Vegatheism?

Despite differences between the vegan skeptic and general skeptic communities, their ideological positions intersect in several ways. Often their points of compatibility relate to the rejection of false perceptions of nonhuman animals according to a religious worldview.

There has long been an antagonism between exponents of vegetarianism and mainstream religion, and often it revolves around disagreements over the perception and treatment of animals. Around 268 CE, Greek philosopher Porphyry wrote On Abstinence from Animal Food in which he appeals to a friend, Firmus Castricius, to return to a vegetarian diet, after Firmus had renounced vegetarianism and joined with Christians because of their blessing of meat eating. As Voltaire writes, Firmus “became a Christian… to recover his liberty to eat flesh and drink wine.”[1]Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003 [orig. 1883]), 68. So in On Abstinence, we already see in place a conflict between vegetarianism and animal advocacy and the doctrines of an increasingly prevalent Christianity.

Porphyry, an anti-Christian Neoplatonist, saw animals as part of the moral community, but it was pro-Christian Neoplatonism that would eventually dominate and rationalize a metaphysical gulf between humans and nonhumans. This imposed hierarchy of life excluded animals from the moral community, such that from “the time of Porphyry to the eighteenth century, vegetarianism as an ethical choice was almost completely eclipsed.”[2]Ethical Vegetarianism: From Pythagoras to Peter Singer, ed. Kerry S. Walters & Lisa Portmess (Albany: State University of New York, 1999), 12.

With the spread of Christianity, as Colin Spencer explains in The Heretic’s Feast, “Vegetarians then became criminalised and were considered blasphemers and heretics.”[3]Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), xiii. Basing your diet on moral concern was as dangerous as heresy and it could get you killed.

That is what happened to members of Manichean and Cathar communities in Medieval Europe—a meat free diet was how they were singled out as heretics for execution. In France, followers of Manichean ascetics were hung on heresy charges justified by their refusal to kill a chicken on the order of a bishop.[4]Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 163. Later in 1052, Emperor Henry III had Manichean followers hung for such wickedness.

The growth of the Cathar heresy in the 1100s was an affront to the Church, and its campaign to stamp it out culminated in the Albigensian Crusade, beginning in 1208. It was a long war of sieges and civilian massacres, an orgy of sword and spirituality characterized by torture, sadism and cruelty and infamous for the slaughter at Beziers. It was during this slaughter that the papal legate, upon being asked how crusaders should distinguish Cathar heretics from Catholics, responded: “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.” Not long after the crusade concluded in 1229, the Inquisition began.

Aside from the association of vegetarianism with unlawful religious beliefs, the vegetarian ethic also aroused suspicions of atheistic tendencies. This was compounded by the linking of atheism with the idea that nonhumans “shared a common mortality” with humans.[5]Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World?: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 123. Atheism was detested because by its nature it removed the religious justification for much of the persecution of nonhumans. In other words, a godless view removed “the essential prop by which man’s right to rule the lower species was usually supported.”[6]Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World?: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 123. Vegetarian beliefs undermined that prop one way, while atheism undermined it in another.

In the 18th century, the atheist view was supported and codified by materialist philosophies that “repudiated the ancient distinction between mind and matter, body and soul, on which the whole separation of man from nature had been founded.”[7]Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World?: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 123. Religious authorities had to reject such an impertinence, since dismantling the human-animal gulf also helped dismantle religious importance.

At the same time, sympathies with a vegetarian outlook and an ethical consideration of nonhuman animals began to take hold in intellectual circles again. Exponents critically examined ethical issues surrounding animal exploitation and built upon the arguments of the ancients. For a number of these individuals, a vegetarian position and the rejection of conventional religion for an atheistic worldview went hand in hand. Thus a strong link was perceived between vegetarianism and atheism by both early vegatheists and their religious opposition.

Even today religious groups are suspicious and hostile toward vegan ideals, associating them in their own minds with godless behavior. In Britain in the 1990s, a government minister at the time by the name of John Selwyn Gummer stirred up controversy when he ridiculed vegetarians as anti-Christian. Unfortunately, with his justification being the biblical mandate of dominion over the natural world, Gummer was actually voicing publicly what the mainstream faithful thought privately.

Aside from these long running historical links of guilt by association, there are other intersecting connections between veganism and general skepticism in terms of critical thinking.

For a start, one cannot see through religious and superstitious falsehoods without skepticism and critical thinking. Similarly, you cannot arrive at veganism, let alone a vegan atheist standpoint, without critical thinking either, because most people live in societies that espouse contrary values inherited from a religious background. For many people critical thinking and skepticism is precisely what led them away from social norms to veganism. It is a logical step often arrived at through looking at the world afresh, recognizing an alternative way of living and thinking, and deciding to reject certain common fallacies and lies perpetuated by an inherited traditional culture.

