Marriage, Reason and Religion: Non-Religious Reasons to Oppose SSM

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This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series SSM, Reason, and Religion


When it comes to questions of marriage, reason and religion seem polar opposites. Same-sex “marriage” (SSM) proponents like to posture their opposition as motivated only by religion. They have good strategic reasons to do that. If the reasons to oppose to SSM are purely religious, then as the First Amendment is currently being interpreted, lawmakers and judges ought not take them into account.

Undoubtedly there is a deep religious divide between SSM supporters and opponents, which makes it tempting to conclude that we who oppose SSM have nothing to offer for our position except religious reasoning. Thus Otto Telick in a comment on this blog wrote,

There are no secular humanist organizations campaigning against gay rights. None. Only religious organizations are doing this, and they present no actual evidence to support their position, only appeals to history, popular position, and discrimination justified by religious scripture…. Now, can you actually dispute that with any real truth? Can you demonstrate that you are dealing on anything other than a religious level?

And also,

I explained that a law prohibiting gay couples from having the same rights and status as hetero couples has no justification other than religious dogma or discriminatory social attitudes…. With only a religious basis for banning gay marriage, a law to that effect is essentially establishing that religion as law, and that violates the First Amendment….

A charge like this calls for a dual response, which I will provide in four separate blog posts. In the first three I will establish that there are many non-religious reasons to support man-woman marriage (sometimes termed “conjugal marriage”). I intend to correct the factual error expressed in opinions like Otto Telick’s, by showing that religious belief is not the only basis for supporting man-woman marriage, while of course placing those non-religious reasons on the table so we can discuss them.

Having done that, the next step will be to explain why the above-mentioned religious divide exists. Surely there must be a reason for it, and if it’s not a religious reason, then what is it? Could it be that non-religious arguments against SSM are window-dressing, and it’s all a matter of religious belief after all? Could these secular arguments in fact be disingenuous cover-ups, subterfuges to get our religious beliefs enshrined in law?

I will call on three different documents in my first three posts in this series. I will try to keep these posts as brief as I can, as is fitting to a blog. I will rely on you to look to the sources for a fuller treatment of these topics.

Monte Neil Stewart, writing in Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (PDF; thank you, Alex Dawson), looks at the competing “packages” of legal facts brought forth in support of both sides of this debate. Note first of all that there are indeed legal facts—findings admitted into legislative and judicial opinions—in opposition to SSM. That bit of information alone should settle the question of whether there are non-religious reasons in favor of that position. Stewart lists six such facts in favor of man-woman marriage (see pp. 321f; I am condensing his points here).

  1. To secure the right of a child to know and be raised by her biological parents.
  2. To maximize the private welfare provided to children conceived by passionate, heterosexual coupling.
  3. To provide children with the optimal environment for growing up, which (in spite of claims to the contrary) is empirically known to be, all other things being equal, that in which they are raised by their biological parents.
  4. To provide an effective bridge across the male-female divide.
  5. To transform a male into husband-father and a female into wife-mother, statuses that are particularly beneficial to society.
  6. To provide a socially endorsed context for adult intimacy.

To these he also adds the justification of marriage as “a partnership of two loving equals who choose to commit themselves to each other,” a means to recognize, celebrate and endorse “love and friendship, security for adults and their children, economic protection, and public affirmation of commitment.” This happens to be (see pp. 329f) the primary way in which SSM proponents define marriage. Stewart argues that man-woman marriage includes this value but transcends it (p.336):

The man-woman marriage proponents’ broad description encompasses a wider range of marriage-produced social goods than the genderless marriage proponents’ much moore narrow description. The same holds true relative to marriage’s purposes, practices, formative powers, and interactions with other social institutions…. “Marriage is seen [in the narrow view] primarily as a private relationship between two people, the primary purpose of which is to satisfy the adults who enter it. Marriage is about the the couple. If children arise from the union, that may be nice, but marriage and children are not really connected.”

Stewart goes on to say,

Acceptance of the broad description requires rejection of two salient aspects of the narrow description of marriage. First it requires rejecting the notion that marriage is no more than what the narrow model describes…. [It] also requires rejecting the idea that children are not the “sine qua non of civil marriage.” … The broad description portrays marriage as primarily a child-protective and child-centered institution, with most of the institution’s social goods pertaining to the quality of child-rearing. Conversely, the narrow model describes an adult-centered “partnership entered into for its own sake, which lasts only as long as both partners are satisfied with the rewards (mostly intimacy and love) that they get from it.”

