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. :)

Consanguineous bonds

Email question of the day:

“So I take it you have no argument against marriage between two consenting adults, even if these adults are, for example, brother and sister?”

It’s the question of the day because it sent me off to do a bit of research on incest in order to challenge/re-affirm my position. (Freedom won again…)

I also discovered a curious thing about Rhode Island law…they have an exception to incest laws that allows “any marriage which shall be solemnized among the Jewish people, within the degrees of affinity or consanguinity allowed by their religion”.

My response to the questioner:

While I personally find the concept of marrying a sibling, etc. rather “icky”, there are lots of things that I find “icky” that aren’t necessarily immoral and that society has no business restricting. My aversion is something that most of us experience and it’s known as the “Westermarck effect” but that’s not the case for everyone.

There are certainly biological reasons to avoid inbreeding, but marriage isn’t necessarily about procreation. There are also psychological issues that surround taboo relationships (both contributing psychological issues and psychological issues that result from such unions) but we have to be very careful to distinguish between issues caused by societal disdain for something (as was/is the case with inter-racial marriages) and psychological harm that is intrinsic to the relationship (a daughter raised segregated from societal influence in order to ‘brainwash’ an incestuous spouse).

I think there’s a compelling argument that we should generally discourage incestuous marriage in order to minimize the risk of birth defects and psychological trauma, but that we are probably not justified in prohibiting those unions as a matter of law. I’m also convinced that this issue isn’t compelling enough to spend much time on…as the percentage of the population interested in such a relationship is negligible.

Our ability to discern the moral evaluation of something like incestuous marriage is restricted — we just don’t have enough information and there are too many possible scenarios. It may be that the unions are, in and of themselves, detrimental to the couples and to society – or it may be the case that there’s no significant harm. I’m not convinced that we have enough information to make any such determination, but I haven’t spent any significant time studying the subject. Until such time as we have compelling evidence (and not just a visceral aversion), I’m not sure that I can support laws against such marriages — but I’m in favor of discouraging it by education and investigating such relationships to ensure that we have true, informed consent.

Finally, there are a number of scenarios where people meet, fall in love and later learn that they are siblings or otherwise closely related. I’m of the opinion that it would be more immoral to prevent their marriage that to allow it…and that colors the entire spectrum of possible incestuous relationships…especially when you consider that some people get married, lead happy lives and find out about their kinship years later.

It may be the case that this is quite often a morally neutral issue — along the lines of a victimless crime (a term I’m not fond of, but fits as we often criminalize things which are victimless). As a matter of personal freedom, unless someone can demonstrate clear harm, I don’t see a compelling reason to disallow it.


I’ve since done a bit more thinking and I’ll amend the above a bit…

Re-reading that, it looked like I was in favor of discouraging a loving relationship between people who happened to be related and that’s not the case. The education comment was intended to address the real risks and not be a pronouncement about whom you should/shouldn’t love or marry.