by mr dan
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Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.
Thomas Alva Edison
Of the many ethical positions my disbelief in theology has led me to, the one I live most presently is my vegetarianism. I’m aware that I’m among a small minority of atheists, or even the general population, who take this position. For this reason many would expect me to keep silent on the issue. But atheists should know too well that majority status within the whole does not necessarily indicate that one’s thinking is sound, and that unpopular opinions should not be dismissed without first being fairly considered.
There are countless reasons for a vegetarian lifestyle, and I haven’t the time to get into them all here. Ethics always seemed to me the best impetus, and I never needed any further convincing. And since atheism leaves us with the default that ethics must be logical, I ask you: From where does the atheist get the right to eat meat, and how can we justify speciesism in the absence of god?
Though I say it proudly, the word vegetarian is itself a slight misnomer. It defines me by what I eat, and by omission, what I don’t eat — the flesh of animals. Archaic adages aside, it is better to define someone not by what they eat but by what they do or don’t do. I am a person who does not kill. By which I mean, of course, that killing of any kind should be avoided at all costs. Obviously there are times when killing is unavoidable. Lunch is certainly not one of those times.
There is no debating this statement: Since almost nobody in our modern, civilized society needs to kill animals in order to live, killing animals is therefore unnecessary, inessential — one could even say a luxury. From this fact I conclude that it is cruel to kill animals for luxury.
The most common reaction I get to this announcement is the profoundly ignorant decree, “That’s what animals are for. It’s their purpose in life. It’s their destiny.” The trouble with that reasoning is that animals, like humans, are not here for anything. Anyone asserting that there is any particular reason why Man deserves a place at the top of the food chain is espousing a distinctly theological view. If humans are of a special class of animals, better than the other mammals, better than even our closest relatives, the primates, what made us so special? God? Does it make any sense to think that we evolved to be the diners, while the other creatures evolved to be our dinner? The idea that animals are meant for our consumption is entirely dependent on a sentient and cruel creator god.
In many ways, we are indeed unique, some might even say better. But that does not make us more deserving of rights, and the fact that man has clawed his way to the top of the food chain by superior strength, intelligence, and avoidance of his own natural predators does not justify his continued oppression of the lower links. Now that we have evolved into creatures whose heads are filled with wonderful thinking machines, shouldn’t we use them to their full potential, rather than just saying, “We’ve always eaten meat, therefore it’s okay”? Tradition is the poorest excuse to do anything. If the actions of less civilized men in recent centuries would not be permissible today, why should we look to the behavior of our morally ignorant ancestors as justification for repeating their actions?
How can we, as atheists, believe ourselves to have evolved with an entitlement to take life at our own discretion for nonessential reasons? Survival instinct cannot be blamed; we don’t slaughter chickens in self defense, and we wouldn’t starve if we stopped. How can we criticize and mock the bloodshed inherent in nearly all the world’s religions, with their holy books and leaders insisting upon the murder, enslavement, torture, segregation and subjugation of other humans, and say nothing of the disregard those books hold for animal life? They all preach that animals were made for us, to be worked to death, eaten, or burnt to please God, and of all the silly lies to disgrace those pages, this is the one that seems most easily ignored.
Meat-eaters will point to their incisors and ask me why we have special teeth for cutting meat. The teeth are indeed useful in cutting and tearing tough meat or vegetation, but like the bodies in which they reside they are not for anything. The teeth of our evolutionary ancestors gradually changed shape, like all parts of all organisms do, as useful mutations were passed on to the next generation. We’re left with a mouth that looks like it was meant to process all kinds of foods, but this is really only a dietary version of the Argument from Design. And, if I may quote Dan Barker, “People who are impressed with the design argument are like the guy who is amazed at all the rivers that were made to flow along state borders.”
Others suggest that the pain of animals is not as real or as significant as that of humans. The idea that animals do not feel pain because they lack consciousness is an invention of Rene Descartes. He advocated vivisection, the dissection of live animals, because he claimed only humans have souls and can feel pain, and that the writhing, screaming and kicking of a wounded or tortured animal was merely an autonomic response, a clever imitation of humanity. Today this Cartesian lie has migrated from the land to the sea. Few would argue that a dog or a chicken cannot feel pain, but there are many who seem to believe that a fish feels nothing, despite its obvious display of pain when its mouth is punctured by a hook and it flops violently about on the deck of a boat, suffocating out of its natural watery habitat. Recent studies have found that fish do indeed feel pain and use their very-existent memories to avoid danger and seek food or shelter.
Another, and perhaps the weakest argument, is that animals don’t deserve life in the same way we do because they are stupid. I don’t know where they get the idea that the capacity for knowledge and understanding is in any way relative to the freedom to not be eaten, but furthermore they are themselves profoundly ignorant of the wealth of intellect that was eradicated to satisfy their selfish appetites. Pigs, for instance, are much smarter than dogs, which are usually considered by Westerners to be far too intelligent and loyal to be eaten (pigs are also far cleaner). If they could define exactly where that cut-off point is, would it not logically follow that the slower humans who did not make the cut should prepare themselves for our forks and knives? Would this include newborn babies, whose intelligence has not yet developed? No, you say, because they have the potential for greater intellect. Fair enough — but what about the mentally handicapped, or those in a vegetative state? As Jeremy Bentham famously wrote, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
A similar but more concise argument comes from the pages of Animal Liberation by Dr. Peter Singer. “If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for disregarding that suffering, or for refusing to count it equally with the suffering of any other being.”
Often I am asked, “But don’t you miss the taste of steak or pork chops?” The answer is no, I don’t, but more to the point: even if I did, what would that prove? That meat is tasty? The insipidness of flesh has never been my argument for abstaining from it, though it pales in comparison to the foul taste of the argument from deliciousness. How vile to suggest that a sentient creature doesn’t have as much right to live as you do simply because you find its flesh mouthwatering.
If you just can’t be moved by the slaughter of animals, then perhaps you’ll consider the people hurt by animal production. Commercial farming of animals creates environmental disasters. Forests, wetlands and plains have been eliminated to make grazing room for animals, including 70% of the Amazon Forests. Their waste piles up and pollutes the rivers and lakes to which the runoff leads. When farm animals are given feed that is drastically different from their natural diet, such as corn or other cows, their bodies can react in ways that pollute the meat they produce, causing widespread sickness and death. Those animals are also pumped full of antibiotics and hormones which have been linked to a plethora of diseases and health conditions. The workers on the farms and in the slaughterhouses are underpaid and work in deplorable conditions. And industrial livestock agriculture has been estimated to account for up to 18% of greenhouse gas emmisions — that’s almost half of human-caused emissions. So much for the meek having a whole lot to inherit.
Some ask me how I can advocate abstaining from such an abundant food source when so many in this world are hungry. Actually, due to the remarkable inefficiencies in raising animals for food, there would be more food available if we ended the practice (for instance, it takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, and seven is significantly greater than one). The same is true of clean water and farming land. Meat is tremendously uneconomical.
So with all the demonstrable fallout from the consumption of meat, how can we, in the absence of a deity, justify so much unnecessary killing? If atheism can lead us directly to humanism, to egalitarianism and the eradication of racism, sexism, classism and all the other isms that don’t make any sense, to the idea that no human was created with more of a right to life and happiness than any other, why is it so irrational to disregard speciesism and feast on the abundant nonviolent sources of food? Unless someone can present me with a rational, universal justification for killing animals, I will continue to feel it should be avoided. So far, no one has even come close.
mr dan is the vice president of Connecticut Valley Atheists. The views expressed in this posting are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.