By Vexen Crabtree 2004
Marriage means many different things according to the time and place of the culture and people involved. What for some people are obvious assumptions are for others unthinkable. No-one is correct: there simply are different forms of marriage. It is the right of no culture to impose its own ideas of marriage on other cultures, and the right of no sub-culture or religion to control marriage taboos within their own culture. So some believe in multiple marriage partners, some believe in having only straight marriages, some place age barriers in different ways. None are right, all are different.
Governments should allow their people access to all forms of marriage according to peoples' wishes but this is impossible. In order for legal contracts to have legal value, they must abide by certain known specifications. So in the West we have a particular type of marriage that is legal; other forms are illegal. What this does is alienate and standardize marriage, codifying traditions into unchanging legal codes and making them stagnant as society changes. What is worse is that in modern legalized culture, the illegalisation of forms of marriage not recognized by one set of institutionalized norms causes other unrecognized forms to become taboo, wrong and looked down upon.
“Pythagoreans taught that marriage is unfavorable to high intellectual development. On the other hand, the Pharisees taught that it is sinful for a man to live unmarried beyond his twentieth year.”
A problem of modern cultures therefore is that we become biased towards our own form of marriage and come to consider any other form "wrong", "stupid", "silly", etc. So, those who practice arranged marriages consider those who marry freely and romantically to be silly, short-sighted pleasure seekers. This is not how romantic couples see themselves. They probably see arranged marriages as inhuman, inferior and oppressive. Both people lack understanding that other forms of marriage are different and mean different things. When one victim-of-culture argues that another victim-of-culture prescribes an immoral form of marriage, no agreement is possible because in arguing about "marriage" they are arguing about completely different things. In different cultures, marriage means different things.
And even within cultures, marriage means different things to different people. So apart from looking at a few forms of marriage outside of traditional Western ones, I also talk a bit about some internal differences in the West of how people think marriage should be.
“We assume [...] that love is a precondition for marriage. But this assumption is not shared in cultures that practice arranged marriages. Moreover, until recently in North America, marital choices, especially those by women, were strongly influenced by considerations of economic security, family background, and professional status. [...] Cultures vary in the importance they place upon romantic love.”
By "romantic marriage" I mean to imply the following general scenario: Two people have met and have a growing friendship, complete with physical attraction and compatibility of character and interests. They may move in with each other after a while. They chose to marry and maybe become engaged for a while first. Principally this is their own choice however their families and friends can exert informal pressure. This is the principal form of marriage of the West in general. Those who live in a culture of romantic marriage frequently consider pragmatic marriage to be immoral, oppressive, inhumane, etc.
Romantic marriage is said to be the individual's free choice according to what they themselves think is best for themselves.
It upholds individual freedom at the cost of social cohesion.
Devotion to emotional relationships but frequently only short-term commitment (as emotions change).
Pragmatic Marriage is a marriage that is made possible by formal procedures of family or group politics. A responsible authority sets up or encourages the marriage. The authority could be parents, family, a religious figure or a consensus. The former two often start the process with informal pressure, social pressure, whilst the latter two often start the process with a formal system or statement. In both cases, the authority has a compelling veto over the marriage, and this system is socially supported by the rest of community so that to deny it is extreme and drastic. Arranged marriages are a form of pragmatic marriage. Once declared, an engagement is implicit, which follows through with a formal marriage ceremony. Those who uphold pragmatic marriage frequently state that it is traditional, that it upholds social morals, that it is good for the families involved.
Pragmatic marriage is said to be traditional, upholding of social morals, and good for the families involved for pragmatic reasons.
Good for family or inter-group relations at the expense of short-term individual empowerment
Devotion to permanent long-term relationship but at the cost of short-term problems during acclimatisation.
“Forced marriages are where one partner has no choice at all and are an insult to human rights and human dignity. At worst, it is slavery and it often involves sexual abuse. Due to its violation of Human rights, forced marriages are outlawed in Europe and in many countries that respect human rights. "The Council of Europe has condemned forced marriages in Resolution 1468 (2005) on Forced Marriages and child marriages proposing specific measures to be taken by its Member States to eradicate this practice"4. Europe has the lowest prevalence of forced marriages in the world5.
Forced marriages contravene Article 3 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights6 ("Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person") and Article 4 ("No one shall be held in slavery or servitude"). But most of all it directly contradicts Article 16.2:”
“Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights6 Article 16.2
“If the family as a societal institution is weak, selection of a male from the field of eligibles is likely to be done by mutual volition; if the family is strong, by arrangement. If selection from the field of eligibles is on the basis of mutual volition, it is likely that love will be the basis of choice.”
Whether marriage tends to be by the free volition of lovers (i.e., by choice) or is a familial affair, has much to do with how strong the family is in society. In the West, individualism and freedom are valued above the family. Children move away from the home and freely select employment, friends, a place to live and a lifestyle independent of their parents and family. In cultures where the family is strong, all of these things are family affairs: People spend most of their days, every day, in contact only with members of their family and extended family (cousins, etc).
