An atheist’s defense of marriage act

While listening to arguments for same-sex marriage, I discovered there are about 400 state benefits and over 1000 federal benefits to marriage.

I’ve been married for many years, although not particularly enthusiastic about it—until now. Don’t misunderstand. Sharon and I have had a loving, committed relationship for decades. But recent consciousness-raising arguments over same-sex marriage changed my overall opinion about marriage. You might even say that support for gay marriage became my personal DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act).

In 1999, after living happily together for 10 years, Sharon thought we should get married. I responded with a cliche, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I followed with counter-religious arguments like marriage is a religious tradition and we’re atheists, or the purpose of marriage is to have children and we’re too old. I quipped that religious conservatives were always ranting about the evils of “living in sin,” so I needed to promote the joys of sin. I also wanted to boycott heterosexual marriage until gays had the right to marry.

Sharon and I married on January 1, 2000 because she wanted us to get married more than I didn’t, and I loved her and wished to please her. We had a nice secular ceremony at midnight in our home, with friends sharing our delicious Ben & Jerry ice cream wedding cake. My first-year anniversary present to Sharon was to tell her, “You know, being married isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

So why did same-sex marriage change me from marriage detractor to marriage supporter? I had naively assumed that gays wanted the right to marry for the same reason I became a South Carolina gubernatorial candidate without a prayer in 1990. I wanted to challenge our discriminatory state constitution that prohibited atheists from holding public office, and I had no wild expectations of actually being elected and serving. But I soon learned that same-sex couples weren’t simply advocating for marriage equality. Most couples (myself excluded) view marriage as a stronger and more loving commitment than just cohabiting. And a bonus for gays is becoming part of a new mainstream culture that has a broader definition of traditional marriage.

While listening to arguments for same-sex marriage, I discovered there are about 400 state benefits and over 1000 federal benefits to marriage. I don’t see why married couples should have so many economic and legal rights unavailable to equally committed unmarried couples, but I take advantage of them, just as I take advantage of breaks in a tax system that I think should be more progressive.

Though arguments against same-sex marriage come almost exclusively from religious conservatives, government positions on marriage must be secular, not religious. I’m troubled by religions that discriminate against women, against gays and lesbians, and against all who don’t subscribe to a narrow religious doctrine. But as an advocate for religious freedom, I acknowledge their right to do so if it doesn’t affect those outside the religion. Sharon could not have married me or anyone else in a Catholic church, even if she were still Catholic as she was raised, because she is still married to her first husband in the eyes of a church that does not recognize their civil divorce.

Recently and inevitably, there was another significant victory for same-sex couples, the first same-sex divorce. Who can say that gays are outside the mainstream of traditional marriage, where about half of marriages end in divorce? Won’t it be interesting to see if the divorce rate for same-sex marriages will be lower than that for opposite-sex marriages?

Here’s a final insight I gained while thinking about same-sex marriage. My parents had a happy marriage, but the type in which I would have been miserable. My father went to work, as men were supposed to do; my mother took care of the home, as women were supposed to do. They both seemed comfortable with their stereotypical roles, though I can’t be sure because I never heard them discuss it. Perhaps these marital interactions during my formative years led to my having “post-traumatic parental marriage syndrome.” (Don’t Google it, because I just made it up.) Since I can’t imagine what gender roles would look like in a marriage between two men or two women, I’m finally able to free myself from PTPMS and appreciate fully my own wonderful marriage.

Image courtesy of Fibonacci Blue.

Herb Silverman
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  • Sojouner

    “Most couples (myself excluded) view marriage as a stronger and more loving commitment than just cohabiting.” There’s a good ‘religious’ (to use your term for) reason for this view. What a surprise.

  • Warwick07

    Very interesting article. Thanks.

  • jtmrp2

    That’s a lot of words with no actual point.

  • leibowde84

    “I wanted to challenge our discriminatory state constitution that prohibited atheists from holding public office, and I had no wild expectations of actually being elected and serving.”

    – Wow, if this is true about their constitution today, they should be ashamed of themselves. That is literally doing the opposite of what Jesus taught. You are never supposed to use the Word against people. The existence of faith should never be a disqualifying factor for public office.

