USS Clueless -- Marriage and Atheism

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Marriage and Atheism

"I'm a Christian, and also am against sex outside of marriage (a union I believe was instituted by God). What I don't understand is why people that don't believe in God even support marriage, let alone abstinence. If we are here for no purpose but to slowly evolve, what is the value of being monogamous? Is it just tradition?" -- Posted in another forum.

I've run into this before; the depth of ignorance most Christians have about atheism is amazing and really pretty appalling. I've even run into Christians who think that an Atheist is someone who knows about God, knows that Jesus is the Son of God, but decides not to accept him as Lord and Savior. Or something like that. To such a person, the existence of God is an a priori belief so deep that they can't accept even the possibility that He might not exist. And if they do understand that others might not believe that God exists, the idea is so foreign that they don't understand the ramifications of that.

I'm an atheist, and the first thing which has to be understood is that there's no consensus on this (or anything else) among atheists, because the term "atheist" is a collective based on a negative. "NonChristian" is equally a collective based on a negative, and it should be apparent that Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists (and atheists too) all fall under the "nonChristian" umbrella -- but don't agree about anything except that they don't believe in Christianity. Atheists are quite varied.

"Atheist" means "someone who believes that there are no deities". That part's fine, but it doesn't say what they do believe in. So the question can't be answered for atheists collectively.

All I can do is answer the question for one particular atheist: me. So when, below, I use a phrase like "atheists believe" then I'm talking about those atheists whose beliefs run congruent to my own.

One form of atheism (and the positive term which describes me because it says what I do believe in rather than what I don't believe in) is materialist or sometimes mechanist. Materialism doesn't mean "whoever dies with the most toys wins." Rather, it refers to a positive belief that the physical universe, the matter in it, and the forces which govern how that matter interacts are all that exist. To a materialist, there are no mysterious forces in the universe; no souls, no ghosts, no ESP (until proven otherwise, and no convincing proof exists now); no afterlife; no reincarnation. The mind is an emergent property of brain tissue, but that's all it is. To a materialist life is nothing but a complex self-sustaining pattern, easily disrupted and gone when destroyed. Pattern is not a conserved quantity: if I burn a painting it doesn't go anywhere; it's just rearranged. All the atoms which made up the painting still exist, but the image itself on the painting is gone. Equally, when a person dies all that happens is that the pattern of their life is gone, replaced by another one. But it doesn't go anywhere; it's just gone. When you blow out a flame, it's just gone. Life is a very complex flame. Thus says the materialist.

It is true that this can lead to fatalism, but usually doesn't. Absent some overriding deity to proclaim what we should do, we're on our own to find something. It is true that a materialist believes that in the long run none of it matters. Ultimately it won't matter if we royally screw up and make everyone miserable -- but that doesn't mean we should do it. Something doesn't have to be permanent to be good. Something can be ephemeral and be good too. And it doesn't have to come via edict from a deity.

While I don't believe that a complete and cogent definition of "good" is possible, that doesn't mean I think that nothing is good, or that I don't dislike evil. It's just that I define those things in a way which is different than a Christian would. A Christian, essentially, thinks that something is good if it complies with God's edicts; evil if it breaks them. Shorn of the underlying logic, I believe something is good if it is kind, evil if it is cruel.

All ethical systems begin with at least one axiom. A Christian's axiom is "God exists and tells us what to do." My axiom is "Happiness is inherently valuable." Happiness doesn't need to serve some other goal; it's worthwhile in and of itself. It doesn't matter whether it is ephemeral; whether it has any long term effect; whether it leads me to some sort of eternal reward (which I don't think will happen). Happiness is good in its own right.

So, the general ethical goal I try to accomplish is to increase the amount of happiness and decrease the amount of unhappiness in the universe. To me, that's a worthy goal irrespective of whether it has any other result. Everything I believe in ethics derives from this. When a Christian evaluates something new to decide whether it is "good", he tries to determine what God would think of it, based on God's revealed word. As a general rule, when I try to evaluate something new, I think it's "good" if it will create more happiness than it destroys. (Nearly everything does both; it's rare for something to create happiness without destroying some too.)

