In this series, we ask vegans engaged in different kinds of activism a question, and post their responses, to show a diversity of perspectives on the same topic. This is not a forum for ‘professional experts’ and thought leaders, but a space for community voices. Join the discussion below in the comments.
I became atheist in 2003. It wasn’t until a saw a video of factory farms and slaughterhouses that I stopped eating animal flesh in 2004, and made the logical step to go vegan in 2005.
Even though I was never very religious growing up (I went to a Catholic church on Christmas and Easter with my mom and sister while my dad stayed home), I think atheism helped me see that it was wrong to eat, wear, and otherwise exploit animals. As an atheist, it was easy for me to reject the supernatural belief in a species hierarchy and instead view the human species as merely one animal among many in the animal kingdom.
I see atheism and veganism as separate, but I definitely think a move to atheism across human society will help free minds of speciesism and affect a shift towards veganism.
I became a vegan for the same reason I became an atheist. I was confronted with facts. Like most people in America, I was taught to worship a god and consume animal products. I went to a small K-12 Christian school and the summer after I graduated and ventured out into the real world, someone questioned me about inconsistencies in the Bible. My faith was shattered. It would have been easier to live in denial rather than change who I was, but there’s no integrity in ignorance.
Veganism was more intuitive. I stopped eating animals in the early 90s because I realized I was eating animals, but it was only relatively recently that I learned there’s unnecessary suffering and death in all animal products and I literally went vegan overnight. Veganism and atheism are results of critical thinking, and because of what I have learned, I always want to know more. I’ve done the restaurant scene in Portlandia, but I never ask about the chicken because I know he or she came from a slaughterhouse; I want to know about the person who picked the tomato.
It might be arrogant to deny the possibility that there is more to life and I admit that I have seen and experienced supernatural phenomena, but I don’t need a god. I don’t need animal products either. What I am certain of is that I have a limited amount of time on earth and while I am here, I want to cause the least amount of harm and help others reduce their own negative impacts. Unfortunately, telling someone their religion is bullshit is as unwelcome as telling someone their dietary and consumer habits cause vast amounts of suffering and death. Michael Pollan says veganism is an insult to your mother! Mine went vegan after I did, but I still haven’t told her I’m an atheist. Religion itself is oppressive but her personal belief in Jesus Christ isn’t hurting anyone, so I’m not going to ruin that for her. I don’t tell children there’s no Santa Claus.
My regard for animals does not derive from my regard towards any god or religion, or the lack thereof. My compassion and passion for things in life derives from the simple fact that I am not an asshole and that even though I don’t believe in heaven after I die, I still strive to be the most foremost person that I can be.
I became a vegan before I realized I was a free-thinker. Vegans and atheists believe in a lot of different things, but wow, how we believe is so much the same! We are both non-conformist. We go against what society has deemed “social norm,” and what they see is correct or acceptable. Vegans and atheists need hard facts. We don’t believe in things because someone tells us to. We need hard proof of new ideas presented to us. And even then, we are going to need some more convincing. Vegans and atheists also share strange ‘askews’ in the picture society has painted us to be. Just as all Atheists aren’t goth, dark depressed people, neither are vegans all granola-eating hippies living in the woods in yurts.
Vegans and atheists tend to have louder voices in the crowd. We have to have bigger voices to let our smaller message to the world to be heard. Every day we are further pushing the boundaries of the First Amendment, and it’s exciting.
A lot of vegans would disagree with me and say that their moral reasons for not choosing to harm animals is their religious view or is a religion itself. Theirs is a decision based on sinning-if-they-don’t, consequences if they hurt another. I don’t believe in deities and I don’t believe in the laws of karma, but I still care about animals. To me animals are fellow hitchhikers on the planet Earth, and my disbelief in deities sprouted from different sources to me. They derive from my own being and experiences.
There’s no question that my general disdain for religion is rooted in the same type of critical thinking that gave birth to my commitment to veganism. I’d like to take this opportunity to specifically address the notions of both ethics – the philosophy of what’s right and wrong – and morality – the behaviors that one endeavors to engage in as an expression of their ethics. More specifically, I’d like to explore how these very concepts relate to both veganism and atheism.
