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Why aren’t more Atheists vegetarians?

This is a question I suspect few have asked, given the rarity of both groups of people, but it’s a question worth asking.

After all, I know many people (myself included) who came to their vegetarianism/veganism through honest critical thinking. Because they sat down, looked at the evidence, and decided that mindless conformity was not the answer. This is something the atheist/secularist/humanist community is no stranger too, and yet there seems to be a failing here.

Let’s not forget, many of the justifications for oppression have been almost entirely religious. It was, after all, God’s decree that women were inferior to men, blacks to whites, homosexuals to heterosexuals, et cetera.

So what about non-human animals? Well, according to even many of the more reasonable of the religious, non-human animals are God’s creation too. But, just like women and Africans and Native Americans, they were made, by design, to be inferior. After all, they don’t have souls right? And it’s not like they have the capacity to suffer in any meaningful sense. So by God’s will, let’s carve them up how we see fit.

Of course, anyone who is mildly familiar with evolution, animal behavior, or anyone who’s ever owned a pet is well aware that the claims often made by the religious regarding non-human animals are almost always false. I mean, it’s hard to claim that human beings are the only species with a moral intuition when altruism has been exhibited numerous times in the non-human animal kingdom, or that non-human animals are incapable of complex emotions like love, empathy, sadness, anger, et cetera.

So, why haven’t more Atheists and Humanists embraced vegetarianism/veganism? Why have we been blind to this particular portion of religious dogma?

I suspect part of it has to do with the fact that the big-name leaders within the movement haven’t called enough attention to it.

Take for example, this interview between Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer. In the interview, Richard Dawkins is surprisingly honest, going far enough to compare himself to Thomas Jefferson. Just like Jefferson knew that slavery was abhorrent, and yet still owned slaves, so too does Dawkins know there’s little in the way for any valid justification for a westerner like him to continue to eat meat. And yet, Dawkins isn’t a vegetarian (or at least, he wasn’t in 2009, and I have yet to hear anything different).

While I enjoy it so much more when people are at least honest with themselves as to why they continue to eat meat (as oppose to making up nonsense in defense), it doesn’t help anybody when you don’t act on it. I understand that for many people, such a dietary shift can be a daunting prospect. But if you are genuinely interested in maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures,  eating meat is a large step in the wrong direction. And for someone like Professor Dawkins to come out and say “I’m a vegetarian”, well, that would do a lot for the cause.

So, to my fellow Secularists/Atheists/Humanists, I hope that we can continue to challenge religious dogmatism and promote a more compassionate world, even if that means embracing daunting lifestyle choices.

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22 responses to “Why aren’t more Atheists vegetarians?

  1. Mikey C ⋅

    The reason why there are not more atheist vegetarians is because those are two different types of lifestyle choices. Darwin supported the idea of survival of the fittest which means if we atheists want to survive we will do what we must to survive. You and I are rare in our lifestyle choices. Even rarer is being a vegetarian, atheist, and an anarchist. There is no connection between those three, it’s just my personal lifestyle choice.

    • Josh

      Veganarchism. Check it out. Their is definitely a strong connection between vegetarianism and anarchism. Resisting unjust oppression should lead one to both positions I believe.

    • Science ⋅

      Survival of the fittest is not a moral justification for anything, but simply an explanation of observed phenomena. It doesn’t at all mean that “we must do what we will to survive.”

    • Scott ⋅

      Yes but survival does not enter the equation for most citizens of developed nations; animal protein is a luxury, not a necessity. I feel atheism and veganism are quite similar actually, both being founded upon logic and rational thought.

  2. Chris C. ⋅

    To me, my acceptance of the atheist label was a rational decision, I’ve only ever heard emotionally driven argument for being a vegetarian or vegan.

    • erik ⋅

      I don’t know exactly what you mean by “emotionally driven argument”, but it’s my personal experience that rational (moral) arguments gets unfairly labelled as “appeal to emotion” by the (meat eating) person I’m talking to. This is somewhat similar to how atheistic rational arguments are ignored by saying “why are you so mad at God?!”. Certain arguments may involve emotion (or notions of right and wrong), but use it only to point to inconsistencies in our thinking.

