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Atheism, Dating Mating Sex and Reproduction


If someone were to go through my entire blog and collect everything I’ve said about marriage, I’d come out looking as if I’m anti-marriage.  I suppose to some degree I am.  There are many trappings of marriage that I think are culturally irrelevant or even harmful in today’s world.  I’ve written in some depth about the history of marriage in the west, and it’s not pretty.  I write often about how lifelong monogamy is “unnatural” for humans.  I’m an advocate for “alternative arrangements” to “one man, one woman.”  I am decidedly against the idea that everyone should reproduce.

But as with most positions held by thoughtful people, mine is a bit more nuanced than simply “anti-marriage.”  I think marriage is a good idea for some people, and I think that with some changes, it could be a good idea for more people.  Athol Kay, at Married Man Sex Life,  is a big believer in lifelong monogamy, and while he and I might disagree on the number of people who would benefit from his approach, it’s undeniable that it does work for some people.  My favorite atheist blogger, Greta Christina, has posted a very good article on marriage.  She and her partner, Ingrid, are married despite Greta’s personal misgivings about marriage, which I imagine parallel mine rather closely.  And it’s working for them, even though Greta is openly bisexual and does not advocate lifelong monogamy as the “One True Good.”

Greta makes the argument that there are three very good reasons to get married:  The legal status of marriage, the personal vows, and the party.  I agree with her.  Not only that, but I think each of these three elements is intrinsic to the whole system, which is why I have no problem being (in general) opposed to a lot of individual marriages and yet being a strong advocate for the rights of anyone who wants to get married to do so.

Legal Status

Legal marriage carries with it far more than the right to visit a sick spouse in the hospital or to receive inheritance from them in the absence of a will.  It conveys social status.  I have two good friends, Frank and Timothy, who have been together for fifteen years.  They own a house together.  They wear rings.  By all outward appearances, they’re married.  But they still refer to each other as “my boyfriend.”  And to some degree, they have to.  If they choose to say they’re married, there will be some condescension.  After all, they’re not really married.  They’re just “pretending.”  If someone asks where they got married, they’ll have to either lie or admit they’re not really married.  Which leads back to step one and condescension.  In the real world of cause and effect, their inability to get married makes them second class citizens at every party, even when all the guests are comfortable with the idea of gay couples.

The Vows

Likewise, there are lots of good reasons for vows.  On a psychological level, we can point to the well-documented effect of outward commitment.  Once a person has spoken her opinion, she is far less likely to change it than if she’d kept it internalized.  The outward profession of moral obligation to a spouse is a big deal.  It’s also probably a form of priming, which has also been shown to have a profound effect on our moral decisions.

But more than that, vows have a public function.  They create a kind of social bond and reinforce the place we hold in our community.  They probably serve to increase our friends’ and families’ moral obligations toward us, too.  I wonder if there would be much difference in a friend’s willingness to address marital infidelity in a friend than simply “stepping out” on a girlfriend.  I suspect so.

Finally, vows serve as a defining moment for the couple — a moment in time they can look at and see a binary change in their life.  Making the external commitment to a metaphorical page-turn in our lives can be a powerful catalyst for positive change, for “growing up” all the way.  It symbolizes to us that we are accepting the mantle of responsibility for another person, and therefore our responsibility to ourselves to uphold our end of the bargain.

The Party

Greta jokingly referred to the party as a “no-brainer.”  Who wouldn’t want to have a party, right?  But like the vows, I think the party is really important on a deeper level.  (And Greta made some great points about it, too.)  We humans have a need for social bonding.  I’ve been to a lot of weddings, and I can say without reservation that when there was a party afterwards, I left feeling much closer to the couple and all of their friends and families than when there was a stuffy reception.  There’s bonding, and then there’s bonding.  And nothing says bonding like whirling around the dance floor with the tipsy mother of the bride.

Marriage as a Threat

It seems almost cliché now, but I guess I need to  make the standard liberal response to the bigots who want to restrict marriage to one man and one woman.  What are you afraid of? What can Jay and Bob, your gay neighbors five doors down, possibly do to you if they have a legal document saying they’re married?  Will your husband suddenly develop the irrepressible desire to fornicate with a married man’s husband?  Will your parakeets get cancer?

Can you name one straight couple who got divorced because a gay couple got married?

