I didn’t call people to tell them I’d gone vegan. I didn’t make it my Facebook status. But it seems like one of the ways that people tend to socialize is over food. So before long they either figure it out, or you kind of need to let them know you’d rather go someplace other than Sizzler.
And as I went through that process of people finding out about this change, and me taking in their wide range of reactions to it, more than one person (two) told me that I had “found religion.” And they didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Of course I understood what they meant right away, and I’m pretty sure I could even see it from their perspective: I’d suddenly decided to change my life, to do something because of a newfound belief, and to accept certain limitations on my behavior and make certain sacrifices as a result. In other words, I went off the deep end.
I also imagine that, like someone who just found religion, they thought I was acting morally superior and as if I had “seen the light.” And if they did think that, they weren’t wrong. But I tried – and try – very hard not to act that way, not to criticize, not to proselytize, and not to even talk about it. Unless I’m asked. And people don’t ask. (Unless it’s with the hope of getting the answer: “I did it for health reasons.” Because if you did it for the chickens, they do not want to know.)
But even if I am guilty of feeling superior to non-vegans on this issue, isn’t the bigger issue that I’m morally superior to pre-vegan me of almost half a hundred years? And what does that say about the kind of person I am that I managed to ignore the “open secret” of what’s being done to these animals? It speaks poorly of me that I repressed what I knew for so long and didn’t make the effort to find out more until so much of my life had gone by.
Oh crap, does that mean I feel guilty? That I feel like I was a sinner before? Religion again! (I actually don’t believe in the concept of sin, which feels like it’s imposed from without, though I do still believe there can be right and wrong, which I delude myself into thinking comes from common sense and a John Stuart Mill-type perspective, not from “without.”)
Also like religion, people think that I must have felt “lost” to go and do something like this. Had I gone and joined a cult, I doubt their reaction would be all that different. And if it were a meat-eating cult, they might mind the change less. To them, I’m now the friend that does this odd – and inconvenient – thing.
Most people I know don’t want rules in their life, whether it’s religious rules, or rules about what to eat. They don’t want limitations. People will often offer me an item of food and ask, “Can you eat this?” If it’s not vegan, my answer is always, “I can, but I don’t want to.” Is that how religious people think, too? I don’t know, not being religious, but I’d guess they’re more likely to think that they “can’t” have this or that, especially if they were raised since childhood with those rules and taught that it’s the only acceptable way to act. (And maybe for those reasons they don’t “want” it either.)
But once you accept rules, you step out of the rule-free world, and in that sense it’s again similar to religion. Because once you start to put limitations on yourself, you see that you can take this idea of limitation as far as you want. Some people eat honey and call themselves vegan, some wear leather and call themselves vegan. I don’t do either but others go further than I do. No refined sugar, let’s say. And I bet some vegans don’t think vegans like me who eat refined sugar are vegans at all. Not to mention the vegans concerned about isinglass who think that if you don’t check your vino you’re VINO.
Now it really sounds like religion, with the more-observant people feeling they’re more Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Buddhist/Hindu/Vegan than the less-observant ones, or that they’re a REAL Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Buddhist/Hindu/Vegan while the others are merely pretenders. In this way, vegans can feel morally superior not only to meat eaters, not only to vegetarians, but even to other kinds of vegans who don’t go as far as they do.
The honey thing is a good example. Are the bees being tortured? Mistreated? Exploited? Like I said, I don’t use honey — but do I equate what happens to the bees to what happens to a calf in a veal create? I do not. But I avoid using it so that I can feel I’m vegan. So that I don’t have to worry about challenges to my vegan authenticity. And also to be sure that this isn’t in fact a hardship on the bees. Not to mention that it adds to the statement that I’m against the exploitation of all living non-plant things. (I’m also against the exploitation of plants, but hey, a guy’s gotta eat!) And this is where, for me, veganism gets closest to religion, as it starts to deal with adherence to what “the group” says is vegan and to observing enough of the tenets to feel like I’m a vegan or a good vegan or can properly use the label vegan for myself when I see fit.
And it also becomes like religion simply by giving its adherents a name: Vegans. Why can’t we just do what we do without a name? Why can’t we just say, “Yeah, I don’t eat animal products.” Or, “I eat only eat plant-based foods”? The answer is because there’s strength in numbers, and in terms, and on some level we like being part of a group, and feeling like we’re participating in a movement. We like the feeling it gives us when we say to someone, “I am vegan.”
And some vegans take it even further. They’ve adopted a symbol: The V in a circle. Hey, if it works for you, great, but to me it just makes it even more like a religion. But who am I to criticize, since I’m known to wear a T-shirt from time to time with a band or a brand that I like on the front. So let people have their Circle V. (And wouldn’t that be a great name for a vegan convenience store? If you open one, I get a discount!)
So now that I’ve told you all the ways that veganism is like a religion, I just want to say that to me it’s not like a religion at all, any more than opposing abortion is a religion to a right-to-life atheist or supporting gay marriage is to a secular humanist.
And I wish that some of these people who think I’ve found religion would think about it a little more closely for a minute. There’s no meetings, like a religion. There’s no place of worship. There’s no hierarchical leader with authority over it. There’s no deity. There’s nobody I’m supposed to give money to.
I’m not seeking salvation in this. I’m not seeking answers. I don’t feel it will improve my karma or that some deity will think more highly of me as a result. But I guess I do now “believe” in something. I believe these animals are treated in a way that just about every human would say is wrong if they were watching it happen in front of them. And so I took an action that makes me feel like I opted out of it.
So yes, I’ve adopted a new belief. But adopting a new belief is no more adopting a new religion than adopting a new belief in atheism would be. (And I know some atheists who are so into atheism, who attend so many meetings and conventions and belong to so many groups that they’ve turned it into much more of a religion than veganism is, even though these are some of the people who are quickest to attack veganism as religion.)
But maybe it’s simply too late at this point to effectively argue that veganism is not like religion since I’ve just proved beyond a doubt that it shares something very basic with religion: pontification. So I’ll shut up.