I, on the other hand, have spent the last few months deep in Minnesota Atheists’ work on getting marriage law changed so that atheist and humanist celebrants don’t have to declare themselves religious or be recognized by organizations that identify as religious in order to have the state recognize the ceremonies they perform as legal marriages. This means I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people who perform nonreligious ceremonies and to people who have been married in nonreligious ceremonies about why these ceremonies are important to people. I’ve spent somewhat less time talking to legislators about the state’s concerns with the changes we’re asking for.
It also means I’ve spent a bunch of time answering questions about why we’re involved in the issue at all. There are two that are incredibly common in various forms. Why should we take an interest in marriage? Why are we supporting the idea that the state should take an interest in marriage? I’d like to address both of these questions. I’ll split them into separate posts, because they are very separate issues.
So why should a group like Minnesota Atheists take an interest in marriage? In order to answer that, we need to look at why people have marriage rituals at all.
Marriage ceremonies are one of many types rituals that mark transitions in life. Others that are fairly standard are naming ceremonies, coming-of-age ceremonies, and funerals. Around here, we also see graduation ceremonies (kindergarten, middle school, high school, college, etc.), birthdays, housewarming parties, engagement parties, the occasional divorce party, organizational induction ceremonies, and retirement parties. At my last job, people would bring in donuts or bagels to mark the announcement that someone was expecting a child.
What we mark with ceremony depends on what we consider to be an important transition, because that’s what ceremony does. It marks a change in our status and responsibilities. Some of these ceremonies mark instantaneous transitions, like birth or death, while others mark transitions that are arbitrary or happen over time, but the ceremony itself marks the point at which change has officially occurred. Who gets invited to or involved with the ceremony depends on whose life is changing–in both small and large ways.
When the ceremony is a wedding, the most obvious change is in the level of commitment between the people getting married. Their wedding makes them officially family. Ideally, that doesn’t actually happen during the ceremony but builds over time until it is something that the ceremony only formally recognizes. However, the ceremony often makes the weight of that commitment felt in a way that a growing relationship doesn’t. Stories of pre-wedding jitters and brides or grooms left at the altar make that clear. Even if a couple is already committed, which they probably should be before agreeing to marry, the ceremony itself makes that commitment concrete for many people getting married.
The people reciting the vows aren’t the only people affected by a wedding ceremony, however. Weddings change broader family structures too. On average, people double the size of their family when they marry. By marrying, one formally accepts one’s in-laws into the family. At the same time, a marriage signals to close family members that their relative has a new family obligation that is (depending on the culture and the nature of the relationship) more or less on par with the obligations to those close relatives.
This is, of course, an ideal. In practice, not everyone accepts everyone as “family” as soon as a wedding ceremony happens. However, the ceremony still creates the expectation that there’s is now an obligation to do so. Some substantial fraction of “Dear Abby” columns run on that obligation and the difficulties that people face in sorting out the different definitions of “family” that clash in these situations.
Finally, a wedding signals a change to the community in which the couple lives. People don’t invite their friends to their wedding just for the additional expense, or even the additional presents. They invite them because these are the people whose opinions mean something to them. They invite them because these are the people who will create a large chunk of the social milieu in which the married couple will live. These people can support a relationship or they can work against it.
There are multiple ways in which friends and family signal their commitment to the marriage during the kinds of wedding ceremonies I’m most familiar with. Giving a gift to support the couple is falling off as more couple cohabitate before marriage, but the urge to give at least a symbolic gift is so strong that many couple who don’t need appliances or money channel the gift-giving impulse into donations for charity. While rarely seized outside of movies, the opportunity to “speak now or forever hold your peace” continues to offer any attendees a right to object to the ceremony they’re about to witness. Loved ones stand as witnesses or give readings or provide music, taking an active role in the ceremony. And weddings become much more involving when a celebrant reminds the audience that they aren’t just observers, that they have an active role to play in making a marriage strong.
Not everyone wants all those symbolic entanglements of a wedding ceremony, of course. Some people want to marry just one person, not their family. Others consider their relationships to be entirely private things. Some families and communities are already openly supportive of all of people’s loved ones–friends and romantic partners alike. Some people don’t want the weight of that commitment or don’t want to privilege one of their romantic commitments above others. Some people don’t want to have a ceremony before they are allowed a civil marriage. Some people wed only for the legal benefits. Some people hate ceremony.
All of those are good reasons not to have a wedding ceremony or to limit a ceremony to only the pieces and people that are meaningful to the couple being wed. What they aren’t, however, are reasons to suggest that everyone abandon a ceremony that helps give direction to people who are navigating through their lives by reference to major signposts. A wedding ceremony signals to the world that a particular relationship is of family-level importance. That signal helps a lot of people understand how to treat the relationship. That kind of clarity is rare, and when it’s honest, such clarity is a good thing indeed.