Marriage likely emerged from the desire of straight men to prevent rivals from bedding their women, to claim ownership over certain people and exact violence against others. Today, marriage is a social institution that provides stability to individuals and society generally, and is overall believed to be of tremendous emotional, moral, and intellectual value. Thanks to incremental change over millennia, marriage has been redefined innumerable times to reflect our understanding of how society works, how individuals work, and how they work together. Marriage has molted countless arcane practices and beliefs in each new season of enlightenment, but it still has one prominent vestige to shed: religion.
I would like to convince you that religion offers nothing to marriage that the secular world does not, in every way, better address. This is a pretty involved process - or at least it was for me - so I have written two installments for the Bilerico Project to carefully lay out my thoughts on the matter. I ask your patience and open-mindedness as, in this first installment, we explore modern cultural understandings of marriage, experiment in our minds with various customs, and come to some agreement as to what constitutes a marriage. In a second installment, I will follow up with defining marriage from a secular perspective as well as a religious one, contrasting the two in light of shared cultural experience.
Talking About Marriage Today
Most Americans can agree to a vague understanding of marriage, something like "a commitment shared by two people who have publicly consented to be married to each other." Most people would also say that society at large owes some kind of respect to this proclaimed commitment, and that its constituent members will make certain accommodations for married people: employers will allow spouses leniency on some things; medical professionals will value spouses as part of the decision-making team for their patients; people in line will be more inclined to let you save a spot for your spouse. In great and small ways, society completely reorganizes itself around married people.
But what is it married people are doing that encourages such a response? Are they doing something religious by pledging themselves to each other? Is society performing some supernatural or spiritual act in its treatment of married people? Are we in agreement about the role God or miracles play - if any - in joining a couple together? And do any of society's accommodations for married couples reflect a specific religious dogma, teaching, or belief?
Not at all. In fact, this is the modern definition of marriage, one we have achieved through growth in understanding about who we are as people and how we ought to treat one another. Society's tacit respect for marriage, and a majority of American couples' tacit desire to engage in this institution, may have some vague historic connection to religious traditions, but it both predates and underlies religion itself.
From time immemorial, our nature has predisposed us to couple for pleasure, intimacy, company, and happiness; we are atomically inclined to form extraordinary connections with one another, the most extraordinary of which we now call marriage. Thanks to modern understandings of human diversity, society as a whole is better prepared to accept and bless a greater diversity of the expression of these extraordinary connections than ever before.
What Makes Us Married?
How do we know we, as a society, are in a new place with respect to marriage? Let's do a simple thought experiment: imagine you are at a wedding. Picture everything you can possibly imagine making up a wedding, an event which effectively marries two people. Do you picture a church full of people, organ music, formalwear? Do you hear formulaic readings and almost banal but still magical recitations? Do you recognize simple symbols of unity and togetherness?
Now start to strip it down to its core. If you take away the symbols, do you still see a wedding? There are no rings, there are no flowers, there are no broken glasses or shawls wrapped with any significance around anybody. It may be a little spartan, but would you say it's still a wedding? When the two people leave, will you still congratulate them, ask after their spouse, assume they'll vacation together, sympathize with one in a special way when the other is sick or dying?
Go back to the wedding and take away the formalwear. I know, I know: I love tuxedoes and gowns as much as you do, but, just for arguments sake, let's say these families are very poor so they are marrying in their cleanest, nicest jeans and button-ups (Do you see where we're going with this?).
Here's a radical idea: Take away the church. You may have attended such a wedding, perhaps an outdoor celebration on the beach. So in this thought experiment, we're all on the beach, no cement angels or organ pipes or white gowns. Are we still at a wedding? The two people declare their undying love for each other, recite the magic words, and pass you on their way up the sand to the tiki bar for a first nuptial cocktail. Still married? Still a wedding?
How much can you strip away and still preserve the notion that something special is happening? How little can happen here that will still create the ripple through the world that changes everything for these two people? Most importantly, what two people must these be? What is it about the two people getting married that alerts you and the world around you to the reality of their union?
Most of the people I know who marry are young. Must they be young? If two old people get married, would you behave any differently toward them? If you employed one of the spouses, would you forbid that employee from using sick time to care for the other spouse? What if one is black and the other white, one Canadian and the other Jamaican? What if one is Lutheran and the other Mormon? What if they are infertile or have no intention of raising children together? What if one is a felon? So far, none of these characteristics seem relevant to the actual conferral of the marriage status. Some are perhaps different from our own experience, but we instinctively sense only a different kind of wedding, a different kind of marriage, rather than an illegitimate one.
What Suffices for Marriage
It seems you can strip almost all of it away - the trappings and the traditions - and, so long as two people pledge themselves to each other in a special public way, it seems we have a wedding, and it seems we have the beginning of a marriage.
But can that really be all there is to it? To begin with, the relatively short act of a wedding and the enduring act of marriage are related but not the same; one is a portal to the other, not the thing itself. We also still need to decide if there is anyone who cannot be part of that ceremony, even in its most distilled form, and whether religion and secularism's competing ideas are better or worse at making that decision.
In my next installment, we'll look at the ways in which secular and religious understandings determine who is eligible for participation in marriage, and the underlying reasons. Surely there are good reasons, both sacred and profane, for preventing people from marrying; it turns out, of course, that the secular ones are not only logical but moral, whereas the religious ones are deeply problematic. In Part II, I'll give you my best effort at contrasting two definitions of marriage, and I'll try to convince you that religion ought to get out of the marriage business entirely.