      Example:
      IF A) causing suffering for ones own pleasure is bad (wrong) AND B) most* people don’t need meat other than for mere taste preferences AND
      C) most meat production is causing suffering, THEN isn’t the most eating of meat bad (wrong)? (*at the very least in western societies)

      I also think the Richard Dawkins interview with Peter Singer (liked above) is a good place to start. Singer, as a utilitarian, is known to be very “calculating”, ie. NOT emotional, when it comes to reaching moral conclusions.

  3. Frank ⋅

    I am an atheist and a vegan.

  4. Anonymous Bob ⋅

    If one is a vegetarian/vegan in order to not cause non-human animals undue suffering:

    This person is judging the sentience and ability to suffer of non-human animals as similar or slightly inferior to him/her.
    Also in order to not find the act of eating plant life abhorrent,
    such a person would have to believe that a plant’s sentience and/or ability to suffer is insignificant or non-existent. Just because we can’t communicate with plants doesn’t mean they aren’t sentient. For all we know, we could at some point encounter mineral-based sentient life.

    And now for the other reason a person is a vegetarian/vegan:

    If one is a vegetarian/vegan in order to lead a healthier life:

    This person seems to forget that humans are omnivores. An omnivore is something that has a diet consisting of both plant and animal matter. Humans are not herbivores. I repeat, humans are not herbivores.

    On the other hand, a mainly meat-based diet has been proven to be unhealthy. I think that a healthy diet should consist of some meat and lots of fruits and vegetables.

    • Questions of plant-sentience are genuinely interesting, and would certainly hold ethical implications… but not for vegetarianism/veganism. Given that non-human animals eat plants (or eat animals who eat plants), you would be responsible for exponentially fewer deaths as a vegetarian/vegan, since you would be eating the calories directly.

      As for the health claims, it’s true that there is a lot of misinformation spread around throughout the vegetarian/vegan community. However, when discussions about nutrition comes up, it’s important to remember that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) has a fairly positive stance regarding vegan diets, claiming that vegan/vegetarian diets “are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” http://tinyurl.com/256euzv

      • Anonymous Bob ⋅

        Thanks for responding, MaroonPanda. I’ll have to agree with you regarding your first paragraph, I didn’t realize it at the time. Though mechanical harvesting methods tend to kill field mice and other animals.

        On to your second paragraph:
        The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also suggests discussing one’s diet with a professional before switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet. And now for my counterpoint.

        Side effects to being a strict vegetarian(no dairy, eggs or other animal products) include:

        anemia, weakness, poor balance and tingling in the arms and legs caused by a deficiency in vitamin B12

        exhaustion, weakness, slow cognitive development, chills, increased susceptibility to infection, and anemia caused by a deficiency in iron

        poor appetite, frequent infections, hair loss caused by a Zinc deficiency

        And last but not least, thinning bone density and osteoporosis, dental problems and other medical conditions due to a Calcium deficiency.

        This is from a National Geographic article: http://greenliving.nationalgeographic.com/side-effects-becoming-vegetarian-2184.html

    • Bob, your first argument is similar to a theist: just because we can’t observe God directly (rove his existence) doesn’t he doesn’t exist. Point is; towards God and plant sentience we look at scientific evidence, and these are lacking.
      Your second point: science says we can live healthy by a well-planned vegan diet. I am a human (and a primate and whatever) and I eat vegan, I repeat: I eat vegan. So I do not understand why you claim that ‘humans are not herbivores’. There are healthy human herbivores (me, for example) and every human can be a herbivore (without imposing health risks) and that is, above all, morally required: if we construct a consistent, rational ethical system based on our strongest, shared moral intuitions and values that we hold dear the most, the logical conclusion is: become vegan: http://stijnbruers.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/argumentation-scheme-veganism-2/
      You also make a naturalistic fallacy. The curious thing is: I expect atheists to be rational, critical thinkers who do not make fallacies or are misled by cognitive biases.

  5. Robin ⋅

    Eating red meat is terrible for your body and the meat industry in general is terrible for the environment. The fast food industry, which is partially to blame for the explosion of meat demand, is terrible for public health (leading to diseases which are far more expensive to treat than to prevent) and terrible for small businesses. The meat industry uses far more space per person per year than agriculture. The pollution from the animal product industry is outrageous. There are countless more rational arguments, it’s just that the emotional appeal is very similar to the atheist emotional appeal regarding religions harming others. I’m an atheist and a vegetarian, and I am both for both moral and rational reasons.