Those who believe in romantic marriage will often criticize pragmatic marriage, saying that it is oppressive, inhuman, unfair, immoral and an affront to personal freedom. However it is not. Within cultures that have adopted more pragmatic marriages, the success rate is very high indeed. Nearly all couples learn to love and care for each other very deeply. It is just that the long-term happiness and stability is given more importance than the short-term. This applies also to marriages that are arranged as a means of increasing the financial stability of a family or the political cohesion of groups.
Those who believe in pragmatic marriage also have some traditional criticisms of romantic marriage, saying that it is short-term, overly based on sexual lust, immoral, debased, short-sighted and frivolous. However romantic marriage is not supposed to be the same life-long commitment as pragmatic marriages, the underlying assumptions are simply different. Short-term happiness is given more importance as a route to potential long-term happiness. Relationships that do not work will end. It is not that this is short-term, but that it is not seen as "worth it" to try out a relationship on the hope that it might work unless there is already an underlying romantic love. Hence personal (relationship) stability, not short-term lust, is the aim of romantic marriage.
Cultures that aspire to create relationships after couples marry are those with institutionalized practices of pragmatic marriage. Cultures that come to think that marriages should only be tried once a short-term compatibility already exists adopt romantic marriages. There are no grounds for saying that either method is more correct or that either set of ideas about marriage is more right. Most criticism of the "other" form of marriage to what one person accepts is based on misunderstanding, assumptions about marriage made from different cultural starting-points and personal ignorance about what different groups of people consider marriage to be.
In most "Western" countries, marriage is romantic. It is an individual choice made by couples. However great the pressures of friends and family are against marriage, they are free to do as they want. Romantic Marriage is so institutionalized in the West that other forms of marriage are illegal or borderline illegal.
Marriage comes in multiple parts. The first is the legal contract; at its bare bones this is what marriage is. But the culture and reasoning behind choosing to get married is varied. Love, relationships, tradition, family issues, etc, all come into play. It is our cultural expectations that give marriage more meaning than a mere contractual agreement. A good relationship does not need a legal contract to make the relationship good and if a legal certificate was required in order to make a relationship work, then the relationship wasn't a good one in the first place.
However there is a major advantage in marriage. It makes divorce a little difficult. Once you are legally bound to someone, separation becomes more difficult. So if a couple go through a difficult patch and it seems hopeless to continue, there is added pressure to carry on because of the effort required to legally end a marriage. If the troubles don't end then the relationship ends as it would with an unmarried couple, if they continue then the marriage itself saved them simply by making it slightly harder to split up! If a couple are sure they want to be together for a long time then marriage therefore has this added, non-legal, benefit.
Our culture, our upbringing and the stereotypes portrayed in the mass media and society all create certain roles that all of us are subconsciously pressurized into filling.
“Marriage partners are also bombarded with role expectations and stereotypes of what it means to be a 'husband' and 'wife.' In general these 'roles' are detrimental to the relationship. People simply cannot fit into pre-set moulds or roles [...]. Healthy relationships, on the other hand, are entered into and maintained by individuals' free and loving ongoing choice.”
Rev. Rebecca Deinsen (2001)8
These roles can be disastrous for an otherwise good relationship - the psychology of legal marriage is simply not right for some relationships. But then again, sometimes the psychology is right -- especially if the couple are suited to the roles or are not caught up enough in society's trappings to drift into roles that don't fit. Marriage therefore suits some relationships, but not others. It can be a benefit, or a detriment, to the long term health of a relationship.
Modern marriage, "for love", is a relatively new institution. According to the sociologists Anthony Giddens, Lawrence Stone and John Boswell, even as late as the 1500s modern ideas of romantic marriage had not found common acceptance. Religious authorities regarded marriage as a necessary, pragmatic solution to unhealthy sexual emotions, and not something to be done for pleasure, romance or affection.
“[In the 1500s] Individual freedom of choice in marriage and other aspects of family life was subordinated to the interests of parents, other kin or the community. Outside aristocratic circles, where it was sometimes actively encouraged, erotic or romantic love was regarded by moralists and theologians as a sickness.”
“In premodern Europe marriage usually began as a property arrangement, was in its middle mostly about raising children, and ended about love. Few couples in fact married 'for love', but many grew to love each other in time as they jointly managed their household, reared their offspring, and shared life's experiences. Nearly all surviving epitaphs to spouses evince profound affection. By contrast, in most of the modern West, marriage begins about love, in its middle is still mostly about raising children (if there are children), and ends - often - about property, by which point love is absent or a distant memory.”
Until the 1800s, marriage was still a deal sought for practical advantage - a peasant could not maintain his holding on his own, without a committed and hardworking wife. When bereaved, a peasant married almost at once, often to whoever was simply most willing to work hardest. It wasn't until the 1800s that ideas of romantic marriage began to emerge from the cities.
“The traditional conception of marriage as essentially a business contract, an arrangement based on mutual practical advantage in terms of property-ownership or the labour-power needed to work a peasant holding, the conception which had been taken for granted in pre-industrial peasant Europe, was now rapidly decaying. The idea of it as the result of free individual choice based on individual tastes and preferences was now seeping from the large city into the countryside and the smaller urban centres. In one small French town, for example, during the two decades after Waterloo, the average age of women at marriage was relatively high (about twenty-five) and about a third of brides were older than their husbands. Quite rapidly, however, the average age of marriage fell to twenty-one; and from about 1865 onwards only one woman in ten was older than the man she married. A basic aspect of human nature, the fact that, given a free choice, men prefer to marry women who are younger than themselves and who are physically attractive, was now increasingly able to assert itself.”
