Tuesday, May 06, 2008

An Atheist Goes to a Wedding

On Sunday, I went to a wedding.

Intellectually, I’m a cynic when it comes to weddings. Not marriages, necessarily — but weddings. I believe that neither a god nor a government should have a role to play in announcing that two people love one another and have decided to make a mutual commitment. In the United States, as in many other countries, there are certain legal ramifications to being married, but I don’t see why families should spend thousands and thousands of dollars to declare, in essence, that a man and a woman have decided to pool their property. It’s a contract, is what it is.

Emotionally, I’m not such a cynic. Weddings are symbolic rituals that go back to the beginnings of civilization. When a couple gets married, they’re joining hands with their ancestors, with all of our ancestors. They’re enrolling in a very non-exclusive club of humans who have recognized that life, in one way or another, is more livable with a partner. They’re making the same kinds of promises that their great-great-grandparents made, promises that may be kept or broken, but promises that are as old as history. Time stops. The couple reaches backward to the past and forward to the future to carve out their own traditional but complex relationship that we need only two words to define: “They’re married.”

The wedding that I went to on Sunday was held on a large projecting balcony area of a hotel. Beyond it lay the ocean, a beautiful and natural backdrop. As the guests seated themselves, the waves, timeless but ruled by time, pleaded again and again with the shore: Let us stop moving; let us stay here. Give us a break.

Pelicans, whose faces resemble the flying lizards from whom they’ve evolved, soared in formation overhead. They flapped their wings infrequently and — to my thinking — reluctantly: Let us stop moving; give us a break.

In the distance, someone on the beach was listening to rap music with a bass beat we could feel in our shoes, music that tried to propel us up out of our seats (and onto an imaginary dance floor) as it competed with the Bach, Vivaldi, and Pachelbel played so solemnly by the string quartet. Our bodies cried out to the faraway sounds: Let us stop moving; give us a break. Wedding marchers walked slowly and awkwardly in time to the strings, pausing every few steps so as not to get too close to those who preceded them. Their nervous eyes and pasted-on smiles said to one another: Let us stop moving; give the people in front of us a break.

So here’s what the preliminaries of the wedding made me think of. In all the crazy motion of life, a wedding is an attempt to fix a certain moment in time: If only for a few minutes, let us stop moving; give us a break. We humans, for whatever evolutionary reason, require our ritual occasions to put us back in touch with the rest of our species, both living and dead. Some of us may even choose to reflect for a short time, to revel briefly in our commonality. Let differences be forgotten for this instant; give our reciprocated animosities a break.

But, of course, that was not to be. The fatheaded officiant brought her god into the proceedings and made the whole thing trivial and silly. She rattled on and on and on: Jesus wants the couple to do this, Christ wants the couple to be that. Her ADHD deity, who never takes a break to smell the roses that he allegedly created, after who-knows-how-many failed attempts, had hand-selected this pair to be “one.” He was deliriously happy that they’d come together in front of relatives and friends to build their futures on the rock of his Christianity. Despite all the crap that’s going on in the world, he managed to put other concerns aside to come to this insignificant small-time wedding on a beach in the middle of nowhere. He smiled on the bride and on the groom and gave them their marching orders; get busy leading a holy life. In Jesus’s name amen.

Meanwhile, the sea — carrying countless lifeforms as it has done, without any supernatural commands, for well over three billion years — kept saying to the priestess: Give them a break. Shut up, and give them a break.

23 comments:

the chaplain said...

Very nice post. Given the setting, I figured you were going to say it was an entirely secular wedding. Is the newly married couple actually into the religious stuff or were they just going along with a familiar ritual or keeping the family happy or any one of a hundred other reasons people have religious weddings?

the chaplain said...

Sorry, I should have added this to the previous comment: the deacon and I wrote our hyper-Christian wedding ceremony. Were we true believers or what?

The Exterminator said...

chappy:
I don't really know how the couple felt about the religious stuff. I know the bride's father is a "cafeteria" Catholic, so the woo impetus likely didn't come from him.

Your second comment made me think of this: in light of your recent deconversions, you and deac might want to write a new, meaningful, godless ceremony for yourselves and publish it as an online atheist "wedding." The rest of us could be witnesses. Wouldn't that be a novel post?

yunshui said...

