By Ellie Haylund
It is no surprise to me that many humanists are vegetarians. Preserving the lives of animals feels like a natural byproduct of a worldview that values compassion and ethics.
Even outside of humanism, avoiding meat is becoming increasingly common. According to studies done by the sustainable lifestyle app abillion, “In the past two years, we’ve…seen the growing prominence of flexitarians, pescatarians and omnivores in the plant-based market. These consumer groups are called reducetarians. In simple terms, they are people who actively reduce their intake of meat and animal-based products, but do not completely give up meat or dairy.”
It is particularly common in younger generations. “A 2017 report showed that 80% of US Millennials eat meat alternatives, compared to 50% of non-Millennials,” abillion reports. “This corroborates with a 2018 survey which revealed that 7.5% of American Millennials and Gen-Z consumers have given up meat, triple that of respondents over the age of 50.”
The progressive nature of these statistics is reminiscent of the rise in the religiously unaffiliated. While I am not implying a correlation, it conjures a bigger picture of younger generations embracing humanistic values, whether intentionally or not.
Humanism’s emphasis on compassion and a healthy planet both have a tangential connection to animal welfare. But an herbivorous diet is not inherent in the humanist lifestyle — it is just how one might interpret our tenets. Another philosophy more directly addresses it: sentientism. Also known as sentiocentrism, this worldview concerns itself with all sentient beings — both humans and animals.
Sentientism and humanism have a lot in common, including the importance of science and reason, along with rejection of the supernatural. Sentientism strays from humanism in that it essentially professes an obligation to protect animals by way of not killing nor consuming them.
I was a pescetarian throughout high school. I chose to eat fish and seafood, avoiding all other meat. My primary motivation was moral and ethical. But I was still growing up and all it took to abandon the practice was a spring break cruise, 24-hour room service, and a burger. Oops!
Despite introducing meat back into my diet by the time I got to college, I pledged that I would one day return to pescetarianism — or ideally go full vegetarian. But this was all too easy to put off. For years. It sometimes felt hard to reconcile my love of and compassion for animals while continuing to eat them.
Over time, I began to cut back on my meat consumption. I ate a lot of plant-based alternatives anyway, so it was not too challenging to prepare meat-free meals at home. But it wasn’t clear what it was going to take to fully abandon meat.
Last fall, I visited a friend in Vermont. She has a sanctuary farm with a small crew of the sweetest animals. Sheep, a goat, ducks galore, pigs with names like Sven, Mr. Duck, Rosie, and Potato. Most of them came from hoarding situations. We spent some time at another, larger sanctuary where I met at least 100 more sheep and a massive, beautiful cow. My friend is a vegetarian and we spent the weekend eating plant-based food and taking care of her precious brood of creatures.
Upon my return to Minnesota, I ruminated on the matter. It seemed like the obvious time to break up with carnivorism. So I jumped in and haven’t looked back. It feels so natural to live my values in this way and to better practice my interpretation of humanism. The demand for plant-based options has made it easy—restaurants almost always offer several compelling vegetarian or vegan dishes.
I would never shame a meat-eater — humanist or not. But for anyone who has trouble reconciling their values and their diet, I encourage you to seek out inspiration. A catalyst to make a change. Empathy and morality are second nature to us as humanists. It’s a short journey from supporting human flourishing to protecting the dear animals with whom we share our planet.
Ellie Haylund is president of HumanistsMN.
A great message Ellie! Thank you. I believe a rational conclusion of a considered life to be the reduction of suffering and harm to other living things as much as possible. I always hope more people will consider that path.
Thank you for your thought-full article, Ellie! You’re right – I think humanism and vegetarianism align well. And, for sure – even reducing animal product consumption is a huge plus for the ecosystems, animals and the human animal making that choice (assuming a typical body health). My motto became Eat low on the food pyramid – to take less from this planet. And it turns out to be lower cost, less messy and efficient when selecting off a menu (though there are more options now!).