“Until the mid-18th century love remained confined to poetry and later to novels. Even when the increase of literacy and the rise of the popular novel made the notion of love rise to the forefront of a woman's consciousness, it was still considered inexpedient to marry for romantic passion. Marriage was seen as a practical partnership. [...] Although among the wealthier classes there was, during the 17th century onwards, an increasing tendency to allow young people to choose their own mates, passionate love and desire was not seen, even by the couple themselves, as a sign of a promising relationship. It was not until the 19th century that the ideal of marrying for love took real root in the popular mind in practice as well as in literature.”
Although romantic marriage was destined to dominate the ideas of what marriage should be in the West, it actually has a rather short history of less than 200 years of general acceptance.
Engagement is for many a public display of the seriousness of a relationship. From then on, others are actively discouraged from doing anything that damages the relationship or the wellbeing of the pair. Of course many relationships do this without the need for engagement, so, engagement is sometimes used as a "more serious" indicator, and for some, the whole idea of engagement is only a background idea that fills the time inbetween a declaration of marriage and the main event. For others, engagement is the ultimate step in a relationship, and there's no need to involve the legalities of marriage at all. Trying to push people into the various forms of engagement in accordance with others' expectations, local culture or religion, is often harmful. Those around an engaged couple should simply accept what it means to them. Different relationships will be aided or harmed by the various societal, legalistic and psychological factors of all those things.
Many people are unduly influenced by pressures from community and religion when it comes to marriage. Many Westerners adhere to a lengthy and stressful marriage ritual, and the big day itself is proscribed from beginning to end in a strictly traditional order of events, even down to the types of decorations that adorn people's tables during a sit-down meal element. The style of the embellishments are so distinct and so recognizable that commercial companies charge an extortionate fee for them, knowing that social pressure will make it much more likely that customers pay the extra charge: a wedding singer costs twice as much as a normal event singer.
As an expensive example, examine the customs associated with engagement rings. The age-old practice that the fiancé buys a diamond ring of a certain worth for his fiancée came to be adhered to by 80% of all couples by the 21st century, but, where did this idea come from? Whatever its source, it must have powerful romantic and symbolic meaning to become such a mainstay as it became. Yet, in the 1930s, only a few in a hundred engagements used such an artifice. What changed? The high-profile root of this was an advertising campaign by the De Beers diamond company to associate diamond rings with engagement, and, that those rings, in order to make the marriage proper, must represent two months' worth of the fiancés income. The original campaign, which started in the 1930s, only proposed that one month's wage was sufficient, however, after the success of these adverts De Beers clearly had dollar signs flashing in their heads, and the next wave of adverts in the USA in the 1980s double the expected price of their engagement rings. They also invented the phrase "a diamond is forever" in 1947 as an advertising slogan. So, this campaign saw a rise in those buying diamond engagement rings rise from a few percent to 10% in the 1930s, and then 80% by year 2000. It appears, then, that this "tradition" of marriage is all but a commercial scam, using psychological tricks to manipulate people into buying a hugely overpriced product. Dr Melewar, professor of marketing and strategy at Middlesex University, UK, says that it was "one of the most successful bits of marketing ever undertaken". With the West conquered, the same campaigns are being pushed in Japan, China and India.13
Such commercial interventions are of course common in all walks of life - check out my page The True Meaning of Christmas: Paganism, Sun Worship and Commercialism for a further predictable example.
So one question, amongst many, that we as humans beings have to ask is to what extent we tolerate, ignore or reject commercial interventions in the symbolism (and cost!) of our private lives.
“The sexuality referred to as poly, polyamory, or "being poly", is the acceptance of the potential for multiple loving partners within relationships. This may include sexual partners. Polyamorous relationships are not "cheating", but mutual love and honesty in relations that are not monogamous. The bases of such relationships are love, stability, compatibility, peace and honesty. Polyamory does not accept secret lovers: this is cheating by poly as well as monogamous standards. Excepting youthful "experiments", which are often just short-term promiscuity and unstable, gender-equal poly relationships are rare for Human Beings. Most Western cultures and religions are strictly (or at least legally) monogamous.”
In the West polygamy, the marriage to more than one person, is often illegal. The crime is called bigamy. This illegality is morally wrong and is merely a case of proponents of one type of marriage stamping out other forms that they do not understand. This is likely to be due to the good old predictable reasons of ignorance, bias, bigotry and an unenlightened reactionism in matters of human compassion, imagination and tolerance.
It is nearly always the case the when one form of marriage is institutionalized, other forms are oppressed. In the modern democratic world, it is not right to centrally enforce such odd restrictions on love & relationships as long as the practices are consensual.
Many religious groups and cultures have practiced polygamy, from major religions such as Islam and some Arab countries, to communistic communes in the USA such as the Oneida Community14, the Mormons (historically, they do so no longer), and many others. Unfortunately in some of its incarnations it has also been misogynistic and oppressive, but modern-day polyamory in Western countries is not so. In places and communities where polygamy it is accepted, most adults choose to remain in monogamous relationships.
