Category Archives: religion

Speciesism and Veganism: Transcending Politics and Religion

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

This article was originally published November 10, 2011 on Care2.
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Although this may come as a surprise to some, there are ethical vegans across the political spectrum and in every major religion. Veganism transcends politics and religion because it is based on the simple matter of rejecting a particular form of prejudice: speciesism.

Speciesism, racism, sexism, and other prejudices rely on a morally irrelevant criterion (in this case, species) as the basis on which to deny the interests of an individual belonging to a different ‘group’, even if those interests are more significant than one’s own. As such, speciesism is simply a different form of the same underlying wrong at the foundation of all prejudices. It really doesn’t matter which morally irrelevant criteria we base our prejudice on – sex, race, skin color, age, sexual orientation, species – it is ethically wrong to use such arbitrary criteria to deny the rights of others.

Despite the cultural evolution that has brought humanity a long way from the ‘kill or be killed’ mentality of prehistoric times, the world today remains profoundly speciesist. The extreme prejudice of our cultural speciesism reaches far beyond disregarding an individual’s right to avoid persecution. It extends as far as absolute indifference to the right to be free from unjust imprisonment, mental and emotional torment, extreme physical violence in the form of mutilations and the infliction of injury and death. Owned as chattel property, with no laws to protect their most fundamental rights, those who are not human are condemned to a life with no protection against the brutal and unremitting oppression from those who control their world: Us.

Animal exploitation is perfectly legal and socially acceptable everywhere in the world, despite the emergence of satisfactory alternatives to virtually all uses (not to mention those yet to be developed, once our society rejects our current speciesist practices). Although there is a growing movement drawing attention to the many brutal rights violations routinely carried out against nonhumans being used for human gain, we continue to confine, injure and kill animals of all kinds, maintaining unnecessary, antiquated exploitative practices for food production, research, fashion, and even entertainment.

The ubiquitous nature of this extreme cultural prejudice explains why speciesism (and the proper moral response to it: veganism) is unrelated to political leaning. Although social justice movements generally arise from the left, there are some political conservatives who are principled vegans, while some on the political left, sadly, continue to scoff at issues of animal rights. In fact, it is remarkable that the vast majority of those on the political left choose to remain uninformed and to deliberately ignore these glaring justice issues, including their own participation in practices that would be rightly abhorred by anyone in touch with their conscience.

As it is with politics, so it is with religion. Christians were strongly divided over human chattel slavery in antebellum America, with slavery proponents using Bible quotes to defend their “God given” right to own slaves. Opponents of slavery used different Bible quotes to point out that slavery was condemned by God. And so it is with regard to animal rights today. Those on both sides of the issue use quotes from religious texts either to justify unnecessary killing, or to validate the vegan ethic of nonviolence.

Eastern religions are no exception. Many of today’s Buddhists attempt to justify animal use, unnecessary killing, and speciesism by pointing to loopholes in the various contradictory writings about the Buddha’s teaching of universal compassion for all sentient beings. Other Buddhists choose instead to practice and promote veganism as the rational response to the essential Buddhist teaching of nonviolence. Presumably, having been liberated from their own speciesism, vegan Buddhists are able to see through such prejudiced rationalizations, and recognize the higher authority in the truth the Buddha was apparently trying to impart to his students.

(In other words, if the Buddha wasn’t a vegan, as some people claim, then he wasn’t living up to his own teachings, which state very clearly that reverence for sentient life is a fundamental principle of a spiritual existence.)

In any case, it is clear that politics and religion are irrelevant to rejecting our common prejudice against fellow sentient beings. Regardless of whether we are conservative, liberal, leftist, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, or fall under any other category, we have the choice to acknowledge and reject the underlying cultural speciesism that we have all been conditioned to accept.

In fact, one might say that a deep-seated awareness of the essential rights and needs held by all sentient beings is the common ground that we every one of us shares.

Despite our many differences and divergences, underneath religion, politics, worldviews, interests, personalities, shape, size, sex, color, and even species, underneath it all, every single one of us is made from flesh and blood. Or, as the Buddha himself is said to have taught:

“All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?”

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Animal Rights, Science, and Religion

The five major religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hindu/Brahmanism, Islam, and Judaism) all have a heavy influence on the thought, especially the moral thought, of people throughout the world, even in highly educated countries, and even at a time when science has knocked humankind off our imagined pedestal of being at the center of the universe with the sun and stars revolving around us, and utterly separate from and clearly above nature and other species.Science: An Astronomical Perspective of Our Universe

We now know that not only is our Solar System heliocentric rather than geocentric, but that our Sun is just one very typical, garden-variety star of billions of stars within our own galaxy, and that our galaxy is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies within the visible universe (visible using the Hubble Space Telescope), each galaxy containing billions of stars themselves. Many of the galaxies in our Universe seen through the Hubble are over a billion light-years away (for perspective, our Sun is 8 light-seconds, or about 90 million miles away; one single light-year is about 3.9 million times that distance). The Universe is vast, and we are most likely not at the center of it. From this perspective, we have significantly more in common with gnats, dust mites, and amoebas than we might have otherwise thought and mammals are our brothers and sisters on this miniscule home we call Earth.

