Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Veganism and Woo

Here's the third part of my veganism and religion essay series (parts 1 and 2 are here and here): 

What is Scientology? A cult? Religion? Despite what one wants to call Scientology, there’s no real appreciable doubt among the majority of society that it’s something rooted in an irrational, illogical, non-scientific, fantastical view of the world.

Scientologists who are vegan—people may be tempted to refer to them as vegan Scientologists—may have a “VEGAN” bumper sticker on their car alongside a “SCIENTOLOGY” bumper sticker. Will this result in non-vegan-non-Scientologists thinking that Scientology is something that vegans do, or that veganism is something that Scientologists do?

Both Scientology and veganism are on the fringe, as defined by dominant culture. Whether or not it’s true in any individual case, people who aren’t vegan will associate the other fringe aspect of a vegan’s life with veganism.

When someone voices two distinct marginalized views in a society that is indifferent or hostile toward those views, they tend to get lumped together. It’s the bumper sticker effect. It may be that veganism or the other fringe element is seen to be the dominant element about a person—one may think, “Oh, being vegan is just something Scientologists do,” or, “Oh, Scientology is just something that vegans do.” Either way, it’s a lose/lose for veganism.

It could be rightly said that I’m unfairly picking on Scientology by using them as an example. Other examples could be used, of course. I’m writing specifically about marginal systems of irrational belief here—marginal in the sense that they have a small numbers of adherents—as opposed to mainstream, culturally dominant religions. I'm not saying here that mainstream religions have some greater claim to supernatural truth than do these marginal beliefs.[1]

I focus on marginal belief systems here because they are viewed by dominant culture as on the fringe, far beyond what the average person would believe.

Given this, lumping veganism in with marginal belief systems hurts veganism. It may well be the case that the inverse is true, that the lumping hurts the marginal belief system, but that’s not my concern here. I wish to see veganism, an ethic of justice for all sentient beings, to proliferate beyond the fringe. As such, I desire to see veganism associated with the mainstream values it already reinforces. I’m not arguing that vegans should instead hitch the vegan wagon onto major religions, but that vegans shouldn’t hitch the wagon of veganism onto anything other than the idea that we should not cause the suffering and death of other-than-human animals when we don’t need to. Nothing else is required.

This argument also goes for the bumper sticker effect that is observed when raw food and other dietary restrictions, myriad new age beliefs, and “woo” are lumped in with veganism.

Regarding the extraneous dietary restrictions that get associated with veganism when vegans advocate them, vegan and registered dietitian Ginny Messina writes:
Advocating diets that incorporate unnecessary nutrition-related restrictions makes it harder for people to go vegan. That goes for fat-free, soy-free, and raw foods diets. Sometimes these variations on veganism are perceived as steps in the same dietary evolution. They aren’t. Veganism is an ethical choice and it’s a diet that is healthful and appropriate at all stages of the lifecycle. Raw foodism is a fad diet that is appropriate only for adults and is based on shaky scientific principles at best. Fatfree veganism is a therapeutic diet for adults with health problems—and as I’ve noted before, it’s not necessarily the ideal approach.
An example of someone who utilizes “woo,” which Wikipedia defines as, “a term used by scientific skeptics for pseudoscience, alternative medicine and New Age beliefs,” is advocate and author of The World Peace Diet, Will Tuttle.

Tuttle co-founded Circle of Compassion, which runs a prayer circle website. On the site, an essay Tuttle authored with co-founder Judy Carman says, “Those of us who saw the film What the Bleep Do We Know? learned, or probably already knew, that our thoughts create energy fields that can affect matter in powerful ways.”

This is what is meant by “woo.” Aside from utilizing junk science and selectively interpreting good science in order to propagate a spiritual worldview, What the Bleep Do We Know? has intractable ties to a sect which believes that a woman, Judy “JZ” Knight, channels a 35,000 warrior named Ramtha.

The claims made in the movie are not supported by science.

Tuttle and Carman continue,
What we are proposing is that we all increase the power of these [animal advocacy] actions exponentially by uniting our focused thoughts on this single phrase at least once a day: “Compassion encircles the earth for all beings everywhere.” Imagine this phrase—this vision—being brought into the minds and hearts of millions of people each and every day and thus generating an energy field of compassion around the world.

I have to wonder why, if this sort of thing works, Tuttle and Carman don’t ask people to focus their thoughts on this phrase multiple times per day, or perhaps focus their thoughts on nothing but this phrase all day long. (I know that Tuttle does not do this, himself. He's a tireless advocate for peace, touring all over the place in order to spread the message of radical inclusiveness detailed in his book, The World Peace Diet.)

This concept that Tuttle and Carman put forth is, of course, similar to the Christian concept of the power of prayer: Pray, and Jesus will answer. Again, I’m not claiming that one way is closer or less close to the “right way.” That’s not the point I’m making here.

The Catholic concept of a wafer magically turning into the flesh of a god because an ordained man in a robe says some words to it is pretty darn out there when you step back and look at it. But the fact remains that Catholics are a respected demographic in our culture. One can’t simply say, when trying to determine how best to advocate on behalf of other-than-human animals, that since the majority of society believes in an all-powerful spiritual being or beings, then statements like the ones Tuttle and others make in regard to vegan advocacy should be treated as just another way of viewing our spiritual relation to reality.

Put another way, in the public relations fight between Jesus and Ramtha, Jesus is winning by a lot, and his odds are great to keep on winning for the foreseeable future. I happen to think that vegans shouldn’t bet on either of them, but if you do bet on the one who has little to no odds of winning, maybe just … keep it to yourself while advocating for other-than-human animals?

Carman and Tuttle write that their books, “can help you educate people about how activism and spiritual work are inextricably linked with animal rights issues. For example, world peace and personal inner peace cannot be attained among human beings as long as we are violently dominating, exploiting, and eating our animal kin.”

I agree with the second sentence, but I wonder what inner and world peace have to do with spiritual work. Spirituality is the belief in non-physical things. Inner peace and world peace are real, physical matters. I need no spiritual belief in order to advocate on behalf of animals and I take offense at the claim that I do.[2]

Veganism requires no more faith than is required when we see a dog yelping in pain and say, “That dog is in pain.”[3] There’s a preponderance of scientific evidence to back up that claim of pain. On the other hand, there’s a poverty of scientific evidence to suggest that merely thinking about something can change it, or that a woman can channel a 35,000 year old warrior, or that raw foods are always healthier than cooked foods, or that oil has no place in healthy diets.

Vegans may do well to keep a large gap between their advocacy of veganism and their advocacy of other fringe beliefs and actions, especially when those beliefs and actions are supported neither by the culture at large or by anything close to the scientific evidence which supports veganism.

[1] For what it’s worth, if I were to make a claim at all in this regard, I would claim that all supernatural claims are equally, patently false.
[2] I am aware of the humor of this statement, considering that it appears within a piece sure to offend many people.
[3] Substitute any animal you want for “dog” in this statement, including “human.”


Lucas said...

Early vegans, such as Donald Watson, also argued that vegans (as well as "reformed vegetarians") should keep all their materials secular so as not to turned people off to the movement.

Al said...

That is such a great piece, Lucas. Thank you so much for posting the link here.