Mary Douglas, natural symbols and gay marriage

One of the most interesting ideas in Mary Douglas’ ‘How institutions think’, about which I have been blogging intermittently, is her argument that institutions are stabilized by being naturalized (p 48):

There needs to be an analogy by which the formal structure of a crucial set of social relations is found in the physical world, or in the supernatural world, or in eternity, anywhere, so long as it not seen as a socially contrived arrangement.

Her argument is that it is only this sense of ‘naturalness’ that gives an institution strength, making it seeming reasonable and putting it beyond discussion. But this ‘naturalization’ has itself to be a hidden process, because otherwise it defeats its own object: you can’t have naturalness created, it can only be discovered.

Douglas provides examples of how such models are used: for example, right and left hands to model complimentary roles of men/women, king/people etc, and appeals to the ancestors to prevent violence within a group. It’s easy to start thinking, therefore, that such use of ‘natural symbols’ is only applicable to the ‘premodern’ world (whether tribal societies or historical periods). But I’m increasingly coming to see this as an idea that’s still surprisingly relevant. For example, the idea of the social construction of all kind of concepts, norms and behaviours (whether it’s childhood, or gender roles, or homosexuality or ideas of human rights) is still not widely accepted, even though it’s a commonplace for many academics in the humanities. The tendency to think that our culture’s institutions and practices are the only natural/normal ones is very widespread.

In particular, the question of gay marriage (especially as reflected in the debate in the US) seems to me to raise interesting ideas about natural symbols. Why are so many Christians in the US so opposed to the idea of legalised gay marriages? It can’t be simply because such marriages are, in their eyes, sinful, because they’re not trying to prevent the legal remarriage of divorced people (which is an equal sin in the New Testament). Instead, gay marriage is often seen as undermining marriage as an institution in some way. Usually it is claimed that this is because it breaks the link between marriage and procreation, but this does not explain why marriages between heterosexuals who are unwilling or unable to procreate (e.g. because they are too old) are not condemned.

Some feminists claim that Christian conservatives condemn gay marriages because they raise the threat of equal marriages, in which one of the partners in the marriage is not automatically superior (as male) and one automatically inferior (as female). But not all those who are anti-gay are anti-female equality. At least in the UK, there is a strong contingent of female evangelicals, who are nevertheless anti-gay. (Evangelical Anglicans have overwhelmingly accepted female priests, for example).

So I am now wondering whether one (though not the only reason) for hostility to gay marriage is that it undermines one current ‘naturalistic’ view of marriage, by showing its constructed nature. If you look at the Christian-influenced ‘traditional’ ideology of marriage, the key ideas seem to me to be:

1) Marriage is a pairing of opposites (man/woman)
2) Marriage is fruitful, like nature
3) Marriage is eternal and unchanging – like God and the world

If gay marriages are accepted as true marriage, that does attack all these ‘natural’ concepts of marriage, but it’s important to note that our changing views of Nature in the modern Western world have already severely weakened those concepts.

Firstly, the idea of man and woman as eternal opposites has been greatly weakened in both scientific and cultural terms: no more claims that women’s bodies are fundamentally different, no separate spheres for men and women. Secondly, the idea of the simple, peaceful, fruitfulness of nature, in which, for example, birds happily pair off in marriage, is no longer current. Evolutionary ideas show nature’s fruitfulness as ruthless and amoral competition for survival, with procreation bound by no institutions or rules. Finally, evolutionary thought also shows that nature is not unchanging, but constantly developing to seek individual advantage. In other words, you can’t ground monogamous, lifelong, faithful marriage in Darwinian nature.

So the opposition to gay marriage is really a side-issue: you can’t preserve ‘natural marriage’ just by keeping it heterosexual. Should the idea of natural symbolism for marriage therefore be discarded altogether, and the institution be seen just as a social arrangement chosen for a particular society? But then the problem arises of why one particular set of social relations should be privileged over another: in that sense, the conservatives are right to say that it raises the question of why polygamous marriages shouldn’t be allowed.

I think we therefore need a natural symbolism of marriage that incorporates gay marriage, but also preserves its monogamous and eternal character. And we actually do already have such a symbolism, in the idea of twin souls. The use of this image of partnerships is very old: it goes back to Plato’s Symposium and Aristophanes’ joking comments about how primordial humans were split up by the gods and now seek their ‘other half’, whether same-sex or opposite sex. Such a myth also relies on the key natural symbol of twins, whose potency again has survived for millennia.

A non-heterosexual naturalized view of marriage could rest on this idea of soulmates/twin-souls, and fit comfortably with a slightly sentimentalized idea of nature as full of animals seeking/striving for what they truly need, with stability and meaning emerging from this individual seeking. If the proponents of gay marriage want to capture the naturalistic high ground, they may need to stress the romantic nature of marriage, the finding of and clinging to the one true love, even if that now seems old-fashioned for many heterosexuals.


