Thoughts on the Occasion of My Marriage

If you’re a regular reader, you probably know that I got married last month. Until now, I haven’t said much about the event itself on Daylight Atheism. But now that I’m back from my honeymoon (slightly sunburned, but happy!) and I’ve had some time to reflect, I wanted to put into words some of my thoughts on what marriage means to me, as an atheist, and explain why I chose to enter into it.

But first of all, let me address the most obvious question: Should an atheist even want to get married? Isn’t marriage an intrinsically religious ceremony? After all, weddings usually take place in churches (yes, ours was in a church) and are conducted by clergy (yes, we had a minister – more on this in a minute). Doesn’t that mean that a committed atheist should refuse to enter into one?

I do acknowledge that, for most of Western history, marriage has been performed in a religious context. However, I don’t concede that this makes it an intrinsically religious ceremony. Rather, it’s because organized religion has always tried to take exclusive possession of whole areas of human life, and proclaim that it alone owns these experiences which are common to everyone. Just so in this case: marriage is fundamentally an expression of love, and religion doesn’t have a monopoly on love. Atheists seek companionship, fall in love, and pledge our commitment just as theists do. Why, then, should we not mark the occasion with a marriage ceremony? Why not take the ritual, strip out the religious trappings we don’t accept, and reclaim it as a secular, human rite of passage that nonbelievers also participate in?

And that’s just what my wife and I did with our wedding. We planned the ceremony to match our beliefs, keeping the traditions we accept, omitting or changing the ones we didn’t. We’ve been attending a Unitarian Universalist church for the past year, an entirely dogma-free religion that emphasizes ethics and community and has no requirement that its members believe in God or anything supernatural. The ceremony was at Shelter Rock, a huge, gorgeous UU congregation on the north shore of Long Island, and was performed by our minister, Hope, a wonderful woman whom both of us respect deeply.

So then, back to my original question: Why did I, as an atheist, choose to get married?

First, there are the practical reasons. It sounds tactless to mention, but I’d be lying if I said I never thought of it: Marriage isn’t just a religious rite, but a civil ceremony that brings considerable civil and legal benefits, including many that are impossible to obtain any other way.

Of course, these protections are held out as an incentive to couples like us, even as they’re denied to gays and lesbians. That these civil benefits are denied to mature, consenting same-sex couples due to religious prejudice is something both my wife and I feel passionately is a grave injustice. That’s why we chose the following passage to be read at our wedding. It’s an excerpt from Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, the case where the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to forbid marriage to same-sex couples. Even in the dispassionate language of the court, this ruling was full of poetry:

Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations.

The union of two people is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any.

Without question, civil marriage enhances the welfare of the community and is a social institution of the highest importance. Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family. Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and a connection to our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.

But there was more to my decision than this. Although the civil benefits of marriage are non-trivial, even without them we would have gotten married anyway, and the last paragraph of that ruling hints at why.

I said that atheists feel love just like everyone else, but I want to say more than that. I believe that love is the quintessential human emotion, the one that most truly defines us, that inspires all our noblest endeavors, and that gives expression to what is best in humanity. But love, by its nature, demands to be shared. If kept secret, it stagnates into mere obsession; but if shared with others, it is multiplied. Like one candle lighting others, it spreads without diminishing its source, and brings greater joy to every person who partakes of it than any of them could have had alone.

This reasoning is both why I got married in the first place, and also why we had a ritual to mark the occasion. I believe that life’s challenges are better confronted together, rather than alone, and a two-person partnership is the simplest and most stable way to accomplish that.

At the most fundamental, our marriage isn’t a civil ceremony or a religious rite, but a mutual obligation, a promise given freely and in awareness of its weight and solemnity. We pledged to make our partnership an enduring one, to remain faithful and true to each other, to share our happiness and support each other in times of trouble. And it makes this pledge all the more weighty that we made it not to each other in private, but before our gathered family, friends, and loved ones. We invited them to be there because we wanted them to bear witness to our decision, but also because we wanted to share our joy with them!

My wife and I have both found much good in our partnership: we complement each other’s strengths, we comfort each other in times of pain and sorrow, we challenge each other to grow and mature, and we’ve each found that the things we love separately are even sweeter when shared. And that, more than any other reason, is why an atheist like me got married: because when you’re in love, you want to tell the world.