Studies have found, not surprisingly, that the majority of animal rights activists, around 65 percent, are atheists or at least agnostics, and that the rejection of human dominion—based on religion or otherwise—“is a unifying theme among the divergent animal rights groups.”[8]Harold D. Guither, Animal Rights: History and Scope of a Radical Social Movement (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998), 67. This is because the religious concept of dominion is a fiction that has justified exploitation and abuses for centuries and is crucial for buttressing faith. While you do get religious vegans, the majority reject an anthropocentric view of the universe just as atheists do.

But in rejecting the lie of dominion and religious speciesism, it would appear that vegan skeptics go a step further than the average skeptical atheist. After all, in rejecting outrageous religious claims of human importance and worth founded on anthropocentric arrogance and vanity, it stands to reason that religious speciesism be rejected, too. Speciesism ought to be rejected along with all manner of artificial constructs and self-appointed rankings that derive from religious thinking—the false claim of an absolute morality, the false claim of human uniqueness, the false claim of worthiness based on species membership, the false claim that humans have a soul and nonhumans do not, and so on. Vegan skeptics do not cherry pick.

This is where vegatheism departs from regular skepticism, or more broadly, secularism. Veganism in general rejects all systems that glorify as virtues the concepts of submission—hierarchy, inequality, and other arbiters of social and economic power—that is, as they relate not just to humans but to nonhumans, too. Regular skeptics, however, do not go this far. Many skeptics would not consider it or may regard it as an insignificant matter. Vegatheists, however, can be relied upon to examine more deeply and with more consistently the artificially foundations and self-regulating systems based on religious doctrine by which people still live.

Importantly, the rejection of the fallacy of dominion over nonhuman animals is perhaps the largest threat of all to religious teleological order. This is because maintaining the divide between nature and humans is critical for explanations of theodicy, the explanation of evil. Theodicy is the Achilles heel of theology because it has never been adequately explained, and a fundamental reason for that failure to explain is the suffering of innocent animals.

Since animal suffering is key to the central question of evil, a flash-point of debate that undermines religious claims, perhaps skeptics need to rethink how they participate in and support the religiously drawn arbitrary line between humans and animals.

In relation, let’s make something clear: veganism or vegatheism is not just about animals and not just about diet. It is a political movement that includes other social justice and environmental issues. Its position is therefore politically close to that of many skeptics and secularists.

Religious dogma is designed to maintain a status quo, to ensure elites stay elite and inequalities stay in place, especially for women, slaves, and of course animals. It is blatantly evident in biblical scripture, for example, or the Vedic scriptures with their early references to the strict hierarchical caste system. In the modern era, religion has continued to play a similar role in maintaining society’s power relations and inhibiting social progress and change. In the past, it was a key player in ensuring a necessarily compliant work force and in upholding economic production structures in the service of capitalist elites. In short, throughout history religions have been social constructs that for the most part codified oppression in one form or another, over human and nonhuman, and in favor of the privileged—predominantly men.

Most secularists concerned with social justice no doubt recognize the cultural attitudes inculcated by religion, insidiously ruling social, political and economic mores, and they reject them accordingly. But often, they hold back. Of those structures and power relations—institutionalized and legislated for the convenience of exploitation and financial profit—perhaps the most prevalent and enduring has been culturally indoctrinated speciesism. Most secularists allow that to remain.

Vegatheism, on the other hand, rejects the religious-based principles and laws upon which societies have been founded. It rejects threads of religious rule that still wend their ways into modern behavior and officialdom. It rejects ancient anthropomorphic customs alive today, to which even the staunchest skeptics appear to remain loyal. It directly counters the fallacy of animals as property and rejects culturally indoctrinated speciesism.

So unlike most regular secularists, vegatheists actually do something about opposing traditions, desires or emotions based on ancient beliefs that are invalidated by the test of moral scrutiny and are incompatible with common sense, ethics and even science. This action, after all, is in keeping with progressive principles and political aspirations.

Matching action with ethical conviction is the vegatheist creed and imperative. It should also be the imperative of the wider skeptical community. It behooves secularist, the skeptics and atheists, to reject the religious view of nonhuman animals in the course of rejecting religion and its cultural indoctrinations. There is an obligation to take ethical action against the exploitation of the most defenseless and underrepresented.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003 [orig. 1883]), 68.
2. Ethical Vegetarianism: From Pythagoras to Peter Singer, ed. Kerry S. Walters & Lisa Portmess (Albany: State University of New York, 1999), 12.
3. Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), xiii.
4. Colin Spencer, The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 163.
5. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World?: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 123.
6. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World?: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 123.
7. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World?: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 123.
8. Harold D. Guither, Animal Rights: History and Scope of a Radical Social Movement (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998), 67.

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