(Names changed to protect identities)
Vasudha and Anwesh had an idyllic romance. Met in college, married 4 years later. “The change began almost two years ago,” says Anwesh, “an old friend of hers fell quite ill and passed away. She began talking about death, afterlife, the existence of God. Initially I figured she was just emotionally shaken and trying to understand why such a young life left this world.” But her questions did not cease.
A question of faith
“Yes, I was depressed and nothing made sense anymore. But as I dove deeper into these questions, I found my entire life outlook change. Questions not just about life and God, but also about when I give up my power of rational thought? To decide my identity and choices in life? Some identities we are born with and cannot change. And I no longer accepted religion to be one of those.” Vasudha announced her plan to embrace atheism in February this year – the second death anniversary of her friend.
Anwesh shares that he did not take her seriously at first. “As time went on, she seemed very comfortable and accepting of her decision.” All the questions had suddenly stopped. “But how can someone let go of something they have believed all their life, just like that?” He asks. For Vasudha the answer lies not in letting go of something, rather in holding on to what she truly believes in.
Beliefs in relationships
India is home to 33,000 atheists according to the 2011 census. While this number is small, couples like Anwesh and Vasudha pose the fundamental problem of a difference in belief. Except here the difference is a complete lack of belief in one party. Can such a difference end a relationship? Relationship psychotherapist Dr Snigdha Mishra opines that it can. “Such relationships can be an everyday struggle if the two sides haven’t worked out their different points of view,” she says.
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It is difficult to find long-term relationships between a strong believer and an atheist. The first question asked is, ‘what will the kids follow?’ And while that is a challenge even for inter-faith couples, the room for compromise here is even smaller. Another couple, Vivek and Ansh started their love story knowing this difference between them. “Religion has been a big tool to oppress people of varied sexuality and as a gay man I saw no space for it in my life,” says Ansh. For Vivek, society’s interpretation of religion was where the problem lay – “It’s like throwing out the baby with the bath water.”
They are still trying to find a middle ground as their relationship comes close to the 1-year mark. Initially, it was easy to ignore the difference. “I like my alone time with God and Ansh did not really say anything. But now we are thinking of moving in, and I am not sure if I will have my prayer room,” worries Vivek. For Ansh, a prayer room is an insult to his beliefs! And while he drowns that comment in laughter, one can’t but wonder if this is the beginning of the end.
Keep the dialogue flowing
Dr Mishra considers the problem to begin with the role of one’s value system in life. There are values that are intrinsic to who we are, and values we are willing to work on. Religion mostly belongs to the former. She considers it ‘important to work towards general acceptance of these differences – that just because someone believes or does not believe in something – they do not become bad people’. Ask yourselves how important religion is, or as a non-believer, how important its negation is. Forcing either point of view on the other will be nothing but detrimental to the relationship.
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For Ansh and Vasudha, these are the questions they need to ask themselves. If both are happy with their choices, then it is imperative to accept each other’s decisions and think of a way forward. Dr Mishra suggests three pillars – communication, acceptance, and respect – to be paramount to finding a way forward together. Beyond these, a couple can also try psychotherapy if they are unable to find a solution.
As with inter-faith couples, constant dialogue keeps mutual respect and happiness possible. Discuss uncomfortable questions – how involved one will be in the belief centred activities of the other? What will the kids learn? Ways to define the spaces and needs around each belief? – to name a few. Love can initially shroud such questions – time will bare them again. While Ansh and Vivek can decide how far they want to take their relationship, for Vasudha and Anwesh the decision could involve a 6-year-old marriage. Either way, sometimes love does not conquer all.