When I left behind my religious beliefs about ten years ago I was at a loss at how to live in a number of ways. I had organized much of my life around bible studies, church, religious conferences, etc. I was even in the process of looking for a job as a youth leader after college graduation while I was in the middle of my doubting process.
Dating was particularly frightening to me. To be fair, I can’t blame religion entirely on this situation. Brace yourselves for this revelation, but I was something of a socially awkward nerd in high school and thus didn’t get a lot of dates. In fact this lack of popularity was one of the things that made me susceptible to religious conversion in the first place; I was lonely in high school and a ready made social group was a pretty attractive selling point for me.
Unfortunately, being socially awkward tends to create a feedback loop, especially in high school. You need experience in social situations to get over your awkwardness but high school students are not notorious for their willingness to forgive perceived social faux pas. I was actually the brunt of several jokes in high school where people wrote notes pretending to be from a female student who liked me.
I wanted to believe things would change when I got to college, but what I didn’t realize was that my social situation was only part of the problem. I had been through enough negative experiences with the opposite sex effectively kill my courage to act on any attraction I felt towards most women I knew in college.
Of course my freshman year of college was when I got involved with a campus ministry and my “I kissed dating goodbye” came out. The author, Joshua Harris, goes a step further than the traditional positions on purity and dating within Christianity and suggests that people not kiss until they are married, and give god complete control of your dating life. He also advocates for more traditional dating rituals like asking a father’s permission for dating and marriage, which I now recognize for the sexist nonsense that it is.
To be fair, a lot of Christians have criticized parts of Harris’ approach, and for his naivety. After all he wrote the book in his early 20’s while still single. However, excepting the whole no kissing rule most of the ministry leaders I looked up to in college echoed many of the same sentiments. Of course like Harris most of these leaders were in their 20’s and either single or had only been married for a few years. Perhaps not the best people to take relationships advice from but like a lot of people early 20’s we were full of fire and convinced that we could fix the worlds ills if only people would do things our way.
Looking back on this I realize that part of the reason I was so willing to buy into this argument was that even then I was terrified of dating, or perhaps more specifically I was terrified of asking women out on dates because of the rejection I had faced in high school. Perhaps without the specter of religion I would have gathered up my courage and asked more people out than I did in college or perhaps not. What I do know is that this approach to dating allowed me to justify my unwillingness to pursue relationships as being submitted to God’s authority. If I was too scared to ask someone out I could rationalize it not being His will instead of just admitting that I had low self esteem.
I remember one situation clearly, one of the few times in college I decided that god had told me to ask someone out. I took action this time, abet nervously, only to be rejected. I spoke with a friend after this and expressed confusion because I knew god had told me to ask her out. (which I naively thought guaranteed I would not be rejected) “If god told me to ask her out then why didn’t he tell her to say yes,” I wondered in this conversation. I look back on the response I got and realize it was one of the first times I harbored doubts about religion. My friend told me that perhaps god only gave me permission to ask her out, not to actually date her. Even at the time I remember thinking that seemed more like a rationalization than a sound conclusion.
Of course, I didn’t pull a 180 on all of my sexual mores when I stopped believing, but suddenly I was left with the uncomfortable situation of choosing for myself. I had to decide if things like premarital sex were actually allowable, and if so in what contexts. I felt as if I was stuck between two worlds for quite a while, many religious people I knew would have thought I was pretty horrible for even entertaining that question, but I knew that most secular people out there had settled the answers to these questions when they were years younger. I felt out of place with fundamentalist Christians and woefully inexperienced with everyone else.
Even after I had settled most of these questions on a philosophical level to my satisfaction I was still left with several problems. First as I have previously shown I was still incredibly inexperienced with dating in general. Second I was doubly clueless when it came to the rules of dating outside of Christianity. I had spent years being told things about who non-religious people were, and what their motivations were. I knew enough to know that a lot of that stuff was wrong, but I had no idea what parts, or what the right answers were. I had no idea what an atheist woman wanted from a relationship or from sex, nor was a sure what I wanted from those things.
I was particularly afraid that any of the women I might date would be more experienced than me, both in handling relationships in general and sexuality. What kind of person did i want to date or marry? My main requirement from a woman had been that she be a strong Christian. I had no idea what I was supposed to look for now. What kind of things did I want sexually? Would I be bad at it because I was inexperienced? Would I be dumped me because I was bad in bed? I had no answers to those questions. Luckily without the excuse that god would just provide a relationship for me I eventually pushed myself out there. Dating a few people gave me a better idea of what I wanted, and the realization that there were women who found me attractive and sexually competent built up my self esteem enough to get my out of that spiral of self doubt that started for in high school.
To be sure, when I first started dating I did have some bad experiences that I might have avoided if I had been more experienced, but that would simply mean I would have had those bad experiences a few years earlier than I did. It’s rare that a person doesn’t have some bad experiences, and in fact sometimes it is those very experiences that allow you to succeed in future relationships. Christian apologists often warn of the dangers of secular dating and premarital sex, but honestly from my perspective there are at least as many dangers and pitfalls in their solution. A little more than six months ago I met great woman through online dating, we are now engaged and have moved in together. If I followed the advice of my campus ministers I’d wager I’d still be waiting on “the one,” or I would have rushed into marriage with first person who showed the slightest interest out of a desire for sex. Relationships aren’t about some deity or mystical force fating you to be together, they are about people choosing to share a life together, and in my book the latter is far more meaningful than the former.