One of the most common questions that religious people pose as an argument against atheism is “How does one define right and wrong or good and evil without the existence of god?” First off, the question is actually insulting to the entire human species. In fact, to imply that we can’t tell the difference between the two without the help of an invisible, supernatural friend is particularly ridiculous in light of the horrific acts that humans have brought upon each other and their nonhuman fellow earthlings in the name of their religious beliefs. Strangely, it takes conscious effort for humans to transcend the religious jargon spoon-fed to them from childhood. Without such effort, they never learn to critically think for themselves and accept what they are told as truth.
The answer to what is right and wrong is actually fairly simple. The lowest possible bar for what is right is to not knowingly cause a sentient being its maximum suffering. In other words, the easiest level of morality to achieve is simply not to torture anyone. In contrast, the simplest path to doing what is wrong is to cause a sentient being its maximum possible amount of suffering. In other words, the lowest bar for what is wrong is to torture someone. That was easy, right? And there wasn’t any need for god.
At some point growing up, I recognized that the stories and rituals surrounding the supernatural being that I was taught to worship as a Jew simply felt unnatural and contrived. I have been critically questioning religion in general ever since.
How does this relate to veganism? I think it’s obvious.
For the majority of my life I had no idea that the food I ate had any backstory whatsoever. I simply never thought about it. Just as religious parents feed stories and scripture to their children, my parents fed me animal products for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was simply the norm in my culture, just like believing in a supernatural being. When I met my wife, she showed me that in fact the food I was consuming did not appear magically, but actually came from somewhere. She showed me the truth about factory farming and I discovered that I was literally paying corporations to cause enormous amounts of suffering to billions of my nonhuman fellow earthlings.
I self-reflected. I chose to apply the most basic definition of morality to my life, and have since been committed to a vegan lifestyle. Simply put, without god or religion defining right from wrong, all I needed were facts to commit to the lowest possible bar of morality – not contributing to torture.
I see close association with Judeo-Christian religions as a hindrance to becoming vegan.
Let’s say one starts to think honestly about the use of animals as products and food and starts wondering whether it is correct or ethical. Let’s say such a person is an observant Christian or Jew. Such a person is not going to find much sympathy in their religious home where scripture and teachings claim a deep respect for animals, all of God’s creatures, yet in the end the animals are food for the people and their skins become clothing. If you don’t agree, try convincing your rabbi or pastor that he or she ought to interpret their holy book differently and preach from the pulpit that eating a calf, sacrificed with a very sharp blade and a prayer, or that eating a ham or turkey as part of a Christmas celebration, are behaviors their flock should cease. Well, you’re going to get absolutely nowhere. Yes, there are Christian vegetarian societies and Jewish vegetarian groups but they are small splinter groups. Frank Hoffman from all-creatures.org has told us about countless religious people who can no longer find a home in their temple or church, who instead visit his collection of websites. They have to find their spiritual home online because there are just no brick-and-mortar churches or synagogues that denounce the use of animals as food and products adequately. Similarly Dr. Richard Schwartz has been trying to explain to Jewish congregations why vegetarianism, veganism, and environmentalism are true Jewish values. He should be speaking to huge audiences, yet most rabbis don’t give him the time of day.
So, if you are involved in Judaism or Christianity and start wondering whether to become vegan, you are going to have some serious choices. Many choose simply to walk away from their religions that sanction animal murder.
On the other hand, if organized religion was never important to you, or you are atheist and not yet vegan, then you have all the great literature, films, and enlightening speakers at your fingertips as unadulterated resources. Then you can simply think for yourself and not have to be concerned with a religious authority and arcane traditions from another era.
My atheism is simply my personal rejection of the concept/notion/idea of God. Specifically, I strongly doubt there’s a supernatural being with magic powers living in the sky who created the universe, then wrote books about how he did it and why we must worship him. Why has he not produced a DVD or written an app yet?
Now, just to be clear, I also reject this new very vague God that countless people I’ve met seem to have invented on their own. Without fail they believe everything happens for a reason; they use poetic, beautiful, empowering – yet extremely ambiguous – New Age nonsense about how God is love, compassion and kindness. And I always ask them kindly, why does your God of love hate veal calves so much?
My personal road to both veganism and atheism resembles more of a multi-lane scenic highway winding through an awe-inspiring mountain range with both high peaks and low valleys. In other words, I do believe in mountains and I didn’t get to veganville and atheistown via a simple garden path that I decided to take a stroll down one afternoon. The road to both veganism and atheism began for me with questions when I was a child, questions regarding the most commonly held beliefs about the world in which everyone is indoctrinated as children. The more I questioned, the more the many supposed truths about the world did not seem plausible to me. After the questions came much critical thinking, self reflection and yes, spiritual experiences which had nothing to do with magic or the supernatural. I also had many wonderful years bonding with my boyhood canine black lab mix Cassius, and realized he was a person too.
