Whether called marriage or euphemistically something else, opponents of state-sanctioned gay unions often cite "the sanctity of marriage" as a primary argument to restrict the institution to heterosexual couples. Marriage, we are told grimly, must be between one man and one woman and all else is an affront to god. The logic of that argument is deeply flawed in three ways, each of which deserves some attention.
The Case for Marriage
Statistics on the subject vary widely, but we can say that something like half of all marriages in America end in divorce. Calling an institution that suffers a 50% failure rate "sacred" is a bit of a stretch. So if the practical implementation of the ideal is insufficient to label marriage sacred, to what else can we appeal? The bible, of course. One could note that if god sanctions each marriage he is not doing too well by guessing wrong half the time. Nevertheless, the bible mentions marriage in at least 90 different passages, starting in Genesis and continuing sporadically throughout the remaining 65 books. The most obvious reference giving marriage the patina of sacredness is found in the creation story in Genesis (2:24), and later in Matthew 19:5 and Ephesians 5:31, all of which state in various ways that Adam and Eve "shall be one flesh." Since Eve was formed from Adam's rib, Adam sees Eve as "the bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh." The union of man and women through marriage is said to symbolize this physical union between Adam and Eve from the creation story. From this perspective marriage symbolizes and honors god's gift of life, before anybody was tempted by forbidden fruit.
The story, and claim to sacredness, has credibility if you believe that god put Adam to sleep, stole a rib, and formed Eve from the purloined bone. For those of us who question this medical procedure, and see the creation story as nothing but evidence that god was the first to traffic in stolen organs, the claim that marriage is sacred holds no sway. I have been happily married to the same woman for 26 years, and I am a better person as a consequence of my wife's guidance and wisdom; but the success of the relationship is borne from the hard work of communicating well with a loved one, and has nothing to do with marriage being sacred. Marriage is simply a convention of civil law, and any appeal to the divine is arbitrary.
The Case for Divorce
Marriage, even in the bible, is not so sacred that divorce is prohibited. If marriage was truly sacred the option for divorce would not exist. But ending a marriage is discussed throughout the bible, even if with less frequency than marriage. Divorce is mentioned in about 20 different passages, including the one primary reference in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy (24:1-4). The difference between the new and the old is significant. Deuteronomy tells us that a man can divorce his wife simply because "he hath found some uncleanness in her," a rather broad loophole. According to Jesus, as related by Matthew (5:32 and 19:9), "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." The other possibility for a divorce beyond "martial unfaithfulness" arises in Corinthians (7:15) when an unbelieving spouse divorces a believer. The other point to remember, often easily forgotten in modern times, is that when the bible discusses marriage, the woman is chattel, actual real property like a house. Unless you believe that a wife-to-be has value no greater than a plot of land, biblical authority on the subject of marriage is suspect from the start.
The Case Against Gay Marriage
If marriage is not sacred, on what basis then would someone oppose gay unions? The only remaining argument against gay marriage would have to be some specific biblical prohibition against that particular "abomination." For without religion telling us gay marriage is wrong, would anybody resist the idea? On what basis?
In fact the bible finds gay sex offensive, so opponents of gay marriage can cite Leviticus, which makes clear that a man shall not lie with a man as he lies with a woman. Note though that the original language before being cleansed in modern bibles has no specific prohibition against lesbian sex. Some people claim weakly that the bible condemns lesbians with Romans 1, in which Paul objects to women engaging in "unnatural" sex. But we know Paul was almost certainly referring to sex during menstruation given the biblical obsession with vaginal bleeding. Anyway, Leviticus also tells us to stone to death adulterous women. Why choose to follow one passage and ignore the other?
Note too that for a subject garnering so much attention in modern politics, references to gay sex are sparse in the bible. Sodom and Gomorrah were smote because of a host of sins relating to arrogance, sexual excess and perversions, gay and straight alike. Lot, after all, offered up his two daughters for heterosexual gang rape. Lot himself had sex with each daughter, producing two sons, Moab and Benammi, one from each daughter; none of which is condemned in the bible. Family values. In any case, in spite of the divine destruction of the two sinning cities as punishment for living a little too large, homosexuality was not an issue of burning importance given the little amount of real estate devoted to the subject in both the Old and New Testaments.
Given the dismal job heterosexuals have done with marriage, the idea that allowing gays to marry would destroy the institution is nothing less than absurd. What, the divorce rate would soar to sixty percent? Straight men would abandon their wives in droves for gay partners in tights? Opponents routinely bring up this threat to marriage without ever explaining exactly how legalizing same-sex marriage would result in such ruin. Even sillier is the notion that allowing gay marriage is a slippery slope leading eventually to sanctioned bestiality. I am not making this up: Pat Robertson said that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead to the "legalization of polygamy, bestiality, child molestation and pedophilia." The leap of logic is so great that refutation is self-evident to any thinking or reasonably sane person. How about if I claim electing a female president is a slippery slope that will lead eventually to mass castrations of all American men? That idea is no more or less absurd than the one concerning bestiality or pedophilia.
