Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Problem with Humanist Weddings

This afternoon, an amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) bill was debated which would have allowed humanist celebrants to officiate at wedding ceremonies in England and Wales, as they already do in Scotland. The move, restricted to well-established charitable organisations embodying humanist principles (of which the British Humanist Association is the main but perhaps not the only example) attracted widespread support on all sides of the House. But it was withdrawn following government objections, some of which had a last-minute flavour. In particular, the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, maintained that by singling out humanists for special favour in this way the amendment would fall foul of equality legislation.

This line of reasoning surprised many humanists, especially as it was apparently on ministerial advice that the BHA's clause restricted the opportunity to conduct weddings to humanist groups. I debated this with them on Twitter earlier today. I suggested that sponsoring an amendment that would benefit only them looked like privilege-seeking and wanting to join an exclusive club. What about pagans or spiritualists, whose designated representatives are in fact permitted to conduct legally valid weddings in Scotland? They shot back that they had originally called for all "belief groups" to be allowed the same right, but that the government said that this would create too many difficulties. In particular, it would allegedly have interfered with the Bill's carefully-balanced "quadruple lock" requiring religous organisations to opt in to same-sex marriage - which is, after all, what the bill is supposedly all about. Fair enough, although one might have hoped that the BHA would stick to its principles rather than accept a squalid compromise that was in no-one's interest but its own.

As I said, the amendment attracted a lot of support in the Commons. Conservative MP Crispin Blunt thought that it was "glaringly obvious" that humanist weddings should be allowed. Many of the MPs who spoke in its favour, on the other hand, were keen to dispel fears that the move would open the floodgates to pagan weddings, Spiritualist weddings, or even Jedi weddings. Quite why pagan weddings should be characterised as such a danger while the prospect of humanist weddings was genuinely welcomed and (leaving aside the supposed difficulties) uncontroversial isn't clear. Perhaps it's because Humanism is now respectable. Even the Bishop of Chester, the House was told, supports the idea of humanist weddings; whereas most right-thinking people still think of pagans as a bit weird, at best eccentrics with bad hair and silly robes, at worst partial to nude orgies and the odd bit of cat sacrifice. Perhaps it's because there are lots of humanist MPs but (as far as I know) no pagan ones.

My own instinct is the other way round. If you believe in religious freedom, as we all do, then there's an obvious need to allow pagans to celebrate legally valid marriages on the same basis as more conventional religious groups. Pagans have their gods and goddesses to evoke, a sacramental conception of marriage (in pagan theology, if I have this right, the union of the sexes embodies the procreative spirit of the cosmos which is the primary object of pagan worship) and distinctive rituals, such as "handfasting" and jumping over a broomstick. A humanist wedding, on the other hand, is very much what you make it.

I don't doubt that there is enthusiasm among some for Humanist weddings; nor do I doubt that Humanist weddings in Scotland are very popular and conducted with aplomb. But I do question whether the need is quite so pressing as Humanist leaders seem to think. Civil ceremonies, which are available in a multitude of fine locations, already offer couples considerable flexibility of form and content, provided only that the prescribed words are said by an official registrar. People can choose their own songs and readings. And civil ceremonies already embody, in their very essence, what must be the underlying principle of humanist weddings as such, which is that it is possible to conduct such rites of passage without any reference to God. Indeed, the rules strictly forbid any mention of religion, and registrars can be notoriously severe and jobsworthy in their adherence to secular principles, to the extent of banning such popular tunes as Robbie Williams' Angels.

When I put these points to BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson the other day, he replied that Humanist content is now equally disallowed, because recent equality legislation expands the category of "religion" to include "religion and belief". He also stated that some registrars had now developed an eagle eye for anything that smacked of Humanist content and exerted themselves to ban it. Now, I'm always ready to believe tales of sour-faced activism on the part of petty officials; it's what many of these sad people seem to thrive on. But it also strikes me as an over-reading of a law that specifically refers to a ban on religious content in secular wedding ceremonies, and does so for the good reason that if you want religious content in your wedding, you can do it in a church (or synagogue, or gurdwara, or whatever you happen to be). The law is anxious not to mix up the sacred with the secular. And Humanism is not a religion. Let me say that again. Humanism. Is. Not. A. Religion. It is a belief system, a philosophical approach to life but so is vegetarianism. So is Environmentalism. Idiot registrars who think that Humanistic messages should be banned as being "religious" should be argued with, not indulged by the British Humanist Association.

Unless the BHA does believe that Humanism is a religion, of course.

Unlike Humanist funerals, which do answer to a particular need, Humanist weddings strike me as inessential. I should stress that I don't have any objection to them. But then I don't have an objection to any other group conducting weddings either. Why shouldn't Freemasons or Jedi Knights depute officials to conduct weddings? Why shouldn't you, so you desire, be married by an Elvis impersonator, or by a Paris Hilton lookalike, or by Mr Spock? Why not have Socialist weddings, in which the parties promise to have all things in common, or Conservative weddings in which wives promise to obey and husbands to be economically productive? Why, for that matter, shouldn't Virgin or Tesco employ wedding celebrants and offer package deals? I'm quite serious. If you want to open up marriage, in a modern world in which free citizens will often have their own wishes on how to celebrate one of the most significant moments of their lives, then open it up. Don't privilege one particular quasi-religion, give it special legal status as a marriage registrar, because not believing in religion is so personally important to some people that an entirely secular wedding just won't do.

Humanism is not a religion. It is a set of beliefs, coherent enough but varying from individual to individual (as true humanism should) that can provide a basis for life, including married life. But having a humanist wedding is not part of the core belief of Humanism. (Having a secular wedding might be, but they can already have that.) I don't think I'm splitting hairs. I have great respect for individual humanists and for Humanism as a philosophical system but I am uneasy about the way that, partly because of the way modern equality and identity politics has developed, it is increasingly treated, an acts, like a pseudo-religion. There may be a somewhat indistinct line between religion and non-religion, but Humanism is on the non-religious side of it. And that is where it should stay.

How does this apply to marriage? To answer this question, we have to ask another one: why do religions conduct marriages at all? What business do churches, synagogues, mosques, Hindu temples and the like have in conducting legal formalities? Some people would of course rather that they didn't, and that there was a strict distinction between civil registration and religious (or humanist) ceremonies, as there is in many other countries. But that's not my point. My point is this: religions concern themselves with marriage because traditionally religions assert the right to regulate the sex lives of their adherents. That's what religions do. They maintain that sex before marriage is wrong, that adultery is sinful, that children should be born inside marriage, that God cares about this stuff. It is because religion has claimed this prerogative that people are married in church rather than at the local tiddlywinks club (a facetious point raised by Dominic Grieve).

Does Humanism, even in its latest, quasi-religious incarnation, claim stewardship of humanists' sex lives? Of course not. Sexual ethics will feature in most humanist philosophies, but Humanism doesn't exalt the state of legal marriage as the ideal to which humanists should conform. I know many humanists who are into polyamory and the like. On what basis, then, do Humanists wish to marry people, a power they would presumably deny to Tiddlywink clubs if not to pagans? At most, on the somewhat naive basis that Humanism is a replacement for religion, and marrying people is what religions do, so Humanism should do as well. In its push for Humanist weddings, the British Humanist Association, not for the first time, seems to be suffering from a big case of religion-envy.