How Secular Humanism Has Shaped My View of Conservation

On the face of it, conservation seems like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t we protect endangered species or land essential for an ecosystem? And yet, in the age of Trump, it clearly is not a no-brainer.

When I was growing up in the evangelical world, I heard any number of reasons individuals rejected conservation, like: it is a New Ager’s idea; it is a liberal idea and liberals want to destroy America; we have been given dominion over the world (Gen. 1:26-28), therefore, the planet’s resources are ours; the last days are here, therefore the planet is going to burn up anyway; or God wouldn’t have built a planet we could destroy.

(Have you heard of nukes?)

There was a time when I parroted back these responses, but, in time, I began to question them—particularly due to theological reasons.

I progressively wondered why God would create a planet he called “good,” but then be cool with his people screwing it up. I was also becoming a liberal Christian, so my conservation theology started to kick in, seeing creation care as also an essential mandate.

Additionally, I changed my mind on issues like evolution: partly because I read books on it by specialists who weren’t evangelical apologists. At the time, that meant I began to feel closer to the natural world. I began to see us as animals—clever animals and skilled primates—but still animals. I began to see us as needing to share this planet with our animal cousins.

Fast forward a few years, I left my faith entirely. And yes, I know evangelicals who will say, “see, that’s what you get for embracing conservation or evolution.” It’s a false conclusion. There are, of course, many Christians who lived their entire lives embracing science and supporting conservation efforts because their theology spoke to it. These ideas are not simply gateway beliefs.

But I did eventually—and for a wide range of reasons—land as a secular humanist.

What is a humanist? The American Humanist Association’s short definition is as good as any: “Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.”

That is a very different way to see the world.

In many ways, religious and non-religious persons who support conservation and sustainability can arrive at the same practical outcome: protecting nature. They can reasonably work together in that effort. There are, however, differences in the details.

As I see it, humanism provides a why with an incentive that indisputably values this world more.

The world isn’t divinely protected; we can destroy it. There is no planet B. For a humanist, there is no afterlife; there is no heavenly escape hatch. Death definitely has a sting and will eventually claim all of us. But victory over death is found in how we choose to live our lives here and now. Victory is in what we leave behind.

This gives me an incentive to try to get it right the first time. (FYI, I remain a work in progress.)

Because this is the only world we’ll know, we have to treat it kindly. In fact, our survival requires us to respect the world around us, to protect ecosystems, and to lessen our footprint. The survival of other species is tied to our own. We are latecomers, appearing on the scene long after other species had already existed and vanished. We are not the pinnacle of life created on the sixth day; we do not have a divine right to dominion.

For the humanist, living the best possible life is its own reward. Conservation, which is predicated on that idea, puts an exclamation point on its urgency. This world, Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, is our (my) home, and to love life, therefore, is to love it.

See Cosmos’s HD version of Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot below

Photo: The Smoky Mountains at dawn. Brandon G. Withrow CC BY, 2017.