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On Atheism and Veganism, Part Deux

"On Atheism and Veganism" created what was for the most part a respectful, interesting discussion that brought up a couple of items I'd like to clarify or explore.

First off, I began the post with, "For me, atheism and veganism go hand-in-hand." I went on to explain why that is and my penultimate sentence was, "I see these counter-culture positions as parallel and based on the same evolution of thought and deconstruction of the stories of childhood."

I never stated a belief that atheism and veganism are actually connected in some way that many people are missing. Yet, for instance, the twittosphere was full of childish comments and ridicule in that direction. Again, I was making a personal observation about the evolution of my own thought process and asking if anyone else saw things similarly. And I thank everyone who read those words, treated them respectfully, and responded accordingly.

Next I'd like to acknowledge the Norm Phelps article Gingerlks (thanks!) linked to that you may have seen called "Why the Animals Need Religion." Phelps writes:

If the abolitionists had thrown up their hands in disgust at the level of support for slavery in  White churches and condemned religion, they would have sabotaged their own cause by alienating almost the entirety of the American public. If we throw up our hands in disgust at the level of support for animal abuse in America’s churches and synagogues, we will set back the animals’ cause by at least a generation and probably more. Like the old abolitionists, we must convert the churches, not write them off.

I don't disagree with that, but I also don't advocate for atheism when I advocate for veganism. If I'm speaking with an atheist I might use my personal thought process in my vegan advocacy, but if someone wants to believe there is a god, and that belief is helpful to them, and they're not hurting anyone because of that belief, I have no problem with that. When it comes to believers, I agree with Phelps that all religious traditions have some kind of basis for mercy or compassion or relieving suffering that we can use in our advocacy. They might not have a rights position, but we use what we have. I say I don't mind someone's belief in a god if "they're not hurting anyone," but in my mind they are and I explore that notion with them in my advocacy.

Finally, and this will be an entire post someday, there are the people, many of whom I am surrounded by, who subscribe to some kind of Eastern tradition, and probably who have a living guru whom they "follow," and who eat animals. These folks hold that their spirituality includes the recognition that all sentient beings are part of the same larger "consciousness" of the Universe, and that we humans are no better than any other animal.

Ask them what they had for breakfast.

Far more than any Judeo-Christian tradition, these individuals whose lives are governed by karma, choose to have someone create and kill animals for them to eat. And that is something I just don't understand. But in my vegan advocacy that's the perfect place to begin (or end).

In other words, I don't talk about veganism and atheism to anyone but atheists. Just like I talk about karma and veganism with people who have allowed the idea of karma to rule their lives. And I talk about doing unto others to people who like to believe they live by The Golden Rule.

We do need to reach religious people. It would be a tad disingenuous for me to advocate within the Judeo-Christian community as I've never been known to be part of it. But I can and do advocate for animals among "spiritual" types as well as atheists, as I know the language and the practices of those people better than I know that of traditional religious people.

Ninety-nine percent of us are not vegans, so heaven knows there are enough people who need to hear a story that is different from the one they are telling themselves. Most of those people believe in a god or call themselves "spiritual." I am not advocating for trying to change their minds about that, but for using what they believe as a link to why they should consider veganism.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dan #

    I leave religion alone unless it is used to “justify” animal exploitation, speciesism (or racism or sexism or heterosexism), or anthropocentrism generally. And if there is such a “justification”, then I ask what kind of god would create sentient food? A monster, to be sure.

    When we read the Bible, we see that such a violent god exists, but that creating sentient food might be one of its/his/her most violent and malicious acts. God kills millions in the Bible. God doesn’t seem bothered in the least by the all-night gang rape to death of an innocent woman in Judges, who is chopped into pieces the next morning. God also doesn’t seem to mind that we torture and kill tens of billions of animals annually (interestingly, it/he/she hasn’t commented in the Bible lately since we’ve increased the number to that magnitude).

    The opportunities for ridiculing the violence, genocides, absurdities, and contradictions in the monotheistic holy books seem limitless. To get a sampling of such opportunities, I recommend the following blog:

    In particular, check out the “biased sample” of blog entries in the side bar. Even more particular, check out “everybody must get stoned” in the "biased sample". The biased sample is good for at least a few ironic laughs.

