In some parts of the United States, a covenant marriage is a legally distinct kind of marriage, in which the marrying couple agree to obtain pre-marital counseling and accept more limited grounds for divorce. The covenant marriage laws emphasize the belief that marriage is more than just a mere contract between two individuals, contending that without marriage, there would be no foundation of family in society and, in turn, no civilization or progress to follow.
There are obvious giant problems with the part that begins "without marriage, there...", but I won't get into that now because it's (a) not a very interesting line of argument, (b) will take too long to detail all of the issues, and (c) will just kind of make me angry. Rather, I want to focus on something that was said in the midst of the discussion (from Leah Libresco of Unequally Yoked)
it makes marriage a THING (or, should I say, a unique signifier). Right now, marriage is not particularly different from long term cohabitation, which carries its own barriers to exit (leases, etc). If we want it to be a separate category, especially for people like you and me, who can't have sacramental marriages, it needs to be differentiated legally and linguistically to forge a cultural distinctionThe question I find interesting, and that I think is significant for Leah, myself, and for atheists generally is why exactly this is what we want, given that we don't buy into the rhetoric of a transcendental religious meaning. Given that, I don't exactly know what should make marriage a "unique signifier". Marriage sans God, as far as I see it, does make marriage look a lot like a long-term co-habitation with a lot of pretty legal things (which are important, yes, but not in the roughly metaphysical sense we're talking about). The way we conceptualize marriage is what's different, and I think that conception is unhealthy -- it posits that there's a fundamental change in essence in a relationship when a wedding vow is made, a bright-line distinction. I've never been married (shocker!) but it doesn't seem to me that, in the minds of the people going through the vows, that the love signified by the wedding ceremony and to a broader extent the marriage is different in kind after the "I do"s than it was before. Different in degree certainly, but it doesn't seem like the love looks different.
So then, for the atheist, there's a choice in how we attack the marriage question: do what Leah says, and try to see covenant marriages as a way to split out all of the nasty cultural expectations that go along with marriage, or use the word marriage to change the character of what's signified. Here, a brief starting point is useful:
3. Despite the general displacement of the classical, "philosophical," Western, etc., concept of writing, it appears necessary, provisionally and strategically, to conserve the old name. This implies an entire logic of paleonymy which I do not wish to elaborate here. Very schematically: an opposition of metaphysical concepts (for example, speech/writing, presence/absence, etc.) is never the face-to-face of two terms, but a hierarchy and an order of subordination. Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to a neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system. It is only on this condition that deconstruction will provide itself the means with which to intervene in the field of oppositions that it criticizes, which is also a field of nondiscursive forces. Each concept, moreover, belongs to a systematic chain, and itself constitutes a system of predicates. There is no metaphysical concept in and of itself. There is a work - metaphysical or not - on conceptual systems. Deconstruction does not consist in passing from one concept to another, but in overturning and displacing a conceptual order, as well as the nonconceptual order with which the conceptual order is articulated... To leave to this new concept the old name of writing is to maintain the structure of the graft, the transition and indispensable adherence to an effective intervention in the constituted historic field. And it is also to give their chance and their force, their power of communication, to everything played out in the operations of deconstruction. (Derrida, "Signature, Event, Context" from Margins of Philosophy)To unpack a little bit: what Derrida's saying here is that whenever you set up a dichotomy between two things (the example he focuses on here is speech/writing, the one I want to use is "religious conception of relationship" / "secular conception of relationship", understanding that the two do not match neatly onto the set of religious people / atheists, as Leah herself shows), there's always an implicit hierarchy that has existed historically and influences how people now see the relationship between the two things in question. In Derrida's case, speech is "privileged" over writing -- that is, historically, people have thought about writing as "parasitic" on speech and a "derivative" thereof, with speech as the default; in our case, it's the idea that marriage is a fundamentally religious institution and that non-religious people who get married are parasitic on a religious framework.
To follow the reasoning, what we should be doing is playing with the word "marriage" and applying the term to a whole bunch of different things to make "marriage" the concept show itself for what it really is: not that much of a change at all (but still meaningful for the people involved!) This lets us change how the word works culturally, to strip away the problematic elements that come along with marriage as understood in a religious context and overthrow the religious framework that creates the way we conceptualize "atheist marriage" in the first place. This allows something else to live and breathe that fits more in line with a godless framework, and at least as far as I'm convinced, something that's less oppressive to women in more religiously conservative communities who might be expected to enter into a marriage that looks something like a covenant marriage without the supposed ability to "take the choice more seriously" that covenant marriage offers as a putative benefit.
So, marriage: still means things! But not the same things that we presume it means because of religious privilege and cultural influence! If deconstructing marriage means that atheists get space to express their love in a way that's not just an inferior knock-off of the Judeo-Christian way of doing things, in a way that creates a space more friendly to women at the same time, that satisfies me.
So, what did I miss?
What should marriage look like in an atheistic framework?
What, if anything, is metaphysically different about marriage that doesn't extend to other relationships?
(P.S. If the above wasn't clear, let me know and I'll try to clarify -- Derrida always tends to get a little messy.)