“Polygyny (long-term simultaneous unions between one man and multiple wives) is legal in some countries today, and polyandry (long-term simultaneous unions between one woman and multiple husbands) is legal in a few societies. In fact, polygyny was accepted in the great majority of traditional human societies before the rise of state institutions. [...] Even in officially polygynous societies most men have only one wife at a time.”
The West has adopted a model where monogamy is the only accepted norm for marriage for the last 400 years, but in history, such exclusive legalism is rare. As Western society prides itself on its post-enlightenment tolerance and compassion, its attitude towards marriage is strangely illiberal: Only romantic marriage is seen as "right". In an increasingly multicultural West, however, I foresee future decades where all forms of marriage come to be widely accepted and legalized.
Even more intruding into a marriage than legal elements are religious ones. If a couple are having a religious wedding then there are all kinds of obscure, obscene and obtuse restrictions and pressures that can come into play. It's not the right place to delve into those here, though, and a religion-by-religion look would take a very long time indeed.
Many weddings are religious by default - by family tradition. One third of all marriages in the UK in 1994 were Church of England.
Without religion, marriage is purely about love and relationships, not about satisfying any religious rules. Marriage seems generally healthier the fewer superfluous pressures there are on it, and religious issues are one of those pressures. The least stable relationships are those between two people of different religions, the most stable are marriages between people who are not really religious. Having said that, a wedding is a day of utmost personal importance and in this many people still find use for traditional religious ritual.
“There is a demand that such a day should be marked by the most dramatic, the most authentic and the most elaborate ritual possible. [...] The wedding by civil registrar lacks all these elements of drama. The tension, the idealism and the anxiety of the occasion are lost, and the civil ceremony fails entirely to enhance the meaning of what is being undertaken. Whilst for intellectuals and rationalists is may seem to be a 'sensible' way of fulfilling the legal requirements of the case, it does not satisfy the demand for some more elaborate external expression of emotion. [...]
In an affluent society, where lavish entertainment and spectacle are abundantly possible, it is not easy to devise ceremonial and entertainment to make the wedding stand out from other events. [...] Perhaps, therefore, as long as the Church can retain its sense of majesty and transcendence, its distinctiveness from the mundane and everyday, it will find itself in high - perhaps increasing - demand for the solemnization of marriage.”
Although religious marriages continue at one in three, the reason for their use has become largely secular. Marriage is a result of modern secular pressures and not a result of beliefs or belongings to religious churches. Which is fortunate enough, for important lifelong (by common assumption) decisions such as who you choose to wed, are decisions best taken on their emotional worth, sense, commitment to the person; it seems that religion itself would ironically assert unholy, inhuman pressures on relationships. The most telling truth behind the thought that religion hinders good relationship choices are higher divorce rates of religious marriages, which we see at the end of this page.
“Between 1993 and 2003, the number of Jewish weddings in England and Wales slipped by 17%, while Anglican weddings fell by 37% and Catholic unions tumbled by 44%”
The statistics show % of the total population of England and Wales (excluding the Isle of Man and Channel Islands) and "Anglican" mean "Church of England or Church of Wales"18
The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament indulge in many stories designed to warn against the marrying of women from foreign peoples, especially those who worship foreign gods. Many verses go further than just to warn: they command believers not to marry such women, and such unions are often punished with death, in the Bible. As a result, there have been many Jewish and Christian sects who have isolated themselves from others in a most severe and strict way. Such dogmas cause much harm and suffering to communities. (1) It engenders prejudice and bias against foreigners, causing intolerance and then violence, (2) it diminishes the numbers of the group itself, (3) it gradually diminishes the gene pool and with each generation increases the numbers of genetic diseases associated with incest and finally (4) it makes a simmering parental deceit necessary if any new blood is to be brought in.
“In Orthodox Judaism, anyone born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. Non-Jews can convert to Judaism on marriage, but one of the biggest problems facing Judaism today is the loss of numbers caused by marriage between Jewish men and non-Jewish women. [...] In Britain, the number of Jews has fallen from 500,00 thirty years ago to fewer than 300,000 today, mostly as a result of marrying out. Increasingly, Jewish communities outside Israel are seeking to find ways of amending the rules [...]. Many Jewish leaders see this as the most difficult challenge facing Judaism.”
Such rules leave distinct biological markers upon our genes hence we have often discovered periods of inbreeding amongst groups through the study of family genetics.
Anthropologists suspect that in some situations, the argument that "the bloodline must be kept pure" is actually an excuse to justify practices that are really just power-games (i.e., the prevention of land becoming inherited by non-family-members), which is why some of the authors of various Hebrew Scriptures were so concerned over who the men in their tribes married. It also seems to represent a religious-justified form of racism, plain prejudice, bias and xenophobia. Luckily, many Christians simply ignore these stories and warnings, and they are never heard being preached to the pews by the preachers at Sunday sermons! Here they are:
Deuteronomy 7:3-4: Believers are not to marry the non-believers of Canaan because these foreign women will "turn away" their sons from worshipping the God of the Bible. The punishment is God's anger.
Ezekiel 20:32-34 warns that families of believers cannot live out in the world with non-believers, and if they do, they will incur the anger of God.