It's important to deeply understand the meaning of the word axiom: it refers to a statement which is apparently obvious on its face, and which cannot be proved. It must be taken on faith, which may be odd to hear from an atheist, but atheism isn't about discarding all beliefs; just about discarding beliefs in mystical things. Atheists do believe things -- just different things. I cannot prove to you that happiness is a worthwhile goal. I believe it to be true, but I know it cannot be proved. (Atheism itself is axiomatic: I can't prove to you that there is no God, or that my materialism is true; to me it's self evident but unprovable.)

With regards to marriage, the case for it for an atheist is not quite as compelling as for a Christian, but a case exists for it nonetheless. Since I don't believe in sin as derived from arbitrary edicts from a deity, I don't believe that sex outside of marriage is inherently sinful. (Again, it must be pointed out that if I use the word "sin", I use it as a noun to refer to an act I think is evil. I don't use it to mean "a violation of the laws of God", or "an act which will cause punishment in Hell", because I don't believe either God or Hell exists. So in that sense I use the word "sin" incorrectly; it's a useful concept and in many regards I use it in a way similar to how a Christian would use it; in effect, if not in fundament.)

Sex outside of marriage can be evil but I don't think it necessarily is. Also, I don't think that it is necessarily evil for two people to live together without being married. On the other hand, I also don't think that marriage is useless, or necessarily evil. Indeed, marriage can be a positive thing, a good thing.

Just in passing, I don't think that homosexuality is inherently evil. It can be evil in specific but I don't think it is in general. If two people bond, and if they can make each other happy sexually, then as long as no-one else is seriously harmed by it I think it's a fine thing irrespective of whether they're the same sex or different sexes. I happen to be heterosexual and have no interest in other men, but I don't have a problem with two men or two women being in a loving relationship; I'm not threatened by it, and if it makes them happy, I'm all for it.

Marriage originated as a religious ritual but it is now secular as well. Within Christianity, marriage is a sanctification of the mating of two people. In secular society, marriage is a contract entered into by two people which imposes obligations on each, for the protection of the other and the protection of any offspring which might appear.

So: why would an atheist get married? There are usually multiple reasons, and many of them are very pragmatic. My brother lived with his current wife for many years before they got married; the reason they claim to have formally married was taxes: he had most of the income, but the house was in her name. Thus while they were POSSLQ (Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters -- a term introduced in the 1980 census to deal with the high number of people in the 1970 census who selected "other" in the "marital status" box) he couldn't write off her mortgage payments on his taxes, even though he was effectively paying them. (She worked, too, but he was making a lot more.) But that wasn't really the only reason.

It also protects children if there are any. After several years together they decided they wanted kids -- and they now have two. If they had not been married, the legal status of the children would have been quite ambiguous. Marriage has associated with it a great deal of case law much of which is oriented around protecting children in case of a divorce. This is good; children need the protection.

But the real reason for an atheist to marry, as opposed to simply living together, is as a demonstration of abiding love. It's a commitment, a promise, a way of demonstrating how deeply important the other person is. The reason to marry is to show the other person that you're dependable, that you intend to always be there, and that you're willing to sign a contract to that effect because it's what you intend to do anyway. It also proves your intentions to everyone else. This is a benefit not to be taken lightly, because fear and uncertainty can destroy love.

And since love usually makes people happy, I consider love to be a good thing, a worthwhile thing. Nearly anything which facilitates love is fine with me. Marriage does; so marriage is (or can be) good. That is sufficient.

And by that token, I favor legalization of homosexual marriage. The emotional commitment and need is just as great there as in heterosexual relationships. I see no important difference between the two since each is equally capable of making people happy -- and to me that's all that's really important.

By the same token, I think in general pairing (I want to avoid the term "monogamy" because it implies heterosexuality) is a good thing because I think it's most likely to result in happiness; least like to cause harm. But if a couple are both comfortable with an open relationship, and if it doesn't harm anyone else, I have no problem with it. Unfortunately, my experience is that this isn't usually the case. Usually an "open relationship" results in serious unhappiness to at least one person -- so as a general rule I think tight pairing is a better thing. But not always; if an open relationship really can be managed to increase happiness without hurting anyone, I'm all for it. I personally couldn't do it but I don't condemn anyone else for trying.

An atheist can have ethics. Atheists don't necessarily believe "Eat, drink and be merry"; atheists are not necessarily hedonists (in the pejorative meaning of the word). Marriage makes complete sense without reference to God.

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