15 thoughts on “Mary Douglas, natural symbols and gay marriage

    • Because triplets aren’t a natural symbol, even though they’re a natural occurrence. Seriously. Think of the myths/works of art about twins/pseudo-twins: Romulus and Remus, via Shakespeare, through to something like Sliding Doors. Then compare with literary triplets: I can think of one Michael Innes novel, and a song from ‘The Band Wagon’ and nothing else.

      You could argue that before modern medicine triplets who survived were so rare as not to seem natural. Or you could see the symbolic force of twins as building on deeper natural symbols of dualism (reflections, night and day etc). What kind of triplet motif could compare with the classic good twin/bad twin idea? Or the simplicity of swapped lives/swapped roles (The Prince and the Pauper etc)? Two just works better than three in these metaphors.


  1. I would have to grant you the literature (except for stuff in Celtic languages). I might stop to point at the Trinity as a fairly significant `natural symbol’ in three, though, and analogies based on clover wouldn’t be hard to find I guess (though, again, probably more in Celtic stuff). The criterion for `natural symbol’ seem entirely subjective, though, at this rate.


    • Douglas’ theory is absolutely fine with ‘natural’ symbols as subjective, because (like Durkheim) she sees such symbols as reflections of society anyhow. The natural and supernatural worlds are imagined to be like society, and then society is correctly ordered because it is like the natural/supernatural, in a self-reinforcing circle. So the king’s relationship to his people is like God’s to humanity, but God has already been described as like a king and so thought of in royal images. Or the king and his people are like the head and the body, but you conceptualise a person as being made up of a head and a body because you already have a handy model of how organisms works, in which one part directs and the other takes orders.

      Incidentally, I don’t think the Trinity works as a symbol for coming together in (polygamous) marriage, because the Trinity is conceived of as existing eternally, not as something where the parts are divided and seeking for each other to be reunified. In fact, maybe one of the problems with the Trinity is that it doesn’t have a handy natural symbol for it (unless you live in Ireland and have shamrock), which is why it’s a concept that doesn’t seem natural, but instead gets argued over indefinitely.


  2. Christian teaching on marriage is based on the idea of male and female people being complementary, not opposite, to one another. Two people of the same sex do not meet this requirement.


    • You’re right that I should have said ‘complementary’, but that’s a slippery word. Why are two people of different sexes complementary, other than in reproductive intercourse (tab A goes into slot B )? St Augustine thought that Eve must have been put into the Garden of Eden for Adam to procreate with her, because for any other form of companionship, a man would have been preferable for Adam. (St Augustine never got the concept of friendship with women). And the Christian church has historically not thought that men and women were complementary in any other but the sexual sense, because otherwise male-only institutions (such as the priesthood) would have been defective by definition.

      So it depends whether you think marriage (and sex within marriage) is centrally about procreation or centrally about companionship and mutual support. If you do think it’s centrally about procreation, you have to start condemning an awful lot of married people and their practices: no sex for the elderly, no attempts at contraception (natural or artificial), no oral sex, no sex during pregnancy etc.


  3. The teaching of Christian Churches on relationships between men and women ranges over vast areas of human conduct. It cannot be reduced to a straightforward ‘sexual’ partnership or to sexual acts merely as a means to procreation. Women have the full range of human virtues and of human weaknesses just a men do. The claims of the Roman Catholic Church and of some other conservative churches about women being barred from the priesthood can no longer, I am glad to say, be taken as definitive.


  4. I should have been more explicit in my last comment. Marriage in Christian teaching is about more than loving companionship and sexual relationships leading to procreation. It is also about women and men, men and women learning from their partners what it is to be a female human being or a male one. (Homosexual relationships can never do this.) It involves accepting one’s responsibilities towards one’s partner, offspring, parents and relatives as well as towards the wider community of which one’s family is part. It gives purpose and value to human lives in the context of deepening love. Because human beings are less than perfect and, on occasion, because of circumstances, some married relationships fail: but many have worked and do work. I happen to think that it is historically facile to portray marriage as an instrument for the oppression of women and damaging for the future to lead one half of humanity to view the other half as inherently exploitative and oppressive. Women helped to make the worlds in which they lived in the past just as they have helped to make the present one. That needs to be recognised now.


    • Marriage in Christian teaching is about more than loving companionship and sexual relationships leading to procreation. It is also about women and men, men and women learning from their partners what it is to be a female human being or a male one. (Homosexual relationships can never do this.)

      I am curious as to where in scripture you find this interpretation, particularly about “learning from their partners what it it to be a female human being or a male one.” This may be admirable, but it doesn’t sound to me particularly Biblical. If I had to guess, I’d say the sentiment was post-Freudian, in fact.

      Now if all you mean by “Christian teaching” is “This is what I and my church believe,” then good on you, but that’s not a very valid basis for generalizing about the church.