    Aside from all of this, I see a common denominator of ignorance of science (particularly cosmology and evolution) and ignorance of the absurdities of religion that fosters anthropocentrism, egocentrism, and speciesism. Science has advanced amazingly over the past 400 years, and especially during the past 50 years, but sadly, human “civilization” and morality have stayed about the same throughout recorded history to the present day. With all of this scientific progress and related knowledge, we ought to have a better idea of our place in the universe than we did 2,000 years ago; but we don’t, at least not collectively. Along with our revised and far more accurate and far less significant place in the universe, we would be more likely to acknowledge the overwhelming and morally relevant similarities between us and other animals, the most relevant of which is sentience. Religious belief certainly seems like one obstacle to progress among at least a few to me.

    I don’t go out looking to ridicule religion when engaging in vegan education, but there sure is plenty of fodder for it if the opportunity arises. The lesson to believers is that if you want your religious beliefs respected, you are best off respecting my nonviolent vegan beliefs, because a game of ridicule or put down is not a game you want to play with a knowledgeable atheist vegan.

    January 11, 2010
  2. Dan wrote: "Religious belief certainly seems like one obstacle to progress among at least a few to me"
    YES! To me as well, Dan. And for me, if I try to pretend agreement or even respect for something that makes no sense at all, I know I'm not going to be able to pull it off. I bought those Norm Phelps books hoping to learn how to be a better "pretender". Are they helping me with that? Sadly, not so far.
    I'm afraid, I have to stick with what rings true to me. Which is, just like
    Mary said, "atheism and veganism go hand-in-hand."

    January 12, 2010
  3. Nick #

    I agree that it's good to leave religion alone when advocating for veganism, unless it comes up as a justification for speciesism. However, I do have a problem with the word "mercy," so often invoked to promote veganism among religious people. Mercy is a concept entirely at odds with rights. It has a condescending connotation which suggests humans are "superior" to animals, and that as they rule over them they may choose to exercise kindness, although they could legitimately choose not to. Veganism is not about exercising "mercy." It is about fulfilling a minimum ethical requirement.

    January 12, 2010
  4. Mary #

    Hi Nick,
    We might not like it, but rights isn't part of Judeo-Christian traditions while "mercy" is. At least that's a start, and we can connect with religious people on that notion, and perhaps move forward/deeper.

    January 12, 2010
  5. My personal progression regarding nonhuman animals is very similar to yours, Mary. And I too see the wisdom in what Norm Phelps says, that real progress for animals likely depends on buy-in from churches and that science, like it or not, is not animal friendly (think vivisection). Two observations:

    1. The pro-meat, anti-"animal rightists" out there often demean the concept of animal rights by labeling it as a liberal, elitist and "atheist" viewpoint. I see it all the time in comments on my mainstream "pets" blog.

    2. As someone who finds great value in reason, I've found that it does little to influence great swaths of people. So I think you're on to something, Mary, that animal advocates are better off taking what someone already believes and finding how it is a natural fit for an animal rights view. This is so much better than proving the other person is stupid for their current beliefs. A current example in the news is how many so-called liberals fail when discussing racial issues because they portray the beliefs of the other side as backward and ignorant (which they may be but such a strategy will be unlikely to lead to progress).

    As support for point #2 that reasoned evidence won't sway people, here's an excerpt from a book by James Montier called "The Little Book of Behavioral Investing":

    For instance, a group of people were asked to read randomly selected studies on the deterrent efficacy of the death sentence (and criticisms of those studies). Subjects were also asked to rate the studies in terms of the impact they had had on their views on capital punishment and deterrence. Half of the people were pro-death penalty and half were anti-death penalty.

    Those who started with a pro-death sentence stance thought the studies that supported capital punishment were well argued, sound and important. They also thought that the studies that argued against the death penalty were all deeply flawed. Those who held the opposite point of view at the outset reached exactly the opposite conclusion.

    As the psychologists concluded: "Asked for their final attitudes relative to the experiment's start, proponents reported they were more in favor of capital punishment, whereas opponents reported that they were less in favor of capital punishment." In effect each participant's views polarized, becoming much more extreme than before the experiment.

    In another study of biased assimilation (accepting all evidence as supporting your case) participants were told a soldier at Abu Ghraib prison was charged with torturing prisoners. He wanted the right to subpoena senior administration officials. He claimed he'd been informed that the administration had suspended the Geneva Convention.