And it’s in that spirit that I’ll close out this post. We wrote our own vows for the ceremony, and if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to share mine:

Dear MissCherryPi,

Before we say our vows, I want to tell you why I’m here today.

You know that there are some things I don’t believe in. But today, I want to tell you about some things I do believe in.

I believe in sunrises and sunsets.

I believe in hikes in the woods and walks on the beach.

I believe in traveling the world and exploring places we’ve never been before.

I believe in good books, good conversation and laughing at shared jokes.

I believe in picking pumpkins in autumn, decorating the tree for Christmas and drinking champagne on New Year’s.

I believe in watching fireflies on summer evenings and stargazing on dark clear nights.

I believe in all the beauty, the mystery and the wonder of life, and I believe that these joys, like all joys, are multiplied when you have someone to share them with. And I’m here because I want you to be that person.

There’s no one else I’d rather spend my life with. I love your shy smile, your sweet laugh, your sense of humor, and your adventurousness. And most of all, I love the way you make me happier than I thought anyone ever could. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why I’m marrying you today.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BJ Marshall

    Well said. Congratulations once again on your wedding, and thanks for sharing your vows. I enjoyed reading them.

  • Maynard

    Very nice. Thanks for sharing.

  • Nathaniel

    Sniff… Dat was beautiful man.

  • M Sheehy

    Congratulations! This post is very inspiring to me, as I myself was just married a little over a week ago. My husband and I decided to have a humanist wedding; it was out doors in a beautiful little park. We simply couldn’t go with a traditional ceremony, reciting promises to a god we don’t believe in. The focus was definitely on our mutual respect and commitment to each other.

    Again, congrats and thanks for sharing!

  • unintentionalhypocrite

    The end brought tears to my eyes. It was very nice of you to share this, and best of luck to you and your wife for the future.

  • Kari

    Thanks for this – I have been thinking about marriage and whether I should or could overcome the religious connotations. This makes a great arguement for why I should.

  • Sarah Braasch

    Wow. I love both of you. Those vows made me cry. So beautiful.

    So many congrats to both of you.

  • Valhar2000

    Ebon, wasn’t your wife Catholic?

  • Dave

    Awesome!

    Some friends of mine had a semi-Catholic ceremony (to make the family happy), and the officiant hadn’t seen the vows they’d written beforehand.. so when he read them out loud at the ceremony for them to repeat he stumbled a bit:

    For richer for poorer (repeated)

    In sickness and in health (repeated)

    Until the…. (looooong pause) … heat death of the universe!? (repeated gleefully)

  • Katie M

    Man, my eyes are watering . . .

    . . . no, it’s just allergies, I swear!

    Thanks for this :)

  • ArtyB

    Oh Ebon, your vow was sweet and gripping. What struck me most was your statement that “… love, by its nature, demands to be shared. If kept secret, it stagnates into mere obsession; but if shared with others, it is multiplied.” How poignant!

  • http://1in7b.blogspot.com Bechamel

    Please, please tell me you actually started your vows with “Dear MissCherryPi”. :)

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Dave,

    if I ever get married, I am so freakin’ stealing that!!

  • Andrew T.

    This is an eloquent piece. I’m happy for both of you, and wish the best!

    I’ve self-debated the topic of marriage from time to time: I have yet to fall in love, so I have no particular desire to engage in it yet. Also, I sometimes feel that as long as the benefits are denied to GLBT people, by marrying I’d be lending credence to a bigoted institution. But I have no idea where future personal relationships (and societal developments) might lead…

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    I had a good friend get ordained over the internet, and he did the ceremony for us. It was so convenient our wedding planner actually got herself ordained to, so that at future weddings she could fill in “just in case.”

    Congrats again, Ebon & Mrs. Ebon!

  • http://www.ceetar.com Ceetar

    Please, please tell me you actually started your vows with “Dear MissCherryPi”. :)

    Still think it should be MrsCherryPi. He did do a good job of memorizing them so he didn’t have to fumble with notes though. :-D

  • MissCherryPi

    Ebon, wasn’t your wife Catholic?

    Yes but I stopped going a few years ago. I sought out Unitarian Universalism because I missed the ritual and spiritual connection I got from mass. I found that and an amazing community. It’s not for everyone but it works for me.

