Biblical Marriage: Not a Pretty Picture

Christian apologetics and atheismWhat does the Bible say about marriage?  Jesus said, “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Mark 10:8).  Sounds like today’s conservative position, with no restrictions against interracial marriage and no allowance for same-sex marriage.

But the Bible says much about marriage, and things get muddier when we look at the big picture.

Interracial Marriage.  Deut. 7:3 says, “Do not intermarry with [those in the Canaanite tribes].  Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.”  King Solomon got into trouble for violating this rule and marrying foreign wives (1 Kings 11).

So the Bible says that marriage is with someone of your own tribe.

Concubine Sex.  King Solomon famously had 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).  Four of Jacobs 12 sons were from servants of his two wives, and Abraham’s first child was from his wife’s slave.  Frankly, I’m unclear on the difference between wives and concubines, though one source emphasizes the similarity—concubines had similar privileges and their children had similar rights.

So the Bible legitimates sex with and children from concubines.

Rape.  Courtship rituals vary by society, but here’s an unusual approach: “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver.  He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her” (Deut. 22:28–9).

So the Bible says that if you see a woman and don’t want to go through that whole getting-permission thing, you can rape and then marry her.

Captured Women.  “Now kill all the boys.  And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Num. 31:17–18 and see also Deut. 21:11)  I don’t know what we’re talking about here—whether it’s wife, concubine, or sex slave.

So the Bible says that capturing women (virgins only, please) is a reasonable way to get a bedmate.  It doesn’t much matter whether the woman is on board with the project or not.

Slave Marriage.  Exodus 21:4 says that a male Jewish slave can be released, but any wife given to him by his master (and her children) remain the master’s property.

So the Bible says that ownership trumps marriage.

Levirate Marriage.  Say a man is married but dies before he has any children.  Who inherits his stuff?  To solve this problem, the Bible demands that another brother must marry this sister-in-law, with the firstborn child considered the dead brother’s heir.  The Bible does more than simply document a curious Jewish custom; God enforces it with the death penalty (Gen. 38:8–10).

So the Bible says that getting children as heirs for a deceased brother is more important than having your own children.

Polygamy.  Abraham had two wives.  Jacob had two (or four, depending on how you count them).  Solomon had 700.

God said to David, “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms.  I gave you the house of Israel and Judah.  And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.” (2 Sam. 12:8).  God has his complaints about David, but polygamy isn’t one of them.

So the Bible says that marriage is between a man and one or more women.

Apologists like to excuse the Bible’s craziness with its many variations on marriage by saying that it simply reflects the culture of the time.  It applied then, but it doesn’t apply now.  I can accept that—just do the same when the Bible says, “A man shall not lie down with a man.”  Put that into the same bin as levirate marriage, polygamy, or killing everyone in a tribe except the hot women that are kept for your pleasure.

Today’s Christian enthusiasm for marriage certainly wasn’t mirrored by the early church.  Here’s what Paul says: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor. 7:1).  So much for the celebrated role of procreation.

Paul said, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.  But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry” (1 Cor. 7:8–9).  In other words, marriage is the second best option.

Paul also rejects divorce (7:10–11).  Those Christians concerned about the purity of marriage might want to look at their own house to see if they’re following the rules.  (You could say that Paul rejected marriage only because he thought the end was near.  This might help reinterpret his curious views on marriage, but of course his being dramatically wrong raises a whole new set of problems.)

Marriage wasn’t even a Christian sacrament until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.  This wasn’t a popular move among civil authorities of the time, because it granted the church the power to decide which marriages were legal and which not—and therefore decide which contracts (often based on marriages) were valid and which not.  When the Pope didn’t like an alliance, he could just annul the appropriate marriage.

The argument that the Bible and the Church make a clear and unambiguous declaration that marriage is between a man and a woman is in tatters.  Sure, let’s celebrate marriage, but let’s not delude ourselves about how recent our view of marriage is.

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Homosexuality v. Christianity

An atheist critique of the Christian response to homosexuality2012 is the centennial year of the birth of Alan Turing, a British cryptanalyst central to the project that decoded German Enigma messages during World War II and a pioneer in computer science.  Celebrations marking the event are planned, and the UK has issued an Alan Turing stamp.