The way to both animal rights and a disbelief in an almighty creator simply became an exercise in connecting the dots to facts, i.e., reality.
Empathy, intuition, secular, liberal, empirical principles and doubt made it rather easy for me personally to eventually find both of these destinations.
Having doubt is a powerful and important tool for functioning properly. Many of us believe that doubt is somehow a negative way to get from one place to another, but we often fail to realize it’s immense power to transform us for the better. There’s an energy and strength in doubt that comes from questioning and investigating stories that don’t seem to make any sense, stories we are told over and over, for instance how God created the world in six days, or that nonhumans don’t feel pain and that their lives don’t matter as much as a human’s.
Doubt possesses a kind of depth to it that faith totally lacks. What I mean by faith here is the belief in a proposition about the world without any evidence to back it up. This is something that seems to be dangerously utilized over and over in all religious beliefs. The same type of thought pattern exists in the unfounded beliefs humans have regarding other animals. Cultivating doubt in one’s life leads to the essential process of thinking things through rationally to the end of an idea.
There are countless ways both atheism and living vegan inform each other and there are important parallels with both for me too.
The first is that one can live a perfectly happy, healthy, fulfilling life without eating animals or without ever believing in a supernatural being who listens to one’s prayers and cares who we might sleep with.
The second parallel is that neither veganism nor atheism is part of a belief system. To live vegan or as an atheist, no dogma whatsoever can be embraced. Rather, both veganism and atheism are rejections of irrational, sometimes very dangerous and harmful belief systems themselves. In this context religion and speciesism are nearly identical twins. There’s nothing about living vegan one has to believe in to realize it’s wrong to kill someone for the mere taste of his or her flesh. There’s nothing an atheist has to believe in to go through their normal day without including Allah in their thoughts.
The third parallel really shows how being an atheist and living vegan are two peas in the same pod. This can be noticed in our daily interactions where we seem able to criticize a person’s belief on any subject we want, except…two. We can’t criticize someone’s personal beliefs about God, or their complicity in exploiting or killing non-human animals for pleasure. Which, of course, includes eating them. The fact is that it remains absolutely taboo in nearly every area of society to question someone’s religious faith or to criticize their omnivorous behavior. Those who do are accused of being self-righteous, insensitive, rude, or un-American. Both of these subjects remain completely off-limits for criticism, and this has terrible consequences.
Another parallel is that the evidence people claim for believing in certain religious doctrines or in believing that it’s okay to enslave or kill non-humans is either false, dishonest or doesn’t actually exist. The belief that Jesus is coming back to destroy anyone who has not accepted him, or that animals were put here on earth by Yahweh for humans to use as they see fit, lacks any proof or scientific evidence. However, both of these ludicrous beliefs control and destroy the lives of billions.
An unthinking, irrational phenomenon takes place in supposed thinking people when they order a plate of ribs or sit in a mosque, church or synagogue. Overwhelmingly they’re accepting either with blind faith, self-deception, or wishful thinking without ever really examining the nuances of what they’re doing. Do they really believe that God has a plan for them, or that no animals were harmed in the process of getting their dinner? What makes all of this possible (besides a claim to tradition) is that most people are in denial or desperately want to believe the myths they are telling themselves.
There is also a parallel in that all theists are atheists when it comes to accepting another religion’s God, and all meat eaters behave like vegans when it comes to not eating certain animals. Ask any Christian if they believe in Zeus or Krishna and you’ll find a militant non-believer standing in front of you. Ask any compassionate person eating organic lamb if they would be at all interested in trying a filet of Labradoodle and you’ll be thought of as disgusting and heartless.
The world is not going to become a more peaceful, loving place for animals or humans if we simply learn to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. The horrible atrocities that occur every day in slaughterhouses have more in common than we would ever want to admit with the feeling of absolute certainty that a religious man has about going to paradise after he flies a plane full of people into a building full of people. Both horrors are made possible by the astonishing power of unreason and both are inspired by unjustifiable beliefs.
If we’re ever going to see an end to these kinds of mindless acts of mass violence, we’ll all need to start building a world where the concept of going vegan or becoming an atheist is no longer needed.