Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Religion and Vegan Advocacy

The following is part one of a three-part series I wrote a few months ago. There was a chance that these were going to be published in an upcoming anthology (in which a separate essay having nothing to do with religion will appear), but it didn't pan out. So I'm publishing them here instead. 

Should animal advocates use religion to promote veganism?

The majority of religious belief depends on the idea of hierarchy, chiefly the belief that we humans are given value by and should humble ourselves before someone or something that is ostensibly “greater than us”—be that a deity, deities, religious leaders, or a collection of metaphysical doctrines.

If there is a being[1] who is greater than humans, then by default that means humans are lesser beings. If humans are lesser than that higher power, then it’s not too large of a leap to reason that there are others who are lesser still. This way of thinking (that other = lesser) has been employed to justify racism, sexism and every other oppression throughout human history. While many religious people have come to see those oppressions as unjust, it was not due to their religious traditions that this has happened[2]. Instead, it was due to the rational, logical argument that skin color and sex, for two examples, are not valid characteristics to take into account when deciding whether or not it’s OK to treat a being as someone with lesser intrinsic value.

In the same vein, religious texts and traditions generally don’t support the idea that animals are due equal consideration, and so they would likely not be the true cause of the embrace of veganism among the faithful.

Animal rights philosophy holds that there is no such thing as “greater” or “lesser” when it comes to the interests of animals in avoiding pain and continuing life[3]. It seems strange, then, to hold veganism up as a religion, or to incorporate the language of religion within veganism, when religion has historically been a major perpetrator of the greater/lesser divide.

Marjorie Spiegel writes in The Dreaded Comparison, “By eliminating the oppression of animals from the fabric of our culture, we begin to undermine some of the psychological structures inherent in a society which seems to create and foster ‘masters’” (28-29).

Or as blogger Randy Sandberg has said, “I’m an atheist because I do not believe in superior beings and I am vegan because I don’t believe in inferior ones either.”

Much as David Neibert’s Animal Rights, Human Rights and Bob Torres’ Making a Killing question whether or not one can be opposed to speciesism while supporting capitalism, activists should ask themselves whether or not they can effectively oppose the hierarchy of speciesism, while embracing the hierarchical institutions of religion. 

It should be noted that certain forms of religions have historically opposed oppression of certain forms. A basic precept of Buddhism is non-harm, for example. But most Buddhists are not vegan. The 14th Dalai Lama isn’t vegan or vegetarian. So while a belief system like Buddhism seems to be an ideal institution within which veganism would thrive, the majority of its adherents still value trivial human interests above the very non-trivial interests of animals. This fact alone should be enough to cast serious doubt upon any religion’s ability to fully embrace and promote veganism.

I don’t mean to suggest that personal belief in deities or metaphysical doctrines should preclude one from choosing to be vegan. And I’m fully aware that many people come to veganism through what they would consider spiritual or religious routes. What I’m suggesting here is that religion need not be used as a way to argue for veganism and that if activists are serious about opposing hierarchy and oppression, it might be a good idea to take a hard long look at the religion they belong to and ask if its teachings line up with their stated beliefs.

Activists should also be wary of entangling religion with veganism because it has the effect of excluding all who aren’t adherents of the specific religion they’re utilizing as an outreach tool.

The Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA), for example, makes several points about the biblical case for veganism—though they confusingly refer to it as vegetarianism. If one is Hindu and reads the CVA site, she may wonder what in the world this has to do with her. She needs to be Christian in order for the Christian biblical argument for veganism to apply to her.

The Society of Religious and Ethical Vegetarians, in their Judaism and Vegetarianism question and answer page, responds to a question about whether a move toward vegetarianism would mean moving the focus away from kosher laws. They answer, “Quite the contrary. One of the purposes of the laws of kashrut is reverence for life. Another purpose is to avoid pagan practices, which often involved much cruelty to animals and people.”

So, just to be clear, there’s no moral obligation for Pagans to be vegan? 

Legal scholar and animal rights philosopher Gary Francione makes the case on a blog post that, “the movement to abolish animal exploitation should be part of a larger movement for Ahimsa, or non-violence.” The Ahimsa that Francione refers to is the Jain principle of non-harm which exists for the purpose of increasing good karma and liberating a soul from reincarnation. The value of incorporating such religious terminology into vegan advocacy is questionable at best. Someone who has no knowledge of the principle of Ahimsa still can easily grasp the concept of non-violence, though may balk at the idea of karma and reincarnation. Why then include within an argument for veganism a religious term that is limiting in scope? Ahimsa refers to a specific principle of a specific belief system, but as far as praxis goes, it means the same thing as non-violence. Given that, it’s confusing as to why Francione, who has otherwise crafted a logical argument for animal rights, doesn’t just take religious language out of conversation and stick with the broadly appealing language of non-violence and justice.[4]

There are, of course, arguments for veganism from most religious perspectives. But does each religion have to incorporate veganism within it’s teachings in order to convince its adherents to go vegan?