    See also: http://www.daylightatheism.org/2008/04/an-atheist-in-church.html#comment-34463

  • MissCherryPi

    @Ceetar I was considering posting as MsCherryPi-Muse but did not want to confuse people. I kept my name IRL so why change it on the internets? ;)

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com Erika

    Beautiful

  • Joel Wheeler

    Well, this gay is ALL choked up now! Thanks for that, absolutely lovely.

  • Vector

    This is…a beautiful, inspiring piece. It reminded me of what I truly want in my own life; something that I’ve been taking for granted all because of a desire to be “right” rather than be happy.

    It’s touched me at my core and reaffirmed something that I fully believe in as well.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    Congratulations on your marriage! Your vows sound absolutely beautiful; a personal touch sounds much more meaningful than the formulaic vows. All the best to both of you.

  • TommyP

    Ebon, not only are you intelligent, but you’re also a mushball and handsome to boot. I think your wife is very lucky, and so are you. I wish you all the joy and happiness possible, all the rest of your lives. I totally melted reading your stuff, awwww shucks!

  • Myself

    Let’s start with the definition of dogma:
    a religious doctrine that is proclaimed as true without proof

    You said UU is a dogma-free religion. Since I’m super curious I followed the link you provided and found out that they DO have at least one dogma I found: they believe in souls.
    “Spiritual growth is a lifelong pursuit. We’re here to learn and grow, the ultimate goal of which is the cultivation of our souls, the unfolding of our powers and capacities as human beings”
    Wanting to share your joy with family and friends is perfectly understandable.
    I’m an atheist myself as well as my husband and indeed we wanted to celebrate our social contract as well.In our situation, we hired an officer and had a lovely reception after saying our vows, interchanging our wedding rings and having signed our civil marriage. Churches are not a must.
    I’m not judging you or picking on a discussion with anyone.
    I’m just saying there were different ways to celebrate a wedding rather than having it at a church just because “that’s the way weddings go”. But it’s always a matter of choice.

    Anyway,
    Congratulations!

  • Lynet

    Congratulations and best wishes, since I haven’t said that to you yet and want to.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    And that, more than any other reason, is why an atheist like me got married: because when you’re in love, you want to tell the world.

    Hear, hear! Congratulations again to the both of you, and I wish you two the best! And thanks for sharing with the innernets.

  • Valhar2000

    I kept my name IRL so why change it on the internets?

    Blasphemy! Political correctness gone wild*! Won’t somebody please think of the children?

    * Now available on DVD and Blu-ray!

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    You’ve written many fine posts over the years. This is certainly one of the finest. Thanks for sharing some of your private moments, thoughts and feelings with us.

  • http://homoheretic.wordpress.com/ Homo Heretic

    That was an amazing post. Being gay, I think perhaps an inordinate amount about marriage, but I think you summed the subject up beautifully. I didn’t know about the passage from Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, but it’s so perfect I might have to use it when I get married, assuming personal and societal stars align.

  • L.Long

    Marriage has been secular to some extent since the 17th century as various countries started making laws to protect the ex-wife/widow from being phucked by everyone.
    There is only one reason to marry and that is to be accepted by society at large.
    Try getting in to the hospital to see the ‘husband’ and not be married.
    Try help kid at school with the way the rules are written these days…all because the religIdiots got a hold on gov’mint 1st.
    Good luck on your future all it takes is very hard work, compromise, and always admit you’re wrong.

  • JulietEcho

    Congratulations! I love that you included that selection from the Massachusetts ruling. It’s very much the opposite of what happened at a wedding I attended last year, where (despite the gay brother of the bride being in the wedding party!) the minister harped on and on about how marriage was ONLY for a man and a woman to share under god. It was The Office levels of awkward.

    Anyway, this post is beautiful, and you both sound fortunate to have found one another :-)

  • http://www.lavenderliberal.com/ Buffy

    Congratulations! May your marriage be long and happy.

    I realize that some religious individuals/groups like to pretend they own marriage, but it’s actually not a religious institution. Non-religious individuals have been marrying for centuries. I’m an atheist married to an agnostic (going on two years now) and we were married in a hotel banquet room by a non-religious officiant.

    As far as I’m concerned, marriage has nothing to do with religion unless a person wants it to. It’s a commitment two people make, presumably for a lifetime, that carries certain rights and obligations with it.

  • http://zengh98purplelake.spaces.live.com/ Hu Zeng

    おめでとうございます!Congratulations!