Marriage is a commitment between two people who love each other and for whatever personal reasons, want to make their commitment a real, tangible part of the community.  And if that’s what they want, then I can’t think of any reason not to let them do it.

Oh, and the same goes for polygamous people.  What’s so horrifying about a man having two wives?  It’s been common practice for most of the history of the world.  Even the patriarchs of Israel were polygamists!  The god of the Bible condones it!  (Please, have the decency not to equate forced polygamy with consensual.  That’s just dishonest.)

Marriage and Non-Belief

I think celebration of marriage has a special place for non-believers.  A lot of critics of atheism have bemoaned the lack of social functions and social bonding in the “atheist life.”  You know, no Christmas, no Easter, no Sunday School every week.  Marriage is a powerful and ancient way for communities to come together and become closer knit.  It is a way to celebrate life and love.  We should have weddings, and house-warming parties, and baby showers, and ten year anniversary parties.  When two people have managed to overcome all the obstacles to marriage, we should celebrate with them. It’s good for the couple, good for the family, and good for the community in general.



10 thoughts on “Marriage

  1. Great article Hamby. I wonder if the debate prompted this, or it was simply on the schedule already. I also wonder if it will continue here.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | November 3, 2010, 3:32 pm
  2. Thanks for the link love Hamby.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | November 3, 2010, 7:09 pm
  3. I have been married twice. Once for 17 years and my current wife and I have been married for 7.
    I like being married.
    I like having a wife rather than just a “girlfriend”

    Monogamy has never been my way of thinking.
    Long ago I lived in a triad and almost got a legal devorce from my wife to marry our girlfriend so we could all “pretend” to be married together.
    It was the omens original idea. They wanted very badly to marry eachother.

    I now am part of a quad. 2 married couples. There is no legal way for us to go beyond that. Yet the girls call eachother wifey.
    Us guys leave it whatever it is.

    Posted by Inferno | November 3, 2010, 9:10 pm
  4. Actually Osho wrote extensively about the pitfalls of marriage in modern times. Almost all of his books have something about marriage. Osho’s books are fun and enlightening to read as they break the confines of culture and religion.

    Posted by Dana | November 4, 2010, 3:05 am
  5. It was on the schedule. Just coincidence that it came up in the other thread.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 4, 2010, 3:50 am
  6. Here Darth Obvious said,

    Just one question for you though. If marriage really isn’t necessary then why has pretty much every culture in the world, even those that were non-Christian practiced it and still do?

    Interesting question, answers?

    Posted by Alex Hardman | November 4, 2010, 10:00 am
  7. Just one question for you though. If marriage really isn’t necessary then why has pretty much every culture in the world, even those that were non-Christian practiced it and still do?

    I wrote an article about the history of marriage. You might find it enlightening. Find it here:

    But the short answer to your question is this: “Marriage,” the legal recognition of pair bonding and childbearing, has been around as long as civilization, but it’s only been quite recent in the west that it’s been confined to one man and one woman. My article addresses some of the historical context of that shift. In the vast majority of cultures (around 80%), there has always been some recognition of polygamy, specifically the right of a man to marry more than one woman.

    While there are few cultures that have had a legal institution of marriage for homosexuals, there have been a large number that have recognized, condoned, and even made legal provisions gay partnerships. The Greeks, for instance, thought of homosexuality as a natural “intermediate step” between childhood and the responsibility of marriage. It was sort of like “sowing your wild oats.”

    The primary purpose of marriage has always been the preservation of family property. Until quite recently, marriages were between families, not individuals. They were a tool in political alliances.

    So to answer your question directly, marriage has always been around because families were always interested in protecting their property.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 4, 2010, 11:18 am
  8. So to answer your question directly, marriage has always been around because families were always interested in protecting their property.

    That’s kind of where I was going in my head as well.

    What about the “it takes a village to raise a child” meme and it’s implications for marriage? Unless we separate marriage from child rearing (which I would suggest as historically child rearing has been accomplished by groups rather than pairs or individuals).

    Is there any reason (except the modern re-definition of marriage) to conflate marriage and child rearing?

    Posted by Alex Hardman | November 4, 2010, 11:56 am
  9. What about the “it takes a village to raise a child” meme and it’s implications for marriage?