Malachi 2:11-12 warns believers that people "desecrate the sanctuary" if they marry "women who worship a foreign god". Such people lose the favour of God, and any sacrifices they make for god are no longer accepted happily - and - crying about it won't help. This also applies to the descendants of those involved (so much for moral justice!). The solution is not to marry women of the wrong religion in the first place.
“I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God's name and said: "You are not to give your daughters in marriage to [foreign women's] sons, nor are you to take [foreign women's] daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves."”
Neh 13:23-27 contains a little story about a holy man, Nehemiah, who goes around chastising and punishing mixed-culture families. His main issue that many believers had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon and of Moab who all worshipped other gods. He makes believers promise that they will no longer marry or let their sons marry these foreign women. It also states that the legendary King Solomon fell from grace due to his repeated relations with foreign wives.
Numbers 25: 6-15: contains another story of a priestly holy man who murders the newly wed husband (Zimri) and his foreign wife (a Midianitish woman called Cozbi) for the offence of marrying an outsider. He runs into their tent and "thrusts them through" with a spear, killing them. The aside in this story is that God has been punishing the Hebrews with plague for such impurities as it was making God jealous (verse 11). The priest therefore "saved" them all by stopping this marriage at its very beginning and he is rewarded by God for his actions, and for good measure, his children are rewarded too (verse 13).
The contributors to "The Woman's Bible" by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1898)21 make this point on this story: "The Jewish law forbade a man going outside of his tribe for a wife. It was deemed idolatry. But why kill the woman? She had not violated the laws of her tribe and was no doubt ignorant of Jewish law"22. The horrible morals portrayed in this story (murderous xenophobia and intolerance, for the sake of doctrine) are some of the worst features of religion.
St Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:39 urges believers to marry "in the Lord", meaning, within the community of believers. 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 warns believers not to mix in with unbelievers as they have nothing in common and "what fellowship can light have with darkness?" and that believers should separate themselves from others. Many other minor verses go along the same lines: 1 Corinthians 5:9-12 says you can't even marry, or mingle with, those who are Christians but who behave wrongly and 15:33 says "bad company ruins good morals".
But despite all this, 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 more calmly says that if you do somehow become married to a non-believer, then, you don't have to divorce them because the believer makes the other one (and the children) holy. However this verse is somewhat the odd one out compared to the others.
The Assemblies of God are one example Christian Church that forbids their members to date or marry non-believers, specifically mentioning many of the above verses23. Sociologists have often commented on the reluctance, and often refusal, of Jewish rabbis to conduct marriages between Jews and non-Jews: "Mayer conducted a 1997 survey of American rabbis on interfaith marriages, in which 36 percent of the rabbis said that they would officiate at an interfaith wedding, but the numbers ranged widely, from zero among the Orthodox and Conservatives rabbis to 62 percent of the Reconstructionist rabbis (Mayer 1997)"24.
The Qur'an talks in a similar way, for example Sura 60:10 says "Do not maintain your marriages with unbelieving women: demand the dowries you gave them" or just "hold not the disbelieving women as wives" depending on the translation. This means you cannot marry a non-Muslim and if your wife converts away from Islam, then, you have to divorce her and get back the money you paid for her (the dowry). The IHEU reports that in many Islamic states, it is illegal for women to marry non-Muslims. This happens in Brunei, Djibouti and Sudan, plus a large range of Islamic states in the Middle East and surrounding area25.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three most well known monotheistic religions. All three were preceded by the first great monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism, which also contains rules against marrying outsiders. There are still communities of Zoroastrians around today - in India they are called Parsis, and, for historical reasons, there is a small community of Parsis in Hong Kong. Caroline Plüss's study of this community revealed some side-effects of such rules being strictly adhered to:
“Parsis in Hong Kong, despite considerable economic integration and some political integration during Hong Kong's colonial rule, never seriously challenged Zoroastrian rules forbidding exogamy. Such deliberate differentiation was not lessened by the fact that the Parsi community in Hong Kong never counted more than 100 members, and needed to rely on the much larger community in Mumbai to find spouses (Plüss 2005:209), or by the fact that the Zoroastrians' strong inclination not to accept conversions has accounted for significantly declining numbers of Zoroastrians worldwide.”
She doesn't mention incest (perhaps such a close-knit community is loathe to admit it to outsiders), but it is easy to see that while such rules might suit an expanding religion, as soon the situation changes, they become a detriment to the moral standing, genetic health and long-term growth of a religion, let alone being based, from the very start, on a form of xenophobic prejudice.
Although there was a time in history in Christian countries when Christianity had strict control of marriage, this state of affairs has a shorter history than many would assume. Christianity inherited its ideas about marriage through a combination of Jewish law and Roman paganism, and for a long time, those sources of ritual were more than enough - with the pagan sources of ritual being much more influential.
“[The early Christian church] very quickly produced its own liturgy of Eucharist, Baptism and Confirmation but nothing was done about marriage. It was not important for a couple to have their nuptials blessed by a priest. People could marry by mutual agreement in the presence of witnesses [...] and there was no need to wait for the Church's blessing [and this] endured well into the 18th century. [...] Augustine and Aquinas may have said that marriage was a sacrament, but no ceremonial was devised to celebrate this sacrament. At first the old Roman pagan rite was used by Christians. Clearly it had to be modified, but the modifications were purely superficial: the Holy Spirit and Christ were substituted for the names of pagan gods. [...] For all the insistence of the Scholastics that Christian marriage was something essentially different from marriage between pagans, [...] there was [still] no special Christian marriage service for centuries. The first detailed account of a Christian wedding in the West dates from the 9th century and it was identical to the old nuptial service of Ancient Rome.”