Though you may not have heard of Turing, you have been touched by his work.  When a web form challenges you to read distorted text to make sure you’re not a computer program, you’re participating in a variant of the Turing Test.  When you use a modern PC, you’re using a Turing Machine.

Turing was convicted under an 1885 law against homosexuality and forced to undergo “chemical castration” by hormone treatments.  Details of his death are imprecise, but, despondent over the treatments, he apparently killed himself by cyanide poisoning.

This brilliant gay man was 41.

Gay suicides continue in our own day.  A 14-year-old boy killed himself last September in response to school bullying, just months after recording an “It Gets Better” video.

For those who wish for a day when sexual preference is as bothersome as hair color, things are improving.  Within the last month, Washington and Maryland enacted laws allowing same-sex marriage (though both laws will likely be challenged by referendums in November), bringing to eight the number of states with such laws.  The military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was repealed last fall.  A Pew Research poll shows that supporters of same-sex marriage in the U.S. have recently become greater in number than those who oppose it.  Archie Comics has even become gay friendly.

Can someone explain to me why same-sex marriage is an issue?  I don’t get it, and I’ve drunk the marriage Kool-Aid.  My wife and I have been married for over 30 years.  I got married the same week I graduated from college.  Two kids, no divorce, no adultery.  When a preacher or politician imagines himself speaking to the country on this issue, he puts me in the front row.  And I’m still waiting to hear a coherent argument for why same-sex marriage should bother me.

One of the most popular arguments is that this would redefine marriage.  Okay, but so what?  The definition of marriage hasn’t been a constant in the U.S.  Until Loving v. Virginia in 1967, marriage in 17 states meant the union of one man and one woman of the same race.  As I discussed in a previous post, the original 1959 conviction that prompted this landmark Supreme Court case was backed up with Christian justification.

Before that, marriage was redefined in 1890 to prohibit polygamy.  In that case, the Supreme Court made clear how a clash between religious precepts and the laws of the state is resolved:

However free the exercise of religion may be, it must be subordinate to the criminal laws of the country.

And the definition of marriage continues to be a moving target since not all states have the same rules.  Can you marry without parental approval at age 18?  Yes in most states; no in Mississippi, where you must be 21.  Is common law marriage recognized?  Yes for Alabama and Colorado; no for Alaska and Delaware.

The definition or marriage hasn’t even been constant within Christianity—the stories of Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and other patriarchs make clear that the biblical definition of marriage was the union of one man and one or more women.

Marriage evolves, and if anything is attacking marriage today, it’s not same-sex marriage but divorce.  Indeed, it’s odd that at a time when many Christian leaders are lamenting marriage’s reduced status within society, it dismisses a group that wants to embrace it.  There’s no fixed pie here, where you getting a bigger slice means I get a smaller one.

What’s behind this?  Is it the church’s obsession with sex?  Perhaps it fears sex as a powerful competitive force.  This reminds me of the Soviet Union suppressing Christianity because it was a powerful competitive force.

Actor and author Stephen Fry, in talking about the church and sex, likened sex to food.  He said, “The only people who are obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese.  And that, in erotic terms, is the [Christian] church.”

Let’s visit one elephant in the room that may be behind Christians’ objection to homosexuality.  Gay sex, to use clinical terminology, is icky.  My response: yes it is.  And I have a quick and effective solution.  If you don’t like gay sex, don’t have any.  It’s really pretty easy when you think about it.

But this sidesteps the bigger issue.  It’s not that gay sex is icky.  It’s that sex is icky.

Imagine you’ve just met someone at a party, and he soon turns the conversation to his particular sexual turn-ons.  You’d probably find the conversation very uncomfortable.

Another example: explain in detail the mechanics of sex to a six-year-old.  The child would be disgusted whether you describe gay or straight sex.  Sex is disgusting; it’s just that we are drawn to our preferred brand of sex because the passion overrides the disgust.  We typically don’t have the passion to override the disgust from our inner six-year-old for other brands.

