Is Vegetarianism a Religion?

Over the past year, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris has made his abandonment of eating animals public – and it’s been inspiring. As I previously noted in an unfortunately titled Salon article, Sam’s secateurs of reasoning attend to the weeds in his own garden as much as those that lie over the fence. Last year he acknowledged “…the fact that I participate in a system that does this knowingly (animal factory farming) more or less condemns me as a hypocrite.” Throughout his ‘Waking Up’ podcasts, Sam leads by example in reminding us to check our own ethical blind-spots.

This week Sam admitted he had “fallen off the wagon” and recommenced eating fish, citing health reasons. Whilst I admire his ongoing intellectual honesty, I was surprised to hear what followed:

I find the identity of being a vegetarian annoying. It’s a little bit like a religion.

Of course, this argument is not new. In fact, the “religion” buzzword is used to tarnish so many ideas and movements that it’s starting to lose some of it’s impact—much like “racist” and “sexist” are being worn out by villain-starved social justice warriors.

If vegetarianism is a religion, then so is atheism (I don’t think either are). Granted, this may sound like the playground catch-cry “I know you are but what am I?” playing dress-up, so let me explain.

Even though only a tiny minority of people are atheist, Sam has argued how unfortunate it is to require a name for the rejection of the world’s religions. We don’t feel the need to denote ourselves as “non-astrologers”, for example. Moreover, tribal attitudes tend to be amplified when we belong to groups and reminded of our differences.

Being an atheist says very little about an individual’s views and behaviours, including those related to the very topic of religion. Some believe religion is a force for good in the world, whilst others are cognizant of the harms and vehemently oppose it. Given their coexistence under the shade of “atheism”, it should be obvious that these attitudes are not inherent within atheism.

Currently, vegetarianism represents the few, yet it seems similarly depressing that declining to eat meat also requires a label (we don’t feel the need to distinguish ourselves as rejectors of cannibalism). Such a name stokes the flames of in-group out-group hostility between culinary contingents, and any conformity – imagined or demanded – within vegetarianism is an illusion.

To the sloppy thinker, the label of “atheist” homogenises those who populate it. Although a few fedora-wearers have mutated atheism into a rigid kind of ideology – fundamentalist Reddit trolls who cling to particular worldview with tribal fervour – it’s not a necessary feature. Those who slander atheism with comparisons to religion are simply straw-manning a reasonable intellectual position.

Sam commits a similar fallacy with the unfortunate observation that “there is this kind of religious purity motive that creeps in here when you become vegetarian or vegan”. He says the identity is “annoying”, caricaturing vegetarians as snowflakes who would invariably refuse to eat a friend’s meat-containing dinner. Such piety exists, but being irritating is not a necessary part of vegetarianism.

Whether a vegetarian or atheist, neither precludes one from enjoying some aspects of the very thing they’re rejecting. I eat meat that would otherwise go to waste, because in many cases it’s the more ethical thing to do. Some vegans eat bivalves, because their lack of a complex nervous system renders any scope of conscious experience almost certainly negligible (the bivalves, not the vegans). This wiggle room—this absence of absolutism—can comfortably reside within a utilitarian philosophy of vegetarianism.

Such wiggle room also exists within atheism. Most atheists enjoy Christian traditions of Christmas, whilst Sam Harris has presumably engaged with various yogis without continually divorcing himself from superstition. Atheism does not require an absolutism that disqualifies such things. If you’re an atheist who refuses to say grace over a meal with your spouse’s parents, you’re just a bit of an arsehole.

If anything, meat-eating is much more recognisable as a religion than vegetarianism. Like religion, consuming meat provides comfort, brings people together and appears to be a requisite for a good life (“I wouldn’t want to live in a world without bacon”). Moreover, this way of life stubbornly persists in defiance of some basic facts: It almost invariably contributes to misery in this world, and the good things meat provides can be gained in other ways.

Most people want to live in a world in which meat is a harmless commodity. This wishful thinking is confirmed daily by its ubiquitousness, so pointing out some obvious facts that rub up against this ideal is somehow insulting. Almost every Westerner eats amounts of meat that is a detriment to their health, factory farming is a horror show too unbearable to experience even through YouTube, and the environmental burden of sustaining this luxury is back-breaking for our climate.

