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Aug 15 2011

Why marriage?

A viewer from Thailand writes:

My friend is a big fan of your show and would like to know why, given your Atheism, you still believe in marriage. His point of view is that marriage is a religious institution, so why would an atheist have anything to do with it? He asks if it’s for a tax break, or if polygamy is somehow wrong for an atheist?

As a guy about to be married for the second time, I support the institution of marriage — both gay and straight. I recommend you start by reading this article on Wikipedia:

Rights and responsibilities of marriages in the United States

Marriage carries with it a host of federal benefits assumed to be conferred automatically on each spouse. These prominently include:

  • Numerous tax benefits, as you mentioned, including the right to file jointly
  • Legal status with stepchildren
  • joint parenting rights, such as access to children’s school records
  • family visitation rights for the spouse and non-biological children, such as to visit a spouse in a hospital or prison
  • next-of-kin status for emergency medical decisions or filing wrongful death claims
  • Survivor benefits on death
  • Automatic recipient of life insurance for some jobs
  • Tax-free transfer of property between spouses (including on death) and exemption from “due-on-sale” clauses.

This is only scratching the surface, but I hope you get the idea. Is it possible for all these legal issues to be settled by signing a few hundred individual contracts? Naturally. But what’s the point? Two people committing to living together is an incredibly common arrangement, and it’s a reasonable assumption that a couple would want these legal rights explicitly spelled out in one big contract. That contract is called “marriage.”

Your friend is simply misinformed when he says that marriage is a religious institution. It isn’t. Marriage existed long before religion got its hooks in it, and the fact that religious people today are going around demanding that their views of marriage ought to be “protected” is simply bunk, and pointless entanglement between church and state. A church can “marry” you in the sense that they can perform a ceremony, but unless you sign those legal papers that are recognized by lawyers (or in some states, meet various other requirements that make you married), you’re not married in the eyes of the law, and that’s where it counts.

As for polygamy: I’m on the fence about it, along with many other atheists. Legally, a contract between three people is much more complicated than a contract between two. For instance, what happens if person A wants to divorce person B, but still loves C, while B and C wish to remain married? Because it’s so complex, I’m not pushing for legal polygamy. There is also the concern that polygamy as practiced is often used as a smokescreen for coercion and sex with minors, as in the recent case of epic scumbag Warren Jeffs. That’s not okay, since it doesn’t involve consenting adults who are in a legal position to make their own large life-changing decisions.

Having said that, I’m not particularly morally opposed to polygamy, as long as it’s between consenting adults and as long as I don’t have to sort out their legal affairs. I wouldn’t do it, but other people can for all I care. In the absence of legal polygamy, I’m also not opposed to people being polyamorous. (Hat tip to Dan Savage‘s excellent podcast and column, where he discusses this regularly.) Fool around with other partners as much as you want, as long as nobody in the arrangement is deceived about what they’re getting into.

Note that my description of it as legally acceptable doesn’t amount to my recommending it as a good idea for anyone in particular. In the worst case, miscommunication could occur, jealousy could pop up, feelings could be hurt, and relationships could be broken. But as long as everybody’s aware of that going in… you’re adults, I’m not responsible for your therapy bills. :)

30 comments

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  1. 1
    John K.

    As far a sex in general goes, I consider any practice that meet the following criteria socially acceptable:1. Informed consent on the part of all involved parties.2. Reasonable efforts are taken to avoid spreading STDs3. Reasonable efforts are made to avoid producing unwanted pregnancy, and the sexual participants must accept responsibility for any such pregnancy that occurs.I am of the opinion that it is possible to have a polygamous relationship that meets the above criteria, although as Kazim points out this is often not the case. Underage people are not capable of informed consent, nor are they capable of caring for any potential children.So, consenting adults that can plan the size of their family in accordance with their means are fine by me in a polygamous relationship. The track record for this is fairly poor, though. The minority gender also seems to have the “better deal” in these kinds of relationships, but again if there is informed consent no problem.Though I must admit, this type of thing is not something I have ever had an interest in pursuing. A committed relationship with just one person at a time is as much as I would ever want to manage, personally.

  2. 2
    Spurll

    Very good summary, Russell. I'll be just pointing to this blog post in the future, rather than typing things up from scratch!

