At an age approaching 26 (one young enough to earn my certainty on the two title subjects as ‘arrogant’ from opponents on both sides) I have been vegan and atheist for a minority of my life. I came to both upon a realisation that they were consistent, important truths from my previous position of rationally insecure ‘agnostic’, and aware but continued omnivore, respectively.
The change came first with veganism; after researching and thinking through the problems of speciesism (through prompting from a university course, and discussions with fellow students) I could no longer hold onto the identity of being involved and supportive of the exploitation of other animals. It just didn’t make sense. How could one hold up a persona of being an intelligent human being whilst continuing to indulge in something they knew was only morally supported by myths?
After clinging to the final myth – ‘yes animal exploitation is horrific, but they are just animals’ – it was the adjustment to the ideas of anti-speciesism that set this spinning out of my belief set. It shouldn’t matter if they are black, white, male, female, pig or donkey. So long as they are sentient, and can experience their lives, then they have an interest in continuing to live them. Above all else, this factor, which was totally consistent with my anti-racist and anti-sexist views, sent my path to veganism off faster than anything else.
At this stage, I was still heavily agnostic – we couldn’t prove that there was no God, and so it seemed rational to be on the fence when posited the question of his existence. But just like with anti-speciesism, soon came the game changer. Upon discussing the work of rational heavyweight Richard Dawkins, someone mentioned, ‘Well we can’t prove whether the flying spaghetti monster exists, are you agnostic about him?’ And, well, that was me gone! This was an appeal to rationality which stumps the previous choice I thought I was right to make. There are many things I can’t prove; however, that’s not how truth works. Truth is believing in what is the fundamentally, almost certain right answer. Agnosticism about a subject should only come when confronted with two equally certain, or at least similarly certain ideas (both must be in the realms of possibility). When there is no evidence at all to suggest something exists, why should we be uncertain about it? Like my speciesist opinion about animals other than humans, my ideas about agnosticism were wrong and they needed to be changed.
A Rational Connection?
What I ask when I suggest a relationship between these two stances I take is not whether they are both needed for either to exist. For example, there are many vegans who are not atheists, and there are many atheists who are not vegans. Indeed it would be safe to assume that most in either group are not also in the other, given the prevalence of speciesism and theism/agnosticism. Instead what I ask is can a rational connection between the two beliefs be provided?
Despite the fact both seem to be rational positions, there is one big difference many bring up – and that is of moral effect. And, rather surprisingly, both positions can have claim to being a moral stance. A vegan might state that veganism is making the choice not to exploit other individuals, and that atheism is just a decision to change your own personal beliefs. Whereas, of course, an atheist (as the increasing support for anti-theism enters society) could retort that ‘faith’ is a mental virus that allows people to rectify just about any behaviour they so wish with the belief that it is right, whereas veganism is simply a recognition of spiritual preferences not to consume animals.
Both hold a shred of truth value. The vegan is right to assume that hers is a position of morality – she does remove her demand for animal products, support for animal farming subsidies, etc. However, the atheist is correct that atheism fights the occurrence of people clinging to faith as a reason for any prejudice they wish to uphold. In these two statements – one from each side – lies the connection.
Animal use is pervasive. It enters just about every area of our lives – from the animal products in the computer I type on, to the dog that is being walked past my home. Thus people have been brought up with animal use as such a deeply ingrained norm, that they will cling to it like nothing else. And what provides the ability to cling to views that one knows are wrong, but wants to indulge anyway? Faith. Faith that what one prefers is justification for continuing to do it. Faith that no matter how unlikely a ‘happy hen’ is, it justifies the egg on your plate. Faith that no matter how similar fur and leather production is, one can wear leather because the animal groups are saying fur is the problem. Faith that the animal groups are the Gods as far as animals are concerned.
The connection goes both ways. For the atheist holds the belief of that which is not supported by evidence should not be indulged. There is no evidence for God, and ‘faith’ in him implicitly promotes the idea that faith is an acceptable way to form beliefs and values. Similarly, there is no evidence to deny that animals are sentient, and it is speciesist to claim that they are only animals. That same faith that purports a belief in God also forms one for the belief that the speciesist notion ‘they are just animals’ is an acceptable reason to ignore them in our moral concerns, despite the evidence that says such reasoning is irrelevant. Faith and prejudice overlap here, and there’s no wonder given that they are virtually inseparable as a structural matter. Justifying either actively proposes the idea that rationality is not required when it comes to forming beliefs. This is problematic if we are concerned about other humans or other animals, as it is this which has caused all moral black spots in human history. And those currently still on the go.
The connection may be a vast river, but at current it’s a tiny puddle
Unfortunately, these two concepts remain unfairly subjugated by people on both sides. Atheists happily remain unchallenged by anti-speciesist thought. And even when they are challenged (like in the case of the great Dawkins), a society which has answers for the problems of animal exploitation (ie, a society which devoted justification to welfarism: perceivedly treating animals ‘better’) means the individuals involved do not have to seriously consider veganism so much as use one of the widely supported excuses. This is an unfortunate yet ironic occurrence, caused by societal faith, that condemns even the most brave of anti-faith writers.
Vegans tend to appear at a smaller rate than atheists, around 0.5% of the population – an insignificant number to affect society in any meaningful way, which is probably caused by the problems inherent in a new welfarist approach to animal rights, pushing welfarism as the solution to concern about animals rather than veganism. There is further irony to be had, in that this shows the movement for animal rights is actually providing society with the rope to hang an otherwise rational movement. But due to its lack of a focus on the rational reason to go vegan, we see very few rationalists going vegan. Those who do go vegan tend to be more ‘easily hooked’ types who do not question the perspective or become critical of the approach being advocated to them, so much as react to their passion for animals or for social change. It’s therefore no surprise that many vegans do not see the problem with their own approaches to animal rights, so it’s not too shocking to note they do not often question their belief in a higher power, or spiritual occurrences either – most falling for ideas one could define as, at best, ‘agnostic’ or ‘spiritualist’.
In a conclusion that has promoted much about the ironic flaws of the animal rights and anti-theist movements, there is perhaps a more obvious irony to finish with. Were those involved in atheism to also take up involvement in promoting veganism, they would undoubtedly find a hidden form of faith to shine light upon and dig into the open. And were those involved in vegan advocacy to take up a rationalist position, they would undoubtedly be packing their advocacy and their veganism with real punch that has real world relevance and a focus on causes rather than symptoms. The irony might be saddening, but if taken heed it might one day be delicious to look back upon.