The drifting definition of marriage in the pluralistic West

Peter Berger looks at two stories from Der Spiegel, one about Muslim women in Germany living in sexually “liberated” (read: rejecting God’s design and commandments for sexuality) Germany and another about a polyamorous group of two men and a woman living together.  The Muslim women are coming from a culture with very traditional sexual morality and must either forgo dating and most interaction with men or engage in the “liberated” culture of their home country and cover up the evidence (hiding a cell phone, surgery to restore the appearance of virginity, abortions).  The German polyamorous group, along with other polyamorists, believe that eventually society will welcome their particular arrangement.  If you read the article, beware that Berger refers briefly to some of the sexual practices of the Muslim women.

Berger draws some conclusions about definition of marriage and about pluralism.  He also includes a hypothesis and recommendation, which I will include as well, not because I necessarily agree with them but so that you can see where he’s coming from:

Conservative cassandras (please note: I am not one of them) are turning out to be empirically correct, even if one disagrees with their philosophy: once you legitimate same-sex marriage, you open the door to any number of other alternatives to marriage as a union of one man and one woman: polygamous (an interesting question for Muslims in Germany and dissident Mormons in Arizona), polyandrous, polygenerational – perhaps polyspecies?  Our Hamburg trio may well be correct in their expectation that polyamory may be the wave of the future. (Actually, the term could be expanded to cover all the above poly-arrangements.)

The two stories from Der Spiegel belong together because they bring into sharp focus the limits of pluralism (and not only of the multiculturalism which represents an extreme form of it). Plurality—the peaceful co-existence of different racial, ethnic, religious and lifestyle groups in the same society—is an inevitable consequence of modernity. Pluralism—the ideological acceptance of plurality—is necessary if a modern society is to retain a degree of stability, especially if such a society is democratic (I maintain that pluralism is a virtue as well as a necessity). The question is where pluralism—any reasonable form of it—must define the limits of what is acceptable. Both stories involve the cultural and legal definition of marriage. This is not the place to discuss whether the canons of Islamic modesty or the practice of polyamory should be accepted in a Western democracy. But, as a sociologist I can propose a hypothesis, and as a concerned citizen a recommendation. Hypothesis: There will be cultural and political compromises in the area of sexual behavior. Recommendation: In a democracy these matters should be openly and extensively discussed.


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