The power to define is the power to destroy

I was skimming through the news headlines and saw an article that got me thinking. I’ve since lost the link, so I can’t really quote it here, but it’s a sadly all-too-common tale: Christians complaining about liberals and how gay rights activists are trying to “change the definition” of marriage.

So here’s the thing: Christians want the right to define what marriage is, and that in itself is not a bad thing. Christians should have the right to decide for themselves what the true definition of marriage is. The problem is that they not only want to define marriage for themselves, they want to define it for everyone else as well. They want to deny to others the right of definition that they claim exclusively for themselves.

That’s Christian supremacist thinking, as well as being bigoted and unjust. We’re supposed to be a democratic society, with liberty and justice for all, so let’s act like one: let’s give other groups a chance to adopt a definition of marriage suitable to their religious views, and not make it the exclusive special privilege of Christians. We only need one reservation, and that is that we should not allow definitions of marriage that serve to exploit the weak, the young, and the helpless instead of promoting strong healthy relationships.

Atheists don’t go around trying to pass laws defining marriage as the union of two non-believers, so why should believers be able to use the power of definition to destroy the marriages of others? The true defenders of marriage are those who are working to bring about the liberty and justice America stands for. And that’s who we should support.


  1. Jim says

    I’m interested in your opinion of polygamy. Why not define marriage as a legal binding of any number of adults? Yes, I’m specifically thinking of Mormons. I can see putting legal limits on the age of marriage to prevent child abuse. But if tradition is not a valid reason to restrict marriage to one man/one woman, then it seems artificial to restrict it to only two adults because that is traditional. I’m not pushing any agenda, I’m just curious how other atheists feel on this issue.

    • cafeeineaddicted says

      My beef with polygamy is in the intertwined nature we have in present marriage, with joint property, custody etc. It would be an administrative nightmare. I also would like to see measures taken to avoid manipulation of the system, for example, the board of directors of a corrupt company marrying so they can’t be forced to testify against each other. In essence, it is far enough from our current use of marriage to require radical changes to the system. For example, polygamous divorce just gives me a headache.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      One of my favorite anti-gay-marriage arguments is that if we allow men to marry each other then we’re headed down a slippery slope towards *gasp* Biblical, Old-Testament-style marriage such as God blessed Abraham, Moses, David, and Solomon with. Oh noes!

      In all seriousness, I can’t imagine why any woman would want to enter into a polygamous marriage, and it seems to me like it would be an incredibly disadvantageous relationship. That said, though, I don’t see why it would be up to me to tell her she can’t if that’s what she really wants to do. As long as she’s not being coerced, it’s really none of my business whether she is one wife among many, or has many husbands, or has one or more wives, with or without husbands. And the same would go for men.

      The only difference between polygamy and Newt Gingrich is timing.

      • wholething says

        In all seriousness, I can’t imagine why any woman would want to enter into a polygamous marriage

        Following a war, there could be a significant gender imbalance. A share of a husband might be better than none. It was customary in Vietnam before WWII for men to have more than one wife. The women didn’t get to have a say in the matter and the first wife often resented it. When the French re-assumed power, they outlawed this practice. After 1975, there was a significant number of women without enough bachelors. As I understand it, the first wife got to have a say in the matter, often choosing the second wife. This was the practice though the forbidding law was still on the books.

  2. TX_secular says

    I had the same question, Jim. As long as the relationship is entered into freely by adults then I see no problems with multiple partners. I also don’t think this would have to be limited to religion. What if some people just want to be married to more than one person for emotional, financial, sexual reasons?

  3. Thorne says

    @ Jim
    I tend to agree with you about polygamy, both polygyny and polyandry. And why not group marriages as well, several husbands and wives all married to one another. As long as everyone is a consenting adult, there should be no limits on how they choose to arrange their lives.

    The problem I have with the Mormons, in particular, is the same problem I have with Muslims who might practice polygyny: the women seldom have a true choice, being forced into such marriages by their families or by the constraints of the religious indoctrination they have suffered. Sadly, I don’t see any cure for this, other than the total banning of religions, which I do not think should be allowed.

    Of course, religious groups should be permitted to establish their own marriage definitions within their congregations: if you decide to enter a group marriage, for example, the Catholic Church should have the right to excommunicate you. But I feel certain that, as the popularity of such marriages increased, with the resultant decrease in church memberships, many religious organizations will ‘miraculously’ find a way to accept them. And then claim they were in favor of them all along.

