A Comparison of Veganism and Religion

Posted by Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss the case of a prisoner, Paul Cortez, who has been unsuccessful in his efforts to persuade prison authorities to supply him with vegan food in prison.  About a year ago, Cortez became a vegan when he came to see the consumption of animal products (accurately) as participation in unjustified violence toward nonhuman animals.  My column takes up the questions whether Cortez is entitled to accommodation under a federal statute (RLUIPA) and why, even if he is not, a decision to refuse to facilitate a commitment to nonviolence in prison may be independently ill-advised.

In this post, I want to explore tentatively the relation between ethical veganism (by which I mean the decision to avoid animal products because the violence involved in producing such products is wrong) and conventional religion, as a question separate from the doctrinal one of whether statutory and constitutional protections for religious exercise do or ought to apply to the practice of veganism.

One component of veganism that very much parallels religious devotion is a commitment to doing what is morally right.  A religious person might look to religious doctrine to determine what is and is not moral, as mediated by religious leaders.  A vegan might instead look to her own conscience.  The division here is somewhat artificial, however, because religious people regularly confront difficult questions and must consult their own sense of right and wrong, just as vegans may find a particular issue difficult and consult a vegan friend for guidance.  The important parallel is the role of conscience in the lives of both.  Religious people and vegans attempt to organize their behavior around pursuing what is just and avoiding what is unjust, even if their "sources" for moral instruction may be quite different.

Beyond this parallel, there is another that may have more to do with public perception than with reality.  Those who are not religious often view religious people as "fanatical," in just the way that nonvegans often view vegans.  Like secular people with respect to religious people and "sin," nonvegans tend to think that vegans secretly crave the (in my view nauseating) products of animal cruelty and slaughter.

In both cases, in other words, those outside the group seem to imagine the conduct of those inside the group as suffering some sort of hardship in "abstaining" from pleasurable activity.

I suspect that there are some religious people and some vegans who do secretly wish that they could do the things they believe to be wrong.  On the religious front, of course, there seem to be daily scandals in which promoters of religiously-defined family values turn out to be engaged in what their own faith considers sinful conduct (usually having to do with sex).  And among vegans, there are "former" vegans who now commit themselves to spreading the gospel of how they were all wrong before and how great it is to consume animal products again.  (A kind of "born again" in reverse).

Yet on the whole, religious people and vegans seem to find their/our lives quite full and satisfying and do not fantasize about going over to the other side.  This does not make for a salacious story, of course, so reporters have no reason to emphasize it.

An apparently important distinction between religion and veganism is the presence or absence of God and the notion that He (or She) has issued inerrant commandments that people are required to follow.  If one believes that God is all-knowing and all-powerful and all-good and that He or She said it is wrong for two men to have sex with each other, then it follows for such a believer that it is in fact wrong for two men to have sex with each other.  If one does not accept the idea of an inerrant God who explicitly identified some practices as an abomination, on the other hand, then the wrongness of homosexuality seems far less self-evident.

For ethical vegans, by contrast, there is no turning to a canonical text to support one's claims that unnecessarily inflicting suffering and death on animals is wrong.  There are instead premises shared with the rest of the human population, premises based on moral intuitions, followed by reflection on the sometimes-unexpected implications of those moral intuitions, some of which call into serious question the behavior that most of us have been raised to consider normal and ordinary (i.e., the eating and wearing of products of animal torture and killing).

I say the distinction is "apparently" important, however, because the reality is that religious doctrines generally contain directives that track many of our moral intuitions, including injunctions against murder and robbery and commandments to help the stranger in need and the widow and orphan.  For secular people, it should come as no surprise that religious people have arrived at many of the same moral rules as they. 

Furthermore and more importantly, when religious directives come into direct conflict with widely shared moral norms and intuitions, devout people tend to adjust their faith to conform to the intuition rather than doing the reverse.  A classic example is the presence in what Jews call the Bible (or Torah) and what Christians call Old Testament of discussion and regulation that accepts and condones human slavery and the deliberate killing of defenseless captives, including children, who are captured in the course of a war with an enemy nation.  Few Jews or Christians alive today view this discussion of slavery and the killing of defenseless captive children of enemy nations as a guide to moral behavior in the modern world.

All of us, then -- the religious and the secular, the vegan and the nonvegan alike -- attempt to live our lives in a manner that is more or less consistent with what we view as principles of morality and justice.  All of us also have conceptions of what is right and what is wrong that emanate, at least in part, from moral intuitions that we share with one another and from which we draw conclusions after reflecting on their implications.  We all act in accordance with our conscience sometimes and against our conscience at other times (and with moral ignorance -- whether deliberate or not -- at yet other moments).  This is why we can all talk to one another and try to persuade one another of our respective views of right and wrong.  One cannot do that with no shared assumptions.  And it is why, as well, each of us has the capacity to change our minds and our behavior.

At some level, this may sound like an argument against special rights for religious over secular practice.  But I don't mean to say that, exactly.  My view is that there are times when we act on the basis of moral commitments, and there are times when our "moral sense" is not engaged at all.  (This seems to be evident on brain scans when people consider various dilemmas posed to them while they are monitored).  When people act out of conscience, whether their act is to refuse to go work on a holy day, or whether it is to refuse to attend a nonvegan communal meal, or whether to serve on a jury charged with considering the death penalty, their actions should receive a heightened level of respect and accommodation, whether or not they are adherents to a formal religion.