    A wonderful post and I should have wrote my own marriage vow as well. But I guess I may never have a vow as beautifully written as you have done. Thank you very much for sharing! My best American friend is also a UU church member and I attended his wedding in such a church in Milwaukee. It’s a wonderful, truly memorable experience.

  • Kennypo65

    Mazeltov! Thank you for sharing this with the rest of us. I wish you all the best. Personally, I’ll only get married if someone gets me pregnant(I’m male)

  • Prof.V.N.K.Kumar

    Congrats. Your marital vows were simply beautiful and futuristic.

  • Eurekus

    That’s more powerful than any religious text. Well done!

  • Hendy

    Thanks for sharing. What I appreciated most was your illustration of the human dimension of this ceremony and why it’s appealing as well as why you did what you did… in terms of simple humanity.

    But notice that though devoid of supernatural footings, your general thoughts are routinely presented in churches as being derived from only a supernatural being. Love wanting to be shared gets based on being made in god’s image and the outpouring of love from the trinity. We’re supposed to share love because it fulfills this image and therefore divinely granted purpose… not simply because we have observed that love shared is love multiplied for its own sake.

    Anyway, I just find that interesting. About everything you presented is said in churches as well and made to be divinely issued vs. being a trait of human evolution and culture.

    On that note, what I have appreciated the most about your blogings, and this one in particular, is that you radiate the most valued aspects of humanity better than many other atheistic writers I’ve come in contact with. Many a theist complains that atheists seem ‘angry’ or ‘cold’ or ‘condescending.’ I refer them to read your material with no hesitation. In the midst of my current faith questioning that has taken place since Christmas (ironic…), I have found that even in contemplating a declaration of atheism/agnosticism, I don’t want to lose my zest for life, excitement, passion, etc. Many of my believing friends prophesy this happening: loss of meaning, no moral ground to stand upon, less joy/happiness/name-a-desired-state-of-being. I have not sensed this as an inevitability, however.

    To end on that: it’s writers like you who continue to give me hope of pursuing the higher things in life despite lack of supernatural belief or motivation. Life is good for life’s sake and we only have one life to use how we best see fit. I sincerely appreciate your writings as more than any others, you and Richard Carrier tend to describe the continued beauty in life you cherish despite lack of belief and write fairly vulnerably about those things most precious to you.

    I find this extremely hope-providing and much needed in the atheistic community since at the end of the day these values are not under either a theistic or atheistic monopoly… they’re simply aspects of all of humanity.

    Thanks again for all your work to help others. Enjoy your newly married life!

  • EJC

    Whoa!

    Ebon, I didn’t know you were also Jimmy Kimmel!

    Skol! Congrats and nice post, as usual!

    EJC

  • nogrief

    Congratulations and very best wishes to MissCherryPi and you, Ebon! Thanks for sharing something of your personal lives so openly with us loyal readers.

    Although I’m mostly a lurker on DA, you’ve finally thrown me a subject wherein I feel I dare speak with a measure of authority based on my many happy years of experience in marriage.

    I’m an 81 year-old man who’s been married to the same beautiful woman for 57 years. I wouldn’t be so shallow as to assert that it’s all been bliss but on balance the rewards have far exceeded the punishments. You can therefore trust that my good wishes derive from a foundation of first-hand knowledge and not mere mushy sentiment.

    We experienced a painful loss early in this decade when our 43 year-old son died unexpectedly. At that time I made a personal commitment to support my wife in whatever area she found comfort. That has turned out, for her, to be Christianity.

    As a result, your valuable thinking along with that of several other worthy sites has become my reality anchor in the recent years as I have fulfilled my commitment each Sunday by attending church with (for) her. What an irony! The longer I have attended, the more firmly has become my skeptical anti-theist position.

    So, along with my congratulations goes a big “thank you.”

  • Doug

    Congrats, man.

    I’ve been reading your site for somewhere around four years, and usually read the comments while not regularly commenting, and I was not aware that MissCherryPi was your fiance/wife.

    So, in that case, congrats you two!

    Doug

  • Eurekus

    As a second comment on this thread I have to say this. Ebon, you have so much hair. You scrub up well.

    Being married is great for me as I’m sure it will be for you and the Mrs.