Western marriage since fell entirely under the control of Christianity and performed exclusively under Christian clergy. Although in the modern age things are freer and less controlled, Christian marriage was still the ill starting-point from which we have recovered modern ideas of marriage based on love. Although we still suffer from multiple dogmas that still remain from the Christian era of the Dark Ages, many of the following elements are no longer a part of modern society even though they are present in the scriptural heart of Christianity.
Christianity was responsible for producing the draconian restriction against remarriage, female inferiority in marriage (both legal and social) and other misogynistic elements. St. Paul, whose voluminous writings on the subject of marriage and women are entrenched in the New Testament, wrote that marriage is a last resort for the desperate man who could not restrain himself from sex. "Better to marry, than to burn in hell" he wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:9. The ideal was to remain single, but marrying a woman was best done if you really couldn't help yourself. This dysfunctional theology of sex was one of the worst things to happen to marriage; it is only since the Enlightenment and Reformation that more a reasonable, positive, basis of marriage has been brought to the fore.
Although many early Christian churches allowed same-sex marriage, as Christianity displaced pagan practices marriage became increasingly restricted to the cold, stoic, oppressive regime as preached by the main Church. Thankfully, nowadays most weddings and marriages are secular; love, romance and commitment now form the three secular bedrocks of modern marriage in the West; Christian ideals have largely been forgotten.
Remarriage is now accepted, women have equal rights in marriage, so we are no longer forced by Christian dogma to lead mostly solitary, guilt-ridden lives but can move on once we have left a dysfunctional relationship. This new health has saved marriage from its decline.
Strangely, in the New Testament Christians are told by Jesus that in the perfect state, in Heaven, as amongst sinless angels, there is no marriage or exclusive unions between people (Matt. 22:23-30). St Paul also says that being unmarried & chaste is better than getting married. Christianity's obsessions over which particular forms of marriage are acceptable is rendered irrelevant by their own eschatology, in which the most perfect states are achieved with no marriage at all.
Islam is a religion that takes marriage seriously, both within its theology and within the law of Muslim countries. In Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran it is illegal to have sex outside of marriage27. But this rigidity all too frequently descends into barbarism and a complete denial of human rights. Take the case of Lina Loy, in Malaysia. This is a country which has a particular problem with human rights when it comes to Islam. Lina Loy had converted to Christianity and wanted to marry her Christian fiancé but it is illegal there for Muslim women to marry Christians. In 2007, despite taking her case through the highest courts, she was refused permission to renounce Islam. This, on multiple levels, was a denial of multiple human rights (of belief. of divorce and of privacy). She now lives in hiding after receiving death threats (as has the lawyer who defended her)28. Throughout Muslim countries, marriage is an institution where women are utterly dominated by men. The practice of forced marriages is nowhere more popular than it is in Muslim countries. The practice of child marriages is given sanction in Qur'an 65:1-4 gives divine sanction to those who have not only married pre-menstrual girls but who are also divorcing them after having sex with them. Thankfully, most cultures even in the Muslim world have modernized their morality beyond the base level recorded in the Qur'an but nonetheless the pratice continues in secret even in advanced countries such as the UK where there are checks in place to stop it.”
Gypsy marriage is different to the Western mainstream. They do not care for legalistic documents such as the certificates of marriage, death, birth, etc, and their customs of marriage are so different that what we consider legal marriage they consider misguided. Gypsy marriage is best done between twelve and sixteen, and definitely before 18. The bride is normally the oldest and wisest, and helps the groom in all areas as he learns to earn money, etc, for himself. Thus the marriage is more than it is in mainstream Western culture. It serves as a connection between the clan-like families of Gypsies, and the choices of who to marry are based on politics and ambition of the parents as much as the compatibility of the youngsters. Gypsy marriages are generally not life-long, and most will re-marry to more suitable partners later in life. Brides are free to leave their groom and return to their own family. As such, it is a clean and comprehensive synthesis of both pragmatic and romantic marriage types.
But it doesn't always work out nicely. Nazir Afzal is head of the Crown Prosecution Service in the North West UK (i.e., he is a head public prosecutor). He says some of the forced marriages within the Gypsy and travellor communities that involve children are clearly abusive and illegal, rather than merely different. He says officialdom at present has a tepid and overly sensitive approach.29
Kephart informs us14 that the culture of Gypsy marriage changes slowly over time just like other cultures, and that Western-style love-marriages are becoming more popular, and that some adults are openly critical of the more traditional gypsy weddings. As Gypsies view the gadje (non-gypsies) as inherently unclean, ritually unclean, intrusive, aggressive and bad in most ways. The most rigid marriage prohibition is against marrying non-gypsies.
Civil partnerships in the UK allow gay marriage in all but name, and were created in 2005. By half way through 2008 "nearly 60,000 Britons had entered a same-sex union, giving them legal rights virtually identical to those of married couples"30. This generation has seen a wave of legal tolerance sweep the world, where some of the prejudces of history have been trumped.
