A program of the Center for Inquiry
The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 12, Number 1.
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 activistspeople 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:
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 email@example.com. Letters will be printed with attribution unless you request otherwise.