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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
The following essay is excerpted from Chapter 11 of The End of a Road (The Dial Press, New York, 1971) by John M. Allegro.
Most people in this supposedly \Christian\ country [England] have only a threefold acquaintance with the Church: at baptism, marriage, and death. The ceremonies of the christening, wedding, and the funeral may be devoid of any deeply religious significance for our pagan community, but they are nevertheless part of the traditional pattern of folk behavior and have roots deep in the social consciousness. The celebration of a birth and reception of the infant into the community, the giving of a name by which the baby becomes a recognizable member of a society, is marked by tribal ceremonies the world over. Similarly, plighting one's troth to the woman of one's choice before the community and taking a joint farewell of a respected elder at death are important features of any communal life. Certainly the shutting of churches is not likely to diminish these occasions in their importance, although their forms and symbolism may be expected to change. Indeed, it would do no great harm if some aspects of the ceremonies were reexamined for their real meaning and validity, and a great deal of the oversentimentality and mock piety associated with them were to disappear.
At its christening a child is received into the community of Christians, The parents pledge to bring their child up in a specifically religious fashion, teaching it Christian doctrine and ensuring its continuance in the Faith. How many of the parents proudly displaying their offspring before their friends at the altar have the slightest intention of fulfilling their vows made on that occasion, or indeed have even bothered to take note of what they are promising, must be very few to judge from their later attendances at worship. In the popular mind the christening ceremony is a means of giving the child a name, receiving on its behalf a number of gifts, most of them quite useless, and basking in the shared joy of their relations and friends. It is, quite properly, a supremely happy and proud occasion, and for most the impropriety of making false declarations of intent before the deity never obtrudes to mar the festive occasion.
If most parsons are prepared to join in the fun, fully aware of the insincerity of the chief participants' religious affirmations but hoping that something of their import might stick and be later recalled, other clerics have rebelled against what they have not unfairly regarded as a farce and a mockery of god and his Church. Every so often the newspapers carry stories of enraged pagan parents being refused this office of the Church for their offspring on the grounds that they clearly had no intention of carrying out their vows. Unfortunately, the Church of England is in a difficult position in this respect, being the established church of the country. Many laymen appear to think of the Church as their property, a kind of nationalized god-service. If Anglican clergy are too forcible in pointing out the obvious fallacy of this belief, they run the danger of raising the perennial question of disestablishment and the public airing of the ever-growing disquiet within the Church about the incongruity of its position in a largely pagan society, when even its prayerbook has to be approved by the House of Commons.
Of course, the sincere clerics who disapprove of their churches being used for ceremonial purposes only, by people who have no regard for the religion the buildings are supposed to represent, are perfectly right. They should turn applicants for the Church's offices away from the doors if they are not willing to obey the rules. The Church is not a nationalized industry, put there and maintained by the State for its convenience. In making this position plain once and for all, the Anglicans should then go on and face, fairly and squarely without any more hedging, this question of disestablishment. If the Church is going to remain in business at all, it can only be as a purveyor of religion, not as a second-rate \Oxfam,\ soup kitchen, or even a State \Palace of Culture\ on the Soviet pattern. It may hurt the pride of the corps of empurpled bishops to be removed from their bench in the House of Lords, or from their ability to decree whom members of the Royal Family may and may not marry, but at least the Church of England could call its soul its own and decide thereafter whom it allows through its doors and admits to its sacred offices. Until then, its priests must be prepared to endure the tragi-comedy of pagan \christenings,\ weddings, and funerals in the name of its god.
Much the same objections as can be raised on pagan \christenings\ relate to pagan weddings in church. In these cases, however, the clouding of motives by over-sentimentalism, and the obscuring of real purpose by the orange blossom and floating veils of white tulle, is a very much more serious matter and a cause for concern. The divorce rate in this country has never been so high, and the toll these failures must take on the lives of the children of such ill-starred marriages is incalculable. How many broken pledges of lifetime fidelity and love were made at the altar of a god to whom neither party owed any allegiance? The only scriptures or doctrinal tracts many such couples are likely to have read would have been a sixpenny pamphlet of wedding etiquette and a somewhat more expensive tome on how to find the most suitable position for enjoyable copulation. Many an earnest parson, approached by strangers wanting to marry in his church, will try to ensure that before the great day he has had a chance to talk to them about their religious responsibilities. But since in most cases their common ground of discussion will be negligible, there is little chance of the priest's being able to indoctrinate them into the nature and purpose of the Church, let alone convert them to the faith, in a couple of thirty-minute sessions. The girl's mind is more likely to be filled with thoughts of her dress, bridesmaids, trousseau, and resisting Mother's choice of Uncle Herbert as speech-maker on behalf of the family; the man's on how many pub-crawls are left to him in his sadly waning period of liberty. The result is that when the happy couple sign the register in blissful relief that the best man had not lost the ring, and neither had fluffed their responses, they are very little wiser about the nature of the religious ceremony they have just undergone, nor the extraordinary promises they have made to one another. Furthermore, by their agreeing to be married under the auspices of the Church, they have assented to the proposition that \those whom God has joined together let no man put asunder\; in other words, divorce under any man-made law is out of the question. The Catholic Church is still adamant on this point; the Anglicans prevaricate; but the wording of the marriage service to which the young pagans have submitted is clear.
