01/21/2014 02:16 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

Don't Call Me a Humanist

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Growing up in the Evangelical Christian tradition, I was repeatedly warned of the threat posed by "secular Humanism." This movement was said to glorify the self and provide an empty view of the world. Despite the reflexive irony of the criticism when considering the source, I'm inclined to agree with the overall assessment. Being an atheist does not make me a Humanist by default.

My initial issue comes from the language. The word "Humanist" denotes a sort of self-focus that seems dangerous in an almost religious sense. I do not look at the world and ask what's best specifically for humans, rather what increases the quality of all life.

In National Review, Wesley J. Smith presented a smarmy case about human superiority that sounds remarkably similar to the fundamentalist diatribes I witnessed as a child. He used phrases like "intrinsic moral worth" to describe human beings in opposition to animals, a ridiculous thing to do from a scientific perspective. Short of brazen narcissism, applying a historically fluid and poorly defined construct to a person then assigning the construct infinite worth betrays a childlike view of the world.

Smith's description of animals echoes the language used to promote slavery and abuse of the disabled in past years: That of helpless creatures deserving of pity rather than equal beings deserving of shared dignity. A mindset of condescension rather than respect has consistently resulted in oppression. Smith of course claims that those who disagree with him are nothing more than "misanthrope(s)."

This problem is a hallmark of contemporary Humanism: glorification of a single, often destructive, species without viewing life as the complex matrix it happens to be. The separation between humans and other life forms is magnified through reflexive perception to a degree that doesn't best represent our actual place. We share a language and happen to be the most powerful evolved species on the planet. Patting ourselves on the back for being the shiniest cog in nature's wheel may feel good, but is it wise? Evolution shows us that the pattern for species who have risen is to eventually fall.

We should recognize the fragility of our position. Human beings did not always rule the world. In a few million years, we may no longer even exist. And this is okay. But given our place at the top of the power ladder coupled with an ability to construct ethics, forming systems that prevent harm and result in the most respect for life seems advisable. Promoting life to the fullest is both in our interest and the interest of the world at large.

That highlights the problem of humanistic separatism -- not acknowledging our connection to all other life prevents us from pursuing the best interest of life at large, which coincides with our best interest as a species. A lack of respect for non-human animal life has not only contributed to the suffering of billions for our food, but to the destruction of our own home planet by playing a part in the dramatic altering of our climate.

As a vegan, I've witnessed the equal disrespect for non-human sentient life between large sectors of Christians and Humanists. That my ethical system assigns worth to those less powerful than myself elicits defensive sneers. This makes sense. Both Christianity and Humanism are ideological systems designed to elevate the self and promote species power, either through declaring a special position from godly decree or, perhaps even more absurdly, for merely existing.

I reject both systems. In fact, I was more of a Humanist as an Evangelical Christian youth than I would ever be considered today as an adult atheist. What I am is a person who acknowledges a worth in the promotion of life. Call it what you will. But it sure as hell isn't Humanism.