Prejudices against homosexuality were not always encoded into law, however. In the time before the dark ages, European communities were variously accepting of gay marriage. But the Christian age of faith saw violent intolerance sweep the continent as certain types of marriage were made illegal and transformed into social taboos. People could only marry if it fit the Christian prejudices of what marriage should be. Islam arose also, and held to similar monotheistic patriarchal norms. Thankfully, since the enlightenment, much of the religious damage to marriage has been undone and in many countries adults are free to marry whom they choose. Starting with Sweden, Norway, Iceland and the Netherlands the 90s saw the beginning of the gay rights movements victories over established prejudice in an increasing number of developed countries. There is not a single case in all these victories where there have not been multiple large and mainstream Christian groups running campaigns to prevent equal rights for gays. The Catholic Church and the vast majority of Christian denominations continue to battle at local and European levels to repeal those rights already attained. The Catholic Church has gained some ground in 1997 in exempting itself from some European gay rights conventions, and the Church of England has also succeeded in partially exempting itself from UK employment anti-discrimination laws with regards to homosexuality. The traditional churches were wrong about slavery and anti-black racism, and they continue to do wrong on the issue of discrimination against homosexuals. Eventually, when enough of their youth have grown up within gay-tolerant society, the Churches will change to embrace homosexual equality as they did to embrace abolitionism and race equality.
Here is a brief history of all major gay rights victories with regards to the legal rights of marriage:
|1987||Sweden||Registered partnerships then full legal rights (1995) granted for gay couples|
|1989||Denmark||Registered same-sex partners gain same rights as married couples. Due to heavy Christian opposition it is not allowed in churches31. Full legal rights as of 1999.|
|1993||Norway||Mostly full legal rights granted to registered gay partnerships|
|1996||Sweden and Iceland||Mostly full legal rights granted to registered gay partnerships31|
|1996||Netherlands||Gay relationships given full legal rights, then full marital rights in 2000. The local Christian party and the Catholic Church opposed the move which was otherwise supported by the public32|
|1997||USA||Some states granting limited legal rights to registered gay relationships (Hawaii in 1997, California in 1999, Vermont in 2000 and Columbia in 2002). By 2004 heavy Christian campaigning has reversed many of these and passed anti-gay-marriage laws in some states.|
|1998||Spain||Since 1999 four states have passed various laws granting legal rights for homosexual relationships (Catalonia in 1998, Aragon in 1999, Navarra in 2000 and Valencia in 2001). 2005 June saw Spain allow full gay marriage despite Catholic opposition34|
|1999||Canada||5 provinces in Canada have legal recognition of same-sex partnerships. Quebec in 1999, Nova Scotia in 2001, Manitoba in 2002. Another two in summer 2003: Ontario and British Columbia35. In 2005 BBC News31 reports that gay marriage is legal in 8 of 10 provinces and 1 of 3 of Canada's three territories. National legislation allowed same-sex marriages from 200536.|
|1999||France||Some significant legal rights given to gay partners31|
|2000||South Africa||Recognition of same-sex partners. Notable opposition came from the Christian press, various Christian groups and the African Christian Democratic Party32|
|2001||London||The mayor of London runs a local service that allows official recognition of same-sex partners. Full same sex marriage has been sought since 1996 by the government, but strong Christian opposition in the House of Lords has defeated it each time|
|2001||Germany||Some significant legal rights given to registered gay partnerships31|
|2001||Switzerland||Geneva state grants almost all rights to gay relationships, and full legal rights in state of Zurich in 2002|
|2002||Finland||Similar rights for gay marriage and normal marriage|
|2003||Belgium||Full marriage rights given from January31,35|
|2004||Luxembourg and New Zealand||Civil partnerships grant some rights for gay couples31|
|2005||UK||Full gay rights via civil marriages37|
Married couples are financially better off than others. This is a hard fact demonstrated by many socio-economic studies.
“Marriage itself is a "wealth-generating institution", according to Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, who run the National Marriage Project at Rugers University. Those who marry "till death do us part" end up, on average, four times richer than those who never marry. This is partly because marriage provides economies of scale - two can live more cheaply than one - and because the kind of people who work hard, plan for the future and have good interpersonal skills - are more likely to marry and stay married. But it is also because marriage effects the way people behave. American men, once married, tend to take their responsibilities seriously. [...] Married men drink less, take fewer drugs and work harder [it raises hours worked quickly and substantially], earning between 10% and 40% more than single men with similar schooling and job histories. [...]
Marriage also encourages the division of labour. Ms Dafoe Whitehead and Mr Popenoe put it like this: "Individuals can develop those skills in which they excel, leaving others to their partner.”
Adam Smith, the founder of economics "observed two centuries ago [that] when you specialise, you get better at what you do, and you produce more"40. For reasons of economic efficiency, specialisation and behaviour-change, married couples do better off. There are also legal advantages, housing advantages (money and space are saved when two people share) and other work advantages. A married couple can help each other with work preparation and encourage each other. For this reason, in Europe, divorce settlements tend more towards splitting all of a couples' wealth equally when they divorce, because the courts recognize that much of a workers' success is due to (indirect) support from the spouse.
