More on marriage – and “religion”

April 1, 2013

Let’s see, where was I? Ah yes, “religion.” Marriage is said – by people on both sides of the orientational equality issue – to be a “religious” institution; traditionalists take this to mean that it is God-given (or the equivalent in non-theistic belief systems) and therefore beyond the power of the secular state to tamper with, while libertarians and many liberals say that because it is “religious” the secular state shouldn’t recognize it at all.

I have posted previously on my dissatisfaction with “religion” as a general category. For now let me just distinguish between the countable and non-countable senses of the word: between “religion” taken to be a human universal, understood for instance as an inner sense of something supernatural, a “longing for God,” and “the religions,” specific nameable systems of belief and practice like Christianity and Buddhism and Islam and Shinto. There may be such a thing as “uncountable religion” though so far I haven’t found an account of it that I find quite satisfactory, a definition that is both precise enough to be useful and capable of demonstration as a true universal; but in any case I find it more useful to speak of “the religions” because they are what attract the most attention and are responsible for  most of the public controversy. And my first point is that even if it can be shown that everyone has “religion” in some version of the uncountable sense, it is manifestly not true that everyone has “a religion.” These great systems – these “sovereign states of the soul” I call them, with their anthems and banners and border-crossing formalities, taking a dim view of dual citizenship – are all the product of a particular phase of the evolution of human society; they didn’t exist prior to at least some degree of state-formation, they have not existed in all civilizations, and there is no reason to think any one or all of them will be around forever. It is because of their (at least partial) state-like character, I hold, that defining their relationship to the actual state is so problematic; no country that I know of has felt the need for constitutional provisions regarding the relationship of the government with art or literature, say, or science, only with “religion.”

So how does this relate to the marriage issue?  Some sort of recognition of family-groups seems to be too widespread to fit into any specific theological or political framework. And yes, it does have to do with procreation. It is a universal necessity for human societies to try to see to it that their children are raised in an orderly manner so as to keep the community going; and encouraging or enforcing lifelong commitments on the part of biological parents where they are available, and of surrogates where necessary, has always been the most obvious way to go about it. So what we have is a universal but far from monolithic folk institution, which all governments and religions have accepted as part of the the raw human material they have to work with. And why not?

I think the reason the traditional terms are being contested today is that a wide range of social changes over several centuries have conspired to make them obsolete. For one thing, although the primary way the folk institution works is by holding biological parents responsible for their offspring and to each other, that has never been quite enough; parents may die young, or be captured and carried off by some enemy, so there has always had to be a role for extended families, remarriage of the widowed, adoption by unrelated persons, etc. But until very recently the basic framework was always the union of  breadwinners with babymakers, the latter of course necessarily female, and the former generally having to be male because under pre-modern conditions women had to spend the best years of their lives making babies in order to keep up with the death rate. The development of modern medicine, sanitation, etc has meant that it is no longer necessary for women to be primarily babymakers; they can have whole other careers, maybe opt not to procreate at all; and the modern complex economy depends far less than its predecessors did on the family as a unit of production, ownership and accountability. Thus the great movement towards gender equality that we have seen in recent decades: it is now accepted in all the more developed countries that women have the right to their own careers, even in fields which seem most “naturally” male (like those requiring heavy lifting or violence). There simply are a lot more possibilities for childrearing arrangements than there used to be, single-parenting for instance, surrogate parenting, and yes, pairs of mutually loving and committed homosexuals. We need not demonize the past for its lack of equality; all human society, all morality, function within the limits of the possible. But those limits expand, and there is no reason for us to remain bound by past rules.

But religions, because they are less transparent in their bases and procedures, because of their claim to represent a supernaturally based moral “truth,” have a harder time than governments in keeping up with such changes. That’s all. Give them time, they will adapt or die. Meanwhile progress happens in spite of them.

It seems what I really need to do is spell out my understanding of “morality.” OK, another post or two in the offing!


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