September 26, 2012

“But for children, there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex… it is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution.”

– Bertrand Russell, Marriage and Morals

Single Motherhood and the Importance of Two-Parent Families

June 4, 2012

A recent op-ed in the LA Times acknowledges what has been increasingly obvious the last few decades – single motherhood has been a catastrophe in the US:

The single-mother revolution has been an economic catastrophe for women. Poverty remains relatively rare among married couples with children; the U.S. census puts only 8.8% of them in that category, up from 6.7% since the start of the Great Recession. But more than 40% of single-mother families are poor, up from 37% before the downturn. In the bottom quintile of earnings, most households are single people, many of them elderly. But of the two-fifths of bottom-quintile households that are families, 83% are headed by single mothers. The Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill calculates that virtually all the increase in child poverty in the United States since the 1970s would vanish if parents still married at 1970 rates.

Well, comes the response, maybe single mothers are hard up not because they lack husbands but because unskilled, low-earning women are likelier to become single mothers in the first place. The Urban Institute’s Robert Lerman tried to address that objection by studying low-income women who had entered “shotgun” unions — that is, getting married after getting pregnant — on the theory that they represented a population roughly similar to those who got pregnant but didn’t marry. The married women, he found, had a significantly higher standard of living than the unmarried ones. “Even among the mothers with the least qualifications and highest risks of poverty,” Lerman concluded, “marriage effects are consistently large and statistically significant.”

This social disaster is largely the result of our last social upheaval in the 60’s and 70’s when our society was convinced by the Left that the traditional family was unimportant to our society’s well being. In many ways this message is appealing – at least from the perspective of personal desire. If true it frees men to pursue sexual relationships with women without the responsibilities traditionally associated such pursuits, and it frees women from the dependence on the provision of a partner that having children has normally entailed.

And single motherhood not only impacts the well –being of mothers, but fathers as well:

Women and their children weren’t the only ones to suffer the economic consequences of the single-mother revolution; low-earning men have lost ground too. Knowing that women are now expected to be able to raise children on their own, unskilled men lose much of the incentive to work, especially at the sometimes disagreeable jobs that tend to be the ones they can get. Scholars consistently find that unmarried men work fewer hours, make less money and get fewer promotions than do married men.

The dynamics of marriage are more than just a legal arrangement, or one that confers government benefits – marriage is fundamental to the success of women, men, and children. This is perhaps one of the most completely demonstrated social claims thanks to our decades old social experiment in single motherhood. This is why the positive argument for traditional marriage isn’t merely a religious one, it is social, it is biological and it is economic. The best thing the government can do for our society is sanction and support traditional marriage – and as the data show, the worst thing it can do is pretend traditional marriage doesn’t matter.

Designed to be Married

May 26, 2012

In a recent article on CNN Albert Mohler responds to complaints that conservative Christians have an unwarranted focus on homosexuality. He aptly parses the difference between the laws that governed ancient Israelite society and the principles that govern the lives of Christians, and provides a solid basis for Christians to maintain strong opposition to normalizing homosexual behavior.

What I find lacking in Mohler’s argument as well as most Christian’s discussion of homosexuality is the fact that human sexuality is firmly rooted in our design. In Scripture our sexuality doesn’t emanate from Old Testament law or even the teachings of Jesus, but in our very natures. Christians find this in Genesis 1 commanding the first humans to “be fruitful and multiply” and also in the description of a monogamous life-long marriage in Genesis 2 that pronounces that a man “be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” This is the understanding of marriage that was later reiterated by Jesus.

As it turns out the Christian argument for the preeminence of heterosexual relationships transects the secular one. There is no doubt about the importance of the reproductive aspect of heterosexual relationship, from the aspect of maintaining the human species. Marriage however is equally important in this respect. As I have noted elsewhere the long term relationship between men and women who parent children together has physiological impacts on adults and children which facilitate the investment necessary to raise a child.

And on a societal level a healthy nuclear family is perhaps the greatest indicator of success in one’s life in terms of education, employment and later relationships. The income and education gaps in our society often fall along the lines of marriage success.

And the failure of the traditional family has notably pernicious effects. As Steven Pinker details in his recent book on the history of violence The Better Angels of Our Nature, the Free Love and anti-authority 60’s had a dramatic impact on the American family, and a corresponding dramatic increase in violence in the following decades. A diminished commitment to the marriages and families had a decivilizing impact. In many ways this explains why older adults oppose gay marriage in higher numbers than younger do. These people were the free-loving hippies of yesteryear – and they remember the damage such social experimentation did to our society.

