I’ve been hearing the charge recently that there are no non-religious reasons to oppose same-sex “marriage,” and therefore there are no constitutionally valid reasons to oppose it. I’m not about to enter into the constitutional question; it’s not my field. First Things readers need no one to tell you that there are indeed many non-religious reasons to oppose SSM and support true marriage. That’s been said often enough here.
But there is a question in here somewhere that calls for consideration: If secular reasons against SSM are any good at all, why is it that religious people so much more likely to oppose SSM than non-religious people? Could it be that our secular reasoning is a kind of game, a smokescreen behind which to hide the essential religiosity of our purpose?
If that were true, then it would be best that we admitted it and got out of the debate, or else shifted over to the constitutional side of it instead. But it’s not. For one thing, good secular reasoning against SSM is good secular reasoning, regardless of who puts it forth or why. For another thing, there are other explanations for the religious divide. On my Thinking Christian blog I’m offering two such explanations, the first of which is that religious people are far more likely than non-religious people to accept that there is something that marriage essentially is, and which is not up to us to decide. What follows is an adapted version.
First I want to clarify who I am talking about here and who I am not. On both sides of this issue there are some who have taken their stance only because “that’s what my kind of people think about this.” Make no mistake: support for gay “marriage” has a lot to do with aligning with one’s social group. So does opposition to it. I’m not talking about that kind of support or opposition, but about that which is well informed and thought through.
President Obama declared his affirmation of same-sex “marriage” last week. His opinion changes nothing except the legal and political environment. More specifically, it has no effect on what marriage actually is, because the meaning of marriage is not up to anyone to decide—not even the President. It’s above his pay grade.
What I mean is that marriage has its own enduring nature or essence. Many will disagree with me on that. Where you stand on that question, though, will largely determine where you stand on SSM. The question comes to this: Is there, or is there not, something—some nature or essence, that makes marriage what it is? Or is “marriage” up for grabs? If the former, then the SSM advocate carries an exceptionally strong burden of proof, to show that the great majority of cultures through history have gotten marriage wrong by making it about male and female. If the latter, then marriage can be whatever it is at the moment, and there’s no good reason to oppose SSM.
The best secular arguments in favor of man-woman marriage lean heavily on there being something that marriage is, and that its nature, its essence, isn’t up for a vote. Girgis, George, and Anderson, for example, have developed a strong case for the enduring identity of marriage on natural, not religious, grounds. That view is no longer widely shared. Many of us take it that we can mold the meaning of marriage to suit the temper of the age.
Many of us, in fact, take it that we can mold the meaning of almost anything to suit ourselves. Is there an enduring essence of maleness and femaleness, or (as some now maintain) does each person have the option to choose (pardon me, but I can’t avoid saying it this way) his or her own gender? Is there an enduring essence of humanness, or are we (as again some hold to be true) of pretty much the same sort of thing as the animals? Are we on our evolutionary way toward becoming something else? Questions like these can be multiplied. (Interestingly, answers to all of them seem to line up along a religious divide.)
I suspect this is one major factor separating believers from non-believers on this issue: believers in God are far more likely than non-believers to hold that certain things have their own enduring nature, essence, or definition. Thus we are far more likely to hold that marriage, gender, and human nature have stable and lasting meanings.
That’s my theory. Supposing I am correct, why might that be so? I can think of at least three reasons.
1. Pride of progress, or, chronological chauvinism. Non-believers are more likely than believers to think that every new generation is wiser than every earlier one. This is, unfortunately, a silly conceit associated with the fallacy of thinking that all knowledge is scientific knowledge. Obviously scientific knowledge is increasing day by day. Does that mean wisdom is, too? Or literary expertise, or musical creativity and virtuosity? Obviously not. These have virtually nothing to do with science. Neither does marriage. Why would we assume we are any smarter than the ancients (read: anyone born before 1960) concerning the nature of marriage?
Believers are more likely than non-believers to recognize that fallacy for what it is. We are therefore less likely to fall for the fallacies of scientism (“science is all there is of knowledge”) and chronological snobbery (“our age knows more about everything”).
2. The sexual revolution. The children of the 60s—and their children—are running the country. The enduring message of the 60s has been that whatever consenting adults decide to do is just fine. Though there are both biblically- and non-biblically based arguments against this foolishness, Bible-believers have been more motivated than non-believers to give them proper respect—in theory at least, if not always in practice.
3. Evolutionary theories of origins. Darwinian evolution is an all-encompassing theory, covering every aspect of organisms’ physical and behavioral characteristics. It is furthermore—and crucially—a theory of change, of things that are always on their way to becoming something else. Of course evolution can accommodate and explain stasis in populations, but still for all that it remains a theory of change. Today’s humanness is a snapshot along the ever-new, ever-different road of history, so why shouldn’t today’s marriage be the same?
If I’m right, then a theory of marriage such as Girgis, George, and Anderson’s, arguing as it does on the basis of what marriage is, faces uphill sledding among non-believers. Why believe that anything is what it is, or at least that it is essentially so?
Though opinions may line up along a religious divide, these are not religious questions. Differences of opinion pre-date Christianity by hundreds of years. Can a man step in the same river twice? Is he still the same man if he does? Was Heraclitus correct to think change is the only reality? Or was Plato closer to the mark with his eternal forms?
There’s more that could be said about this, but I’m exploring and proposing ideas here, not trying to work out a final disquisition, so I’ll leave it at this. What do you think?