Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Religious vs. Ethical Food Choices

It occurs to me that there is something very backward about the way our society views individual choices around food. Do you know that in most prisons, if your abstention from certain kinds of foods is based on an established religious practice, it may be honored? But if it is not religious in nature, and simply "moral," your request will not be honored. This mentality seems to merely be a reflection of the way our society at large thinks about food choices. Most people won't show anything but respect for their co-worker's request for a kosher meal at a lunch or conference, but do you think the same courtesy is afforded the ethical vegan who requests a plant-based meal? Experience tells me--not bloody likely. The same may be said of other religiously based food choices.

Think about this for just a moment. Choosing not to eat pork because an ancient book tells you that the supernatural being you worship forbids it: respectable and accepted. Choosing not to eat pork because you have come to the rational and compassionate decision that, because pigs are beings who experience pain and pleasure just like us (and our beloved dogs and cats), and possibly for other reasons, like the fact that the production of pigs as a food commodity is extremely damaging to the environment, etc., you believe it to be unethical and immoral to eat them: lunatic fringe of society.

In what world does this make sense?! Oh, yeah...this one.

Perhaps it is a product of my years as a Unitarian Universalist, with principles that affirm and promote "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning," "the right of conscience," and "respect for the interdependent web of all existence." There is nothing more sacred to me than a person doing the hard work of searching and learning and coming to a difficult and unpopular decision because your conscience tells you it is the right thing to do. And perhaps it is a product of my years of searching and learning (including academic study in areas of religion and spirituality) that leave me with little more than painful toleration of arbitrary and archaic religious beliefs and practices.

I certainly respect an individual's right to choose what goes in and out of their own body, whatever their reasoning. But I simply cannot understand the mentality that finds only such decisions acceptable when they are attached to a religious belief. Perhaps it is because people do not feel threatened by a choice based on religious belief the way they do about a choice made for ethical and moral reasons. If the choice is based on religious beliefs, it is easy to say, "That's your religion, and I respect that, but it's not mine, so it doesn't apply to me." But when a person makes a decision based on evidence, reason, a desire to do no harm, a sense of justice, compassion, etc... these are universally applicable ideas. It's harder to blow off. It challenges us to take a good look at our own behavior, whether we want to or not. Because we know they think it's wrong to eat what we're eating, we feel judged, threatened, defensive--even though that is usually the last thing on that person's mind. They're just trying to eat their damn lunch.

Other theories or comments on this phenomenon? I welcome your thoughts!


vegagitator said...

The U.S. Court of Appeals for The Seventh Circuit said, as quoted in this article, "when a person sincerely holds beliefs dealing with issues of ‘ultimate concern' that for her occupy a ‘place parallel to that filled by ... God in traditionally religious persons,' those beliefs represent her religion." That pretty clearly protects veganism as a religious practice to me, but unfortunately prisons often don't recognize this. Maybe they're worried about sliding down a slippery slope to having to accommodate other lifestyle choices as well, but veganism seems a much more clear cut case to me than, say, whether or not someone has a religious right to smoke pot. It also has many benefits to the prison and the prisoner as an affirmation of non-violence and likely a healthier diet, which could reduce health care costs.

I'm not sure if people are more threatened by dietary choices that are not motivated by religion as those that are. I think they may simply be more accepting of people's beliefs if they have been institutionalized somehow, including by organized religion, or if they are part of some distinct, well-defined cultural category. Perhaps vegans need to create their own parody religion, like a vegan version of Pastafarianism, to point out the absurdity of this.

meigancam01 said...
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