This upcoming March will be my fourteenth anniversary for being a vegetarian (I’m now vegan, in case anyone in interested in such things). I made the decision when I was a senior in high school after learning about factory farming from the PETA website, a decision that was later solidified after reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. It was a major step for me, because up to that point I was a dedicated meat eater who loved barbequed ribs, fried chicken, and all the other staples of Southern cuisine. But once I learned the truth about where meat actually comes from and made the connection between living, breathing animals and the stuff on my plate, I decided that I could do without my former favorites. Research indicates that many people who become vegetarian or vegan later decide to go back to eating meat. Interestingly, the statistics for ex-Catholics are somewhat comparable, with the Pew Research Center stating that 10 percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics and that 1/3 of “cradle Catholics” leave the church (http://www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/americas-former-catholics/). So why did I stick with vegetarianism but not Catholicism?
I’ve laid out my de-conversion story in a number of earlier posts (the first post is here, if you’re interested: https://extraecclesiamestlibertas.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/the-rise-and-fall-of-my-faith-part-i-looking-for-god-in-all-the-wrong-places/), so I won’t rehash the details. While there are a variety of reasons why people become and decide to stay vegetarian for the long haul, for me the most important thing was not wanting to participate in a system that was inherently unsustainable and cruel (for more information on the environmental impact of meat, dairy, and eggs, I would recommend “Food Choice and Sustainability: Why Buying Local, Eating Less Meat, and Taking Baby Steps Won’t Work” by Dr. Richard Oppenlander). There is also increasing evidence of the complex social and emotional lives of non-human animals, indicating that they are not the soulless automatons or “dumb brutes” that previous generations assumed they were. In other words, I was able to find rational, science-based reasons that supported my decision to become and remain vegetarian. With my religious beliefs, I just had to take it all on “faith.” Although Catholicism prides itself on stating that faith and reason are compatible, some of it’s conclusions just don’t strike me as being very reasonable. For example, Paul VI rejected the findings of his own Pontifical Birth Control Commission, which stated that the ban on birth control should be rescinded, which suggests that if science says one thing and dogma another, the latter will always triumph over the former (I won’t even get into the details of Christology or Mariology, which are intentionally irrational to an outside observer).
I think that many religious conservatives reflexively choose not to care about the environment or animals because 1. they believe that the natural world was given to humans by God to exploit as they wish 2. they think that the state of environment is irrelevant to where one’s soul will spend eternity 3. they think the Second Coming is imminent, so there’s no point in being concerned about a world that is about to be destroyed. The Catholic church isn’t as big into the apocalypse and the Second Coming like many evangelicals are (the Rapture seems to be a peculiarly Protestant thing), but the “orthodox” party line is thoroughly anthropocentric, which make it difficult to have a conversation with conservotrads about the need to give nature and animals a moral status. I know that there are some evangelicals who are into “creation care,” but based on the rhetoric that I hear from the conservative media, such people must be a minority within the conservative Protestant tribe.
In the end, I think it boils down to my wanting to do improve the only life that I know for sure I’ll have (that and the fact that my taste buds have been re-oriented to the point where they no longer register meat as potential food). One common criticism of religion in general that I hear from secular humanists is that its otherworldly orientation causes believers to de-value their earthly lives. Why bother trying to change the world or even your own life if your mortal life is just a dress rehearsal for the afterlife? Why care about animals or the environment if the world and everything in it is about to end? Why worry about how animals are treated if their only purpose are to be resources for human needs and wants? While there are a good number of religious vegetarians/vegans and environmentalists, I think that religion in general (at least in its “traditional” forms) impedes people from thinking deeply about these issues by reinforcing ideas about human supremacy.
Interestingly, when I was at St F, I would always bring homemade vegan dishes to the potlucks so there would never be any doubt that I would have something to eat. My go-to dish was vegan lasagna, although I remember cooking a vegan Mexican casserole for one of the parish picnics. It never occurred to me to label my dish as vegan, simply because I assumed that I was the only vegan at St F’s and nobody else had any dietary restrictions. The vegan lasagna was completely consumed each time it, so it’s safe to assume that the dish had the carnivore seal of approval, despite not containing any meat or cheese. So now you know the truth: from 2005-2009, the lasagna at St F’s was vegan.