Your "fatheaded officiant" and her "ADHD deity" (loved that!) are precisely the reason that my beloved and I will be getting married in a nice Georgian suite at the local registry office. This has rather irked some of the more faith-inclined members of my immediate family, who are boycotting the ceremony as a result, but I figure, screw 'em - like their god, they have had no part in our relationship so far, and won't be missed on the day we make it legal.

Chaplain, I think the deconverted wedding is a lovely idea - I'd certainly attend. Plus, I haven't written a speech yet, so could use something good to plagarise...

PhillyChief said...

I think you hit on something, the importance of stopping what we're doing from time to time, and especially to raise a certain moment up and freeze it in time by way of a ritual. Amazing how almost all of our rituals, for both good and bad times, get intruded upon by religion. There are births, deaths, passages into adulthood, marriages, and sometimes other events like buying homes. Rest assured when there's an important moment to be captured in life that will impress upon you forever after, religion is there mugging for the camera.

Well I hope at least the food was good, and it was open bar. ;)

The Exterminator said...

Yunshui:
This has rather irked some of the more faith-inclined members of my immediate family, who are boycotting the ceremony as a result ...
Yes, they're so caught up in the faith biz that they can't understand how others aren't. It's that god-bully thing; only god (and I) know what's right for you. Good luck with your secular wedding.

Philly:
Amazing how almost all of our rituals, for both good and bad times, get intruded upon by religion.
Well put. It bothers me that our rites-of-passage -- which I think we humans need -- are almost always jumbled up in superstitions. Sadly, many people cannot experience connectedness with others unless they have that arbitrary "team" thing going on.

Well I hope at least the food was good, and it was open bar.
The bar was open and did plenty of business, equally divided between cynics and rah-rah types. Rotgut brand booze tastes better and better the more you drink it. The food was typical wedding fare, not even as tasty as Chicken McNuggets or a Whopper. But I did enjoy the quality cigar at the end of the meal.

bullet said...

If I could soar on the wind as effortlessly and majestically as a pelican, I don't think I'd ever want to stop.

Just saying.

The Exterminator said...

bullet:
Although I agree with you from a human point of view, I do try to look at soaring from the pelicans' perspective. I'm not convinced they find their flying either effortless or majestic. I think they're basically fixated on fish.

As the old saying goes: different feces for different species.

Ordinary Girl said...

First of all, Yunshui, good for you!

Ex, a very nice post once again. I really enjoy when you post personal experiences.

The Exterminator said...

OG:
Thanks. I hope you enjoy reading about my personal experiences just for their own sake. It would really disappoint me if I found out you were compiling a dossier for the FBI.

Ordinary Girl said...

Damnit! How did you know??

the chaplain said...

OG is only FBI. You don't need to worry about her. I'm Homeland Security. I'm the one you'd better beware. :)

yinyang said...

I think someone should give you an award for this post. Well written, and the first two paragraphs echo some of my thoughts about weddings.

Lifeguard said...

All: [incredulously] I thought OG was "Original Gangsta?" She's with the fuzz?

Yingyang: I thought the same thing about Ex getting an award for this. Great post and an interesting comment thread.

Ex and Philly: I'm with you on rituals and their importance, but I'm not so sure that God intrudes upon them so much as he's a sort of obsolete participant for most of us (i.e., he does not exist).

The WTB and I are having a Catholic wedding in a Catholic Church and we've done our best to select vows, readings, and "prayers" that at the very least exclude references to Christ (not as hard as you'd think), marriage as between a man and a woman, or other things we don't agree with.

As for the rest of it, I see it as part of a tradition and part of both of our cultures, so we're doing it the old fashioned way. Oddly, it doesn't really bother me much.

The Exterminator said...

OG:
I knew you were FBI because you wear the same kinds of dresses that J. Edgar Hoover did.

chappy:
I'm Homeland Security.
Yes, I got your memo. Can you explain to me why I have to take off my shoes before blogging?

yinny:
Thanks. Good to see you back in the Atheosphere.

Lifey:
If you're not gonna be holding hands with Jesus at the altar, you're not gonna be having a Catholic wedding. Don't let the surroundings fool you.