So it is slightly strange that the term "marriage of convenience" is used so negatively. As arranged marriages and pragmatic marriages tend to actually work out quite well in the long-term, it should be reckoned that marriages of convenience will also work themselves out, over time, into the romantic-marriage that Westerners hold as an ideal.
Percent Marriages in the UK41
Marriage is at its lowest rate in the UK since records began in 186242. The history of marriage rates suggests that secular marriages are showing strong growth, whereas other Christian weddings have been decreasing in number for over 150 years. This prehistory was changed in the period since the 1960s, when the decline of the religious institution in the UK went into full swing.
“Between 1993 and 2003, the number of Jewish weddings in England and Wales slipped by 17%, while Anglican weddings fell by 37% and Catholic unions tumbled by 44%”
|Total Marriages, UK|
The rise in secular marriages from the teens in the 19th century, to 20-something percent in 1900-1930, was not met by a rise in divorces, as many Christians at the time bemoaned would happen. However, as we will see below, social changes have led to massive increases in divorce rates (above all, amongst Christians) since the late 1960s (ignoring the World War 2 aftermath). The overall marriage rate has decreased over the same period; indicating again that society has moved away from the traditional idea of what marriage is.
Europe in general has seen similar trends. In 1970 there were almost eight marriages per 1000 people per year, but in 2004 that had steadily dropped to less than five. The average age, like the UK, has also increased across Europe, now being at over 30 for men, and nearly 28 for women.45
Marriage was once a lifelong certainty, like a job or one's nationality47. But, all modern things change quickly and are more temporary. Jobs, like marriage, are no longer assumed to be life-long bedrocks of stability in the West. In 'collectivist' or community-orientated countries where marriage is pragmatic rather than romantic, marriages last much longer.
“Divorce rates vary widely by country, ranging from .01 percent of the population annually in Bolivia, the Philippines, and Spain to 4.7 percent in the world's most divorce-prone country, the United States. To predict a culture's divorce rates, it helps to know its values (Triandis, 1994). Individualistic cultures (where love is a feeling and people ask, "What does my heart say?") have more divorce than do communal cultures (where love entails obligation and people ask, "What will other people say?")”
Although the chart shows a massive increase in the divorce rate over a long period, it has since then dropped off. Fewer people are marrying, but, divorces have now dropped to their lowest level since 1981, at a rate of 11.9 divorcing people per 1,000 of the married population49.
Divorce statistics are sometimes a shock for Christians. The average divorce rate for born-again type Christians (27%) and others (24%) are both higher than that for atheism, which is 21%50. Empirically, atheists are more devoted to each other and commit to more stable relationship patterns than theists, yet the theists are the ones who say they stand for family values. Christian theologians have themselves expressed concern over their own rates of divorce and other marital problems such as wifebeating, which are mostly the same as the rates of non-Christians - and stricter Christians have worse rates51. There is a saying that those who shout loudest are the least capable. The Christian Churches shout loudly about love but... atheists are more capable. Seriously though, perhaps it is that atheists only get married if they're sure, while Christians feel pressurized so sometimes marry prematurely in relationships that aren't permanent. Christian culture can exert unnatural pressure on relationships.
|Denomination||% who have been divorced|
|Atheism / Agnosticism||< Less|
“Barna's results verified findings of earlier polls: that conservative Protestant Christians, on average, have the highest divorce rate, while mainline Christians have a much lower rate. They found some new information as well: that atheists and agnostics have the lowest divorce rate of all. George Barna commented that the results raise "questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families." The data challenge "the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriage."
Donald Hughes, author of The Divorce Reality, said: "In the churches, people have a superstitious view that Christianity will keep them from divorce, but they are subject to the same problems as everyone else, and they include a lack of relationship skills. ...Just being born again is not a rabbit's foot." Hughes claim that 90% of divorces among born-again couples occur after they have been "saved."”
“Divorce, n. (1) A resumption of diplomatic relations and rectification of boundaries. (2) A bugle blast that separates the combatants and makes them fight at long range.”
This leads me to consider the words of Jesus in Christian Scripture:
Jesus said: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."
Jesus said: "Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law."
It is small wonder that atheists divorce less often!
Less educated people tend to divorce more often. As religious people are on average less intelligent (Vexen Crabtree 2007), this helps explain why the divorce rate goes up hand-in-hand with religious dedication. Also, less well-off people tend to divorce more often. Many Christians in the West are immigrants from Eastern Europe and the rest of the world, and such immigrants tend to be poorer and more religious, two factors which increase the likelihood of divorce.
“If she does find and wed the man of her dreams, [a poor woman from a broken family] will encounter a problem. She has never seen her own father. Having never observed a stable marriage close-up, she will have to guess how to make one work. By contrast [a girl from a stable family] has never seen a divorce in her family. This makes it much more likely that, when the time is right, she will get married and stay that way.”
Apart from intelligence, other demographic factors have come into play over the past few years. Divorce rates have levelled off.
Immigrants tend to have a more conservative attitude towards marriage and divorce less often42; as the UK's populace ages, immigrants make up a higher proportion of marrying-age adults who are more likely to stay together.
People who marry are marrying older42 after a period of cohabitation, meaning that marriages last longer.
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