It is erroneous, says Stewart, for SSM advocates to claim that the narrow model accurately defines what marriage is in Western culture. It doesn’t fit the facts. Perhaps there are trends heading in that direction but (p. 341), “the question of fact is ‘What is marriage?,’ not ‘What will it be in twenty years?'”

And we must recognize that marriage is either man-woman or else genderless. There can be no such thing as man-woman marriage co-existing with same-sex marriage; for (p. 319),

once the judiciary or legislature adopts “the union of any two persons” as the legal definition of civil marriage, that conception becomes the sole definitional basis for the only law-sanctioned marriage any couple can enter…. Therefore, legally sanctioned genderless marriage, rather than peacefully coexisting with the contemporary man-woman marriage institution, actually displaces and replaces it.

Thus marriage cannot continue to have as part of its meaning the six points mentioned above, if SSM is made legal. Those social goods will be stripped out of marriage, with no other home in which to thrive, no conceivable institution to pick them up and carry them forward. The social consequences of this would be fearsome.

Stewart has more to say in response to objections to these arguments: what about childless man-woman marriages, for example and “what’s the harm, anyway?.” But I have said enough for now, and my purpose has not been to re-argue his case. Rather I have been trying to make it clear that SSM opponents have a case of our own, with no reference to legally excluded religious rationales. I will present more arguments of like nature in the next two posts in this series, after which I will address the question, “but aren’t these all really religious reasons after all?”

Series Navigation (SSM, Reason, and Religion):SSM, Reason, and the Religious Divide: More Non-Religious Reasons to Oppose SSM >>>

7 Responses

  1. SteveK says:

    Excellent post, Tom.

  2. Nathaniel says:

    Very… elitist…

  3. Nathaniel says:

    I don’t understand the reasoning behind the idea that being inclusive to SSM would destroy “conjugal” marriage. Do tell.

  4. Fleegman says:

    Hi Tom,

    Lots to say on this, but I’ll try to keep it brief.

    …man-woman marriage (sometimes termed “conjugal marriage”).

    Only if you’re defining marriage as man-woman.

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist that bit. On to the Stewart’s points:

    To secure the right of a child to know and be raised by her biological parents.

    How on earth can allowing SSM make the right of a child to know and be raised by her biological parents less secure? I’ve read the papers, and I’m still none the wiser. It sounds impressive, but it’s ultimately meaningless in this debate.

    To maximize the private welfare provided to children conceived by passionate, heterosexual coupling.

    Right, and as evidence for this he goes on to reference two papers by, who else? Stewart. If the quality of those papers is anything like the quality of this one, I think I’ll pass.

    To provide children with the optimal environment for growing up, which (in spite of claims to the contrary) is empirically known to be, all other things being equal, that in which they are raised by their biological parents.

    And in the reference for this particular revelation he claims that it’s uncontroversial that there is a correlation between father-mother marriages and optimal outcomes for the child. While this correlation is clearly not uncontroversial, the author doesn’t seem to understand that correlation doesn’t mean causation.

    To provide an effective bridge across the male-female divide.

    For this, he references Blankenhorn. Blankenhorn who has published only one peer-reviewed article to his name which was regarding a labor dispute between cabinetmaker unions in Britain. He has no relevant qualifications of which to speak. All he has is his opinions. This is what I would call a weak source from which to reference.

    To transform a male into husband-father and a female into wife-mother, statuses that are particularly beneficial to society.

    This is real bottom of the barrel stuff, here. I can’t even find the DeCoste reference, and Popenoe’s book is a study of equating broken homes, with fatherless homes.

    To provide a socially endorsed context for adult intimacy.

    Oh my goodness, the whole problem is the stigma of homosexuality, and what’s the drive behind that? Religion.

    To these he also adds the justification of marriage as “a partnership of two loving equals who choose to commit themselves to each other,” a means to recognize, celebrate and endorse “love and friendship, security for adults and their children, economic protection, and public affirmation of commitment.” This happens to be (see pp. 329f) the primary way in which SSM proponents define marriage. Stewart argues that man-woman marriage includes this value but transcends it (p.336):

    I read as much as I had time for and I remain unimpressed by what Stewart has to say. It appears to condense down to his opinions, and as evidence for what he’s saying, he references other like-minded people’s opinions, or himself.

