Do Humanist Marriages Really Last Longer Than Religious Ones?

If Scotland is any indication, then aye

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Turn on a TV, and you’d be forgiven for thinking everyone in 2023 aspires to marriage. Whether it’s the hopeless mensches on Jewish Matchmaking or the deranged “trial wives” of queer Ultimatum, it seems a proposal — and ostensibly what comes after — is everyone’s goal. Hell, even Shiv and Tom chose to stay the course. But despite all the televised vamping for matrimony, people in the real world are getting married less and less, and having a harder time staying together once they do. The Ron DeSantises will find a way to pin this on drag queens and wokeness. But Tim Maguire, an honorary humanist chaplain at the University of Edinburgh, says it’s actually outdated patriarchal expectations that have sullied the reputation of marriage for young people. And that humanist weddings, which eschew those toxic values, are actually poised to unite couples with greater success, citing figures from the BBC in Scotland that show lower divorce rates for humanists than their religious counterparts.

“There are no ‘patriarchal expectations’ in a humanist marriage,” he recently wrote in a letter to The Guardian. Humanist celebrants, or the humanist equivalent of a priest or wedding officiant, “don’t tell couples what marriage means,” he added. “Instead, we ask them to think about what it means to them; what most of them say is that marriage is an equal partnership.” 

He believes it’s that egalitarian spirit and the agency to create the perfect marriage for each individual partnership that explain why humanist marriages that occurred in Scotland within the last five years had a divorce rate of only 1.7 in every 1,000, while the civil ceremonies had 7.3, Church of Scotland ceremonies had 5.8 and Roman Catholics had five. The BBC also reported a similar pattern for couples married up to 15 years.

Humanist weddings reflect the secular, humanist values of fairness and respect for people rather than faith in a higher power. They’re distinguished from civil or otherwise religious ceremonies in that they’re performed by a celebrant instead of a government official or priest, rabbi, minister or leader of any other traditional theistic religion. In the 18 years since they were first legally recognized in Scotland, humanist weddings have overtaken church weddings in popularity there. In the United States, humanist weddings are also considered legally binding, but sort of on a technicality: humanist celebrants are officially registered as clergy. In England and Wales, where humanist weddings are still not recognized without an additional civil certification, advocates have been campaigning to change the law for decades.

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Generally, humanist weddings appeal to folks who hold spiritual beliefs that aren’t theistic in nature — and who maybe wouldn’t be satisfied with a regular civil service. Celebrant Rachael Meyer told Hitched UK that, across the pond, certain elements of strictly civil ceremonies are “bound by restrictions,” adding that the content must not include any words or music with religious undertones. “Ceremony scripts are usually completely standardized or with little variation, with the blanks filled in for each couple,” she explained. By contrast, a humanist wedding essentially has no rules. 

Unsurprisingly, some religious leaders take issue with the BBC’s findings about marriage duration. Rev Norman Smith, an Edinburgh-based minister, told the BBC that there are “many factors in marriage that affect divorce rates, including age, socio-economic status, children and whether partners have been married before.” Without taking those variables into account, “any suggestion of causation between type of ceremony and divorce rate is entirely spurious.”

The reverend is not totally wrong — marriages work and fall apart for any number of highly specific and personal reasons. But surely humanists are setting themselves up for success by starting off marriage on a slightly anarchic and deeply anti-patriarchal note. That’s love, baby!

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