Gay marriage can divide humanists

Gay marriage is generally supported by the worldwide movement of humanists, and generally also groups of atheists, secularists and freethinkers. But there are some who oppose it.

Since 2009, I have interviewed over 70 atheists, humanists and secularists, and a small proportion of these opposed extending gay rights. As part of my oral history of humanism, I asked interviewees about their attitudes to various questions regarding human rights (including rights to abortion, contraception, women’s rights, the right to die in dignity, and gay rights). Most of my respondents spoke of their support for Amnesty International and the importance of supporting those who seek freedom from religious impositions. The proportion was very small that opposed gay rights. They were usually men, often older men, most of them from professional occupations. Some sought to explain their reasons, but most merely said that they found it impossible to support an extension to gay rights.

One opponent is Nigel Bruce, now aged 92, and one of the founders of the Humanist movement in Scotland in the 1950s. In November 2013 he announced his resignation of membership of the Humanist Society of Scotland because he opposed the Society’s advocacy of gay weddings. He was quoted by The Herald newspaper as saying that this would be a “backward step” for human civilisation []

I interviewed Nigel in 2010. [Some of his interview appears on this Blog under HUMANIST LIVES.] He told me how he had devoted much of his lift to the pursuit of human rights, especially for children. He said: “we’ve lived through interesting times as regards rights. I lived when I was in London through the time when homosexuals were at last getting the right to be regarded as normal people and when the law was changed”. He spoke of the need to promote all sorts of human rights, and described in great detail the work he had undertaken in contributing to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Like most Humanists, Nigel took a broad view of human rights across the spectrum, and was clearly most pleased with the progress made to extend them in the second half of the twentieth century. During his interview with me, he didn’t speak about opposing gay marriage.

It has struck me that the gay rights issue is one of the most potentially divisive for humanist organisations. In part, it seems like a generational issue, and there may be an argument that humanist opposition to gay marriage may diminish with time. But it is one of a number of issues that arouse different feelings in the members of humanist organisations. I hope to return on this blog to some of those other issues.

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