The positive aspects of religious faith can be gained in other ways – luckily the same holds true for meat eating. As Sam Harris has detailed throughout his career, atheists can enjoy the benefits of religion by developing a scientific basis of morality, engage in the pursuit of spiritual experience through meditation, and embed ourselves in an environment with a sense of community. A similar situation presents itself for vegetarians: The boons of meat-eating can be won by intelligently sourcing a wide variety of foods with the necessary nutrients, supplementing B12 and knowing how to cook a mean dahl.

If vegetarianism is like a religion, then so are meat-eating and atheism. Thankfully, none of them are.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Scott White says:

    Great piece Steve.

    I agree that meat eating actually resembles religion far more than vegetarianism, sharing traits such as;
    – Early indoctrination
    – Taboo to criticise due to percieved social stimga
    – Persists due to social conditioning
    – Solidified through tradition & ritual
    – Lacks ethical progress (despite scientific advancements clarifying the ethics)
    – Promotes in group thinking and a kind of tribalism
    – etc..

    I also thought Arthur Koestler’s essay “On Disbelieving Atrocities” (from the Faith in Reason podcast) was analogous.

    Spceficially this section “Now and then we succeed in reaching your ear for a minute. I know it each time it happens by a certain dumb wonder on your faces, a faint glassy stare entering your eye; and I tell myself: now you have got them, now hold them, bold them, so that they will remain awake. But it only lasts a minute. You shake yourself like puppies who have got their fur wet; then the transparent screen descends again and you walk on, protected by the dream barrier which stifles all sound….

    Clearly we must suffer from some morbid obsession, whereas the others are healthy and normal. But the characteristic symptom of maniacs is that they lose contact with reality and live in a phantasy world. So, perhaps, it is the other way round: perhaps it is we, the screamers, who react in a sound and healthy way to the reality which surrounds us, whereas you are the neurotics who totter about in a screened phantasy world because you lack the faculty to face the facts.”

    Ironically i didn’t want to comment of your FB page purely because of fear of alienating some of my mest eating clients (many who follow me on FB)…

  2. Nick Bowles says:

    Sam’s comparison of vegetarianism to religion was in a very specific sense, that being his feeling of a need to conform to a purity/sanctity norm. Certainly this is at play within veganism especially; the result I believe of the deconditioning that occurs by no longer perceiving animal flesh as food and the resultant reactivation of our innate disgust response. I must admit that I would struggle to bring myself to eat even the most ethical meat, say, road kill or cultured meat, although I would say that it would be moral and within the vegan/vegetarian ‘creed’ (oops) to do so.

    This disgust response should be viewed however as a by-product of becoming vegetarian/vegan, and detached from the core message of reducing animal suffering. Those who become vegan/vegetarian for purely rational reasons (say, Singer’s version of utilitarianism) should therefore feel no pressure to conform to this norm. With a more pragmatic approach, people like Sam that find it more difficult to adhere to this lifestyle can enjoy some leeway that ultimately may prevent the whole project from becoming derailed.

  3. kim says:

    Steve, I’ve not heard or read Sam Harris’s comments so I’m relying on you quoting him accurately (I’m sure you are!).

    I think what is somewhat lost in your article is that Sam was talking about being a vegetarian, rather than vegetarianism itself – “I find the identity of being a vegetarian annoying … there is this kind of religious purity motive that creeps in here when you become vegetarian or vegan”.

    You say that “being irritating is not a necessary part of vegetarianism” but it can, in my experience, be a part of being a vegetarian.

    I think this boils down to perceived proselytizing and/or chest-thumping. Zealously trying to convince others of the errors of their ways can, indeed, be irritating and perceived as overly self-congratulatory. I’m not sure I agree that “pointing out some obvious facts that rub up against this ideal (of harmless meat eating) is somehow insulting” but it can certainly be annoying and downright boring.

    Perhaps the expression of personal identity “I am a vegetarian” is one that has, to quote you, been “tarnished … (and) worn out by villain-starved social justice warriors”?

    Vegetarianism is a fine thing. Being a vegetarian is about successfully navigating the troubled waters of identity politics – without being caricatured as a snowflake or a bore!

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