Why Civil Marriage?
I have been asked this question often: if I don't believe in God, and if, therefore, I don't need the blessing of my Creator or church to sanctify my marriage, why would I go through a civil ceremony that essentially makes the government my Higher Power?
This is an interesting point. It is true that marriage appears to be religious in origin, something sanctioned by whichever Deity you believe in, as a legitimate way for man to have sex and procreate. But once the religious aspect is taken out of it, is there any real reason for it anymore? Does it mean anything anymore? How can some civil servant reading vows to you mean anything?
In other words, if you're not religious, why let some guy in a suit at City Hall tell you you're married?
Perhaps an easy way to answer this question is to put it like this: why do people bother paying to get university degrees? Why don't they just go to the classes for free, do all the same exercises and assignments, read all the right books, and come away with an education comparable to any graduate's? Why is having a degree conferred on you so meaningful?
Why do we bother owning property, with having a little piece of paper with our names typed on it that declares we are the owner of this scrap of land?
Because mankind respects the official.
As thinking people we respect the fact that there is a kind of authority in our midst, not supernatural or spiritual or invisible, but a real one of our own choosing, even if it's largely symbolic. We honor those whom we recognize as knowledgeable, erudite, wise. We respect their judgment and aim to become one of them ourselves.
We gladly accept that a university, comprised of those whose authority on education we trust, has the right to grant us a recognizable honor if we put in the necessary work. We respect the official certification the university grants us because it represents a standard we had to live up to.
We accept that property has to be purchased from someone or some government, that anyone can squat on land that isn't theirs without putting in a ounce of hard work or determination or money, but that an official purchase, a recognized deed to that land, symbolizes that we had to earn the right to own it. That, too, is its own kind of standard.
If this weren't true, we would never strive for anything, would never accept that a teacher has anything to teach us, that a doctor knows what's best for our bodies, or that our name on the bottom of our contract means our word. We recognize the official because we recognize values.
And so, too, do we recognize the official nature, and the value, of civil marriages. Aside from the fact that marriage is also very much a state of mind, (that we are conscious of how different it feels to be married as opposed to living together or dating) civil marriage provides us with the opportunity to respect the official in our lives.
We know that only a handful of people among us, primarily knowledgeable and respected people like judges, have been given the right to legally join two people in marriage. We know that a license has to be obtained, clearly mandating that only single, willing adults can marry; we know that vows must be sworn before this officiant, and that a certificate is issued outlining the particulars of this union in an official form that is universally recognized as proof of a legal marriage. We don't just feel married at the end of the ceremony; with the signing of the register we know we are married. It is as binding as any legal document or contract we have ever signed.
And that's one of the main reasons that there must always be a civil component to any religious wedding in order for it be recognized as legal. There are far too many religions, far too many differences of opinion even within the various denominations, for a society like ours to ever recognize religious marriage alone. Do Catholics respect Protestant marriages? Do Muslims think people joined in a Buddhist ceremony are actually married? Or does every little sect believe that their way is the only true way? Pay homage to your deity if you wish, but remember that marriage is not about religion.
In my own experience, the religious weddings I've attended have lacked intimacy and spirit. In many cases, the officiant didn't even know the couple, or only knew one of them vaguely, and performed the ceremony with the kind of routine aloofness one would expect from an emergency room nurse. They focused too much on their religion, in humbling the couple before God and in admonishing the young couple never to forget that there were actually three people in their marriage: Husband, Wife and God. Try getting that image out of your head on your wedding night.
My own wedding, however, was performed by a wonderful gentleman, a Justice of the Peace who had devoted his retirement to bringing couples together in matrimony. Our ceremony was full of warmth and comfort, of sage advice and gentle guidance about remembering that we are each others' home. It was performed in a beautiful open air courtyard, at sunset, with only our immediate family looking on. When we said our vows and exchanged our rings, I felt like our marriage had been blessed by a benevolent grandfather, a wise guardian helping us create a family of two. I can think of no better way to begin a marriage, and no other authority I would have respected more than this honorable man.
Civil ceremonies give our marriages an official blessing from the highest authority we have; a fellow human being entrusted with the sacred and wonderful duty of uniting two people in marriage. It's a wonder people would have it any other way.