It’s understood that people view the world through the various lenses of their religions. But this doesn’t mean that activists need to imprint veganism upon each of those lenses. First of all, there’s no reason to believe that it will work. Since the majority of religious leaders are not vegan, it’s too easy for adherents to dismiss arguments for veganism. If veganism was really what their religion demanded of them, the defense would go, their holy leaders would already be vegan. Secondly, veganism stands on it’s own just fine. It doesn’t need to be incorporated into a religion and it doesn’t require buttressing by the language of religion. A simple, honest argument for veganism is compelling and has the potential to appeal broadly to believers and non-believers alike. Activist should look critically at the desire to muddy that argument with interpretation of holy texts, traditions and guesses as to what deities would prefer. Instead of spending time trying to reverse engineer religions to make them fit veganism, activists may be better off crafting messages that not only drive home the point that unnecessary harm is wrong for reasons that are self-evident, but also focus on the myriad ways in which animal use is, indeed, unnecessary.

Should the argument for veganism be based upon amorphous supernatural belief? Or should it be presupposed upon immutable, observable, fact-based, logic-based evidence?

As an atheist, I obviously lean toward the latter.

Alas, like the religious, the majority of atheists don’t embrace veganism. For many, the atheist view that there is no gods ends up elevating humanity to the position of god within the hierarchy of being. Since there is no god, the argument goes, humans make the rules and can rightly position themselves at the pinnacle of the chain of being. Anthropocentrism either goes unexamined or is celebrated. The appeal to nature fallacy is embraced as a defense of the status quo.

Fortunately, skepticism often goes hand-in-hand with atheism as well. Many skeptics take a look at the institution of speciesism and see it as one of unnecessary oppression.

Mary Martin, author of the blog “Animal Person,” writes

"Vegans usually have spent quite a bit of time exploring our relationship with nonhuman animals and making a conscious decision to go against the mainstream. And atheists who were parented by believers have usually spent time examining the religion they were raised in as well as why we'd believe there is a god at all. I see these counter-culture positions as parallel and based on the same evolution of thought and deconstruction of the stories of childhood."

Again, none of this is to say that one can’t be vegan and religious. But as advocates, we ought to be cognizant of the extra layers we needlessly add to the argument for animals rights when we use religious terms and religious arguments in our advocacy.

Advocates should seriously consider leaving religion out of the conversation regardless of the personal religious views of either party—the advocate and advocated to. Most people, regardless of religious belief, are not going to argue against the statement that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary harm upon animals. Religion-specific codes of ethics and morality may come into play further into individual conversations about veganism, but when the dialogue isn’t presupposed upon them, the argument for veganism as a general moral obligation is stronger. 

[1] Or beings. I’ll stick with the singular in this essay simply for flow’s sake.
[2] Despite what they may claim. Also, it’s important to recognize that it’s probably not because of religion that those oppressions initially occurred, but that religion was likely created and molded to justify and enshrine the pre-existing oppression of others.
[3] That’s a statement that needs to be qualified. Animal rights philosopher Tom Regan, for example, maintains that human interest in continuation of life counts for more than, say, a dog’s, since the average human is the subject of an ostensibly more complex and fulfilling inner life, and potential future, than are other animals. For the purposes of this essay, though, I defer to Gary Francione’s view of animal rights, which maintains that sentience is all which is required in order for one animal to have equal inherent value to another.
[4] In fairness to Francione, it’s worth noting that in Introduction to Animal Rights, he wrote in reference to “the basic right not to be treated as a thing and the concept of equal inherent value,” that, “neither of these concepts involves anything that requires our acceptance of any metaphysical doctrines. All that is required is logic” (93) …


Religious News said...

Religions teach that preserving and nurturing the earth is a spiritual imperative. Moving towards a vegetarian diet expresses one's conviction that we should show compassion for animals, preserve health, help feed hungry people, protect the environment, conserve resources, and pursue peace. Thanks a lot.

Erin said...

But Al, you clearly allow your atheism to guide your philosophical underpinnings for veganism. Clearly you find that to be compelling, but not everyone does.

I guess I just don't understand the downside. Sure, as you say, some people will not be reached by contextualizing veganism within a particular set of religious beliefs. But some will not be reached by an atheist approach, either.

There is a very long tradition of social justice activism within organized religion, of opposing the hierarchy that you identify at the root of injustice. I think it's a mistake to exclude the power of that kind of activism wholesale. If people can find meaning and basis for veganism in their spiritual tradition, and further want to share that with others of a similar tradition, who am I, or any of us, to prevent them from doing so? More power to them, I think. I wonder if you could provide some concrete, real-world examples where this approach was detrimental.

BTW, I'm truly sorry to hear that the project didn't pan out. Your argument is well-constructed, and I know you spent a lot of time and thought writing it.

Gary L, Francione said...

You seem not to understand my position on the nature of moral reasoning in animal ethics. Perhaps this will help:

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University