  3. 3
    Raymond

    Marriage along with many other aspects of life which really have nothing intrinsically to do with religion have been co-opted into religious tradition.People were being born, getting married and dying well before religion decided it should be centre stage at these and other events.Marriage is not a religious issue, however the religions would like to say otherwise.

  4. 4
    David G.

    I agree with most everything said by Russell but you can't deny people polygamist marriages (if the issue ever becomes main stream) because it has been used for paedophilia in the past. Especially when it is cult-like organizations, as is the one Warren Jeffs is apart of.As a side note, I was a little disturbed when Rick Santorum (I know, I should stop right there) likened polygamy to slavery in the Iowa debate last week.

  5. 5
    Kazim

    I wouldn't deny people polygamist marriages because of pedophilia. I'm simply acknowledging that it's an issue of concern associated with the issue. Similarly I think prostitution should probably be legal, but heavily regulated. If the issue came up, some discussion about preventing child prostitution and forced prostitution should also be addressed. (And another disclaimer, the fact that I'm supporting it becoming legal doesn't mean I would ever be a client.)

  6. 6
    Steven

    But you're the inventor of Smerriage! Why get married!

  7. 7
    Garnetstar

    As for marriage being somehow religious…..My two Buddhist friends got married, and their kind of Buddhism doesn't have marriages or wedding ceremonies, just a good-luck ceremony. So they had that (in English and Tibetan).To please the groom's father, a cantor said some of the Jewish wedding prayers (in Hebrew). To please the bride's mother, an Episcopalian minister said some of that ceremony (English).After going through ceremonies from three religions, the couple was not actually married. So they stashed a judge in the back bedroom and sneaked back there during the reception, where they were finally married.So, no matter how hard you try, religion really hasn't anything to do with marrying. It's all a legal contract.

  8. 8
    Father Of Lights

    My wife and I had a civil ceremony and we actually had concerned relatives, who know we are atheist, tell us, "Don't you want to get married in the church? Aren't you concerned about being married in the eyes of god?" What was most interesting was all of the relatives who told us that are against gay marriage because it is a sacred institution. On one hand they say gays can't marry because it will defile god's ceremony and on the other hand they're telling us that we are not actually married because we didn't do it in a church. If the marriages outside of the church don't count to god why would god care about the marriages outside of the church?….Of course it might be a little unfair of me to assume that they critically analyzed their beliefs…

  9. 9
    Cafeeine Addicted

    Its worth noting that in other countries, it may not always work like that in practice. In Greece you could only get legally married in a religious ceremony until 1982.

  10. 10
    UnityAmongstChaos

    I completely agree with what you stated. Religious fanatics who oppose marriage other than the boring, old man and woman quite honestly make me sick. I just don't see how someone could oppose legitimate love between two people because an ancient book of fairy tales and exaggerations says so.

  11. 11
    icedwater

    Wow the US really lacks any useful common-law marriage laws.

  12. 12
    Gale

    The whole "Marriage is a religious thing" argument seems kind of pointless to me. People drink red wine (or grape juice, heh) all the time, and it's not transubstantiation unless it's actually part of that particular ceremony. A person who doesn't have access to food other than an evening soup kitchen isn't celebrating Ramadan unless they specifically believe they are. People take baths whenever they want to, and it's not a baptism unless it is. Religious ceremonies are opt-in, as it were, and the only people I've seen argue otherwise are the people who pretty much consider ceremonies to be magic spells, and they – I would imagine – are a smaller population than the people who simply believe that the only power anything really has is in terms of how respectful it is to their deity. Secular marriage already is different from religious marriage; it's inherently so, by virtue of not being religious, a far more significant factor than the gender of the participants. That's something that only really applies to monotheists, but it's the monotheists that are standing in the way of marriage equality, so I'm fine with being specific, in these circumstances.

  13. 13
    Thomas F. Bourque

    If consenting adults want to be married to more than one person, then who is to say they shouldn't? I think bringing up the pedophilia angle isn't warranted. That's already illegal. Just because some groups have been involved with both pedophilia AND polygamy shouldn't place a bad mark on polygamy. There's nothing wrong with polygamy. It's the underage marriages and sex that is the issue.I don't think associating the two is fair. There's no link there.