Now this is not going to stop our young bright-eyed newlyweds rushing off to lawyers a couple of years later demanding a divorce. They may well have good reasons for doing so, not least of them being the fact that they should not have married in the first place. They had nothing in common but a mania for some pop group, an ability to perform the same gyrations and body-squirming on a dance floor, and nowadays more often than not, a capability of achieving simultaneous orgasms in bed. The real tragedy of these situations is, of course, the child they managed to bring into the world in that time. From the morning the growing fetus gave the mother nausea, the baby became a nuisance and heralded the eventual dissolution of the marriage.
Would the marriage have ever taken place, we may wonder, if the girl had thought beyond the glamour of a \white wedding,\ of which a solemnization in the parish church is such a necessary part in the popular imagination? For years she has feasted her mind and imagination on the pictures presented to her in the television advertisements. The radiant bride, dressed of course by Hartnell, appears before the church door and laughingly (teeth by Colgate) tosses her bouquet to envious girifriends. In the background stands a handsome, smiling, fully robed vicar, and beside her the immaculately dressed (Moss Bros.) groom and father and stunningly coutured mother (slimmed for the occasion by Spirella). A Rolls Royce purrs to the old lichgate, and whisks the happy couple off to the Riviera for their fabulous honeymoon (by Cook's). The picture fades to a dream kitchen in Sevenoaks, washed clean by invisible hands wielding waterless mops soaked in a wonder detergent. An oh-so-sweet little girl trips in to inquire of her perfectly manicured mother how she has kept her oh-so-smooth hands free from signs of manual toil . . . and so on.
Would not this dream have been shattered into some semblance of reality had the hopeful pair been refused one ingredient of the white wedding by a vicar who refused to marry a couple who had no serious or permanent church affiliations? Or if he had expressed himself willing to perform the ceremony only after an adequate course of religious and doctrinal instruction, at least as thorough as that imposed on young people at confirmation? Or if it had been sternly laid down that on no account were such pagan trappings as orange blossoms, silver horseshoes, and confetti to be brought into the church?
Suppose, then, having been deterred from the television dream to some extent by an uncooperative vicar, the pair were required by law to appear before a marriage counsellor whose task it was to instruct them both in the legal aspects of the marriage contract, and at the same time to probe kindly but firmly into their real intentions towards one another and any children of the union. Suppose, perhaps for the first time, the young man were thus suddenly made aware that marriage carried considerable financial responsibilities, and that having plighted his troth to the girl beside him he would be liable for all time to support her and their children whether he had tired of the union or not. Would he not take another calculating look at the girl and be inclined to think beyond the delights of the honeymoon and the car their joint income would buy and run, to the burden of wife and children his own wage would one day have to bear?
How much more ethical, not to say economical in view of ever-rising bill of supplementary benefits paid to deserted wives and unwanted offspring, it would be for the State to insist on such prior consultation and instruction before marriage rather than to allow young couples to be dazzled by specious advertising into dashing off to church at the first stir of the sex hormones. And how much more effective such an interview might be if the bride-to-be were not blinded by white tulle and deafened to the voice of reason by the pealing of church bells.
One might wonder at the Church allowing its sacred offices to be used for decorative purposes by people with no religious affiliations or real interest, but we cannot blame her ministers for the state's failure to make sure that her young people understand the legal implications of the grave step they contemplate. These are not the Church's concern. Her first duty is to the religious aspects of the ceremony which is for the Church a sacred office and sacrament, not a legal undertaking. There is much to be said for the continental system of observing the religious rites only after the civic formalities have been carried out at the town hall. At least the parties are made aware that they are entering primarily into a civil contract.
