Darrell Ray, a psychologist, writes in his book, Sex and God, that most religions “use our powerful sex drives to infect us with ideas that benefit the religion and hurt and inhibit our ability to be truly human.” (p. 23). As I have written previously, religion’s condemnation of sex before marriage has had the effect of making a person who acts on a natural and normal desire full of shame and guilt. Religious opposition to birth control has been disastrous in spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Religion’s condemnation of homosexuality ignores what we now know to be a natural phenomenon often due to changes that occur in the womb before birth.
Marriage, another cultural phenomenon, is fairly recent, given the length of time humans have inhabited the earth. But it is one that religion will cling to until its dying day. But there may be a change in the air. A recent study in Iceland (one of the least religious countries in the world) showed that people are abandoning marriage in favor of less traditional relationships. The Population Reference Bureau contrasted the 1960’s when births outside of marriage were rare and mostly kept secret to today in Iceland where 65% of births occur to couples not in traditional marriages. Many other countries, including the United States, are not far behind. And only 55% of the couples who have children in Iceland are even living together. Other studies show that cultural influences such as a condemnation of illegitimacy have never held much sway in countries like Iceland thus making the need to get married to have children less controlling. Of course countries like Iceland also have the support of public health nurses who make regular visits to newborns to be sure they are progressing at the appropriate pace as well as available and affordable child care as well as government sponsored health care.
But why did marriage arise at all? If we look at our closest ancestors, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, they may not have figured out which man fathered which child. These were small groupings where most of the focus was on survival and everyone helped out each other. Examples of people today that have never developed monogamous relationships may give us some clues about what it was like back then. The Na is an indigenous group of people in China. While not truly matriarchal, the society has inheritance through the female line and women make many business decisions. The matriarch is the head of the household and manages the money and the jobs of each family member. There is no traditional marriage in this society and they have a term called “walking marriages” to describe their relationships. They engage in sexual relations with as many members as they want with the woman giving permission. One of their worship practices, Daba, involves a mother goddess. Children belong to and reside in the mother’s household. In some cases, the specific father of each child may not even be known.
Today, there are couples in the United States and elsewhere who have a similar form of “walking marriages.” They use the term polyamorous. This describes someone who is married but where the couple has okayed having sexual relationships outside the marriage. A sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy often abides in the friends I know in this type of relationship.
So when did marriage get its start? It probably arose after agriculture and private property took hold in the early start to civilization in the Neolithic Age, about 12,000 years ago. If you owned property, you wanted it to go to your own children, not the children of someone else in the community. In many civilizations at this time, men were the only ones who could own property and women were considered the property of the man. In order for a man to know which child was his, the requirement for virgin brides and punishment of adultery arose. The Bible is pretty strict about these requirements and remember that the Mosaic punishment for adultery was death, probably considered a pretty strong deterrent. Even in the New Testament, a woman is about to be stoned when Jesus says “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” (John 8:7). When no one volunteers, he then tells the woman to “Go and sin no more.” (John 8.11) Notice that adultery is still a sin and while this one woman escaped because Jesus was there, he did nothing to change the law itself. In Judaism, men could have multiple wives. Solomon “had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.” (1 Kings 11:3) While this is undoubtedly an exaggeration, you get the picture. Men didn’t need to commit adultery, they just brought the women into their household as a wife or concubine. It wasn’t until the 7th century when the Christian Church held a synod in England and declared that marriage was between one man and one woman. The nascent church just couldn’t afford to alienate the rich men who had multiply wives.
The economic factor of marriage has also changed over time. As an example in the United States in the 19th century, industry depended on women staying home to care for and feed their workers. That was a vital part of having wageworkers versus family economic units when farming was the occupation of most of the population. World War II caused a reversal when women workers had to assume the jobs left when men went to war. Rosie the Riveter, unfortunately, found that once the war was over, she was out of a job. Betty Friedan in her epic, The Feminine Mystique, describes the alienation of women shunted off to the suburbs to spend their days raising their children and providing support to their husbands who worked full-time.
But cultural forces hold great sway. In my mid-30’s, I thought of having a child by myself but didn’t. I had the economic basis to do it. I had a friend willing to be the father. But I just couldn’t go against the strong cultural norms I grew up with. Fortunately, even though I married late, I was able to give birth to our wonderful son.
But cultures do change. They adapt to new circumstances. With the wealth of information that is now available to virtually everyone, religion will someday go the way of Greek mythology because, after all, it is mythology. Whether traditional marriage will still be around is anyone’s guess.
Karen L. Garst
The Faithless Feminist