Warning: If chappy's there, make sure that none of your friends or relatives is carrying more than three ounces of liquid or gel. And maybe you'd better delete the line about husbands and wives making explosives together.

John Evo said...

Despite all the crap that’s going on in the world, he managed to put other concerns aside to come to this insignificant small-time wedding on a beach in the middle of nowhere.

Hey, respect for the bride! What, you think god needed to be doing something else that day? Like what? Watching out for the weather in Myanmar?

By the way, you folks have OG all wrong.

She's NSA.

the chaplain said...

"By the way, you folks have OG all wrong.

She's NSA."


Doesn't matter. Homeland Security trumps all other alphabet soups. We also trump all deities, Supreme Court justices, presidents and vice-presidents. We are J. Edgar Hoover's best wet dream ever. :)

iambilly said...

Excellent post. Deserving of a Stermy.

My wife and I were married by a JP in her parents living room. We remember very little of it. The only part I remember is the hammered dulcimer player playing Mary's Wedding in a minor key. The wedding itself is a moment frozen in time -- it was so emotionally loaded that no change is possible.

After the wedding and the reception (in her parents dining room), and after all but the families had left, we changed into blue jeans, flannel shirts and sandals and had a wonderful barbecue in the back yard. That's the part I really remember.

Perfect moments are wonderful, but without growth, a relationship is doomed. My wife and I are very different people. We have both grown together and apart and we have ceased to be a couple. In my mind we are one.

The injection of Christ and God into a marriage may make growth more difficult. If God has blessed this particular marriage, this particular moment in time, should a mere human dare to change? dare to grow? dare to become adults? A holy marriage in God's name implies that the marriage is perfect in that one moment. Growth is sacrilige.

Again, wonderful post. Sounds like a perfect spot for a wedding.

I do have one bone to pick, though. Birds are descended from the archosauria (crocodylia, dinosauria and aves (based on the ankles) make up the archosaurs) not lizards (lacertillians). The lacertilians are a parallel lineage. Birds are descended from the common ancestor of archasaurs and lacertilians.

Sorry for the long post. It's still an occupational hazard.

Tex said...

I'm a cynic when it comes to marriage.

I think a lot of the time it is hijacked by the bride turning it into a fashion show, "look at me" extravaganza.

Many women (particularly young ones) see it as a goal in itself and actively hunt for a partner who can be the perfect wedding accessory to hang off the bride's arm.

I like your refocusing of my attention to the ritualistic aspects of formalising a love between two people, but my head still tells me that many use the ceremony to try to create a bond rather than to commemorate one which is already there.

breakerslion said...

I think the big-deal wedding in front of family and tribe and scary gods, started as a way to inhibit the blushing bride from running screaming from the wedding bower. "What would Mother think ... and we'd have to return all the gifts!"

As for me, I belong to a government agency so secret that the Secretary regularly disavows any knowledge of my actions. She's an old-fashioned girl that would never kiss and tell.

The Exterminator said...

(((Billy))):
I hope the bone you have to pick is the wishbone. I can never get the family tree of those damned birds and dinosaurs straight. All I know is: A pelican looks prehistoric.

Tex:
I'm not convinced that brides are the only ones who fixate on weddings. There are also mothers, aunts, sisters, and girlfriends. Are you and I sexist, or what?

breakers:
I think the big-deal wedding in front of family and tribe and scary gods, started as a way to inhibit the blushing bride from running screaming from the wedding bower.
I'd substitute "groom" for "bride."
That's why a runaway bride is news but a runaway groom is not. It's the Man-Bites-Dog principle.

iambilly said...

Ex: I've always thought that herons look the most prehistoric, which is curious, because I believe they are one of the younger bird groups.

An easy way to remember the relationship between birds, mammals and reptiles is: We are all descended from a basal diapsid amniote. There, now, isn't that simple?

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts:
This is a truly inspired piece of writing, but just more of what we've come to expect from Ex.

Yin mentioned the first two paragraphs. For me it was the last two.

Billy mentioned a hammered dulcimer at his wedding. Any chance the player was named L.J. and did he also do a version of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" on the saw ?

Catherwood