Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Marriage Options for Unbelievers

When it comes to marriage, what’s an atheist libertarian to do? What kind of ceremony is appropriate, and who ought to officiate? For an atheist, the obvious choice might appear to be a judge or justice-of-the-peace. But for a libertarian atheist, state idolatry is as objectionable as spiritual idolatry. Sure, libertarians recognize the existence of the state (while atheists do not recognize the existence of a god), but why go inviting the state into what is ultimately a personal commitment? And while many people, including libertarians, might choose to invoke the state’s contract-enforcement apparatus, that act is conceptually distinct from the act of wedding another person (as I argued here).

I was once briefly married. Since my wife-to-be was also an atheist (or agnostic), we opted for the justice-of-the-peace default. But I doubt I’d do that again. As we discovered during our first and only year of joint tax-filing, there are few if any benefits of legal marriage for couples without children. Indeed, we ended up paying a marriage penalty amounting to about $300 of our paltry incomes (yes, I filled out the “dummy” tax forms to find out what we would have paid if we’d been single). If I ever went down that path again, I’d be inclined to postpone the legal marriage unless and until children made it worthwhile. But without ministers or judges, what’s left? Ship captains?

Fortunately, help is on the way. This Slate article discusses the growth of “secular life ceremonies.” Most of the rituals described definitely fall on the faux-mystical side of the ledger – e.g., Celtic handfasting and summoning the spirits of North, South, East, and West to bless your union. Since when do paganism and animism count as “secular”? But at least the alternatives are growing, and that’s a good thing.


Anonymous said...

Dear fellow Agoraphiles,

I've decided to use some willpower (i.e.,biting my tongue until it bleeds), and leave no futher comments anywhere for at least the next 3 months. I've decided I have an addiction to the internet and to blogs in particular especially this one. Of course, I think Agoraphilia is, by far, the best blog--mostly because Glen is so smart, creative and intellectually honest (terribly rare qualities when combined). I think I'll be better off if I ride my new bicycle more, do more work and dither less. I wish Glen (and Tom and Neil) the best of luck in all their endeavours. So for at least until next year, I bid you all adieu.


P.S. Anyone, is there a blog for recovering blog addicts?

Anonymous said...

My wife and I came up with an excellent solution. Do it in Pennsylvania. You still have to get a marriage licence, but they allow ceremonies done under the old Quaker tradition. Under that style, you come up with a marriage contract that has the date and place of the ceremony, your names, and the signatures of at least some number of witnesses. You don't need to have any officiant at all; we officated our own wedding, signed the contract, then our guests all signed it. Get the thing notarized later on and you've got yourself a legal marriage that's been presided over by neither church nor state. And, you've got a nice document signed by all your wedding guests as a wonderful memento of the wedding; ours is framed on our wall and is far nicer than any wedding guestbook I've seen.

Eric Crampton
University of Canterbury

Anonymous said...

Glen, most states in the Southeast will permit any notary public to officiate a marriage ceremony. My own parents were married by their accountant (although they're neither athiests nor particularly libertarian.)

-- Nathan Freeman

P.S: Love your blog. Been reading for over a year.

Anonymous said...

I've had several friends married by other friends who've been ordained by the Universal Life Church. The Universal Life people will ordain anyone, and require no particular belief system at all. I've always thought being married by a friend is a neat and pleasant thing.

--Perry Metzger

Anonymous said...

My fellow and I were faced with this issue seven years ago. We couldn't come up with any reason why, as atheist libertarian individualists, we should bother. It's not as if even religious, statist people think of themselves as bound to the marriage these days, if they really want out.

We've done well now for seven years (at the risk of repeating myself) and at least part of the reason is that we've retained our personal freedom. We're together by choice, not by decree.

Anonymous said...

State (Justice of the Peace) marriage in Arkansas grants about an 8% tax break on a paycheck, if your significant other is, for example, a med student. Plus, if your employer provides cheap insurance, that's cost saving. I don't see any problem in effectively signing up for a tax break.

Didn't they pass some law awhile back reducing "marriage penalties?" Or is that just a fever dream of mine?

Anonymous said...

Errr... Common Law Marriage, anyone?

Eric H

Glen Whitman said...

I have no problem with signing up for a tax break. My point is that you can be married -- in the real sense that I care about -- without signing up for the tax break. The state's approval or recognition is not what makes you married. What makes you married is your commitment to each other.

As for common law marriage, notary public marriage, and Quaker marriage, these are just alternative means of getting the state's recognition. And nothing is *wrong* with getting the state's recognition, as I said above. But it's neither necessary nor sufficient for marriage in the sense that I'm talking about.

The Universal Life Church route is nice, because you can be married by a friend. I have some friends who got married by the groom's brother, which turned out great. But my personal objections are still about the same. UL is still a religious organization, albeit a really loose and free-wheeling one. And the only reason your officiant must be ordained is because if they're not, the marriage won't be *legally* recognized.

I'm beginning to think the best route for atheist libertarians who don't need or want legal recognition is simply to have a ceremony at which a friend or family member, without any status as a minister or judge, officiates.

Glen Whitman said...

I have no problem with pre-nuptial agreements, and in some cases they make a great deal of sense. Given that libertarians generally support freedom of contract, I think most would agree with me on this.