When I read a diatribe against homosexuality or same-sex marriage written by some politician or pastor, I wonder: with all the problems in the world—disease, poverty, famine, natural disasters, the economy, and so on—this is near the top of your list of things that keep you up at night?  Seriously?  You can’t find something else to worry about?  Sorry, but same-sex marriage doesn’t affect my marriage—or yours—one bit.

There’s far too little love in the world as it is.  It’s unthinkable—nay, reprehensible—to stand in the way of what love can be found.

Photo credit: San Diego Shooter

Related posts:

Related links:

  • Heartstrong: “Hope & help for gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender students from religious educational institutions”
  • “Church says no interracial couples allowed,” CNEWS, 11/30/11.
  • Rob Boston, “Trouble In Riverdale: Religious Right Groups Blast Gay Friendly ‘Archie’ Comic Books,” Talk to Action, 1/13/12.

Word of the Day: Haggard’s Law

Christianity and atheism, does God exist?Rev. O’Neal Dozier, a Rick Santorum backer, says that homosexuality is the “paramount of sins” and that it is “something so nasty and disgusting that it makes God want to vomit.”

Pastor Ken Hutcherson, here in Seattle, is against Washington state’s new law-in-waiting allowing same-sex marriage.  He’s been riding this horse for years, ever since he complained about Microsoft offering health benefits to same-sex partners of employees.

Ted Haggard was the founder and former head of both the 10,000-member New Life Church and led the National Association of Evangelicals.  In the movie Jesus Camp, he said, “We don’t have to debate about what we should think about homosexual activity.  It’s written in the Bible.”

But Pastor Ted was brought low by claims that he had a long-term relationship with a gay prostitute.  This hypocrisy gave us Haggard’s Law: the likelihood of someone’s being gay increases in proportion to the force of that person’s public objections to homosexuality.  One wonders if the other pastors similarly doth protest too much.

The next time some guy with a religious or political platform bloviates about why a segment of society doesn’t deserve the same respect as everyone else, remember Haggard’s Law and wonder what he’s hiding.

Photo credit: Simon Varwell

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Marriage vs. Religious Freedom

Black and white hands, claspedCatholic League president Bill Donohue hates the idea of same-sex marriage:

There is no world religion that embraces the bizarre idea that two men can get married, and there is no state in the nation where the people have directly chosen to approve it.  Yet because of some judges and state lawmakers, the prospect of same-sex marriage looms.

In fact, the Seattle Times reports about my own state, “The state Senate is just two votes shy of making Washington the seventh state to approve gay marriage.”  No, that wouldn’t be by a referendum of the voters, but so what?

Donohue is pleased, however, by “Marriage and Religious Freedom” a document recently signed by a number of conservative U.S. religious leaders that predictably rejects same-sex marriage.

The letter declares that ministers forced to conduct same-sex weddings is a manufactured fear, and it trusts in the First Amendment to rule out this possibility.  The real problem, it says, is same-sex married couples imposing on religion.  For example:

  • Religious adoption services couldn’t discriminate against same-sex married couples.
  • Marriage counselors couldn’t reject same-sex clients simply because they’re homosexual.
  • Religious employers couldn’t discriminate when giving health benefits to employees’ spouses.
  • Nor could they demote, reassign, or fire anyone for a same-sex marriage.

I’m not swept away with concern for the church.  Here’s why:

However free the exercise of religion may be, it must be subordinate to the criminal laws of the country.

That is part of the opinion of the Supreme Court in Davis v. Beason (1890), which effectively made polygamy illegal in the U.S.  In other words, when the state conflicts with religion on the definition of marriage, the state can prevail.

Another important Supreme Court case is Loving v. Virginia (1967), which overturned anti-miscegeny laws (that is, laws that prohibited mixed-race marriages) in 17 states.  Time declared this one of the “Top 10 Landmark Supreme Court Cases.”

Today’s fight over same-sex marriage closely parallels this fight over mixed-race marriage.  Let’s consider the facts in this case.  In 1959, Mildred and Richard Loving, a mixed-race couple, were convicted by a Virginia court for the crime of being married.  The judge used Christian justification for the decision:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.  And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages.  The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Do you see the parallels?  Here’s another comparison.  First, consider this proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution from 1912:

Intermarriage between negroes or persons of color and Caucasians or any other character of persons within the United States or any territory under their jurisdiction, is forever prohibited.