In his letter to the Romans Paul employed the argument from design when he described what happens when we move away from the purposes of marriage for which we are created:

For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

Romans 1:26-27

In this sense law and morality are merely descriptions of our ‘natural functions’. The laws in Scripture governing sexuality then aren’t arbitrary at all but flow from understanding the behaviors that allow for human flourishing. Thus we can no more confer marriage on homosexuals than we can confer the ability to breastfeed on men. And attempts to pretend men can breastfeed would be as harmful to child rearing as ignoring the importance of traditional marriage was in the 60s – or today.

So while there is certainly warrant for a Christian to oppose homosexual behaviors and the idea of homosexual marriage from Scripture, we also have an appeal to nature and to the benefits of supporting monogamous, committed heterosexual relationships as a basis for healthy parenting and human flourishing, an idea which is well supported by data and history.


June 7, 2011

There is no logical reason to expect that a person who isn’t commited to sexual faithfulness before marriage will be commited to sexual faithfulness after marriage.

Did Civilization Start with Religious Belief?

May 31, 2011

I have been considering writing about this subject more extensively for a little while, but ended up writing about some other subjects and making a brief observation referring to the topic; but as Mike at the A-Unicornist took it upon himself to write a lengthy post about my little blurb I felt inclined to finish the more expansive post; more on his response in a bit.

What inspired the previous post were a couple of articles written recently about the pervasiveness of religious inclinations in human experience. The first bit was an article in National Geographic about Göbekli Tepe, one of the oldest known religious temples dated at 11,600 years old. It is fundamentally altering assumptions about what motivated the organization of the first human societies:

Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies. Compared to a nomadic band, the society of a village had longer term, more complex aims—storing grain and maintaining permanent homes. Villages would be more likely to accomplish those aims if their members were committed to the collective enterprise. Though primitive religious practices—burying the dead, creating cave art and figurines—had emerged tens of thousands of years earlier, organized religion arose, in this view, only when a common vision of a celestial order was needed to bind together these big, new, fragile groups of humankind. It could also have helped justify the social hierarchy that emerged in a more complex society: Those who rose to power were seen as having a special connection with the gods. Communities of the faithful, united in a common view of the world and their place in it, were more cohesive than ordinary clumps of quarreling people.

Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it. When foragers began settling down in villages, they unavoidably created a divide between the human realm—a fixed huddle of homes with hundreds of inhabitants—and the dangerous land beyond the campfire, populated by lethal beasts.

I have also discussed elsewhere how religious impulses were fundamental to the origin of art – a fact only realized when science divested itself of traditional notions of ‘primitive’ man. And I have recently detailed the essential role the Church played in the development of science. Most of these findings are relatively uncontroversial – they don’t in and of themselves prove the existence of God, but they do give lie to the notion that religious belief is inherently dangerous or antagonistic to intellectual development. Not only is not antagonistic, it now appears fundamental to human flourishing and the development of civilization.

In many ways such a findings aren’t surprising if one understands humanity as fundamentally spiritual organism. Science has speculated for centuries about what distinguishes humans from animals. They have proffered reason, our tool making ability, our communication skills or our societal organization. Eventually of these aspects are found elsewhere in nature and our uniqueness in these respects turns out only to be a matter of degree. In the end our primary distinction is our devotion to the sacred, our comprehension of the transcendent.

Indeed, recent research indicates our religious inclinations are a universally natural and instinctive part of who we are as creatures. It takes considerable effort and training to deny this fundamental aspect of human nature – and numerous efforts to eradicate it have failed miserably.  Religious belief thrives today as it never has. Rather than being a virus of the human mind, our minds appear to be unwaveringly spiritual, and we crave spiritual knowledge and fulfillment.

Mike responds to this by listing a hodgepodge of assertions some which are odd, some which are clearly wrong. I am only going to mention two, because I think that is sufficient to demonstrate he really didn’t think it through too much. One of the points he makes regarding art music and poetry is this:

I’m going to leave poetry out, for the simple reason that poetry requires language, and we’re the only animal that has it (it’s worth noting, though, that the oldest known poem was a love story that had little to do with religious beliefs)

The article Mike links to here is about the Epic of Gilgamesh which is indeed one of the oldest poems. In fact it’s among our oldest literature. But to say it “little to do with religious beliefs” is to put it politely, extremely ignorant. The main character of Epic of Gilgamesh is two-thirds God, and one third man. His companion Enkidu is created by the gods to keep him from oppressing the citizens he rules over. Throughout the tale Giglamesh wrestles with various gods and goddesses seeking eternal truth in the netherworld and bringing back secret knowledge to the world. Saying it has little to do with religious beliefs is like saying the Catholic catechism has little to do with religious beliefs. It is essentially and completely a religious document, as are almost all early forms of literature and poetry.

