atheism/Vegetarianism: Is there a link? Vegetarians and Meat Eaters alike please! Help with online ethnography for a postgrad..

Hello fellow atheists,

My name is Rob and I am conducting an online ethnography of atheists who wish to discuss Vegetarianism. Any potential topics whether they are mutually exclusive or indeed personal or academic arguments please feel free to express them here.

For those who are interested: I am a chap from England - UK living in London finishing an MA on the Anthropology of Food. I am 25 with a girlfriend who is a principled agnostic and Vegetarian. I however am not a Vegetarian, I do not eat a lot of meat but have several times considered my choice to eat meat. Similarly I am also interested in philosophical and scientific debates around the subject of Vegetarianism, this has led me to the personal interest of atheist-Vegetarianism of which little has been written about anthropologically (possibly it has been assumed to originate from 'a universal moral' associated with mainstream meat avoidance or for health reasons). I have a belief that something else appears to be going on amongst the high rates of atheist or secular Vegetarians compared with those of the Abrahamic religions, and it is my vision to understand this.

If anyone is willing to get involved please do and remember that your information will be kept confidential and used only for academic purposes (see my universities code of ethics):

Any responses I use within the work will be portrayed with first names only, no other content will be used such as email addresses.


I would like to start the discussion by asking what or is there a link between atheism/Vegetarianism?

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I believe Peter Singer sees at least some link between the rejection of certain religious views and vegetarianism. He's a philosopher, atheist, and a vegan. Singer talked with Richard Dawkins about an ethical perspective on animal treatment being derived in part from understanding humankind's place in nature. If I remember the interview correctly, Singer believed the rejection of Christian views, which rank humankind above other life forms, would lead to kinder treatment of animals. Darwin gave us the understanding that humans are in fact part of the animal kingdom, not specially created, and we are therefore not justified in ranking ourselves above it. I don't know, however, if he believes there is a link between atheism and vegetarianism or if the link is between acceptance of evolution and vegetarianism. 

Even though I'm a vegetarian I don't see a strong link between atheism and vegetarianism. Even though atheists reject the notion that humans are specially created, many arguments for eating meat, if not most of the ones I've heard, are made using biology rather than religion. 

I have read some of Singer's work and I would say that you are right, in that even if there is or is not a strong link (whatever form(s) that may take), science perhaps forms a better stance of understanding human relations to animals through biology (evidence in provable terms) than religion does. 

However, the reason why this is so appealing to me is that atheism does not always go hand in hand with scientific perception or discovery. In my personal experience (raised Catholic), it was more of an apathetic response to what I describe as 'nonsense' rather than an informed  biological teachings.

In my opinion (and I am not Vegetarian) I see significant numbers of other concepts which form the human relation to animals (philosophy, market behaviour, cuisine etc..), and even though I know it is not directly related to atheism, it has opened my eyes into what is perceived and delivered to 'the masses' as the norm. 

I guess my point is.. people often place the Abrahamic religions first as the ones who position themselves over animals as humans but what of Buddhism, Jainism etc What makes atheism more appropriate to the Vegetarian argument? It's lack of spirituality or presence/lack of interpretation?

As far as Buddhism is concerned (and possibly Jainism, Hinduism?), humans are not placed above/below any other beings (animals or beings in other realms, heavenly and hell - yes, they are discussed in the suttas also). The point is that humans are living beings which experience suffering, an experience that is shared by all other living beings. That is why there is emphasis on compassion towards all living beings as they experience the same as human beings.

Ok but what of atheism? In my mind it does not negate a specific kind of reply to this.. for example atheism in my mind levels humans with animals but does not necessarily push one to act kindly nor exploit them.. this is perhaps one reason for the split between veggies and meat eaters within the atheism school of thought. What are your thoughts?

The suffering of animals appears (to me) to be formed not from the dispersion of guilt to a sentient being (ie god told us we could eat animals) but of a human trait to naturally not really care for beings which are not in close relation (although global information would have us believe this is a rational conclusion). Is it that the atheist (in the sense that he\she is bound to the act of rationality forgetting a kind of human\animal ecology? I have met noone that has said atheism directly promotes this.. this is perhaps a conundrum of the factor that evolution promotes (where does this leave our position with other animals?) what constitutes this relationsip?

There is something so very Republican (and hence, Christian) about meat-eating. Ties in to the entitlement mentality, those who are proud of their guns, country, and God-given right to do whateverthehell they want.

Atheists are more grounded in reality by nature, and can't absolve themselves of guilt by a mere confession or expectation of forgiveness. They want to make real, positive, tangible changes during their stay here on the planet.

I gave up church as a teenager, and started volunteering at the local cat shelter, for example- I saw no point in just attending mass reciting prayers. THAT wasn't going to do ANYthing.

