Keep it all in the family
Redefining marriage as we know it -- between a man and a woman -- would be an experiment unprecedented in human history, says KATHERINE YOUNG and PAUL NATHANSON
Legalizing same sex marriage is a bad idea. It could change the definition of marriage and its functions beyond recognition. The result would still be called marriage, but it would, in fact, be another institution.
Let's be perfectly clear -- we oppose gay marriage, not gay relationships, which are already supported by most of the economic and legal benefits given to common-law couples and should be supported by all of them. There's nothing wrong with homosexuality. One of us, in fact, is gay. But the essential function of marriage has always been to provide the necessary cultural framework for straight couples and their children.
Most people assume that heterosexuality is a given of nature and thus not vulnerable to cultural change; that nothing will ever discourage straight people from getting together and starting families. But we argue -- and this is important -- that heterosexuality must indeed be deliberately fostered and nurtured by a distinctive, supportive culture.
We do not want to prevent gay people from loving each other and living together. Our society should be able to honour and support gay relationships. The question is whether this should be done in the context of marriage. And the politically inconvenient fact is that society needs a specifically heterosexual contribution more than any homosexual counterpart. Therefore, the need to provide cultural support for heterosexuality is greater than for homosexuality.
Much of what is accomplished in animals by nature (biology, genetics, instinct, etc.) must be accomplished in humans by culture. Our culture includes almost all aspects of our existence, including marriage. No particular culture is genetically encoded in humans, but the ability and drive to create our culture is. This makes us more adaptable than other species, which rely entirely or almost entirely on natural instinct.
Culture isn't a superficial overlay on something more primitive and basic but a defining and fundamental feature of human existence. If it were somehow removed, the result would not be a functioning organism, whether human or non-human. Apart from any other handicap, there would be the inability to reproduce successfully. Why? Because mating, which is largely governed by a biological drive, isn't synonymous with the complex behaviours required by family life within a larger human society.
Because heterosexuality is directly related to both reproduction and survival, and because it involves much more than copulation, all human societies have actively fostered it (although some have also allowed or even encouraged homosexuality in specific circumstances). Heterosexuality is always fostered by a cultural norm, not merely allowed as one "lifestyle choice" among many.
Every society maintains institutions and norms -- rules, customs, laws, symbols, rituals, incentives, rewards, etc. -- that provide public support for relationships between men and women. So deeply embedded are these that few people are consciously aware of them. The result, in any case, is that our culture has given "privileged" status to heterosexual relationships.
Marriage is a complex institution and, from a cross-cultural and historical perspective, fostering the emotional gratification of two adults is the least important of its functions. Marriage in our culture must do several specific things. It must foster the bonds between men and women for at least three reasons: to encourage the birth and rearing of children (at least to the extent necessary for preserving and fostering society), to provide an appropriate setting for children growing to maturity; and -- something usually forgotten -- to ensure the co-operation of men and women for the common good. Culture must also ensure the bonds between men and children, otherwise men would have no reason to become active participants in family life.
Comparative research on the world views of both small-scale societies and world religions reveals a pattern: Marriage not only has many variable features, but also truly universal ones.
Marriage is always supported by authority and incentives; always defines eligible partners; always recognizes the interdependence of men and women (which is why marriage is always between men and women); always has a public dimension; always encourages procreation under specific conditions; and always provides mutual support not only between men and women but also among men, women and children.
So why would marriage be harmed by adding a few gay couples?
For one thing, we would lack even the ability we still have to provide public cultural support for heterosexuality. It would become, at best, nothing more than one more "lifestyle choice" among many, and could then no longer be propagated in the public square -- which is necessary in a secular society. In fact, propagating it would be denounced and could be challenged in court as discrimination -- the undue "privilege" of a "dominant" class, which is a breach of equality as defined by Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But discrimination to maintain marriage as it has long been defined should be allowed in view of the fact that marriage, as a universal institution and the essential cultural complement to biology, is prior to all concepts of law.
In short, redefining marriage would amount to a massive human experiment. Just as changing the divorce laws to show compassion for the few set in motion social forces that would not be evident for 40 years, this would do the same thing. But this change, removing cultural support necessary for heterosexuality, would be unprecedented in human history.
Katherine Young, a James McGill professor in McGill University's Faculty of Religious Studies, teaches in the areas of comparative religion, gender and ethics. Paul Nathanson, a researcher in the same faculty, specializes in the relation between religion and secularity.