The Washington Post reported recently on the fascinating results of a new poll showing a sharp turnaround in support for gay marriage nationwide. For the first time, a majority -albeit a slim one-favors such marriages. Three years ago, a strong majority rejected them. Gays can thank those under 35 for the shift, among whom support has grown the most rapidly. While political views tend to grow more conservative with age, gays can justifiably cheer over the news, which is but the latest in a series of favorable portents. (In the wake of Proposition 8’s passage in California last year outlawing gay marriage there, I saw reasons to remain optimistic, but did not believe a reversal in public opinion would be so swift).
Although gay marriage doesn’t touch most atheists directly, I know many follow its triumphs and setbacks like sports fans follow their favorite teams. The reason I suspect is because opposition to gay marriage encapsulates like no other issue so many of the reasons why atheists reject religion and seek to diminish its influence in the public sphere. First of all, there is the believer’s presumption that their bronze-age holy books contain some immutable, objective moral code – a code which for the most part they themselves either ignore or selectively apply. Second, there is the inappropriate intrusion of the believer’s morality into the public policy. If their religion disavows gay marriage, fine by me, but by what right do they proscribe it in secular law as well? The logic of their stance is identical to that employed by the mullahs instituting Sharia law. Third, there is the utter poverty of their arguments, such as the one claiming defense of “traditional marriage” (whatever that is), or the absurd one claiming that believers will experience a wave of persecution as a result of gay marriage. Finally, there is the sheer hypocrisy of same-sex marriage’s most ardent foes, religions that loudly proclaim marriage is divinely ordained between one man and one woman only, while their Godly founders and “prophets” not only had multiple wives, but some who were barely teens, or even younger.
So gay marriage is a barometer of sorts for religion’s waning influence in areas it doesn’t belong. Non-believers — as well as believers who firmly uphold the separation of church and state – can applaud to the extent the practice is defined as a civil rights issue, and not a “family values” issue. Intolerant religious devotees will continue to wail and gnash their teeth as state-after-state legalizes the practice. That’s fine by me. They’ll only marginalize themselves and make it that much more difficult to press their faith-based views in other areas of public policy. And we’ll all be better off for it.