Also, it takes a certain amount of thought and effort. I'm mostly pescetarian (sp?) and it's damn hard to find stuff to eat conveniently. Cooking is also harder- gotta prep and chop vegetables, cook them in stages etc., whereas meat can just be slapped on a grill or in a pan, flip, and done.

Religion is one of those things that requires almost zero thought- slap a label on yourself, and there you go- instant acceptance, social network, respect, forgiveness- all for reciting words that the pastor dishes out.

That's my take on it, anyway, biased though it may be!! My husband is also an atheist, but eats loads of meat, and is a bit of a republican but not horrifically so. :-p

I like your point suggesting meat eating has some kind of link to conservative politics and almost a kind of libertarian attitude to other sentient beings. I would definitely agree there is much more going on towards the choice to avoid meat in terms of purely atheism.. but as you say atheism has this ability to 'open ones eyes' to the norm of a regime. Does anyone think this has to be particularly science based?

And to the point around nature as you say your husband is not a Vegetarian (neither am I buy my gf is so I do get the situation) but why would you say atheism is perhaps based in nature?

I don't see anything unethical about eating meat. I enjoy meat and when processed by my own hands I enjoy it more. Knowing where your food came from and how it lived its life gives a special appreciation for life. 

Nature is savage: everywhere we look life consumes life. To place our own artificial standard upon behavior because of a baseless sense of empathy doesn't make sense to me. We have no reason to believe that animals experience the world as we do. If we someday find the ability to communicate with animals a drastic re-evaluation would be necessary, most notably that animals would become responsible for their actions. But until that time there is no reason to treat non human life with the same respect as human life. 



I find some common ground to the majority of this point - a form of awareness is in itself powerful enough to convey that animals are in fact not just biological relatives but also sentinent beings, but when you say: 

 "If we someday find the ability to communicate with animals a drastic re-evaluation would be necessary, most notably that animals would become responsible for their actions. But until that time there is no reason to treat non human life with the same respect as human life."

Isn't this comparable to saying "well although there is no evidence of a 'god' nor any proof that there isn't I should still go on with the general norm of partial acceptance (agnosticism)" whereas most atheists would say "So long as there is skepticism it's justified to say that their is no 'god', it's not as if i'm going to get smited..." 

My question would be "Do we really need to think of animal rights or Vegetarianism as an artificial moral standard, as (remember i'm NOT Vegetarian) it's perhaps better not to do something potentially harmful UNTIL we discover whether it is or not..

Besides - regardless of an ethical perspective their are other arguments which have nothing to do with religion etc

It is an interesting question Robert. Your question, is it "better not to do something potentially harmful until we discover whether it is or not" really boils down to whether we have good reason to judge meat eating as potentially harmful. I say we are already making that exact judgment regarding certain creatures. The threshold is ability to communicate.  And if we wanted to argue that it applied in a broader sense, we would have to assign moral imperatives to all sorts of things that currently we view as morally neutral.

Except for the most elementary cells, life consumes life. It has done this for billions of years without a moral judgment. Indeed even our current moral judgment is that it is morally neutral to kill non-sapient life for sustenance (definitions vary as what qualifies as non-sapient). What is more, we consider it morally neutral if sapient life is killed by non-sapient life.

What this tells me is that it is the higher brain functions that define when morality can apply. Again, we judge this based on communication. If you won't charge a cow with assault because it rams you then you can't claim it has sapience. There is a rule of universality that must apply regarding morality.

Other animals who show no evidence of the ability to communicate abstract thought cannot possibly be considered candidates for sapience in the near future. There is no point judging based on what might happen unless we have a good reason to think that it will happen. 

Yes I agree if we were to drastically 'shake up' what we constitute as sapient we would need some kind of 'rule of thumb', it would be essential to a functioning agribusiness (alongside jobs and livelihoods of many people). To your point about elementary cells I think is agreeable, but if compared to sapient beings (humans) launches us into a pro-life/pro-choice debate (which is what makes this an argument pertaining 'what it means to be human' - we have only other humans and animals to compare ourselves with).

This i suspect, is why although we may philosophize and question our definition of ethics is one of the main reasons meat eating has sustained itself. I would say however sapience does not equal a leveling of human to animal it merely acquaints the animal with some right to existence  (this would mean meat eating but not lamb veal etc)

Very interesting thank you.

Thats a very respectful standpoint, something which I feel is not so common but very fascinating. Many people I have spoken to who became Vegetarian and atheist, subsequently found it harder to develop whichever 'trait' came second. It does not appear that one always influences the other,but this is a generalisation. 

Aside from this project I am also formulating my own views but they differ so much to my partners (she is Vegetarian but a kind of unexplained agnostic who believes in 'spirituality') her approach is more of a basic "well they are alive aren't they? Why are we killing them?" mine is (I like to think) more philosophical and relational to how we conceive nature and how the killing of animals is distanced from us as humans.

I think my approach is similar to your mom's. I have many other reasons, but bottom line is the animals' suffering.




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