  • Lion IRC

    Congratulations and thank you for choosing a Church and a minister.
    I think God likes being invited to the wedding.
    Make sure you invite Him to the marriage as well.
    Lion (IRC)

  • Eurekus

    Lion IRC

    There’s plenty of atheists that go to a UU church. Perhaps you should read more often to become well informed.

    Now that’s as far as I’ll go on this thread as this is not the place to pull off the gloves.

  • MissCherryPi

    Lion – Why would God need an invitation? The way I understand it he’s already everywhere all the time.

    Also, if he enjoyed our wedding, I wouldn’t think he’d be the God of the Bible. Ebon’s vows as they started out with a declaration of his atheism. And although I did pick a Bible passage about love that I wanted, the minister was a woman and we also had a woman read a passage about gay marriage. Totally not the way most Christians invite God to their wedding. So, as I said above – if our wedding pleased him, then you have some explaining to do.

  • Lion IRC

    MissCherryPi,
    I’m not sure if it’s Mrs or Ms but nonetheless – Mazel Tov!
    I value the institution of marriage.
    Maybe both of us would be surprised by how God views of the importance of the institution of marriage…soul mates…family.
    I promise not to judge your view of marriage if you agree not to judge mine.
    (eg. most Christians..etc etc)
    May the Lord protect and defend you.
    May God bless you and grant you long lives.

    Lion (IRC)

  • Jeff

    Lion, I would imagine the term “appropriate” has little meaning for you.

    Ebon and MissCherryPi, Congratulations and many years of happiness!

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Belated congrats Adam!

    As an atheist who is also married, I can think of hardly anything better than to be in committed partnership with someone you love and how that partnership enriches each other’s lives and makes it possible to achieve things that are not possible alone.

    Of course, with both myself and my wife coming from a Catholic background, we had to have our wedding in a Catholic church. That and having our kids baptized were the only concessions I had to make to religion.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    Ebon, thank you so much for including the Goodridge passage in your post, and in your ceremony. It has special meaning for me, because my best friend read it at my wedding, and I read it at hers. For legalese, it’s very beautifully written, don’t you think?

    And all my best wishes to you and MissCherryPi, for many years of happiness!

  • John Nernoff

    Even I liked it, dammit!

  • Jerryd

    When I read a post like this is really makes me proud to be an atheist and to long for a world filled with billions more who share Ebon’s philosophy, morals and talent. Thank you so much for writing such beautiful words, and, most of all, for sharing them. I look forward to many more from such a happily married man–and from his happily married wife. Congratulations to Ebon and MissCherryPi, best wishes for a long and happy marriage.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Thank you, friends! I’m grateful for all your kindness and good wishes. They make me feel, in a non-supernatural sense, as if the atheist community was with us in spirit to support us on the day of our marriage.

    I’m not being paid or compensated in any way for this, but if you’re thinking of getting married or engaged, I want to put in a plug for Brilliant Earth, the company that we bought both our engagement and our wedding rings from. They sell jewelry made from recycled gold and platinum, so as mitigate the environmental harm of mining, and diamonds from Canada that are certified to be sustainably mined and conflict-free. We both feel very strongly about this – neither my wife nor I could countenance the thought that the diamonds in her ring had financed someone’s civil war, or that obtaining the gold required poisoning a river with cyanide. The peace of mind that we got from doing it this way means a lot to both of us.

  • Kennypo65

    I have to agree with EJC on this one. You look like Jimmy Kimmel with Kirk Douglas’ chin dimple.

  • Valerie

    I hope to one day find myself in a union this powerful. And to all a good life!

  • lpetrich

    MissCherryPi, good that UU has worked out for you. You may even be less at loggerheads with the pastor.

  • Pradeep

    Excellent. Thank you for sharing. Love the photo of you with that big goofy smile. You remind me of my best friend who got married in a similar non-theistic wedding ceremony out on the hot plains of the New Mexico desert. Wishing you and your wife a lifetime of happiness and peace.

  • Nes

    Since I’m already signed in to rant on another topic, I have to stop here too to give you two a very belated, “Congratulations!” And yes, wonderful vows.

    Whoever your photographer was did a great job, too. That picture of the kiss begs to be framed and hung up in a prominent location, and the picture of the two of you on the bench is adorable!

  • Rollingforest

    Quote “Blasphemy! Political correctness gone wild*! Won’t somebody please think of the children?
    * Now available on DVD and Blu-ray!”

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!