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Getting Married without God

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July 20, 2011 by admin

A Guardian article about how marriage rates are plummeting contained one minor but, for me, highly significant detail. Even among those people who do say ‘I do’, an ever-reducing proportion of them are doing so in church.

According to the article:

…perhaps understandably, given the number of empty pews across the nation’s churches each Sunday, far fewer weddings include a religious ceremony nowadays. The number of couples saying their vows before God has halved since 1991.

Now, an apologist for religion might claim this as evidence of increasing godlessness. They will say that it’s evidence of moral decline. That is, of course, nonsense.

What it shows is that many of those people who did get married in church, both prior to and after 1991, did so for reasons that have nothing to do with religion or faith. Many of them, in fact, were almost certainly functional atheists.

I’ve known many people with no real faith – people who can’t be bothered to think about god from one year to the next and, if pushed, would confess that they are at most vaguely deistic or agnostic – who insisted on getting married in church.

Why? Because it’s traditional. Churches provide a picturesque and appropriately serious setting for the couple’s most important day. A wedding is an event and requires a suitable stage. Many people get married in a specific church because it’s part of the local community’s infrastructure, or because their parents got married there. I’ve known non-believing people to get their children baptised for similar reasons.

So why are people now turning away from the church? Well, the date of 1991 is significant. A new law was introduced around that time that allowed weddings to take place in approved locations other than registry offices and churches. Hotels, castles, stately homes – all manner of beautiful and impressive locations applied for and received licences that allowed marriage ceremonies to be carried out there. The only main provisos were that the location had to be a permanent structure (so still no weddings in hot air balloons) and must be accessible to the public.

Suddenly, couples discovered that they could have all the benefits of a church wedding (beautiful surroundings, etc) without any of that religious nonsense.

I’m sure that, even among those people still getting married in church, there are many who are not really believers but are doing so for the reasons already explained. Many churches, after all, still provide an attractive atmosphere. And there are plenty of people who are, at heart, deeply traditional, without being genuinely religious.

I’ve said before, and will say again, that the apparent religiosity of a society is, in many important ways, an illusion. People will continue to hang on to the rites and ceremonies of religion long after true belief has vanished. This is a cultural phenomenon, not a spiritual one.

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