  14. 14
    Raymond

    Gale said."Secular marriage already is different from religious marriage".This totally correct because in a legal sense religious marriage doesn't exist.A religious marriage service without the appropriate state recognition is not valid.This is another aspect of the real world that christians want to re-write to suit their own agenda.

  15. 15
    JJR

    "Wow the US really lacks any useful common-law marriage laws."Not so. In Texas if you are with the same partner for, I think, 10 years, present to the public as if you are married, etc, you are considered to be a common-law spouse with all the legal rights/responsibilities that entails.

  16. 16
    Warp

    Not really related to marriage per se, but the issue of "informed consent" has been brought up in this discussion.I find it curious how most people seem to have some kind of contradictory double-think with regard to this issue. On one hand they firmly agree that age of consent limits must be imposed and obeyed, for the protection of minors. On the other hand they also agree that the legal age of consent inside a jurisdiction is quite arbitrary, subjective (it can change quite a lot between jurisdictions) and basically just an agreement.There are some countries where the legal age of consent is 21 (I think at least Bahrain is one). There are others where it's 16. (And there are even others where it can go as low as 14 and even 12.) Curiously, most people consider 18 to be the magical universal age of consent completely regardless of what the actual legal age of consent in their country might be (as said, 16 is a rather common one).Where is this magical number 18 coming from?The legal age of consent is quite arbitrary bey necessity because the true age of consent can vary wildly from individual to individual. Some people could be psychologically perfectly ready for and give fully informed consent to sex and marriage at 14, while others are not ready even at 24. The legal age has to be set somewhere by necessity. This makes it necessarily arbitrary and subjective.Yet still the same people who agree with this also often have very strong opinions on breaking these laws. But what is this strong attitude based on? This same person might at the same time fully admit that the limit is subjective and arbitrary.If a citizen of a country where legal age of consent is 21 comes to a country where it's 18 or even 16 and declares the country to be depraved and morally bankrupt, what is the argument to declare him right or wrong? Why is 18 (or 16) the correct age and not 21?

  17. 17
    John K.

    @ WarpI agree that age alone cannot fully define informed consent. People are different and have different levels of understanding and maturity that are not guaranteed by a particular age.In the US, 18 years correlates to the ability of someone to complete all the education they are entitled to by the state. Naturally, there are some that can finish early and some that will not finish at all, but overall most people will be at a level of education consistent with being able to make decisions for themselves and understand the consequences.So age is a bit of a convenient simplification that has a few glaring holes in it, but it is a decent place to start the discussion. Clearly if you go young enough informed consent can eventually be considered absurd, and if you consider an age high enough you will have to bring in specific extenuating circumstances to demonstrate incompetence sufficient to absolve responsibility in decision making. The lines may be a bit blurry, but they are there.

  18. 18
    Kazim

    It's not so much that a line exists, as there is a clear wrong on one side, a mostly clear wrong on the other, and a lot of fuzzy stuff in the middle. Certainly just about everyone is going to agree that it's wrong for an adult to take advantage of an 8 year old, and that an 18 year old is old enough to make his or her own decisions. 16 is arguable, I'd say. Generally statutory laws make allowances for people who are near the same age; I think if you're over 14 and your partner is within 2 years above you then you're in safe territory. A 14 year old with an adult is pretty dicey territory, IMHO.The precise spot of the line is certainly open to question, but it has to exist somewhere. There are lots of laws that take a specific age into account — sale of alcohol, legal military service, voting, driving age. The fact that those ages could be raised and lowered doesn't mean that we should be putting a five year old behind the wheel of a car.

  19. 19
    Kazim

    JJR – no, it's much shorter than ten years. Actually the sites I'm finding claim that it's simply cohabiting for "a significant period of time" that isn't specified in most places. I heard it could be as short as six months, I think.

  20. 20
    Kazim

    Steven: I'm sure you're kidding, but the point of my "schmarriage" quip was to point out that it's ridiculous to claim to supposedly support homosexuals' rights to have all the legal benefits of marriage tied up under a different name, and yet deny their right to use the particular legal contract of marriage for the same purpose. It's unnecessary busywork that makes no sense. And people who do want to stop gay people from marrying generally want to stop them from schmarrying as well, if it means giving them tax breaks and letting them use each other's health insurance.