More and more couples are acknowledging the impropriety of undergoing religious rites in which they have no belief or real interest, and marrying at registry offices. Mothers brought up in the old tradition may secretly wonder if their daughters are not thereafter living in sin, but fathers at least appreciate not having to pay the parson, choir boys, bell-ringers, and other beneficiaries of the \white-wedding syndrome.\ With the decline of the Church's influence and the decrease in places of worship available, this trend to a civic function will certainly gather momentum. We may hope that the resultant unfashionableness of white church weddings will take away some of the false glamour of the marriage ceremony and its superficial attractiveness to the television-reared girl. Nevertheless, the legal requirement of signing a register should not be the only recognition of this important event in the lives of two young people. Marriage should be a supremely happy occasion, and one to be shared by the community to which the couple belong, as well as by relatives and intimate acquaintances. The event has much in common in this respect with the \naming ceremony\ for young babies, since the community has in both cases a responsibility to declare towards its members and their welfare. As our societies become ever more closely integrated, the assumption by the group of responsibilities for its weaker members becomes increasingly necessary. As a baby may be thrown upon the mercies of the community through the default of its parents, or its incapability of surviving the pressures of normal life through some deformity or mental defect, so a marriage which breaks down almost inevitably makes claims upon the community's welfare facilities. It would be fitting therefore that a wedding celebration should include some gathering of well-wishers including representatives of the local legislature, in a semi-formal ceremony of congratulation. The atmosphere, less rigid and legalistic than the register office but more serious than the wedding breakfast convivialities to follow, would aim again at conveying to all concerned the involvement of the whole community in the marriage union of two of its members.
To an ever-increasing degree, the choice of partner in marriage affects the rest of society. Neglected wives and children and deformed babies need the help of the others, so it would seem only right that the marriage should be seen by the community to be setting off on the right lines. As well as ensuring that both parties are aware of their legal and moral responsibilities, there is a case for the State requiring that they undergo medical examinations before being granted their marriage license. Whilst it might not be possible or desirable in a free society to forbid persons with serious physical or mental disabilities from marrying, at least they could be made aware of any special difficulties that might arise in conception or childbirth which would prepare them for necessary hospitalization or disappointment. We may hope that the results of present researches into genetic control will one day ensure that women never bear mongol or similarly malformed offspring, but to exercise such control it will be necessary to make the medical tests here suggested as a prerequisite to marriage.
Again, to insist on medical examinations of intending spouses would emphasize further the serious nature of the step they intend taking. One can see that it might in some cases involve some desperate soul-searching if a defect were brought to light in one of the partners of which the other was ignorant, or indeed which was unsuspected by the victim. Should a man, for example, carry on with his plans to marry a girl who would probably never bear a live or normal child? Should a woman commit herself to someone for life who has suffered from venereal disease and whose blood can never be considered absolutely clear of the virus? If it be argued that to involve a young couple in such grave considerations when they are enjoying the emotional flights of their romance is wanton cruelty, one must answer that these facts are better faced before the union than after, unless we are going to continue filling our divorce courts with psychologically bruised people and their hapless offspring.
The Church's main interest in the selection of partners in marriage has been to ensure that as far as possible \mixed\ marriages, that is between [Roman] Catholics and non-[Roman] Catholics, should be avoided. If a mixed marriage is enacted, the [Roman Catholic] church insists that progeny should be educated in obedience to the [Roman] Catholic faith whatever the wishes of the other spouse. Thus, from the very moment of marriage, the Church manages to divide husband from wife in a way that is bound later on to be aggravated by squabbles over the children's upbringing, to say nothing of the conflicting views they will probably hold about birth control. Again, to the outsider it seems extraordinary that rational human beings should allow their lives to be dictated in this way by a celibate clergy. We can but look forward to a lessening of this alienating influence in man's affairs, and to a time when men and women will choose each other for life mates solely on the grounds of their mutual love and willingness to share a lifetime's joys and responsibilities.
The time has come, then, for us to take stock of our real sentiments and hopes at the natural climaxes of life, birth, marriage, and death. These should be times of joy and compassion when families and friends join in acknowledging important events in the lives of their companions. We are in danger of losing genuine sentiment and deep emotion in a tide of cynicism created by the false values purveyed by advertising men and their media. Nothing is sacred from their obnoxious smear of commercialism. Every day the only true values left in this world, like human love, maternal pride, and filial affection, are raped and despoiled in the cause of selling trash to a moronic public. We have to resist this debasement of our dearest possessions, and the first necessity is to clear our minds of what is valuable and what is not. If to most of us the trappings and regalia of outworn creeds and rituals mean nothing, then let us banish them from those moments of real significance in our lives. Let our babies be presented to the community, our young people to each other in marriage, and the achievements of the dead to those who survive them in solemn thanksgiving, without marring the occasions with the insincerity of meaningless religious rituals.