  6. Sam ⋅

    I’m an atheist and I’ll be honest- I eat meat because I like the taste of it. I do my best to eat meat that has caused as little harm to the animal as possible (free range etc.) but it boils down to the fact that I like the taste.

    But from a biological point of view, if eating meat was bad for us, we wouldn’t be so well adapted to it. You could argue we’re better at eating meat than plants as a lot of plant material is indigestible to us.

    Also, I’m of the opinion that if you couldn’t kill the animal yourself and then eat it, you shouldn’t eat it. I personally could kill the animal and eat it- indeed I’d prefer that because I could make the best use of it to better justify the death.

    But that’s just my opinion!

    • Koby ⋅

      “But from a biological point of view, if eating meat was bad for us, we wouldn’t be so well adapted to it.”

      I don’t know if the above holds true for meat produced in factory conditions, which is often (if not always) the only available meat. I’d wager my life (by a slow and painful meat-induced cancer death) that the meat available today doesn’t fit into the “well adapted” category.

  7. K ⋅

    Bob, that list of side effects is what would happen if a vegan diet was poorly planned and didn’t meet nutritional needs. That is not a counterpoint. Any poorly planned diet will have deleterious side effects. Just ask the approximately 600,000 meat eaters that die from heart disease every year.

    • Indeed, the National Geographic Article actually claims that “A vegetarian diet is a healthy choice if you pay attention to nutritional requirements and follow a balanced eating plan.” It even goes on to mention foods you can eat/supplements to take to avoid the potential nutrient deficiencies.

      I wouldn’t want to trivialize nutritional concerns, but I’m also not well placed to speak with any real authority on the matter. Jack Norris (jacknorrisrd.com) & Ginny Messina (theveganrd.com) are both dieticians who do a wonderful job of highlighting all of the nutritional concerns/benefits of vegan diets, as well as combating misinformation on both sides. Both of their sites are havens for thorough and accurate information, and I’d suggest starting any investigation into the health concerns/benefits of a vegan diet at their blogs.

  8. I don’t eat much meat because (a) I don’t need to – if I’m not a fan of eating animals, I can just eat other things, and (b) it’s more efficient: rather than growing plants and feeding them to an animal and eating the animal, we’re just eating the plants therefore fewer losses of energy.
    Also, raw cookie dough with a “flax egg” takes away the gross taste of raw egg.

  9. As a Buddhist I welcome all people to eat vegetarian or even go vegan. The Buddha taught us that all sentient life is the same, just trying to exist nd avoid suffering. He pointed out that animals are no different than ourselves, in regards to feeling pain and pleasure.

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  11. Linda ⋅

    I’m a vegetarian and an atheist. I used the exact same thought process to reach both decisions. When asked, I generally answer the same for both issues: there is no reason to believe in god and there is no reason to kill animals. Simple really.

  12. Demi ⋅

    I’m Atheist and i eat meat. I completely understand why vegans refuse to use animal products. In america the animal welfare standards are shocking! I live in a village in Eastern Europe. We have a small scale farm and produce our own food. All our animals are free range, organic and ethically raised. We take good care of them and they have a happy life. We don’t eat that much meat, mainly just chicken and a lot of plant foods plus eggs and dairy. My point is, if you don’t agree with commercial farming there are ethical alternatives. This is why we produce our own food. We know the animals are properly cared for, have lots of outside space , good quality food etc. The animals also help the land by providing fertilizer and organic material for the soil to grow our crops. Our farming methods are ethical and sustainable both for our land and the local environment. Also if you catch wild animals for food you know the animals have lived a free life in the wild beforehand. There are also other animals which we eat with are actually good for the environment like farmed muscles which are grown on ropes, they filter and clean the sea water in order to eat, they have an actively positive effect on the environment because of human farming.

    Nothing is black and white and while i agree the whole world needs to move away from intensive farming systems and improve animal welfare, there are other ethical and probably more realistic solutions that don’t involve abandoning animal products altogether.

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