenues for exploration: different religions of the world, for example, or feminist spirituality which some women find more relevant to them than masculine religious ideas. With the freedom to explore your own religious feelings, you might find that you do believe in a higher power but that you do not agree with your boyfriend's view of it. If that's okay with him, then you might each have an opportunity to enjoy parallel paths of spirituality. Couples and even entire organizations can come together under a mutual respect for compatible, if not identical, paths. For instance, one of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says that AA members have made a decision to turn their will and their lives over to the care of God as they understand Him.
Doctor George thinks there is always value in learning new things. We often have pleasant surprises. This has been the case when many formerly agnostic individuals explored the possibility of a higher power. For instance, early 20th century psychologist William James shifted from an agnostic position of scientific neutrality to the opinion that there is a supernatural reality greater than the individual self. Most important is that your quest be based on an internal motivation, not external pressure. If your agnosticism has been caused by bad experiences with intolerant religious people, then pressure from your boyfriend may only increase your aversion to religion. You need to be allowed to discover your own beliefs and to do what you feel is right for you.
Now that Doctor George has discussed the prospect that your boyfriend is open to you finding your own path, as opposed to just his, let's talk about the other possibility: that he expects your belief to be the same as his. Doctor George is concerned because of what you said about your boyfriend's being sad that you will "go to hell" if you do not believe in God. While many religions believe in this consequence, many others do not. Your boyfriend's perspective would seem to indicate a fairly rigid view, despite his claim that he will love you no matter what. It might not be the kind of love that you have in mind.
Once the initial romantic/sexual intensity decreases in your relationship, your boyfriend may have trouble sustaining his ability to love you if you have a conflict over religion. This is also true, for you, if you are feeling pressure to explore religion in order to save the relationship. At some point, one or both of you will find yourselves upset with one another, and one or both you will resent the other's views. This unexpectedly occurs in many relationships, which is why it's especially important to heed the warning flags of a predictable future resentment. If your boyfriend really loves you, then he has to let you be who you are, even if that means you are not going to join his church or believe exactly what he believes.
Another thing to realize is that we usually are not in relationship with just one other person. Depending on that person's level of independence, we are often affected by those who influence them. For example, how independent is your boyfriend from his family? If he's not independent, you may be getting pressure from all sides, starting with the wedding ceremony and increasing exponentially when you have children. How will the children be raised? Will they be expected to follow his and his family's religion? Will his family respect your views about how you want your children raised? This concern also applies to those to whom you listen. For instance, are your friends and family also agnostic? Will they be tempted to ridicule your boyfriend's religion when they see an opening (such as when you and your boyfriend are arguing)?
In summary, trying to change yourself for someone else, when you don't really want to, doesn't work. You have to decide for yourself whether religion (your boyfriend's or any other) is right for you. It has to resonant with your heart and soul. Otherwise, you're just engaging in mechanical behaviors that won't hold up in the long run. Your boyfriend needs to accept and love you for who you are, without the expectation that you will change. In America the only absolute freedom is freedom of belief. For a lasting relationship to work, both partners need to allow each other this absolute freedom. If you do not afford yourself this right, then you would be sacrificing a relationship much more important than the one with your boyfriend; you'd be sacrificing the sanctity of the relationship you need to have with yourself.