An Atheist’s Views on Marriage and What We Can Learn from It
- Aaron D'Anthony Brown Contributing Author
- 2022 18 Jan
Boy meets girl. Boy and girl date. Boy and girl get married. Boy and girl become husband and wife. They live happily ever after. That is the ideal trajectory for relationships today. Instead of having multiple partners and heartache throughout the years, we find our perfect mate first and stay with them for all time to come. However, the ideal is often not the reality.
Most people have multiple partners before finally marrying someone. They’ve kissed numerous people, likely had sex at least once, and may have more history than they prefer by the time they settle down. Though today, settling down is no longer synonymous with marriage. Living with a boyfriend or girlfriend has become normalized in American culture, even among Christians. Having multiple partners simultaneously is also becoming trendy in what people refer to as polyamory.
What common knowledge and research reveal is that fewer people are getting married today, and fewer people are getting married for religious purposes. When people do marry, we especially wish them good fortune, having the awareness that divorce is now as common as marriage. How did marriage change so drastically since the union of Adam and Eve in the garden? Or is the issue that we peer back too fondly on the past and idealize marriage?
How Is Marriage Defined?
“This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)
If asked about the origins of marriage, Christians can point to the first book in the Bible, and to the first humans God created. The first man and the first woman formed the first covenant with one another before God. Since then, believers have emulated this idea of marriage. A man and woman vow to serve one another and make this promise before God.
Throughout human history, marriage has been characterized between two people, a man and a woman. Though naturally, any of God’s gifts can be abused. People have married multiple partners and even more have broken marriage vows. However sinful we can be, God has provided the ideal to strive toward.
The Christian perspective is undoubtedly different from the mainstream. That is apparent today as marriage loses the religious context and can be experienced by more than just a man and a woman. Humans value connection, and no doubt value the benefits that come from close relationships like a marriage. Are we able to define marriage however we want or should there a shared definition?
As a Christian and critical thinker, I wanted to hear from someone who shared a different perspective. Listening to others allows us to share the gospel with those outside the faith, hear their perspectives, and potentially learn new ideas ourselves - even if we don’t change our core beliefs.
Who better to pick for this interview than fellow author Richard Jennis. He and I were enrolled at the University of Richmond when the debate on gay marriage came to a head. As was the case then, we still differ on the subject. What’s different now is that those two college students have become professionals with more developed ideologies.
Richard is a Jewish-born atheist, whose writings focus on issues related to the LGBTQ community. He has many thoughts on a variety of subjects, including shame, which we spoke on some time ago. In this talk, Richard shares with me his thoughts on marriage.
A Conversation with an Atheist on Marriage
Q: What is your definition of marriage?
A: Marriage is a social institution through which two people engage in a marital ceremony, usually with friends and family, and pledge to spend their lives together as married partners. The government bestows legal recognition upon them, making their marriage official.
How do you think religions define marriage (whether Christian, Muslim, or Jew)?
I think religious folk define marriage as a pact made before God. Believers invoke their religious commitment to one another as part of the marital ceremony. In their view, marriage isn’t only between two people, it is also recognized by God.
For people who are nonreligious, what is their basis for defining marriage? And how do we come to a consensus on what marriage is without an established faith?
The basis of nonreligious marriage is that two people have decided they want to be married and spend their life together, and their marriage is recognized by the government. The key difference is that in non-religious marriages, the people getting married don’t believe that God or a religious institution needs to preside over the affair, and they don’t attach religious significance to it. Since the government bestows legal marital recognition upon couples, not religious institutions, the consensus that the couple is married still exists legally and socially. Established faith is not necessary for such recognition.
Does society need a shared definition for what we call marriage?
Society needs some basis for marriage, though it does not need, and does not appear to have, a total consensus on a definition. There are some core tenets of marriage that are quite universal. Marriage is between two people, for instance, and marriage is a human institution. However, differences do exist across nations and cultures. In some nations, gay marriage is fully recognized. In some nations, it is not. Historically, whether interracial marriage is legitimate has also been contested, though there is more of a consensus today that it is legitimate.
What has marriage looked like over the history of the Earth?
Historically, marriage has existed between different-gendered partners. Marriage has also been heavily influenced by gender roles, and most civilizations have been built around the idea of men providing for women and women taking on a more nurturing role. Marriage has also been a traditionally religious institution. All of this is changing, as marriages become less religious, more inclusive of gay couples, and less defined by gender roles.