    Therefore, legally sanctioned genderless marriage, rather than peacefully coexisting with the contemporary man-woman marriage institution, actually displaces and replaces it.

    Since the arguments previously made are so weak, my response to this would be “so what?”

    The social consequences of this would be fearsome.

    If by fearsome, you’re referring to the arguments above, I would have to say that I don’t agree with your assessment.

    Rather I have been trying to make it clear that SSM opponents have a case of our own, with no reference to legally excluded religious rationales.

    You have a case, but I would say it’s an extraordinarily weak case, and one that appears to be religiously motivated.

    …I will address the question, “but aren’t these all really religious reasons after all?”

    Ok, looks like I’ve jumped the gun a bit. I look forward to the post where you address this.

    Cheers for now,

  5. JAD says:

    Stewart:

    “once the judiciary or legislature adopts “the union of any two persons” as the legal definition of civil marriage, that conception becomes the sole definitional basis for the only law-sanctioned marriage any couple can enter…. Therefore, legally sanctioned genderless marriage, rather than peacefully coexisting with the contemporary man-woman marriage institution, actually displaces and replaces it.”

    Let’s all of us decide that a triangle has four sides. That kind of renders the concept of a triangle meaningless, doesn’t it?

  6. Tom Gilson says:

    Nathaniel, I’ve just come over here from answering your charges on the second post in this series. There you called it “stupid.” The problem with your assessment, as I detailed there, is that your detailed response reveals that you didn’t understand what you were reading.

    Anyway, here, you call it “elitist,” and you don’t even bother to explain why.

    You are full of pejoratives lately. One doesn’t stick because it’s wrongly based, and the other doesn’t stick because it’s empty, unexplained name-calling.

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    Fleegman, you ask,

    How on earth can allowing SSM make the right of a child to know and be raised by her biological parents less secure? I’ve read the papers, and I’m still none the wiser.

    Genderless marriage makes that right tenuous, in that it makes it an option for marriage rather a sine qua non for marriage.

    There are numerous research studies showing that children do better when raised by their biological parents in a low-conflict relationship, than in any other situation–including same-sex guardians/parents in low-conflict relationship.

    And in the reference for this particular revelation he claims that it’s uncontroversial that there is a correlation between father-mother marriages and optimal outcomes for the child. While this correlation is clearly not uncontroversial, the author doesn’t seem to understand that correlation doesn’t mean causation.

    Careful how you throw around that correlation-causation shibboleth. In a properly defined theoretical environment, differential correlation can support a theory of causation. I’ll say that again in English. Suppose there’s good reason to suppose that there might be some causal connection between two correlated factors. If the correlation obtains under good research methods, the theory is supported (not proved, but supported).

    Now suppose there is some contrary hypothesis, for example that same-sex couples also provide equally good child-rearing environments. Suppose research shows that on average, children do not do as well in same-sex households. In that case the hypothesis (that same-sex couples are as good for children as biological parents are) is not supported.

    Crucially, if research shows this to be the case, then there are absolutely no grounds for saying that children do as well in same-sex households. That conclusion is completely ruled out.

    Meanwhile it is completely accurate and responsible to point out that children do better, on average, when raised by their biological parents. What does that prove? It proves that children do better, on average, when raised by their biological parents. That’s not a trivial finding.

    I don’t know about Blankenhorn, but I do think there’s something quite intuitively to be said about the male-female divide; and I know that apart from my marriage I would be at quite a loss to know how to bridge it effectively. Women are a mystery to me, but I have found one with whom I can deeply explore that mystery.

    Oh my goodness, the whole problem is the stigma of homosexuality, and what’s the drive behind that? Religion.

    That’s historically naive. Adult homosexual relations have always been stigmatized, with or without the Bible, with or without religion. You’re begging the question.

    You have a case, but I would say it’s an extraordinarily weak case, and one that appears to be religiously motivated.

    I’ll get to the question of religious motivation in a later post in this series as you have noticed, but for now, take note that these are not religious arguments. You consider them weak, and I’ve done my best to show how they are not so weak after all. I doubt that will convince you. At least you must own that they are not religious arguments.