What Unites and Divides Humanism

10/04/2016 01:38 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2017

Humanists have an extraordinary level of agreement with near unanimity on many current issues. This is in stark contrast to many Christian sects, which often disagree amongst and within themselves. For example, according to Pew Research Center, 20 percent of white Evangelical Christians support same-sex marriage (74 percent opposed), while 49 percent of white Mainline Protestants were in favor (38 opposed), and 46 percent of Catholics were in favor (42 percent opposed). Meanwhile, 93 percent of humanists were in favor of same-sex marriage, a nearly unanimous level of support according to a 2011 study. Humanists also find themselves in over 90 percent agreement according to a survey by the American Humanist Association about offering comprehensive sex education in public schools, teaching evolution in science classrooms, supporting a woman's right to reproductive choice, supporting end-of-life choices, and more.

But that level of agreement found among members of the American Humanist Association via the organization's online polling doesn't represent all nontheists. While atheists and agnostics (and any others who identify with labels that are defined by their rejection of supernatural sources of knowledge) tend to trend in the same liberal direction as humanists, that absence of a theistic belief doesn't automatically make them committed to the pillars of humanism, which, in addition to reason, include compassion born of empathy and egalitarianism. Adding those components isn't a perfect defense against societal prejudices, but it does provide the grounding to support moving beyond them when one's exposed to education and experience.

The humanist movement itself isn't without disagreement either. Indeed, being active in local humanist communities is almost a lesson in arguing one's position because friendly debate is so common. Online, this is seen in various surveys and opinion pieces, where humanists present dissenting views. When confronting issues like gun control, pornography, and veganism, humanists sometimes find themselves in opposition to each other. Often the salient factor in such divisions is the emphasis of different values.

For example, while a majority of humanists recognize that the availability of violent weapons correlates with violent crime and so support significant gun control measures, not everyone agrees on how far to go with such policies. A significant number of humanists seem to emphasize the value of liberty over anti-violence measures when they express their strong interest in maintaining the ability to buy, own, and carry guns. Still, when humanists confront competing values like these, they often find middle ground. So the same folks who support gun ownership are often willing to accept modest measures such as waiting periods for gun purchases and mandatory registrations as ways to accommodate their values without facilitating violence.

Similarly, a majority of humanists see pornography at least partially as a free speech issue, pointing out the dangers of limiting self-expression of women and others. But some humanists argue that pornography should be banned or at least seriously restricted because it is particularly detrimental to women and gives those who consume it unhealthy and unrealistic expectations. No matter how the these issues are viewed, and which of the competing values folks emphasize, humanists agree that safeguards should exist and reasonable compensation should be in place for those who work in the porn industry.

On the debate about whether being vegan is superior to being an omnivore, humanist activist Jason Torpy argues that humanism "should be about being the best humans we can be, not asserting our human dominance by breeding, exploiting, torturing, and slaughtering animals," adding that our species' carnivorous nature has also had adverse effects on the environment. Conversely, former AHA executive director Fred Edwords takes the side of our species' need for adaptability, suggesting that continuing an omnivorous diet is needed in some populations. Edwards adds that there are other more impactful ways to reduce our environmental footprint, such as having fewer or no children. So humanists don't only have competing interests but also have competing ideas about best strategies.

Disagreements like these need not be viewed as detrimental to movements, but as spaces for increased understanding. So even though the vast majority of humanists support death with dignity, we don't mind exploring the issue and considering challenges the freedom to die can raise, such as potentially endangering those who are going through a mentally difficult time, or exposing infirm people to manipulation. Such debate helps us to develop better policies like Oregon's Death with Dignity laws, which include safeguards confining euthanasia to terminally ill patients with doctor-certified control of their mental capacities.

Humanist ethics rely on the pursuit of knowledge and rational thought--and what could be more rational than acknowledging that humans have different experiences that lead to different conclusions about how to make our society better? Humanism embraces dialogue that leads to understanding and consensus, and that consensus isn't immutable but can be constantly challenged until new discoveries or better thinking lead us to better conclusions.

Regardless of individual differences, humanists of all stripes recognize that we need to work together to make things better, because no higher power is going to do that for us. While we humanists don't agree amongst ourselves on everything, and we may even change our minds from time to time, we have the insight to see that this open-mindedness is not our weakness, but our strength.