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Advocatus Diaboli

by Tom Flynn


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 12, Number 1.


Legitimize Bastardy!

At a recent meeting of secular humanist group leaders, I participated in a discussion of humanist ceremonies. Many prominent humanists, among them Paul Kurtz and Matt Cherry, the new Executive Director of CODESH, feel that providing humanist ceremonies or celebrations marking watersheds in nonbelievers' lives is an idea whose time has come. As longtime Bulletin readers know, I disagree ("Humanist Ceremonies? Over My Dead Body," Advocatus Diaboli, SHB Vol. 9 No. 1).

When conversation turned to humanist wedding ceremonies, voices extolled the importance of humanist weddings, their beauty, the depth of people's need for evocative but secular nuptials. When I couldn't take any more, I launched into a speech that ran something like this: "I find it surprising that at a gathering of secular humanist activists—people commonly thought of as free thinkers and social reformers  we hear so much in praise of matrimony, and so few calls for this archaic institution to be reformed or overthrown. Shouldn't we be critiquing this hoary old man-buys-wife custom instead of scrambling to play our own riffs on it?"

Shock! Dismay! You'd think I'd suggested making the Center for Inquiry an abattoir for human sacrifice.

Some people tell me I never outgrew the 1960s. When the subject is wedlock, has the ship of humanism steamed over the horizon of convention and left me at the dock? As one who disdains marriage, yet enjoys a delightful, long-term committed relationship with a woman who has no more interest in tying the knot than I have, I'd like to open a new debate on the subject of humanism and matrimony. Herewith, my opening salvo:

  1. In the Western tradition, matrimony is irreparably tainted by its origins as an institution for the transfer of property rights in women from their fathers to their husbands. Women aren't chattel anymore, but I can't help noticing the contradiction when couples who may call themselves feminist start their rites with the father "giving away" the bride. The growth of multiculturalism in American life doesn't make the situation any better, what with the emphasis many Asian and African traditions still place on the dowry or bride price. Is this something contemporary secular humanists really want to support, even by implication?
  2. A century or so ago, few American women (other than widows at the helm of a late husband's business) had the rights to own property and enter into contracts. Not even rich widows could vote. Such misogyny still echoes in the differential tax treatments of married couples vs. singles, which treats the married couple as an entity whose status transcends the individuals which compose it. Then there's the practice of brides taking their husband's surnames, which a surprising number of humanist couples perpetuate.
  3. Traditional matrimony at least implies sexual exclusivity between the bride and groom. Even today, one still encounters the repellent double standard under which the bride's virginity, but not the groom's, is coveted. Is this necessary? Is it even relevant? And if not, why not discard an institution that carries such freight?
  4. In an allegedly free society, what business is it of God, the state, or my neighbors with whom I choose to bond and under what terms? Even non-religious weddings preserve the idea that the couple's love is incomplete until it has been embossed with the seal of community approval. Why else have a non-religious wedding? To individualists that's a repugnant medievalism, and more of us ought to be saying so.
  5. In our medically and nutritionally advanced society, men and women reach puberty earlier and remain sexually active far longer than our forbears dreamed possible. Yet the depth and variety of emotional support that husbands and wives are expected to supply for each other has grown. Marital monogamy may have made sense in agrarian societies where people married young, died early, and spent most of the intervening hours at gender-segregated toil so that spouses had little need for meaningful conversation. Today, it seems foolish to expect that many persons will find the same partner physically, emotionally, and intellectually fulfilling throughout a long life of profound and often unpredictable personal development. Divorce and remarriage are easier than they were, say, half a century ago, a reform for which freethinkers and humanists deserve much credit. Yet societal values continue to attach sufficient opprobrium, financial cost, and civil inconvenience to divorce that orderly serial monogamy remains a game that only the (relatively) wealthy can play.

The kinds of weddings many humanists opt for strive to address these concerns. Couples may write their own ceremonies to stress the woman's autonomy and financial independence. Brides may keep their own surnames or adopt hyphenated names. Yet the painful legacies of traditional matrimony continue to dog us; too often our game attempts to evade them fail under the weight of traditional social expectations about wedlock.

The principal arguments contemporary humanists advance in favor of marriage center on children. Tykes whose parents have different surnames, or whose own surnames reflect that of neither parent, face taunts and discrimination. Single motherhood as it emerged after the 60s and 70s is too often an economic dead end for women, an enfeebling prison for their kids. Objections of this "Dan Quayle was right" sort may appear to devastate the pretensions of reformers who dreamed of creating a flexible, supportive post-matrimonial society.

But does the failure (if such it was) of our civilization's first significant stab at replacing marriage really mean that we should give up trying? Must we surrender to the culture of showers and bachelor parties and Wagner's wedding march? I don't think so. For my money, matrimony remains a corrupt, misogynistic, and outmoded institution. The need to do away with it is as real today as it was in the 60s. What the last three decades have shown us is that we who seek a better way need to be more inventive in crafting, and advocating for, new social forms that fulfill the functions of marriage without its negatives.

Most of all, we need ways to guarantee the emotional and financial support of children without simply deepening their enmeshment in the often-ephemeral bond between their biological parents. Whether we like it or not, the nuclear family has exceeded its half-life. When we look at the negative feedback so-called "illegitimate" children face, or at the Byzantine social and legal arrangements that govern the nurturance of children whose parents have multiple relationships, it's clear where reform should begin.

Perhaps our battle cry should be "Legitimize bastardy!" If nothing else, it's a killer bumper sticker.

What do you think? Write Advocatus Diaboli, P.O. Box 664, Amherst NY 14226-0664. If you prefer, fax (716)636-7571 or email tflynn@centerforinquiry.net.  Letters will be printed with attribution unless you request otherwise.


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