    From my article on the history of marriage:

    In North Africa and the Mediterranean, most areas were predominately patrilineal. That is to say, inheritance was passed down based on the father’s bloodline. However, there was little of what we would recognize as a “traditional family unit.” Though there were husbands, wives, and children, there was also polygamy, and what we would consider adoption was regarded casually in many places. Children belonged not to individual parents, but to the family, or tribe. Our modern sense of parental ownership and obligation to children would have been quite hard for most early Middle-Easterners to understand. Due to a higher rate of mortality, widowhood was not uncommon. In keeping with the tradition of family lands being passed on exclusively within the male lines, it was quite common for widows to marry the brothers or cousins of their dead husbands. The most common, and most culturally favored marriage was with the father’s brother’s daughter. To give a wife to another family bloodline was considered dishonorable. In short, the primary goal of a familial group was the continuance of tribal or family land within the family. Widows, orphans, and the unmarried were not thought of as outcasts, rather they were entitled to the fruits of the tribal land in the same way as those who were married and had children. Widows and the elderly were often guardians – what we might consider surrogates today.

    In Medieval Europe, childrearing was often left primarily to nannies or tutors in wealthy families, with little or no participation by the father. This trend continued well into the previous millenium. For some children of poor families, the only option for survival (literally) was to be essentially “given” to a wealthy patron to serve as a servant (slave) or some form of apprenticeship. Child mortality among the poor was extremely high.

    America during the colonial period wasn’t much better. From my article:

    through the majority of colonial history, women and children had virtually no rights, and were treated (if not legally designated) as property of their husband. The patriarchal traditions from two thousand years before were still strong. Even so, the family was far from stable. The average length of marriage was less than a dozen years, due mainly to high mortality rates. One third to one half of all children lost at least one parent. Particularly in the south, orphans were common. Over one half of all southern children under the age of thirteen had lost at least one parent.
    …The common image of a man working the fields while his wife tended the children and the chores is also not founded in reality. Single family income was reserved for the middle class and up, as poor families often had to put even their very young children to work in household businesses, or worse, in service to more wealthy families. This practice was not too unlike child slavery, but it was the only option available to most poor families. In the mid 1800s, entire families worked in factories, usually eighteen hours a day. When you consider that food preparation and household cleaning were still highly labor intensive, it’s easy to see that most families hardly had time to wish each other goodnight before going to sleep.
    We must also remember that divorce was not the only option for leaving a spouse or family. Before the social security system made it easy to identify people, the most common form of divorce was abandonment. When a man found that he could no longer support his family, he simply left to find work in another city, perhaps under a different name, although that was hardly necessary if the distance was great enough. Looking at divorce statistics is hardly helpful when we consider that the real solidarity of the family depended very little on such legal distinctions.

    Is there any reason (except the modern re-definition of marriage) to conflate marriage and child rearing?

    I can’t think of any today. It was certainly about children for most of history, but not child rearing. The only thing that was important was that a male heir was raised to adulthood. It didn’t matter a whit who raised him.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 4, 2010, 1:30 pm
  10. Darth Obvious wrote:

    Why does it matter? Remember a fetus is not a baby, not according to you. If it’s just an inconveinence like a STD, then why not just get it sorted out? Get rid of it if it’s going to be a problem.

    I think there are a couple of options besides “it’s a baby,” an “it’s an inconvenience.” Is that why Christians think it has to be a baby? Because they can’t think of any other options? I wrote a piece on this subject. You can read it HERE.

    Anyway, what you say here is irrevelant, because funnily enough marriage is not slavery. No matter how many men jokingly claim that it is, also not every culture practiced slavery.

    Well, it isn’t anymore. It has been pretty equivalent to it in some parts of the world, and through much of history. But I don’t think that was the point Ian was trying to make. You see, Darth, the issue isn’t slavery or marriage. It’s the argument people used to justify them. As I understand it — and please tell me if I’m right — you believe that marriage between a man and a woman is “just the way society works.” You seem to be saying that god has ordained it that way, and it’s the way it is because god wants it that way. That’s precisely the argument, word for word, that was used to justify slavery by many devout Christians. God had just made it that way. (It is in the Bible, you know… rules for how to treat your slaves.)

    This is a perfect illustration of what my post on morality was saying — when we ascribe morality to something outside of humans, we can justify anything we like and say it’s good.

    Posted by hambydammit | November 5, 2010, 3:06 pm

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