Why should atheists get married?

Thanks to everyone who’s been commenting on my series on Math and Morality.  I’ll be returning to some of the outstanding questions soon (especially those posed by Dylan and Hendy), but I’m finishing work and moving out of DC this week, so I’m focusing this week more on politics than philosophy.  

Don’t forget, if you’d like to respond to a Monday Call to Arms in longer form as a guest blogger, please email me at leah (dot) libresco (at) yale (dot) edu.

A lot of the arguments in the gay marriage debate are baffling to me (and I’m not just talking about the connection between gays and inclement weather discovered by NOM).

Many Christians argue that gay marriage is an oxymoron since no marriage between two people of the same sex can be fully a sacrament, resulting in the couple being united in each other and in Christ. I’m certainly not going to argue the point with them. As an atheist, I cannot have a sacramental marriage, regardless of whether I marry a man or a woman, but I don’t see Christians lining up to turn atheists like me away at the county clerk’s office.

What is more, conservative Christians cannot stop gay parishioners from receiving ‘Christian’ marriages no matter how the court battles turn out. Plenty of denominations already perform gay weddings, regardless of whether they are recognized by the state as such. These marriages may hurt the position of more conservative sects, but they have no more right to ask the state to intervene than they would if they asked the government to prevent liberal Christian groups from ordaining female bishops.

The solution seems obvious; the state should administer civil unions and churches should preside over marriages, neither of which would be a precondition for the other. This isn’t a new argument, but it never seems to cross over from the blogosphere to actual policy proposal.

I understand why gay rights activists are reluctant to sign on. There’s no denying that gay people are hurt when shunted off to a hodgepodge marriage substitute that lacks social recognition as well as 1138 benefits and privileges for families. Secular and atheist groups are the logical leaders on this issue (except, perhaps, from a PR perspective).

As an atheist, I don’t see marriage as a fundamental phase change in a relationship. Atheist weddings more closely resemble college graduations. The date chosen is somewhat arbitrary and commemorates a change that really occurred when you turned in your last paper or moved off of campus. All the showy ceremony is arranged to give you one moment of leave-taking that is synchronized with your friends (and, of course, to give parents permission to get all verklempt in public).

Secular weddings serve much the same function. The only extra feature is that the public/community component of wedding vows serves as a spur to stay together rather than lose face by going back on your public oath (admittedly, a very weak motivation these days).

So what exactly are Christians defending and gays claiming for their own?


Are secular marriages any more valid than gay ones?

How do you address the social ramifications of other denominations performing gay weddings, regardless of whether those marriages are legally recognized?


What does marriage signify for you?

Do you have any reason to prefer that you and your partner have a marriage rather than a civil union (assuming civil unions carried all the federal benefits of marriage)?

What do you think an atheist wedding should entail?

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  • As an atheist I have never gotten married for precisely this reason (15 years and 3 kids notwithstanding) there has until now always been financial and other reasons to not do it, weighed against the religious ceremony that meant nothing. Now for obvious civil reasons (estate planning, etc) there are incentives for non-theists to get married but that is a simple cost benefit analysis for an atheist.

  • Madelaine

    Oh, I love this topic!Marriage is a formal/legal kinship bond. We have both legal and social ties to everyone else in our family automatically; it seems entirely correct to have one with the person who, if all goes well, we spend the majority of our lives with. It says to the law and the society that this person is my family too. It's only deliberately/specifically chosen (vs. all the other family ties), because that relationship is the only one in which we choose the person we have it with. I'm sympathetic to arguments that current laws maybe put undue/unfair importance on this particular relationship, but in general terms, it should exist.I'd prefer marriage (and same for gay people, of course) because that word does have meaning (historically problematic meaning sure, but nevertheless). If we can only get gay marriage by calling it all civil union, fine, but because that word has meaning, I'm hesitant to just turn it all over to religion, because I think it does matter. Less than allowing gay people to have the more tangible benefits, but still: conceding to religion the /language/ of that important relationship is problematic, even if secular authority retains the power that surrounds/controls it.Weddings bemuse me; I'm far more pro-marriage than pro-wedding. But they're celebrations of happy things, so whatever. Seems to me an atheist wedding should just be a wedding, without the god bits: vows, parties, friends and relatives, etc. And ideally they'd skip the problematic gender roles (obeying and whatnot), but that's more a feminist issue than atheist one.

  • Megh

    Why get married? Wedding presents, obviously. :pI don't really see any link between the word marriage and Christianity. Etymologically, it comes from Latin (pre-Christian Latin) and has Proto-Indo-European roots – pretty sure they were still animists or somesuch back then. Obviously, we use the word marriage regardless of what religion the couple is. Or even to describe polygamous marriages in places where it's legal. For the Catholics, the sacrament is "matrimony" and the legal part is "marriage".

  • Logan

    What does marriage signify for you?Marriage to me is simply a public confession of something that two people already know. More than that, though, it is a commitment. When people are simply dating, I feel that it is more socially and interpersonally acceptable for them to stop than if they were married. Marriage therefore serves as a socially motivating force to keep people together. Obviously you are correct that this is much less than it once was, but I think it still stands. Before a couple is married there is no expectation of that lasting for their entire lives, but after there is. It may not play out, and we may be willing to accept that possibility, but the expectation still exists.Do you have any reason to prefer that you and your partner have a marriage rather than a civil union (assuming civil unions carried all the federal benefits of marriage)?Absolutely none. "Marriage" is a more socially acceptable term right now, but I believe that can change. Additionally, I am perfectly willing to give that word up to religious groups, unlike Madelaine, and see nothing wrong with doing so.What do you think an atheist wedding should entail?I think a group of close friends/family (or broader, if the couple desires) simply coming together for a ceremony that makes clear the love two people have for each other is the ideal. It would look actually a lot like religious weddings, minus the bible quotes and the eucharist.

  • I was married once, but there was nothing atheistic about the wedding. I don't have any desire to get married again. I guess I'd say that an atheist wedding should entail whatever the couple wants. It isn't for me to decide.