  • leibowde84

    What do you mean? It’s kind of like that movie 42. The owner of the Dodgers loved baseball, but it was tarnished by segregation. He couldn’t love the game in the same way that he used to until he integrated the league. It seems like this atheist is saying the same thing, except he really didn’t feel that strongly about marriage in the first place. He didn’t want to participate in it until he felt that it was inclusive. Do you have a problem with that way of thining? Sounds pretty admireable to me.

  • ddmcd1

    Very thoughtful though I don’t know why identifying yourself as an atheist is relevant to your well made points.

  • h5r2

    Not such a surprise that religious people and atheists can have a lot in common. It would be nice to focus on the positives. Great article.

  • edwills

    Sounds like Herb and Sharon have a great marriage, with lots of fun.

  • Joel Hardman

    How do you separate good religious reasons from bad ones?

  • Louise L

    Excellent points. IMO the state should have no control over marriage beyond issuing licenses and record keeping. The only definition of marriage should be that two humans who are not married already, who are of age, who are of sound mind and are not being coerced, can formalize their union civilly or religiously with no further restrictions. Religious people can have their own brand of marriage that the state is not involved in. I, too think that laws that favor married couples are wrong. But until that can be changed, all perks should be exactly the same for every married couple and every married individual.

  • Steve Shagworthy

    I am a squirrel.

  • h5r2

    Good religious reasons are ones that focus on loving your neighbor and doing good. Bad religious reasons focus on doing what you believe pleases a god even if it harms human beings who don’t believe as you do.

  • leibowde84

    Bad religious reasons are the ones that go against Jesus’ strict teaching of not using “the Word” to condemn others. Jesus was very clear that using the Word of God to tell others of their future of damnation is wrong. There is only one “righteous” way to preach, and that is to share the word with other, and allow them to make their own transformation. For, when morality is forced, moral actions have no meaning. The same goes for fear. WE cannot be saved by simply being scared into compliance.

  • alltheroadrunnin

    “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” Then, he was in love.

  • pelicanwatchcb1

    I think marriage is a wonderful institution —
    for those who enjoy living in institutions.

  • Ray Knitterman Whiting

    which means nothing, really. The bible has no authority and no science behind it, so nobody actually cares what it says — except when someone wishes to appear superior to someone else.

  • Carstonio

    One doesn’t have to be religious to view “marriage as a stronger and more loving commitment than cohabitating,” or to value “loving your neighbor and doing good.” Religion doesn’t own either of those values. Reminds me of the false idea that religion owns marriage. Similarly, one doesn’t have to be religious to focus only on doing what you believe pleases someone in power.

  • Calladus

    You quote the bible against atheism? Might as well quote Harry Potter – it would make as much sense.

  • Hildy J

    Making sense is not one of those things religion does well.

  • edwills

    Does that mean it makes nonsense?

  • katniss93

    The differences between a secular marriage and a religious marriage(not just christian) is that many who are religious believe that there is a spiritual aspect to marriage. It is not just the joining or cohabitation of two persons but combining of two souls. The two become one, essentially. And the idea of a secular marriage, to many who are religious, does not make sense because marriage is essentially a religious tradition. The only reason to marry then, in america, is to reap the benefits of a legally binding contract between two people. Not to say that it isn’t out of love, but that if there weren’t any benefits to a legal marriage here, and aside from the wedding celebration, what meaning does marriage have in the secular world?

  • h5r2

    Loiuse1, above, mad essentially the same point. There should be no added benefits to marriage, especially if it means that the government is favoring religion over non-religion.

  • veginpost

    I wish Ray were right but I don’t think so. The Bible has no science. True, but it’s authority is solidly based on it’s power to mesmerize many who affect national and world politics not to mention it’s social and cultural influence both good and bad. Lots of bad. When G W Bush made war on Iraq he looked us in the face on national TV and said that it was God telling him that it was the right thing to do. Granted not all that madness came from the Bible but the irrational system of beliefs that drove him to that genocide certainly was related to the Bible. Witch hunts, repression, bigotry, slavery, child abuse, wife abuse, all can be traced back to the bible. Hatred for atheist right up there at the top of the list. Beware the Bible and those who commit themselves to it and base their bigotry in it’s teachings. Good and Bad, lots of BAD.

  • veginpost

    The religious right in this country goes far beyond the teaching of Christ when pushing it’s hate and bigotry. But keep in mind when a woman is stoned to death in Saudi Arabia or they cut the head off of some young man who loved the wrong girl that authority comes from God and the ancient writings found in the Old Testament. Jesus said, and I paraphrase (I have come not to change the LAW but to support it’s every word). Islam considers Jesus a great teacher and prophet.

