Gay marriage, polygamy, and God

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has recently gotten a lot of flak (according to the L.A. Times) for saying what most social conservatives actually think, namely, that there’s no principled difference between accepting gay marriage and accepting polygamy and a whole host of alternative sexual arrangements. Comparisons with bestiality and incest (at least of a coercive kind) are, to my mind, entirely unwarranted. But I think progressives are being a bit simple-minded when they decry the connection between non-hetero marriage and non-pair marriage. If marriage isn’t the union of a man and a woman, after all, why shouldn’t it be the union of two women and one man? Of three, four, or five men? And so on.

The simplest argument for gay marriage is that (1) people want it, and (2) it harms no one. By the same logic, if domestic arrangements beyond the traditional pair are desired and can be made to last long enough to warrant legal recognition, they should be recognized by law too. Consenting adults should be able to enter into whatever domestic arrangement they see fit, and the law should keep up as best it can.

The debate over gay marriage is actually a great way to see how religion can be harmful. If one believes hetero marriage really is a divine ordained institution, anything else will be quite uncountenanceable. But if, as a good humanist and naturalist, one sees prevailing norms concerning relationships and marriage as products of a particular culture at a particular time and place, there will be no reason not to change those norms in accordance with changes in the culture. Marriage is and always has been a human creation. But belief in God, at least the way such belief works in North American culture, keeps one from realizing this. And the belief in God also justifies, baptizes, whatever prejudices happen to be codified in the tradition. Yes, gay marriage is “changing the definition of marriage”. So what? There is no God. Therefore changing the definition of marriage is permitted. And amply justified under present circumstances, I would add.

When I was still a Christian, I considered myself somewhat progressive on the question of gay marriage–I didn’t think it was necessarily ‘sinful’. But it wasn’t until I left the faith that I realized how entirely irrelevant sex and gender are to the value of a relationship. Of course, many Christians support the gay rights movement. More power to them. But to the extent that a theistic worldview provides a welcoming home to beliefs of the form “X is God-ordained”, there will always be the risk of (allegedly) divinely sanctioned social conservativism (that is, conservation of the tradition because, well, God approves of it, and not of alternatives).

From a humanist perspective, what matters is not what God supposedly thinks, but human beings and their welfare. (All sentient creatures, actually, but that’s a post for another day.) Social arrangements are thus to be evaluated on the basis of their conduciveness to human happiness, freedom, and flourishing. No more, no less.

So atheism commends itself to us by clearing the path, so to speak, between humanity and happiness. God has a tendency to get in the way.

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