  21. 21
    Thomas F. Bourque

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common-law_marriage_in_the_United_States"Common-law marriage can still be contracted in ten states (Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire (posthumously), Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah) and in the District of Columbia."

  22. 22
    Tor Hershman

    "We're finally on our own,"???The religious Wheeling Police kicked-in our door.Read my blog, before it's your door.

  23. 23
    Steven

    That's right, like everyone else here I don't have a problem with people in love getting married; that's what it's for, so I'd be opposed to people being forced into schmerriges because there love seems somehow less to whomever opposes them. That remark was my sarcastic test one liner, since this topic came up recently on AETV a lot with that one Hater. I'll try to make an excellent and deep point this time! (and fail).As for why I'd care about marriage as an atheist: I can picture a couple falling in love, deciding to merry and having a ceremony and not see religion as an important part in that at all. I mean, you might get Ra bi or a Priest, but they aren't important, the lovers are important. So my question would be why is religion so important?

  24. 24
    Father Of Lights

    In Texas as long as both parties have lived together for six months and both parties identify each other as husband and wife in public They are common law married…unless the Texas common law marriage laws have changed in the last 6 years.

  25. 25
    nude0007

    Marriage is actually a legal contract between two people. Love isn't even required. I don't think you even legally have to "consummate" the marriage, although a spouse supposedly has the right to divorce if the other party isn't fulfilling their conjugal duties. I loved the Boston Legal episode where Denny and Alan got married so Alan could inherit Denny's money without penalties.Personally, I don't believe marriage is necessary, but did it because of pressure from my dad and her son.

  26. 26
    Kazim

    Am I the only one who thinks that "Gulen Charter Truth"s post has nothing to do with the topic, and it is probably spam?

  27. 27
    icedwater

    "Not so. In Texas if you are with the same partner for, I think, 10 years, present to the public as if you are married, etc, you are considered to be a common-law spouse with all the legal rights/responsibilities that entails." So most states don't even have common-law marriage and in Texas you must have an agreement to be married and be holding out as married to the public. So you essentially are required to lie. Seems awesome to me.

  28. 28
    P

    It doesn't require you to lie. What it does is create a category of legal marriage which is basically defined as any two people who say they are married and live together. That's basically what "common-law" marriage refers to everywhere, or so I have thought. If you are required to perform some kind of official act then it's just regular workaday marriage. So what exactly are you claiming the US lacks?

  29. 29
    Kazim

    By the way, the guy who originally had the objections to marriage is still writing to us. One of the reasons he claims to dislike marriage is that "I was basically forced to get legally married to get [my girlfriend] a visa."I replied:What the WHAT?!?!?You weren't "forced" to get married. You CHOSE to get married because that was the only way you could think of to get her a visa. Getting a visa is hard — THAT'S your legal problem, not marriage. There are other ways to get a visa, but none of them were convenient for you. Luckily, marriage is available as a shortcut. Obviously the burden of being married was worth the value of an easy visa to you, or you wouldn't have done it. If marriage hadn't existed, you would have had to either find another, more difficult solution, or not gotten one at all. That's it. Complain about immigration if that's your problem.You sound like somebody complaining that you can't get a ride to work because there aren't any buses near you, forcing you to drive your own car; so you wish they would outlaw cars for everybody. You're complaining about the solution you found to your own problem because you wish there were better solutions.

  30. 30
    TamiTheNanny

    I find the documentary Tying the Knot to be very informative on this issue. I am a lesbian; my best friend, and house mate, is not. That being said, sexuality aside, we consider ourselves partners. We are, at this point in our lives (we've known each other for 20 years), committed to living together for the next 60. She's my power of attorney, and I'm hers. Other than that, willing our belongings to one another has proven to be an arduous task. There have also been many issues with getting bills paid, authorizing work on the house, or even having our dog groomed. My partner (after all, we are committed to each other for life) once had a stranger tell her she'd pray for us after I left the lobby of the hotel we were staying at. Apparently she'd over heard us talking about "our house" and "our dog" and made assumptions. This brings me back to who cares what you do (or don't do) behind closed doors? If you are in a healthy relationship and want to spend the rest of your lives together, why shouldn't you? It's just a legal contract. "I like vagina" shouldn't be an exclusionary clause.

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