Compare this to Proposition 8, a 2008 amendment to the California Constitution:

Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.

If the first restriction is outrageous, why allow the second?

After listing some of the problems between religious organizations and same-sex couples, the “Marriage and Religious Freedom” manifesto says,

The refusal of these religious organizations to treat a same-sex sexual relationship as if it were a marriage marked them and their members as bigots, subjecting them to the full arsenal of government punishments and pressures reserved for racists.

Bingo!  Now you’re seeing the parallels.

Imagine if the manifesto whined about restrictions on religious organizations because of the legalization of not same-sex marriage but mixed-race marriage.  Adoption agencies couldn’t reject mixed-race couples who wanted to adopt.  Marriage counselors would have to accept mixed-race couples as clients.  Religious employers would be forced to give health benefits to (if you can believe it!) a “spouse” of another race.  And they would be barred from taking any kind of punitive action against an employee who married outside their race.

It’s amazing that the signatories to this document are high-level leaders within the Christian church.  Aren’t they supposed to be the enlightened, compassionate ones?  Aren’t they supposed to be the ones encouraging society onto the correct moral path?  Why is it the other way around?

I’m optimistic that the parallels between prohibitions on mixed-race marriage and same-sex marriage are too close for them to not eventually be treated the same.  But take note of the status quo.  Remember these religious arguments against same-sex marriage, because in 20 or 30 years, when same-sex marriage is as uncontroversial as mixed-race marriage, conservative Christians will be shocked that their leaders ever rejected it.

We’ll need to remind them of the harm that religious thinking can cause.

Photo credit: WolfSoul

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  • Christopher Shay, “Loving Day,” Time, 6/11/10.
  • “Time for Washington Legislature to legalize same-sex marriage” Seattle Times editorial, 11/14/11.

James Dobson Needs My Money (and an Education)

Big wad of US currencyJames Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, was good enough to send me a letter a few days ago.  Not a personal letter—he basically just wants me to give him some of my money—but a letter nonetheless.  He outlined some of his views about the Christian foundation our country was built on, reported how our country is going to hell in a jet-propelled handbasket, and made the irresistible swipe at homosexuality.

In case he forgot to send you one, I’ve highlighted a few interesting bits of his letter to reply to.

Our Founding Fathers clearly understood the relationship between Christian Truth and the stability of our (then) new nation. Here are just a few quotes that express that essential connection.

And he goes on to quote mine the founding fathers’ writings to find their most pro-Christian statements.

When pundits bring up quotes from the founders, you know that they’re out of arguments.  The U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, regardless of what the founders thought, wrote, or wanted.  They had their chance to define how the country should be run, and they seized it.  That document was revolutionary at the time and now, with a few amendments, effectively governs us more than two centuries later.  It supersedes the other writings of the founders.

Thomas Jefferson, … revisionists tell us, wanted a “wall of separation” to protect the government from people of faith.

No need for revisionists—Thomas Jefferson himself talked about “a wall of separation between church and state.”  And, to be precise, the First Amendment protects the people (whether or not of faith) from the government, not the other way around.

Dobson then goes on to give a long quote by Abraham Lincoln.  Well, not really by Lincoln.  This was a Senate resolution for a National Fast Day signed by Lincoln.  And this was the same Lincoln who said, “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad.  That’s my religion.”

This was the same Lincoln who said, “The Bible is not my book, and Christianity is not my religion.”

This was the same Lincoln who said, “My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.”

The private Lincoln wasn’t the strong Christian that Dobson imagines.  (And it wouldn’t change the Constitution if he were.)

We are witnessing an unprecedented campaign to secularize our society and “de-moralize” our institutions from the top down. …  Most forms of prayer have been declared unconstitutional in the nation’s schools. The Ten Commandments have been prohibited on school bulletin boards. …  In this wonderful Land of the Free, we have gagged and bound all of our public officials, our teachers, our elected representatives, and our judges.

Again: read the Constitution.  Prayer should never have been allowed in schools.  Ten Commandments in courthouses or in schools?  Clearly out of step with the Constitution.