Religious zealots tend to get particularly exercised about homosexuality even with slim pickings in the bible. This aversion has no basis in reason or biology; in fact the behavior is found commonly enough in the animal kingdom. If god was so upset about the idea, one would think he would have created birds and mammals without the urge to do the naughty with the same sex. Bighorn sheep, giraffes, Bonobos, dolphins, West Indian Manatees, Japanese macaques, multiple species of birds, fruit bats and 450 other different species all engage in homosexual sex.
Nor, for that matter, are humans the only animals that enjoy sex recreationally, outside the purpose of procreation. Two of the most prominent examples are dolphins and Bonobo monkeys. In dolphins, what we call recreational sex may have other social consequences unrelated to sex, such as establishing dominance or solidifying alliances. We'll probably never know for sure, and it sure looks like sex for fun. We know for a fact that dolphins have multiple sexual partners over their lifetime.
Bonobos, primates like us, engage in sex in every imaginable partner combination outside of immediate family members. Sex is a normal and integral part of daily social interactions. Bonobos are easily sexually aroused and express excitement in a variety of positions and genital contacts that would do the Kama Sutra proud. Sex for these primates is casual, usually quick, and looks like any other normal social interaction once you get used to it. Yet despite the high frequency of sex, Bonobo reproduction rates are about the same as in other primates. We are not the only ones who enjoy a little nookie with absolutely no connection to reproduction.
On the other hand, as a consequence of religious brainwashing, we view sex not as a natural biological function to be appreciated as part of our heritage but as a sin unless done in the pursuit of procreation. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all remove sex from our lives as a natural biological function and create mythical taboos that serve no purpose other than to perpetuate religious hierarchy and mystique. Instead of celebrating sex, religion creates stigmas and social constraints that falsely equate sex with immorality. Paranoia about homosexuality is simply another example of this confusion.
Whether gay or straight, sex is natural, a normal function of biology, no more a moral issue than breathing or eating. The issue of morality and sex needs to be divorced from religion completely. But that does not mean that the issue of morality can be ignored; just viewed from a completely different perspective. Morality and adult responsibility apply to sex only as they apply to everything we do. Nothing about sex warrants additional moral restrictions; we should behave morally and responsibly in all aspects of our lives. We have no reason to single out sex for special moral treatment.
America's Peculiar Obsession
So we know the claim that marriage is sacred is weak at best, with little in the bible to support the notion. Specific religious prohibition against homosexuality is suspect, originally confined to male homosexuality, and limited too in scope in the bible, coming alongside passages advocating animal sacrifices to appease a wrathful god, killing disobedient children and stoning women to death. Nothing about homosexuality in the bible stands out in a way that would justify increased scrutiny relative to the hundreds of other passages we now ignore. You do not see, after all, many dead goats on Sunday these days. We know as well that homosexuality is relatively common in the animal kingdom as noted above. Yet in spite of these realities countering bigoted conservative notions about homosexuality, we will take "the gay issue" away from the religious right like we would pry a rifle from Charlton Heston's cold dead hands. Among many other sad consequences, this right-wing death grip on the issue of gay sex, gay marriage and gays in the military puts American at odds with the rest of the world.
In terms of prohibiting gay marriage, for example, the United States is an outlier. Argentina just passed legislation allowing for gay marriage. They join a club consisting of Canada, South Africa, Belgium, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Same sex civil unions are recognized in Andorra, Austria, Columbia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, France, Germany, Greenland, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and Uruguay. Note that most of these countries are not bastions of liberalism.
We are equally at odds with the world in allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Almost all NATO countries allow gays to serve openly (22 of 26 countries), as do Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. Israel does as well, and few would argue that the IDF is weakened by the policy.
Opposing gay marriage and gays in the military just makes no sense, as many of the world's developed and developing nations alike have already concluded. Unlike us, much of the rest of the world recognizes the societal value of two people committed to a loving, stable relationship regardless of the couple's gender composition. That the issue remains a political football in the United States is tragic evidence that the religious right has hijacked our political system and taken us back to a darker time in human history. Faith has triumphed over reason once again. Conservatives seem to view Iran and Saudi Arabia as good role models for governance and public policy, looking to god to help make law and impose a moral code handed down by divine edict. We move toward theocracy as the rest of the world embraces the future. The religious right is strangling us in a chokehold of ignorance and intolerance, arbitrarily imposing on us superstitions dating back 2000 years. This is no way to run a modern country.
Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of, "Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World"(Jacquie Jordan, Inc). Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook.