Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Wait a cotton-picking minute: about marriage

The religious and religiously inspired are obsessed with telling us who we shouldn’t be allowed to marry.  Most of this is homophobic invective as you’d expect: their plan is to use the law to institutionalise their particular idea of morality. 

We atheists and secular humanists often (and rightly) talk about how religions shouldn’t interfere with marriage.  Marriage is no longer a religious institution in many parts of the world.  We have secular wedding services and can get married with very little ceremony.  Moreover, in many places, Marriage has nothing to do with sexual behaviour: marriage is no longer a de facto license to have sex and few people (in Britain at least) frown very much on sex outside marriage these days.

I’m all for keeping religion out of marriage, but what we don’t seem to talk about so much is keeping government out of our marriages too.  What possible valid role does government have in deciding who can marry whom other than insisting that the partners all consent?

Marriage is a contract administered by government, according to government terms,  We don’t get to negotiate those terms.  It’s only a marriage if we agree to those terms (and in the UK those terms include heterosexuality).  Since people can live together in any way they wish without actual marriage, what is its purpose?  Well, in the UK there’s stuff about who inherits when one partner dies.  In the US, there’s insurance related stuff.  These are important things, denied to some people because the government doesn’t recognise their commitment to each other as marriage.

Taking the administration of that contract away from government would serve two purposes. 

First, it would turn the contract into what it is: a declaration of rights and responsibilities that you take on and give up when you get married.  The marriage would be defined in terms of those rights rather than in terms of things like sexuality or the number of people in the marriage.  Everyone agreeing to a marriage contract would have the same protection regardless of circumstances. 

Second, it would make it impossible for the religious to interfere with marriages.  They couldn’t appeal to any institutionalised idea of morality other than simple fairness for all parties entering into the marriage.  They couldn’t hold governments to ransom and governments (as I suspect our current government in the UK might be trying to do) couldn’t leverage religious views to gain votes regardless of actual policies.

I think we atheists and secular humanists should challenge our governments’ role in marriage rather than those silly religionists’.

I wonder why we don’t talk about this more.

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