These types of stories still freckle our pop-culture. Disney loves to remind us that not so long ago, marriage for anything more than status had to be fought for. This is our recent history… this isn’t some ancient culture whose tales have stood the test of time. This is the reality of marriage in the last 100 years. In fact, there are vast areas of the world in which you can still watch people marry as a sort of business transaction, for which there needs to be some form of return on investment.
Marriage has been a cold-hearted, tortuous affair since its dawn. Only recently, has that begun to change globally.
A reader on my Facebook page sent me a message yesterday. She (let’s call her Jane) told me she was getting married (congratulations!) and that her Christian best friend (let’s call her Annie) of 30 years had recently expressed her disapproval of that. Annie, citing Jane’s atheism, complained,
“Marriage has a spiritual element. You are not a spiritual person, so I have to assume, you are only doing this for him. You’re already legally common law, so why this extra step? I don’t get it.”
This is an extraordinarily ignorant thing to say. Especially to someone you consider your best friend of 30 years. What this reads like to me, is that either Annie is jealous, or she’s having her own doubts about her own belief system and it’s scaring the shit out of her. People don’t generally piss on the happiness of their loved ones for anything else.
You can deduce from what Annie has said that she is, in some way, unhappy with herself. If you can pinpoint why, you’re going to be that much closer to having an honest conversation with her. Perhaps she is not married herself and is upset because you’re getting married first. Maybe she’s already married but unhappy with who she ended up with. She sees your bliss and is envious. Whatever the case is, one thing is for sure: Annie has some demons.
Once you have some idea of what might actually be the problem, you should try and get her to clarify her position. The fact that her claims are utter horseshit will become apparent to her if you get her to try and expand on what she means. For instance,
“What is the ‘spiritual element’ of marriage you speak of? Can you elaborate?”
Remember to be nice. If you ask these questions in an accusatory way, it will only make her retreat. You want an honest and open conversation here, so do what you can to get her to expand on her initial statement. Perhaps explain that as an atheist, you’ve never really understood what people mean by “spiritual” and you’d like for her to explain it.
She’ll stumble. She won’t be able to define what she means by “spiritual element”. She will likely describe something that sounds an awful lot like love, attraction, caring, selflessness, compromise and respect. Of course, these are not spiritual things. They exist right out in the open. They can be demonstrated, studied and examined. The best thing of all: we have words for them already! We don’t need to call any of these things “spirituality” because they already have names!
You need to point these things out. Explain to her that just because a feeling is powerful, overwhelming and hard to describe, does not mean it comes from some unproven realm of magic. In fact, the very same strong feelings and emotions have been observed in animals. Just check this out (this will make you cry):
The other possibility, is that she’ll explain that observing religious traditions and ideas are necessary for a successful marriage. If she does, it needs to be pointed out that this is not “spiritual” and that these traditions and ideas can be understood without the aid of the supernatural. Point out the many marriages between “good Christians” that have failed, and conclude that there is no evidence, anywhere, that supports the idea that adhering to certain religious beliefs leads to a better marriage.
Ask her if she thinks there is something lacking in the marriage between Penn and Emily Jillette, who have produced a beautiful family together, seem to be very much in love, and devote immense amounts of time to a charity called Opportunity Village. Penn and Emily are both outspoken atheists.
Ask her if she thinks there is anything wrong with the union between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie who have been able to provide a better life for several children, and who devote much of their time and money to charity as well. They are both atheists!
Feel free to tell her about my parents, who have been married 45 years now, and are still inseparable. Atheists.
Ask Annie what, precisely, is lacking from these marriages. Morality doesn’t appear to be lacking. Love certainly doesn’t. Reproduction is not. Devotion? Nope, seems like it’s there. So what, exactly, do these unions lack?
Tradition? If we all stuck to traditional marriage, we’d be marrying the man our parents told us to, so that they could ascend the social ladder like some painfully morose Jane Austen novel.
You can also gently remind Annie that marriage has legal benefits. While common-law partnerships are legally observed, there are significant differences between a common-law relationship and a legally married one, when it comes to property. Imagine you lived in a common-law relationship with the love of your life and have for the past 50 years. You live in his home, which is in his name. Imagine he had a pension that supported the two of you with ease and you were unable to work at this point in your life. Now, he passes away without a will. You could find yourself having to move out of the home you shared with him for 50 years, with no claim on any of his property and/or financial assets and no ability to make your own living. Having a legally binding marriage corrects this.
Ask your friend if she thinks atheists should be excluded from these benefits of a legal marriage.
Annie will likely stumble over her answers, and the reason for this is because she hadn’t thought through her original statement. She’s just parroting some old bigoted rhetoric that was shoved down her throat as she grew, and has no real way to articulate why your marriage makes her feel shitty. I think you should press until you find out the real reason she’s upset by your upcoming nuptials. Only then will you be able to solve the problem.
If she refuses to be honest with you and continues to feed you word salad, then you need to consider whether or not this person is someone you need to be hanging on to. While saying goodbye to people sucks, clinging to toxic folk is even worse. Things change, people drift apart and hardly anyone finds themselves at age 50 surrounded by the same friends we used to play kick the can with when we were ten. As an atheist, you’re aware of the fact that we only have this one precious life and limited time to do what we want. Why spend our finite days with people who don’t support us and hope for our happiness? There is simply no good reason to. You’re heading into a joyous time, beginning your life together with the man you love. Don’t let bitter, angry people drag you down.
Image by Jonathan Kendrick.