The meaning of “Marriage”

Steve Ahlquist deserves major kudos for his efforts in helping to win marriage equality in Rhode Island.  I’m proud to say that my daughter also played a part by working the phones prior to some key votes.

Steve’s recent blog post suggests that the Catholic Church (and other religious interests) gambled and lost by fighting to preserve the equivalency between state-sanctioned marriage and the traditional religious sacrament.  He argues that the churches could have protected the meaning of “marriage” if they had advocated for a separation between the religious concept of marriage and the government concept of civil union.  We could have had a civil-union system in which all couples enjoyed all of the legal benefits traditionally extended to  married couples.  If couples desired the “marriage” label, they would be free to have it bestowed upon them by their choice of clergy (or humanist celebrant), without any state involvement.  Religious organizations would be free to extend or to limit sacramental marriage consistent with the tenets of their faiths.

When the issues of gay marriage and civil unions first rose to the forefront, I advocated for such a system, because I believed that the government had no business being in the marriage business.  Very few agreed with me.  The churches went for broke by fighting to preserve “marriage” as a state-supported sacramental rite.  Advocates for equal rights became invested in the word “marriage”, and they are winning the day.

Steve writes:

Not wanting to give up this valuable bit of confusion between church and state in our laws, conservative, anti-LGBTQ churches decided on an all or nothing strategy. They would fight for one meaning to the word marriage. The distinction between civil and religious marriage was collapsed. In defining the word marriage so precisely they gave up the opportunity to tease out two meanings, one secular and one religious. If, as those on the losing side of this battle proclaim, the word marriage is being redefined, it’s because they never really fought for the word.

Instead, they gambled with the word, betting that in the end the word would still mean what it had evolved over time to mean: a religious sacrament enshrined into law. If the word marriage really had such a high value, religious institutions should never have gambled with it. They should have moved to protect the word, by working to pull it out of the law books. Instead, they gambled and they lost.

Marriage from this day forward has a primary, firmly secular meaning that speaks to equality and a secondary, dare I say lesser, religious meaning that still potentially enshrines prejudice. Instead of fighting for a secular and fair society, religiously motivated marriage fundamentalists fought for theocracy and religious privilege.


The religious opposition feared that the extension of marriage to same-sex couples would change the nature of the institution.  Steve Ahlquist agrees that the meaning of the term marriage has, indeed, changed.  What else should a church expect when it seeks to have the state’s imprimatur on its sacraments?




Why Do We Celebrate Darwin Day?


Charles Darwin’s birthday is today – February 12.  It is a big deal among the science and humanist communities.  Local groups in Fairfield County hold an annual banquet  to honor the event (rescheduled to Feb 16 due to the storm – you can still register).

The International Darwin Day Foundation’s website has a good explanation for why we celebrate Darwin’s Birthday on or around February 12:

Charles Darwin as a Symbol for the Celebration of Science and Humanity

Celebrations are an important part of every culture. They provide a tradition and a common bond to be shared among those who make up their culture, permitting them to experience a meaningful connection to one another and to the principles to which they subscribe. Unfortunately, most celebrations are based on ancient traditions that are relevant to only a specific country or culture, and they have often been, and continue to be, the source of serious conflicts.

At this juncture in history, the world has become so small and interdependent that we need a Global Celebration to promote a common bond among all people. The Darwin Day Celebration was founded on the premise that science, like music, is an international language that speaks to all people in very similar ways. While music is both intellectual and entertaining, science is our most reliable knowledge system, and it has been and continues to be acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity. Moreover, evolution via genetic variation and natural selection, introduced by Darwin, has become the central organizing principle in biology. In addition, evolution also plays a central role in astronomy and cosmology, where it refers to the way that stars, galaxies and the entire universe ‘change over time.’ To study biology while neglecting evolution would be like studying physics without Newton’s laws that govern the universe or chemistry without the periodic table. Clearly, Darwin himself has become an internationally acclaimed figure, whose influence on progressive modern thought continues to be both profound and pervasive (Ernst Mayr, Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought, Scientific American, July 2000).

Current research in the field of genetics, including that on the human genome, has conclusively shown that all humans are essentially identical and that we are genetically related to all other living things on this planet. Thus an enlightened view of genetics is one of unity and equality among all humans and also one that fosters a deeper sense of respect and appreciation for all life. Today the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection rests in our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of genetics. Therefore, we conclude that Charles Darwin is a worthy symbol on which to focus, in order to build a Global Celebration of Science and Humanity that is intended to promote a common bond among all people of the earth.

Phil Plait, the “Bad Astronomer” on Slate, suggests celebrating Darwin Day by making a contribution to the National Center for Science Education.  Great idea!

Happy Darwin Day!