As an aside I have to say this is something that has annoyed me with my interaction with New Atheists – they frequently have little knowledge of history or culture outside a narrow band of learning they cling to that they think re-enforces their belief systems. It’s as if history began at the Enlightenment. Also, the ‘science-is-the-only-reliable-form-of-knowledge’ thinking forces one to rely on immediate findings rather than the accumulated and proven knowledge of history. So that Mike would not see the obvious religious nature of this literature is no surprise.

And again when he touches on the origin of marriage, he doesn’t seem to know how to approach it:

Let’s first define what marriage is. Because if we’re talking about monogamous marriages, that’s a relatively narrow tradition. From Sex: A Man’s Guide, published by Men’s Health:

Zoologist Desmond Morris argued in his 1967 book The Naked Ape that the whole point of human sexuality was “to strengthen the pair-bond and maintain the family unit.” But more recently, reports from the scientific front haven’t been quite so encouraging. It turns out that lots of birds fool around (at least 40 percent of indigo buntings get a little on the side, researchers report). And anthropologists have found that nearly 1,000 of the 1,154 past and present human societies ever studied have allowed men to have more than one wife.

It’s well known that polygamy was sanctioned and practiced extensively in the Old Testament, and it’s still practiced today by a few religious sects. So the tradition of monogamous marriage, in which we have a romantic ideal of one man and one wife, is more rare and more recent addition – the result of which is an impressively high incidence of infidelity .

It seems that while we do, as Desmond Morris argued in The Naked Ape, have a tendency to favor strong pair-bonding which may manifest in monogamous relationships, we’re not very good at actually being with one partner for our entire lives. One of the important implications of sociobiology is that sociocultural norms don’t stick if we’re not hard-wired for them. So it seems that we’re hard-wired enough for pair-bonding to make monogamous marriages work some of the time, but we’re also driven by our genes so strongly that we find it difficult to consistently adhere to such a stringent sociocultural norm and if the pair-bond in a monogamous marriage is weakened, it’s a safe bet we’ll find another pair-bond outside of it.

It’s important to note here that Mike never actually ‘defines’ marriage. In fact, if we accept his view of it, marriage plays almost no part legitimate part in human society; we are apparently too inclined as a species to be promiscuous. But such a view isn’t surprising if one is getting one’s information from Men’s Health quoting Desmond Morris. It always fascinates me that atheists, who are constantly claiming to be purveyors of rigorous scientific thinking, will accept almost any source of information providing it supports their beliefs. To wit, The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris was a pop anthropology book consisting of a series of vignettes that imagines how various sexual characteristics developed in primitive humans. It was originally serialized in the tabloid the Daily Mirror and later turned into a docu-drama style movie. I am old enough to remember it well – and how popular it was with the free love crowd. What it is not is a serious scientific treatment on the subject of human sexuality if one believes serious science consists of rigorous research, peer review and repeatable experimentation.

The fact is marriage is as old as human society. And while historically marriage is always essentially a relationship between a man and women for the purpose of forming a family, its forms are invariably tied up with the belief systems of the society – and as we have seen at the beginning of this post, human societies appear to have begun with religious beliefs. Animals don’t ‘get married’ because there are no sets of externally defined rules governing their relationships. Only humans understand their relationships to be ordained by a transcendent order – and this is what distinguishes marriage from the mere ‘pair-bonding’ Mike wants to reduce it to.

So Mike’s response to my brief observation yesterday doesn’t seem to be very well thought out, and there is not much there to contradict the history and research I have noted above.

The Many Benefits of Marriage

November 17, 2010

I have spent a lot of time defending marriage in this blog and pointing out the dangers of redefining it, but not nearly enough time extolling the benefits and blessings of being married.

To partly correct that oversight I direct you to this excellent overview provided by FamilyScholars.org of the many benefits of marriage in our society in the health and prosperity of our citizens, to the lives of our children.

The reality is, apart from marriage we could not enjoy the wealth and health we do as a society. It has no sustitute.