    The psychologists gave different people different amounts of evidence supporting the soldier's claims. For some, the evidence was minimal; for others, it was overwhelming. Unfortunately the amount of evidence was essentially irrelevant in assessing people's behavior. For 84% of the time, it was possible to predict whether people believed the evidence was sufficient to subpoena Donald Rumsfeld based on just three things:

    1. The extent to which they liked Republicans

    2. The extent to which they liked the US military

    3. The extent to which they liked human rights groups like Amnesty International.

    Adding the evidence into the equation allowed the researchers to increase the prediction accuracy from 84% to 85%. Time and time again, psychologists have found that confidence and biased assimilation perform a strange tango. It appears the more sure people were that they have the correct view, the more they distorted new evidence to suit their existing preference, which in turns made them even more confident!

    January 12, 2010
  6. Dan #


    I wrote an essay called Rational Ignorance and Rational Irrationality that addresses the bias conditions you are referring to in your comment. Readers will find it complementary to that part of your comment.


    If someone honestly asks me how they can reconcile veganism with their religious beliefs, I know enough about the five major religions to provide a good answer within each of those religions, and will go that route. But if someone comes off dismissive and declares that god “put” animals here “for us” (and that’s all there is to it); then I don’t try to give them reasons within their religion, but grant their assumption that their religion or god is violent and immoral and attack the religion and its violence.

    If people want their religion to be peaceful and moral (and they should if they want to avoid ridicule), they might start changing their views of their religion and animals in the face of direct and legitimate criticism of their religion from nonviolent atheist vegans. Monotheistic religion has a difficult enough time dealing with the realities of scientific knowledge, but when people add religious acceptance of violence and killing (of humans and nonhumans), religion goes from innocuous to evil, and the atheist argument is all the more solid. It behooves religious people in the face of criticism to prove through their attitudes and actions that their religion is peaceful and beneficial, not violent and harmful.

    I believe atheist vegans have a stronger ground to stand on than Norm Phelps gives us credit for.

    (As a side note, it is ironic to see Norm looking to 19th century abolitionists for guidance since they would have detested his pro-welfarist writings if applied to the slaves those abolitionists were trying to free. I suppose he is just picking what he likes from 19th century abolitionists (most of whom were religious anyway, and therefore wouldn’t have criticized religion) and discarding the rest.)

    January 12, 2010
  7. Great post Mary. Great comments by Dan and Mark as well.
    It's true that Atheism and veganism do go hand in hand….but even more true is that they go mind in mind together.
    While neither atheism and veganism are belief systems they in themselves are the thought patterns that have broken the traditional engrained and culturally embedded dominant thought patterns all of us live with.
    Norm Phelps is simply wrong about needing the churches to fight animal exploitation. He needs to reread his bible.
    Many abolitionists who fought human slavery might have been Christians but they were also on the losing side of the argument if they declared their belief in the God of the old testament. Slave holders knew that the bible not only encourages slavery but gives instructions on how to beat them and when to beat them. Jesus never condemned slavery. Sorry but Judeo Christian beliefs uphold human slavery and their books celebrate cruelty to both human non believers and non human animals. One need only glance through Exodus and Leviticus to see that owning slaves, killing both humans and killing animals is a must for the creator of the universe.
    Human slavery which was a horrible moral burden on the backs of human civilization for centuries was ended in spite of the churches not because of them. Same holds true for women's emancipation and civil rights. Make all the claims you want about MLK jr being a Christian yet he was surrounded and influenced by non christians and secular socialists.
    Atheism and veganism go mind in mind because they break the spell that religious belief and animal exploitation are somehow required and normal. There is no doubt that we treat both belief systems differently than any other claims about the world. Criticizing someone's religious belief or their animal use is considered taboo and off limits as a part of normal discourse.
    We need to demand from people that their beliefs about a man in the sky or that Jesus is coming back to earth in 23 years or the beliefs that animals don't matter or don't feel pain as much as humans do, logically make sense. Why do we allow these false beliefs to rule our world and casue so much pain and suffering? None of these beliefs are true!!
    Yet, we as a society allow these insane ludicrous ideas to continue almost unchallenged.
    There are hundreds of analogies one can make with regards to this subject. There are also hundreds of reasons why we (humans) need to let go of unfounded religious beliefs and claims about the world to bring animals the liberation they deserve.
    I could go on and on with this topic….but I won't as I have to work today. So I'll quickly skip to reality!
    Understanding that Darwin has already proved that we were not created by a intervening Man in the sky we can no longer justify the dishonesty and oppression that comes from believing irrational and unfounded claims about our place in the world. We humans are animals and we are all connected from one common ancestor. Darwin's discovery is no longer a theory!!!!
    Darwin sadly sat on his discovery for decades because he was afraid of what his theory (back in his time it was merely a theory) would mean to a species who believed they were different and above all other animals.
    We can no longer allow the irrational claims made by religious belief systems to inflict so much appalling violence against humans and non humans without challenging them. We can start by showing them how foolish and outlandish they look in all of their crazy matching outfits! Does Yahweh really require all Jewish males to look like 1940s detectives?
    We in no way need to believe in unjustified mythologies to be kind to others. Atheists and non human animals demonstrate acts of kindness everyday without believing supernatural ideas about the nature of the universe.
    By contrast the most brutal and unspeakable violence is and has been committed and inspired by humans with unjustified beliefs.
    Faith Kills!!!
    Go vegan!

