This Sunday I was at the monthly meeting of the East Kent Humanists in Canterbury to hear a presentation from Pavan Dhaliwal who is the Head of Public Affairs at the BHA. The subject matter was recent BHA campaigns including humanist marriages, school fair admissions policy and assisted dying all of which would have made for an interesting afternoon on their own. However also at the meeting was a first time attendee who quickly identified himself as a Christian, nice enough chap but with an obvious agenda…
His first contribution came during the discussion on the successful campaign to allow humanist celebrants to perform legal marriages in the UK. Pavan had explained that for technical reasons our best chance of success in the campaign was to present amendments to some suitable primary legislation which in this case was the Marriage Equality Bill which has finally legalised gay marriage. Although humanists support gay marriage on principle, the subject under discussion was humanist weddings but our Christian guest’s question to Pavan was “when are you going to campaign for polyamorous marriages to be legal?”
Although phrased politely enough it was obviously his assumption that humanists would like to embark on a slippery slope of increasing marriage liberalisation as a matter of policy. Well maybe, but it is clear that somewhere he has lost the point about equality and as many Christians do focussed only on the immorality of sex outside of the conventional.
So let’s be clear… The point about marriage equality is that there exists a civil institution that for historical (and yes, religious) reasons confers upon a couple who are traditionally a man and a woman, legal, financial and fiscal rights and obligations. The structures are in place to automatically infer parental rights, property in common and, at some times under certain governments, tax benefits. There are also well worn legal mechanisms for dissolving this partnership and ensuring that property and parental obligations are separated appropriately. Marriage equality recognises that access to these rights and benefits need not be constrained by the sex or gender of the partners involved as gay and lesbian couples can be just as easily accommodated as heterosexuals. However people in polyamorous relationships do not have a pre-existing legal structure from which they are unfairly excluded. It’s not as though they are being discriminated against (at least not in this respect) as there is no institution from which to discriminate.
This is not to say that there is anything intrinsically morally wrong with polyamory. Assuming all partners within the relationship are informed and consenting it is as valid as any other personal arrangement between adults, but as a lifestyle it is not that straightforward to define. Relationships can be between two or more otherwise monogamous couples or open marriages where one or both partners separately form bonds outside the core relationship to true cohabiting ‘communes’ of individuals in a mutually sustaining relationship. The permutations are almost endless and It is difficult to imagine what any one-size-fits-all legal institution comparable to marriage would have to look like to accommodate them all. Neither does there seem to be an overwhelming clamour from the polyamorous for marriage although I am sure that should such an option be available there would be some at least who would participate in it.
In any event it is not for the BHA, or any humanist organisation, to spearhead a campaign for such a change. If it is to come then as with same sex marriage it needs to be from the people directly affected by it. The polyamorous community would need to define what constitutes such a relationship and make a claim for the rights and obligations a marriage would confer, at which point we would all have the opportunity to consider it on its merits. Now, I can see myself personally supporting such a move and could see humanists generally as fellow travellers on a well-defined campaign for recognition of polyamory but we’re not there yet and it is not an obvious next step for humanists in particular.
But going back to our Christian friend, I suspect what he was really trying to do was confirm his assumption that as atheists and humanists we were all out to destroy the moral fabric of his supposed Christian society by twisting his sacred definition of marriage even further out of shape and in that he may have been successful. Not one other person in the room suggested that polyamorous marriage would be undesirable: merely difficult and, for the moment, not our fight.
"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"