Monday, June 27, 2005

Vegetarianism and religion 

Adam is arguing over at The Weblog that vegetarianism is like a religion. Seeing eating rules as being central to the material side of religion, he argues that vegetarianism qualifies on this front, since its adherents will frequently claim that they cannot eat something, rather than merely expressing a strong preference against it.

Well, there's a non-ethical point here. The 'can't' involved for many people - when they use 'can't', since most vegetarians I know do tend to say that they 'won't' rather than 'can't' eat meat - is a hint that eating meat and fish will actually make them physically ill. Going long enough without these foods tends to change the metabolism so that we can no longer cope with them. I know that, having never eaten more than a mouthful or two of meat, doing so makes me quite sick. That has nothing to do with religion; though I imagine those who have avoided certain foods for religious reasons might face the same problems.

More important, though, in arguing that vegetarianism very poorly resembles 'religion', is the fact that the reasoning behind the vegetarian 'can't' is very different from the religious 'can't'. Within a religious context those who concentrate on dietary restrictions do seem less 'liberated'. Focussing on Romans 14, as he does: a limited diet - perhaps of the sort which deems certain foods unclean - is something to be accommodated in the name of peace, but not something to be encouraged, since it could be harmful to the peace and community which we try to seek with one another. As he suggests, it puts out the host if a guest will not eat what is on the table, and damaging the peace we hold with one another is more important than observing some trivial point of doctrine.

Religious dietary restrictions seem to involve maintaining a superiority over the unenlightened in material matters, while true freedom should involve liberation exactly from such worldviews, in which worldly, fleeting distinction is sought rather than the cultivation of the soul (something which can at least partly be achieved through true community with one another).

Nonreligious vegetarianism, by contrast, isn't about this kind of material distinction from other humans. Indeed, if it's religious at all, it taps into the communalist, egalitarian vein in Christian thinking, in that it discourages us from thinking that we might have property in other creatures such that we can simply use them for our own purposes. Given human tendencies to seek superiority and advantage wherever we can, allowing this sense of superiority to have free rein in one realm can hardly work to reduce the comparisons we seek to draw between each other in others. Vegetarianism encourages humility with regard to the world we have before us.

By seeking to understand the suffering of even the 'least' of animals, we can better understand each other's sufferings; by eating only what even the poorest could afford, we reduce distinctions between rich and poor nations and communities; by treating the world's resources as something to be properly managed for future generations, rather than wasted in the way that meat-production does now, we will at the same time be better able to feed ourselves in the present (someone in the comments thread to Adam's post called it "Moby's argument"). Through vegetarianism in general we can come to develop a certain respect for the world and for one another.

The ethical vegetarian is not religious, in the sense of being merely restrictive. If vegetarianism resembles a religion at all, then it does so much more broadly than this. The Christian who argues that the vegetarian is 'weak' (Paul) for being less flexible in accepting hospitality is thinking too narrowly. Maintaining a diet is never as important as the relationships we have with one another, as Paul argues in Romans. Yet equally, the manners of hospitality and are less important than maintaining a longer-term community with one another and with the world around us, something with which vegetarianism is eminently concerned. Most vegetarians can strike the balance - faced with no alternative, we'd eat meat to live, but frankly a dinner party isn't a situation where there's no alternative, and it's lazy to pretend that it is.

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