      For that matter, why couldn’t marriage in some instances – heterosexual or homosexual – involve learning from one’s partner what it is like to be a different race? Surely that access to greater empathy is of value in society as well? Why do you privilege, to the point of excluding homosexuals entirely, learning what it is to be of the opposite gender? Is this simply your own preference, or can you cite some scriptural texts that clearly indicate that developing gender empathy is a transcending virtue, without which marriage is meaningless?

      Mind you, I think it’s a good thing. And I’ve been married to the same woman for nearly forty years, and it’s been good for me. But I don’t confuse my own preferences with some Higher Truth.


      • Christian teaching is not confined to the contents of the New Testament as Dr Ngo appears to suppose. It can be found in the evolving understanding of the early Church Fathers, in later works of exegesis. On marriage, see the Church of England’s Prayer Books of 1549, 1552 and 1559 for illumination.


      • I’ve just checked the 1559 prayer book to see if it’s the same as the 1662 version on marriage, and it is broadly. Both comment on the purposes of marriages:

        One was the procreation of children, to be brought up in the feare and nurtoure of the Lorde, and praise of God. Secondly, it was ordeined for a remedy agaynste sinne and to avoide fornication, that suche persones as have not the gifte of continencie might mary, and kepe themselves undefiled membres of Christes body. Thirdly, for the mutual societie, helpe, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, bothe in prosperity and adversitye, into the whiche holy state these two persones present, come nowe to be joyned.

        So the purposes of marriage are 1) children, 2) remedy for sexual desire, 3) mutual support. It seems to me that faithful gay marriage certainly provides the latter two. If you say that a marriage which cannot fulfil all three purposes is not a proper marriage, then are childless marriages automatically not proper marriages? After all, if a 60-year old man and woman marry, they’re not going to be procreating.

        To reply to your previous comments. If you say marriage is about ‘women and men, men and women learning from their partners what it is to be a female human being or a male one’, are you therefore saying that the celibate do not properly understand what it is to be a human being?

        And I also don’t see why gay couples are incapable of ‘accepting responsibilities towards one’s partner,…parents and relatives as well as towards the wider community’, even if they don’t have any children (and many gay couples do). Some of the people I know who have done most in communities have been married but childless or single or gay couples.

        I value marriage as a Christian institution: I’m married myself and I know how positive the experience has been for me. That’s why I want to share the institution with other people who want to express their commitment to that kind of permanent, public, exclusive, supportive, satisfying relationship.


  5. ‘Should the idea of natural symbolism for marriage therefore be discarded altogether, and the institution be seen just as a social arrangement chosen for a particular society? But then the problem arises of why one particular set of social relations should be privileged over another: in that sense, the conservatives are right to say that it raises the question of why polygamous marriages shouldn’t be allowed.’

    There’s a pretty standard answer to these questions: institutions are just social arrangements; which social arrangements we should pick depends on which best promote human wellbeing (or flourishing, or happiness).


    • The problem with that answer is: who gets to decide what best promotes human wellbeing? After all, many people regard monogamous marriage as most promoting human well-being; some feminists, however, believe equally fervently that marriage is oppressive, especially to women.

      One option is to argue that an institution is only valid once membership in it is purely voluntary, but you tend to end up with very unstable institutions as a result. And what of the interest of others in a particular social arrangement if you do wish to leave: how do you decide if human well-being flourishes better with divorce at will, or restrictions on it?


  6. Thanks for the response. The hard question is, what is human flourishing? And we can at least have a reasoned discussion about it, drawing on thousands of years of human experience, thinking, and storytelling about the ways lives go well or go badly (we’re not starting from scratch here). I doubt that discussion will support anything as crude as either ‘monogamous heterosexual marriage is always good for us’ or ‘monogamous heterosexual marriage is always bad for us’. But we’ll be able to say something, for instance, about the roles of friendship and pleasure in successful human lives. And, I suspect, we’ll discover that homosexual marriages can produce the same benefits as heterosexual ones (the gay couples I know certainly support that claim).

    I don’t think this will solve the problem at a stroke – there’s room for reasonable disagreement about flourishing – but I do think there’s plenty to say in answer to the question ‘why one particular set of social relations should be privileged over another’. The conservative move – if we don’t stick to this particular set of standards, anything goes! cats and dogs living together! etc. – is and always has been daft.


  7. After thinking a bit more, the above is unclear about how it relates to your post. What I’m getting at is that natural analogies (especially ones that have to hide their own etiology) are a very bad way of justifying social institutions; judging institutions according to their promotion of human flourishing is a more promising one. But this may still be tangential to your concerns: it’s certainly true that a lot of people try, in complex and interesting ways, to justify institutions by natural analogies. I think they’re making a mistake – but then I’m a philosopher, not a historian…


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