I don’t want to see Christian citizens gagged; I want them to have the same public speech rights that I do.  But when you’re acting as a public official, teacher, or elected representative, the rules are different.  The First Amendment demands that you create an unbiased environment.  Evangelism with prayer or religious documents is forbidden.  Dobson somehow finds this a shocking new realization, but the First Amendment was adopted in 1791.

As a secularist, I know when to stop.  I’m only asking that the First Amendment be followed.  I want no Christian preferences—such as “In God We Trust” as the motto, prayers before government meetings, Creationism in schools, crosses on public land, and so on—but when we have that situation, I will stop.  I’m not striving for a society where Christianity is illegal.  (See what a good friend a secular Constitution is for the Christian?)

But I see no stopping point on the other side, no fairly unambiguous standard that Christians are pushing for.  If they got prayer back in schools, what would be next?

Since we have effectively censored their expressions of faith in public life, the predictable is happening: a generation of young people is growing up with very little understanding of the spiritual principles on which our country was founded. And we wonder why so many of them can kill, steal, take drugs, and engage in promiscuous sex with no pangs of conscience.

I wonder what happens when Christianity fades away?  Does that society devolve into the post-apocalyptic Mad Max world that Dobson imagines?

Let’s compare other Western societies to find out.  Looking at quantifiable social metrics (homicides, incarceration, juvenile mortality, STDs, abortions, adolescent pregnancies, marriage duration, income disparity, and so on) in 17 Western countries, a 2009 study concluded: “Of the 25 socioeconomic and environmental indicators, the most theistic and procreationist western nation, the U.S., scores the worst in 14 and by a very large margin in 8, very poorly in 2, average in 4, well or very in 4, and the best in 1.”1

Ouch—religiosity is inversely correlated with social health.  Sorry, Dr. Dobson.

It is breathtaking to see how hostile our government has become to traditional marriage, and how both Democrats and Republicans are increasingly antagonistic to parental rights, Christian training, and the financial underpinnings of family life.

I assume that “hostile … to traditional marriage” refers to same-sex marriage.

Help me understand this.  At a time when Christian traditionalists like Dobson lament the high divorce rate and the acceptability of couples living together and even having children without the benefit of marriage, they dismiss a group that is actually embracing marriage.

Same-sex marriage is a celebration of marriage, not an attack.

The hope of the future is prayer and a spiritual renewal that will sweep the nation. It has happened before, and with concerted prayer, could occur again. …  If we continue down the road we are now traveling, I fear for us all.

Yeah, following the rise in Christian fundamentalism does sound like a worrisome future.  We’ve seen that secular, gay-loving Europe eclipses the U.S. in social metrics.

Candidly, this ministry continues to struggle financially, and our very survival will depend on the generosity of our constituents in the next two months.

Translated: “Give me some money.”

Please pray with us about the future of this ministry.

Translated: “Give me some money.”  (I’ve written before about how prayer requests of this sort admit that prayer is useless.)

I suppose that this kind of lashing out at other people brings in the money.  But it’d be nice to see more credible arguments.

1Gregory Paul, “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions,” Evolutionary Psychology, www.epjournal.net (2009).  7(3): 416.

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Confused Thinking About Homosexuality

A church sign says "I kissed a girl and I liked it then I went to Hell"In an article subtitled “Christian defense against Homosexuality,” the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) attacks homosexuality.  I’ve pulled out claims that need a response.

Homosexuals want others in society to think like them (and behave like them?).

Is this the fabled Gay Agenda® where homosexuals will make all Americans homosexual to weaken the country for an eventual Communist takeover?  Or something?

“If you have to ask, you are probably already under its pernicious influence and blithely hop-scotching your way straight to Hell.”  Thank you, Betty Bowers.

They want others to accept them.

Well, yeah.  Is that a problem?

What gives them the right to try and change society into what they want it to be?

I’m pretty sure that’s what they said about African Americans during the Jim Crow period.

Saying that homosexuality is natural because it occurs in the animal kingdom does not mean it is morally correct. Animals also eat each other alive, devour offspring, etc. Should we imitate those things as well because the animals do it?

So then do we at least agree that homosexuality occurs in nature and then is, by definition, natural?

As for morality, let’s not get cocky.  For barbarism, no one beats humans.  Only humans have invented Continue reading