The Ethical Dilemma: Humanist Advice for Brides-to-Be

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Advising Bride-to-Be: I’ve been asked for advice, and I’d like your advice on how to answer. My husband’s cousin is engaged to a wonderful girl who everyone loves, but she’s a different faith. The boy’s parents have no problem with him marrying her, and as far as I know her parents have no problem with her marrying him, but my husband’s religious parents and siblings refuse to go to the wedding. The bride-to-be called me (because she views me as fair and open-minded, without realizing I’m an atheist who doesn’t share my family’s beliefs) and asked what she could do to get everyone on board. The couple is willing to conduct a dual-faith ceremony, and even do the different faiths on different days in different places if that would appease my husband’s clan. But I know that as long as her faith is included, they will exclude themselves. The only way they would attend would be if she converted, which no one has put on the table as an option and I would never propose it.

My husband and I are attending no matter what. But how can I tell this young lady how adamant his relatives are about shunning an interfaith union? At least she doesn’t seem to be taking it as personal, which it certainly isn’t.

—How About a Different Bride?

Dear How,

What a sweet girl. If it were me, I’d tell them where to shove the invitation!

I’ve never heard of the parents accepting an interfaith marriage while more distant relatives voiced their objections, nor have I heard of a bride so ready to go the distance to accommodate said relatives on the groom’s side. Is there perhaps something else going on here that is causing your husband’s posse to make such a statement, and motivating the bride-to-be to be so intent on winning them over? Does the groom have a particularly deep bond with this branch? Is there something special to be lost or gained along with their blessing, like connections or money? Does one of them happen to be the governor of New Jersey? Is the bride one of those people who has a compulsion to please everyone all the time, or at least in regard to her fiancé’s family?

Lacking such background information, I have to take your account at face value. Without making any excuses for the relatives or trying to pass off their reluctance as anything other than religious prejudice, I would underscore to the bride that it’s not about her but about them. Since there’s nothing the couple can do to get these refuseniks to attend, they should just plan the wedding whatever way the two of them prefer—whether it’s with one clergy, two together, one each on two occasions, or no clergy at all (it doesn’t sound as if the naysayers would relent if it were faith-neutral). Reinforce that the wedding is about the couple and their values, not about a few self-centered relatives attempting to impose theirs—and refusing to accept the groom’s choice of bride for ideological reasons: “No offense, dear, you’re lovely—we just don’t accept your kind.”

Remind the bride that her role is simply to extend invitations, and it’s up the recipients to accept or decline, no explanations necessary. The couple can suggest skipping the ceremony and just coming for the reception (probably not acceptable either), but in any case there should be plenty of future occasions that could be shared, such as Thanksgiving, New Year’s, birthdays, or just dinner. It’s the relatives’ loss if they refuse to welcome this couple into their lives.

Meanwhile, use your own judgment whether you and/or your husband should speak with the relatives about the distress they’re inflicting on this blameless girl as she becomes an official member of their family. While it could be constructive for them to recognize the bad feelings they are creating and how they may be souring their future relationships with the couple and extended families, it may not make the slightest dent in their shells. They are probably doing this intentionally to punish their kin for venturing outside their faith.

So let them enjoy their righteous indignation in contained isolation. Minimize the importance of this mere handful of objectors in the larger scheme of things. Position it as a few people opting to deprive themselves of a beautiful experience, rather than as the experience itself being flawed in any way. It’s a pity people use religion to turn a happy occasion into a personal affront, but the bride and groom should just shrug it off and focus on celebrating their love however they choose.

Hoax Questions: Do you ever get any questions for your column that you suspect are hoaxes? If so, do you answer anyway or just ignore them? And either way, do you feel ethically conflicted in doing so?

—Is This A Real Question?

Dear Real,

I’ve had some questions that at first glance made me catch my breath and wonder whether I was equipped or willing to answer them, but so far I’ve always rallied and published a response.

But I question whether there really is such a thing as a “hoax question.” Questions are questions, whether the person writing about her “friend” really is the friend or vice versa, or the writer is tinkering with the facts, or the writer never actually experienced the situation but is dreaming up something he finds intriguing to himself or challenging to me. I don’t think it makes any difference—it’s still a topic requesting a response.

I’m sure one of these days I’ll get one that I really can’t or won’t answer because I think it’s of limited interest, too far afield for an “ethical dilemma” or beyond my comfort level (the recent one with the laundry list about combinations of incest, swinging and prostitution came close).

In that case, I would extend my regrets privately to the sender, or, if it’s abusive or obscene or just comes off as a rant, I’d ignore it. And I wouldn’t have any ethical qualms about doing so. I’d simply be exercising the prerogatives that come with the power of the pen (or keyboard).