Science: An Astronomical Perspective of Time

The Universe is estimated to be approximately 14 billion years old. Many galaxies, including our Milky Way galaxy, formed about 13 billion years ago. Our Solar System formed about 4.6 billion years ago. The Cambrian explosion of diversity of life on Earth occurred about 550 million years ago. The first humans appeared about 350,000 years ago. If we put the 14 billion year age of the Universe on a 24 hour scale for perspective, then Earth formed almost 8 hours ago and the first humans appeared on Earth a little over 2 seconds ago, at 11:59:58pm. No longer can we claim a privileged position in the Universe. Again, we have much in common with beings who we consider having very short, relatively insignificant lives.

Science: Down to Earth

The theory of evolution is so foundational to our current knowledge of living organisms, including ourselves, that biology and modern medicine would not make sense today without it. Established scientific theories like evolution and relativity are not “just theories” randomly tossed onto the wall to see if they stick. On the contrary, established scientific theories provide the core principles of a scientific body of knowledge which have been confirmed thousands of times by empirical studies performed by independent scientists attempting to falsify them. If evidence from empirical studies counter any of a given theory’s principles, the theory is appropriately replaced in part or in whole. We know from evolution and modern biology that we are on an overlapping continuum of sentience with all other living organisms, with many more similarities than differences. Indeed, there are many nonhumans, some of whom we kill by the billions annually for trivial preferences, who are smarter, more sentient, and more self-aware than many humans. For example, normal pigs, chickens, dogs, and “cattle” are far more self-aware and intelligent than any infant or severely mentally disabled human. Humans are 2 – 4 years old before they can compare in self-awareness to so-called “food” animals. No longer can we claim a privileged position in the biosphere, at least not one untainted by characteristics which overlap in highly relevant ways (morally speaking) with many other species. Indeed, the difference in characteristics between us and other species, like Darwin said, is one of degree, not kind, and we can verify that the degree is significantly overlapping, even in that sacred characteristic which generates so many anthropocentric claims of superiority: intelligence, which by itself, is really little more than a handy tool that can be used for good or evil.

Science: Putting Us in Our Place

It is true that none of the science above disproves claims about the existence of God, the Absolute, Brahma, or Ultimate Reality. In fact, science, given its epistemological standards of empirical verification of logical theory and its insistence on scientific claims being falsifiable, has nothing to say about such matters. Science also has nothing to say about morality and ethics and what we ought to value in our life. But our newly and more properly conceived place in the Universe given to us by science over the past 150 years ought to offer us a different perspective about morality, especially as it relates to nonhuman animals. Apparently, God has had little or no effect on our folly and hubris in relation to Earth and other species, which we are continually polluting and abusing, respectively. Perhaps science can provide the information and perspective, and with appropriate maturity and judgment, we can recognize that we are not the center of the Universe; that we are not different from many other species on Earth in any morally relevant way which would justify our use and abuse of them; and that if we continue on our self-destructive trend, Earth will take care of the problem by becoming so sick and hot that we cannot survive here.

Religion: Monotheism

Let’s very briefly turn to the monotheistic religions of the Middle East and ask a few questions. If God is beneficent, would God want us, as individuals, to personally contribute to the torture and slaughter of 10 billion of animals annually in the United States (50 billion worldwide)? Perhaps we can get a hint from Genesis before The Fall of Man: “God said: ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food’. And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” Given these verses in Genesis, is not breeding, torturing, and slaughtering 10 billion animals annually the epitome of The Fall? How many animals do we need to breed, torture, and slaughter annually before we hit the rock bottom of The Fall? Wouldn’t a beneficent God want us to treat animals as we would like to be treated by God, perhaps with kindness instead of ruthless cruelty? Wouldn’t a beneficent God be utterly disgusted and revolted by our carelessness, ignorance, indifference, cruelty, greed, and gluttony? I think so.

Religion: Mindfulness and Compassion

For those who look to Eastern religions for moral guidance and inspiration, are we really mindful, compassionate, and observing the skillful means of nonharming when we personally contribute to the torture and slaughter of animals, including when those animals and their bodily fluids are labeled with marketing slogans like “certified humane”, “free range” or “cage-free”? Is slaughter ever humane or compassionate? How much do we really know about these so-called “humane” animal products? Is ignorance preferable? Would we like to be born as the future victim of someone’s oral cavity? Does “cutthroat compassion” make any sense? We cannot eat animal products with both mindfulness and compassion operating concurrently. If we are consuming animal products “mindfully,” we cannot be also consuming them compassionately, which also calls into question the existence of genuine mindfulness; and if we are consuming animal products “compassionately,” we cannot be mindful of the reality of that being’s slaughter, which also calls into question the existence of genuine mindfulness and compassion. Perhaps all we are mindful of when consuming animal products is our attachment to trivial preferences and unskillful actions.

Coming Up: Secular Moral Philosophy

For agnostics, including many scientists, the next blog entry or two will address secular moral philosophy and moral psychology. We’ll see that regardless of our religion or lack thereof, there are always much more compelling reasons to embrace animal rights and veganism than to continue onward in the glaring moral blind spot which has defined and grossly distorted our moral obligations to animals, especially in light of modern knowledge of nutrition and veganism.

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