The "Sanctity" of Marriage

I made the mistake of reading a news article last night with a title that I knew was sure to offend me. It was a commentary piece in the Catholic Herald entitled, "Atheism Has Done Little for Women's Dignity." But, as often happens, the article merely agitated me; its comments sent me into a tailspin of rage and frustration.

The Article

In this article, the author, Francis Phillips, was giving her reaction to the recent Tony Blair Vs. Christopher Hitchens debate on whether religion is a force for good in the world. Her main point was that Blair might have won the debate (he lost 2-1) if he had only pushed back on the subject of what religion has done for the dignity of women. As she says in her conclusion:
If Blair had engaged passionately at this juncture in the debate, showing how Christianity has always defended women’s dignity, no more so than in this atheistic era, he might, as I have said, have knocked Hitchens off his contemptuous perch, at least for a short while. 
Now I have to agree that I would have liked to see Blair try to argue that Christianity defends women's dignity. Not because I think it would have earned him any points, but because it would have been entertaining to watch Hitchens tear that argument apart.

As a woman, I'm often bewildered by the fact that any woman would support the ideas presented in the Bible. Begin with the fable of Adam and Eve, which depicts woman as the reason for original sin and for life not being a pain-free paradise. Moving on, the Old Testament is littered with misogynistic sentiment (Anyone read Leviticus?)

Perhaps one of the Old Testament stories that galls me the most is Judges 19:1-30, "The Levite and His Concubine." This one is trotted out as an argument against homosexuality, but most Christians don't seem to mind its willing brutality toward women.

In the story (which is an almost exact retelling of a portion of the Sodom and Gomorrah tale, with different characters) a Levite and his concubine are traveling and take shelter with a man in Gibeah. Men from the town surround the house and demand that the Levite come out so they can have sex with him. The good host protects his guest by offering the men the Levite's concubine and his own virgin daughter instead. The concubine is sent out where she is raped and abused all night, until they find her dead on the doorstep in the morning.

And the misogyny does not stop in the Old Testament. Jesus may have befriended Mary Magdalene, but what else did he do to empower women or defend their dignity? Some cite his "help" on the matter of divorce (more on that later), but all he said was that men shouldn't divorce their wives unless they were unfaithful.

Given the patriarchal society of the time, Jesus' admonition would have been a help--but his approach still treated women as property with no rights to initiate divorce themselves, hold property or otherwise be equal to men. In Matthew 19, Jesus' disciples respond by telling him that being stuck with one wife unless she is unfaithful is worse than not being married at all. Jesus' enlightened reply? Not all men are cut out for marriage.

I was going to move on to Paul's "dignified" approach to women, but this rant is already running long and that last point is an excellent segue into what so enraged me when reading the comments on Phillip's article.

The Article's Comments

The first comments challenged the idea that the Catholic church (or Christianity in general) has treated women with dignity. There were the typical thrusts and parries I expected to find, and then I came across an exchange that I found highly disturbing.

Jesus' so-called help with divorce had already been mentioned in the comments, but one Catholic woman in particular disgusted me with her take on marriage. She started out by saying that she feels sorry for "secular women" and would never be one, later clarifying:
Secular women are disrespected because they are treated with contempt. Also few men want to marry them. And then these husbands heap humiliation on their wives by flirting with other women and being unfaithful. Of course in Catholic marriages women are treated with great respect......and adultery of any kind is absolutely forbidden. Christ ....God Made Man said so.
Generalize much? In her view, secular married couples apparently never make a commitment to be monogamous. That's news to me. But if Christ says not to commit adultery, then that settles it. Clearly no Christian man or woman has ever been unfaithful....

The response from the (presumed) atheist discussing this with her:
So your husband only stays faithful to you because he worries about burning in hell for all eternity (what kind of messed up entity/being/god would condemn even the very worst human being to that kind of suffering). I stay faithful to my partner through love and respect - makes more sense hey?
My thoughts exactly. The Catholic woman's response?
But what if your love dwindled.......and you found a more attractive propostion in someone else. Then as an atheist you are free to up and leave!
Now, I'm angry. In secular marriage, god may not enter into the picture, but commitment does. That's the entire point of marriage. Not having a fear of god/hell may make it easier for a couple to honestly assess the future of their marriage during troubled times, but that doesn't mean they simply walk away at the drop of a hat.

News flash: Marriage is difficult. Living with another person is difficult. There are times when my husband annoys or frustrates me, and times when he uplifts and completes me. Fortunately, our good times outweigh the bad--but that isn't because of luck or divine intervention.

Like every successful couple, my husband and I (both atheists) work at our marriage. We make every effort to respect and support each other. But we are human. We have disagreements. We have misunderstandings. We get annoyed at some of our differences and can be irrationally grumpy when in bad moods. When that happens, we work through it.

We give each other space when needed, but also talk about what's bothering us. Our relationship is strong because we have weathered arguments and, despite the occasional angry words, we love and respect each other enough to want to keep our marriage alive.

The idea that secular marriage is not a true commitment because it isn't sanctified by god (or motivated by a fear of god) saddens and disgusts me. I am offended because I know the depth and breadth of my love for my husband, and his equal love for me. I am saddened at the idea of others being content to stay in a loveless marriage because "Jesus said so," rather than either working to improve the marriage or realizing that happiness could be found elsewhere.

I should know better than to read inflammatory articles like Phillip's commentary, and, by now, I should certainly know better than to continue on to read its additional comments.

One last point that I didn't get around to addressing is Phillip's title. As I've said before and will say again: atheism is not a religion or belief structure. Atheism cannot do anything for women's dignity because it is not a philosophy, movement or organization. Atheism simply means not believing in a god or gods. Humanism, on the other hand, is one secular philosophy that does a great deal to promote equality and dignity for women (and all people).

Oh, and a note to the Christian commenters on Phillip's article that are smugly questioning why atheists read the Catholic Herald: I cannot speak for all atheists, but Google News links me to news articles based on my interests, regardless of where they are published. And, though I don't believe in your god, I am interested in your religion, particularly in how some of you use it to affect the rights and liberties of others.

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