Where did marriage originate?
Marriage originated with a combination of societal and religious recognition and marital ceremonies. It does not have one geographical origin but developed across the world.
If marriage is regarded as a religious institution that honors only male and female, then why not call a union between same-sex couples a different term?
While the Bible may regard marriage as a religious institution that honors only male and female union, in the US, marriage has a broader application. 37 US states independently voted to legalize gay marriage, and, as of 2015, the US Supreme Court found gay marriage constitutional, making it national law. Marriage also does not require any kind of religious recognition to be legally or socially recognized.
Referring to same-sex unions by a different name instead of marriage just isn’t sufficient. A different label often accompanies different rights and treatment, and civil unions are no exception. They exclude gay couples from a lot of the medical, economic, and social opportunities enjoyed by straight couples. Gay couples want the same recognition as straight couples. They want their love to be held in equal esteem.
Research reveals that people who cohabitate before marriage are more likely to experience divorce down the road. What do you make of people living together before marriage? Why do you agree or disagree with this idea?
I have absolutely no problem with people living together before marriage. I see it as a useful test run to discover whether partners are compatible. For people who find out they aren’t compatible while living together, breaking up before getting married and potentially having children can prevent a lot of heartbreak, expenses, and complications. I don’t see any shame in living with someone out of wedlock and am happy that US society and many societies, in general, have become more accepting of it.
Why do so many people break up when living together before getting married?
Some of this effect might be correlation: people who live together before marriage tend to be less religious overall than those who don’t, and less religious people might be less inclined to see marriage as an unbreakable pact before God. Another explanation could be that such couples don’t take marital commitment as seriously because they have rushed into large commitments already. Either way, I believe people have every right to try living together for themselves, whether in the context of marriage or not.
The Bible indicates that God disapproves of divorce, and as indicated in Matthew 19, divorcing for any reason besides sexual immorality means someone commits adultery. Clearly, God takes the promise of marriage seriously, though divorce seems to be allowed due to the nature of mankind. Though permissible does not mean encouraged. What are your thoughts?
Divorce is very necessary for a number of reasons beyond unfaithfulness. It is a mechanism by which people can escape abuse, a way for people to try again and find a more compatible partner with whom they can build a better life, and a means of separating people who are unhealthy together. It is a recognition that people change, that not all conflicts are reconcilable, and that it is okay to accept that a relationship cannot be salvaged. I do not want anyone who is unhappy in their marriage to feel like they are trapped for life. I don’t believe in God, but I would hope in theory that any loving God would understand the multitude of reasons why someone might walk away from an unhealthy or unfulfilling marriage.
According to this same chapter in Scripture, Jesus indicates that marriage and singleness are given to specific people. Not everyone is called to be married, and not everyone is called to be single. Thoughts?
I don’t think we’re meant to be anything. Some people find love and some people don’t. Some people never find marriage, but that doesn’t mean they’re chosen by any outside entity to be single. The world is a random place. Life events like marriage happen or don’t happen for a variety of reasons, but I don’t believe they’re “meant to be.”
Where in the world did marriage begin? Without the Bible pointing to the Garden of Eden, that would remain a mystery. History is undoubtedly unclear, especially the further back we go. What is clear is that marriage has retained certain characteristics throughout time, that is, until today.
As we depart from what marriage once meant, the definition seems open for reinterpretation. Our culture’s sexuality continues to run unchecked. Time will tell whether marriage will come to include other forms of sexuality, including incest. As we have witnessed, what was once illegal can become legal because today’s moral code is not religious.
For those clinging to God’s Word, remember how we are to utilize marriage (Ephesians 5:21-33). Divorce will continue to occur, as will strained marriages because we are undoubtedly sinners (Romans 8:28). Yet, the more we can become like Christ, the less of these issues we will have in our home, community, nation, and world. And the closer we will be to God, honoring Him, and our partner, in that loving relationship.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Kostyazar
Aaron D'Anthony Brown is a freelance writer, hip-hop dance teacher, and visual artist, living in Virginia. He currently contributes work to iBelieve, Crosswalk, and supports various clients through the platform Upwork. He's an outside-the-box thinker with a penchant for challenging the status quo. Check out his short story “Serenity.”