Saturday, 2 February 2013

Bel and the nationalisation of marriage

AT BABYLON the imposing sanctuary of Bel rose like a pyramid above the city in a series of eight towers or stories, planted one on the top of the other. On the highest tower, reached by an ascent which wound about all the rest, there stood a spacious temple, and in the temple a great bed, magnificently draped and cushioned, with a golden table beside it. In the temple no image was to be seen, and no human being passed the night there, save a single woman, whom, according to the Chaldean priests, the god chose from among all the women of Babylon. They said that the deity himself came into the temple at night and slept in the great bed; and the woman, as a consort of the god, might have no intercourse with mortal man

OK, it’s perhaps not wisest to begin discussing marriage by quoting The Golden Bough but this begins with the debate about “same sex marriage” and the Government’s proposal to change its definition of marriage so as to encompass partnerships that have no procreational purpose (rather like sleeping with Bel). In the context of today’s society this is a right and proper thing to do - although proving less simple that it seemed at first.

In the ancient world, government and religion were one and the same thing. Here’s Finer, in The History of Government speaking of the world’s first state - Sumer:

“The king of a city, nevertheless, sat on his throne specifically to order the people’s service to the gods and on him depended not only the routine business of the city, or even its safety and independence, but its well-being and the bounty of Nature itself.”

Every action was a matter for the gods – not least those occasions that Arnold van Gennep coined the term ‘rites of passage’ to describe: birth, puberty, death and, of course, marriage. For a Sumerian to separate marriage from religion would have been impossible. Indeed, the Sumerian believed that everything – every minor act of his life – was only possible because the gods allowed it. So it was with each ancient society – hence the holy prostitute sleeping in Bel’s bed.

So marriage became a thing of the state – especially in record-obsessed places such as Sumer. And it became a thing of the state because religion and the state were inseparable. For the peasant this mattered very little since that peasant owned nothing and marriage merely recognised a partnership. But for the landowner, the rich and the powerful it really id matter.

However, even beyond the bounds of civilization, marriage was still a thing of religion – whether we look at Beltane fires or bride-snatching, we still see belief in spirit as a justification of these actions. It simply wasn’t sufficient for marriage to be celebrated by the village, by society. Marriage required the endorsement of a higher authority – god or government or both these things combined.

And, since marriage became a factor in who owned things, the government gradually pushed religion aside – the concerns of mammon triumphed: money, land and business were more important than the blessings of god. The rite of passage remained but the institution of marriage became wholly nationalised – a creature of laws not a blessing of god.

And so it is today. Trooping down a church aisle is no more a marriage than holding hands and jumping over a besom. Instead we must go to a room, sign a book and get a certificate from a representative of government. Only then can we say we are married. And this is what the debate is all about – marriage is a thing of the state, a nationalised institution. And government says that its institutions must not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.

Maybe marriage shouldn’t be such an institution – one granted specific and defined privileges in law (that may yet be extended to new tax privileges). But so long as it is such an institution – and this has nothing to do with god – then the state’s rules on “equality” must apply. If religious folk wish to reclaim marriage for the gods then, given that government and religion are no longer inseparable, they should be campaigning for all state recognition of marriage to be ended, to privatise marriage and return it to the religions that created it.



asquith said...

What would people of no faith, who wish to officially solmenise their union, do in this setting? It seems to me that we've struck the right balance here, so that LGBT people can marry and be recognised as such by the state. They can't have a Catholic or sharia marriage, which is right because it's for the faithful to determine their membership conditions, not the state.

But they can be legally recognised as a monogamous union. They can have bourgeois domesticity if they want it, and good luck to them. I'm not married and as far as I'm concerned this is a step forward. Gay couples can't reproduce naturally but nor can infertile people or elderly widows/spinsters who find love late in life, and no one resigns in protest over them.

The libertarian idea of no state recognition of marriage is interesting, but for all its logic is not on the agenda of any electable senior politician (certainly not that of these supposed 130 Tories), so the decision is whether to support or oppose wwhat is being voted on this Tuesday, and I would be voting for it if I were sitting in parliament.

asquith said...

BTW, quoting The Golden Bough is always acceptable and right. :)

Rebel Saint said...

So you believe the only reason the state got involved with marriage is because "religion and the state were inseparable"? I don't think so.

The state has an interest in marriage because of the benefits it brings to the common good and the state itself. It is because the nurturing & socialising of the next generation is THE most important task of any society [more so than simply educating them].

Only totalitarian regimes hate marriage (and the family) - and for exactly the same reason they hate religion: because they produce allegiances to something other than the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient state itself.

And - in common with everyone who seems to advocate SSM - you have failed to say what marriage actually is. If it is merely a contract like any other then there really is no reason why any number of people with any sort of relationship cannot get "married".