    January 12, 2010
  8. Dan #

    Regarding Philip's comment: Hear hear!

    January 12, 2010
  9. jeannie #

    Now here's the proper atheist attitude…


    January 13, 2010
  10. Great comments, Dan and Philip. My sentiments are the same.

    January 14, 2010
  11. I'm an atheist but I'm not a religion-hater.

    I think it's fine for people to have all sorts of beliefs that I don't consider to be supported by evidence or reason so long as those beliefs aren't hurting anyone. For example, if someone wants to believe in space aliens and they want to spend time outside at night with a telescope looking for them and trying to figure out ways to communicate, go for it. If someone is worried about chem trails and wants to spend a lot of time taking pictures and making websites about patterns they see in the sky, go for it.

    I see no reason to condemn people who believe in space aliens and blame them for things other people who believed in space aliens did. Likewise, I see no reason to condemn religious people.

    That said, I also feel that trying to mold my particular brand of veganism into a religious mold would be disingenuous. Though it might be effective, I don't consider it an ethical thing to do. I think a better strategy is to focus purely on the animals' suffering, death, and will to live free. I think the best strategy is simply to speak openly and honestly about veganism with an emphasis on practical, helpful advice.

    January 14, 2010
  12. babble #

    It's less about condemning people than it is about reaching people with what we've got at hand. If a given Krishna devotee is studiously avoiding meat (on religious grounds), but eating dairy (again, because Gaudia Vaishnavaism gives him an out to do that), there's ALREADY fertile ground to cover, there.

    I already have a leg up in the game to get him to go vegan: he's got a religiously motivated reason to care about the suffering of *at least* the cows used to produce milk.

    This hasn't got a thing to do with whatever I may believe (or may not believe) about Krishna, karma, the sacredness of cows (relative to other animals) or ANYTHING else. It has EVERYTHING to do with being an effective advocate for animals *in the language that that person can hear and will actually listen to*. If I start in with a drone about how all religions are myths, and while I'm not "against" religion, it really would be "better" if one advocated for veganism "rationally" the simple fact is that I've already lost that Krishna devotee.

    Full disclosure: I have some skin in the game on both sides, as a former devotee, and present agnostic. I'm perfectly honest about my own agnosticism, these days, but I'm still friendly with oodles of people in the faith; why in the world *shouldn't* I try to reach those folks in ways they'll actually listen to? I fully allow that religious tradition is an incredibly difficult thing to argue against – so don't argue against it. Talk about the parts of the tradition that *are compatible* with veganism and AR, instead.

    Does it really matter to animals if we're advocating for AR on religious, moral or rational grounds if the end result is fewer animals killed and eaten?

    I may personally prefer that people come around to veganism for reasons I think are rational, or aren't grounded in religious tradition, for any number of reasons, but in the end that's neither here nor there. It's not going to move those religious adherents even one toe closer to considering veganism, if that's my approach.

    April 4, 2010
  13. Once again Mary, well said!!! 🙂

    February 3, 2011

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