  4. sc_1afdbca0f6f2896b62f4140e94e557d8 says

    Polygamy doesn’t bother me per se, but as Thorne says, you have to start worrying about exploitation as you start to wonder from societal norms. Keeping in mind that the same relationship can exist without the marriage, what does the marriage convey to the participants? One thing is a commitment level, which is a two edged sword in imbalanced situations. Another is legal proxy and responsibility. There is a certain level of legal responsibility to and for each other between married partners that doesn’t exist otherwise. And this all assumes a secular background to all partners. Once you start adding in a religious background, then you need to worry about each religion’s point of view.

  5. Didaktylos says

    Actually, I believe that in limited cases the RCC has recognised polygamous marriages: i.e. if a polygamous household were to convert to Catholicism, all the existing marriages would be recognised and a dispensation would probably be forthcoming for a betrothal that could not honourably be set aside.

  6. says

    I’ve wondered for some time now if it wouldn’t be better for the government to take its hands off of “marriage” completely. To me, marriage is a religio-cultural thing. If we are living in a truly pluralistic, secular society, everyone should be able to “do” marriage according to their customs (and I agree, as long as all involved are consenting adults).

    What I would want from the government in the way of legal contracts would be more of a civil union type thing where any number of adults could enter into a contract and receive the benefits of that union, and whether or not the relationship was sexual would have nothing to do with the union itself.

  7. bahrfeldt says

    They insist on making up definitions for whatever suits their flock fleecers’ fancy this week. Marriage, life, sin, adultery, charity, faith, good works, etc. Even their definition of Christians does not include Mormons, Catholics or any other Christ worshippers who fail to follow the papacy’s definitions of marriage, life, sin, adultery, charity, faith, good works, etc.

  8. Charles says

    Marriage is problematic because there is a legal status that is conferred by the act. Property rights, rights of inheritance, rights of access, rights of guardianship and power of attorney are all conferred by the act of marriage as well as are the concomitant duties. Additionally the law is set up to act in respect of monogamy and it can, with difficulty, handle serial monogamy (divorce and remarriage).

    All too often religions refer to any arrangement that confers these rights as marriage and are vociferous in opposition hence denying those legal rights to non-traditional partnerships. In some circumstances the rights of the next of kin trump those of the legal proxy.

    IIRC attempt were made by several homosexual couples one of whom was dying to vest power of attorney and visitation rights to their partner. When one partner was dying families (or hospitals) who did not approve of the “lifestyle” refused access to the partner whilst granting rights and access to the family.

    In relation to poly/andry/gamy I feel that there has to be a restriction. Consider the case of Warren Jeffs, powerful persons will inflict themselves on the less confident or, perhaps, more innocent. Abuses within such multiple unions also occur between those of the plural sex.

  9. The Lorax says

    I agree that the government should just step away from marriage. If people want to enter a social contract, they can. Just write it down, sign your names, bing, bang, boom. Between any number of consenting adults, it should be fine. Hell, they can even invite an impartial third-party lawyer to read it over and make sure everyone knows what they’re getting into. Marriage as a civil contract is just that. Marriage as a social or religious thing is… just that. If you want to contract yourself before your government, do it. If you want to bind yourself before your god, do it. If you want both, do them. If someone doesn’t want to follow your way of thinking, don’t force them to. It really should be that simple.

  10. ttch says

    Atheists don’t go around trying to pass laws defining marriage as the union of two non-believers…

    Marriage existed before Christianity so marriage should be defined as the union of two non-Christians.

  11. prochoice says

    If the Mormons repeated their own prophet´s situation, there would be no problem:
    The woman was 28 years old, widowed (NO virgin, she knew from experience what reproductive biology is about!) and had made a living on her own for 2 years (which was very hard then, and probably her motive to consent; nowadays it should be at least 5 years experience of independent economy).

    As with alcohol and religion, there should be such qualifiers
    SET BY THE STATE for marriage or any consent to a contract for life forms, because they are similarly dangerous and tend to backfire to the unexperienced.

    But the faithheads will not accept that because of their belief in virginity, which does realize that polygamy has little appeal to women who can live another way.

  12. says

    One man, one woman, her sister, and 2 slave girls. And thus were the twelve tribes formed and it must have been good in fraud’s, er, god’s eyes because he choose them.

    Poly relationships can and do exist, whether they are more or less stable than traditional marriages, my fundy friends are divorced, remarried, and in some cases divorced again.

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