It would be an understandable mistake for those who know me to interpret the title of this post as the lead-in to a renunciation of veganism (such recantations have become something of an internet genre) for my relationship with religion has been largely hostile. But this isn’t a renunciation nor is “religious practice” intended as a slur or a trivialization. Indeed, understanding veganism as a religious practice may be a quite compelling rationale for persisting with an unusual lifestyle.
Consider that the most commonplace justification for (ethical) veganism, as far as I can tell, is that by refusing to purchase and consume the remains of animals one is reducing the demand for such products. In turn, lower demand purportedly means that fewer animals will be raised and sent to slaughter. My decision to be vegan saves lives—so the story goes.
But this rationale does not necessarily withstand scrutiny. The market signal sent by one person’s decision to purchase tempeh rather than turkey is too weak to effect the total number of animals killed. It’s not a drop in the bucket, it’s less than that. The economic system is not so fine grained as to register your every move and then subtly adjust an imperceptible amount. Unfortunately, an angel doesn’t get its wings and a chicken is not set free when you decide to go vegan.
Philosopher Russ Shafer-Landau effectively makes this point in his 1994 paper “Vegetarianism, Causation, and Ethical Theory” explaining that “philosophers writing about vegetarianism have often shifted subtly from an evaluation of the practices of current factory farming, to the existence of a requirement to refrain from purchasing and eating meat. These are separable issues.” More recently Robert Bass has addressed the problem in front of Yale University’s Animal Ethics Study Group. In 2014 Bass gave a talk titled “What Can One Person Do? Causal Impotence and Dietary Choice.” It should be noted that neither Shafer-Landau nor Bass conclude that eating animal products is morally acceptable, they simply do not offer the same simplistic rationale that is offered by most activists and large animal organizations.
Recognizing this economic fact leaves one searching for a less simplistic reason for his or her decision to maintain a vegan diet. I am tentatively suggesting the possibility that veganism may be appropriately construed as a religious practice and is therefore done both to reflect to others and remind oneself of values that are deemed to be of the utmost important.
Interestingly, this loosely parallels why Jewish people may opt for a kosher diet. In Judaism, God’s laws fall into three categories. Laws regarding diet are categorized as chukim, that is they are laws which seemingly lack a straightforward or self-evident rationale (such as the self-evident value in maintaining a prohibition on the murder of human beings) but rather are observed simply because God commands them (or perhaps based on faith that God’s commands have their own logic even if it’s not self-evident). It reflects one’s devotion outwardly and acts as a reminder for oneself.
It could be said that this has the somewhat unsettling result that veganism is, at best, only indirectly beneficial for nonhuman animals. But this objection reverses the order of things; it confuses cause and effect. It was the recognition that veganism is only indirectly beneficial that prompted this line of thought.
As an aside, understanding veganism in this way has—for better or worse—caused me to be less critical of those who are not vegan and be open to seeing them as capable of making meaningful contributions toward animal liberation. This may be the inevitable result of taking a more honest and more humble assessment of one’s own efforts.