  • Hanrod

    Wonderful article, with which I find myself in (unusually) complete agreement! After a 45 year “relationship”, but only seven years of “legal marriage”, it could also almost be my own, personal, story. It does seem worth highlighting, however, that so-called “marriage” may be an anachronism that demeans the individuals involved; and that, while it might remain a voluntary “church” or “tribal” or “family” matter, government has no business in it. Of course, with the birth of children government then does have an interest, from that point and limited only to that point…i.e. child welfare for those who cannot represent themselves. Otherwise freedom to contract, as with any other relationship in this, all to finite and difficult, life.

  • Catken1

    How would marriage, if accepted as a contractual relationship between equals, be demeaning?

  • Catken1

    ” Not to say that it isn’t out of love, but that if there weren’t any benefits to a legal marriage here, and aside from the wedding celebration, what meaning does marriage have in the secular world? ”

    A deep personal vow of commitment between two people?
    What makes you think that spiritual connections are only for those who are religious?

  • Chadwick Pendragon

    Marriage, is used in the term of the bonding of two people as devoted, life long partners, is nowhere near a religious ideal. Birds have life long partners, Wolves have life long mates, the Gibbons mate for life, so again, i fail to see how us, “creatures with the only souls” have taken claim to this act. Marriage as in the act of a ceremony has been practiced long before Christians and Catholics hijacked it. And when it comes to a governmental view or law, well thats just self explanatory. One, it was held as a “roll model family” for the world to see, and two, a definite religious influence, to reward those of a certain faith. I have always been a fan of an Indian (India not Native American) practice of marriage, where a couple is tied together at one one wrist, and must live together as one for a period of time before the ritual finished. Not christian, and a little more educational as to how a couple of that decree is supposed to act or be. Working as one unit. I was raised Christian of no denomination, and went even as far as being a world wide missionary since the age of 13. I have been to West Germany, when it was still West and East, Hong Kong, when it was under British rule, Zambia Africa, Papua New Guinea, Haiti, Costa Rica, and then joined the service. So I have been all over the world, and have seen first hand all sorts of religions. It was not until i got to China, and met Buddhists, that I became an Anti-Theist. I was always fascinated by religions, and filled with more and more questions about how so many people see and know so many different Gods, (Not Buddhists, no God included) When i got back to the states, from hong kong, I became obsessed with history, and it was actually that which made me turn away from the who Abraham Religion. Way too much killing, lying, murdering, and manipulations for me to accept that this was the only God, let alone, any at all. I’m sorry Grand ma and Grand Pa, loved the Journey, but love science more.

  • persiflage

    ‘………….government has no business in it.’

    This seems to be the recent anarchist rallying cry. In fact, you can’t live as a social being without some level of government exercising control over every aspect of your life. From the moment of birth, humans are contractually bound to the society and culture that sustains them………..and in death, your survivors are still following rules as to the disposal of the remains.

  • VilhelmDy

    You indicate that a “committed” relationship should be enough to warrant a marriage license which affords the numerous benefits you outline. It’s important to note that those benefits come from all of the taxpayers in the country. Are you suggesting that all committed relationships should be subsidized by the people of the United States? If not, then what committed relationships should be? What committed relationships do the people of the United States have enough of a vested interest in to subsidize and to give stability to? Just any committed relationship?

  • DanaB1

    “I don’t see why married couples should have so many economic and legal rights unavailable to equally committed unmarried couples,”

    Independent of religion, I do think society has some interest in offering benefits to encourage committed couples (gay or straight) to bind themselves together in a legally recognized relationship with legally defined rights and responsibilities and a legal process for dissolving the relationship. To me it encourages social stability and protects both parties to the relationship. I don’t think society owes couples the right to “have their cake and eat it too,” to enjoy the rights and benefits we offer to couples to encourage the legal commitment of marriage without actually making that legal commitment.

  • Catken1

    True. But government’s rightful place is in protecting the liberties of citizens from intrusion by others (for example, protecting some people from infections and disease caused by improper disposal of human remains). The government of a free country does not interfere in people’s intimate family relationships solely on religious grounds, or on the grounds that the relationships involved make some people feel “icky”, nor does it deny one couple access to a civil contract while allowing another, when the two are situated similarly in every respect except for sex.