The Paradox of Veganism and Abrahamic Religion
Abrahamic religion, that is Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, has a long history linked to meat-eating and animal husbandry. So as you can probably imagine, veganism is still rather unusual. But how is it perceived within these religions? Well it's not uncommon to ask a religious person for their views on veganism and to be met with a response something along the lines of: it goes against the religion, it's sinful, it's an innovation, it's from the Devil.
Is eschewing animal-based products in favour of a diet of fruits, vegetables, pulses, grains, nuts, and seeds really that sinful?
Well when you dive into the religious teachings and explore the values upon which all three of these religions are founded, it becomes quite clear that there's nothing wrong with being vegan. It must also be added however, that it's equally not wrong to consume certain animal-based products. In this instance, a plethora of rules and guidelines are applied, but these are unfortunately often ignored or violated in today's modern, industrial society. But that's a discussion for another time. Suffice to say, the conclusion of many is that one is free to either eat those permitted animal-based products or to avoid them altogether, in the case of veganism.
Another incorrect assumption that many make, is the belief that religious vegans think they're better than others - they don't, at least I have yet to come across such a view! Rather, religious vegans are aware of the religious values described below and the ways in which they are being violated in contemporary society. As such, they have made the decision to avoid such harm by following a vegan diet.
So what are these values that are in line with veganism?
Humans as Stewards
We are told in the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur'an that God gave humans the responsibility to watch over His Creation. This has been translated into many concepts, such as dominion, stewardship, and vice-regency. Some unfortunately interpret this to mean we have a God-given right to exploit animals and the environment and use them for our own gain, whilst others interpret it to mean we have a special responsibility to care for Creation, maintain the balance and ensure justice is afforded to all. Unsurprisingly, vegans tend to adopt the latter interpretation.
There is a rich, albeit poorly discussed, history of kindness to animals in all three religious traditions. There are lots of stories of prophets and saints caring for animals, showing kindness to them, and scolding those who treated them cruelly. Animal cruelty is widely regarded a sin, and each religion offers detailed instructions relating to animal husbandry and animal welfare, many of which are sadly violated in modern factory farms, however. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that all three religions teach us to be kind to animals and to treat them with respect. For vegans, veganism becomes one means of achieving this.
As with animal welfare, there is a rich, albeit often overlooked, history of caring for the environment in all three religions. Whilst we are permitted to use materials as resources, none of the religions teach that we can mindlessly exploit the environment, destroying it in the process. Instead, there is reward in planting trees, in removing pollution, maintaining ecological balance, and so on. Animal agriculture has a huge negative impact on the environment however, for example, deforestation, pollution, and biodiversity loss. So for vegans, veganism becomes one means of minimising one's impact on the environment.
Caring for the Community
Of all these values, perhaps the most prevalent is caring for the community. We care about our fellow humans and we're more willing to speak up for their rights, than we are for those of animals or the environment. We are taught in religion to give to charity and to take care of those less fortunate than ourselves. The intense demands of animal agriculture however often means that disadvantaged populations across the globe suffer malnutrition and starvation, because the crops grown around them are instead fed to animals that will end up as meat on a rich person's plate. This is just one example. For vegans, veganism therefore becomes one means of caring for the wider community, in particular those people in other countries who may seem invisible to us, but who nevertheless suffer the consequences of our consumer choices.
Duties to Ourselves
God granted us our bodies and as such we have a duty to care for them. We should choose good things that nurture our bodies - clean water, good nutrition, a healthy lifestyle, etc, and avoid harmful things - greed, indulgence, intoxicants, self-harm, etc. Many studies have been published recently suggesting that the consumption of too many animal products can be harmful to our bodies, increasing the risk of cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, among other health problems. Plant-based wholefoods meanwhile offer considerable health benefits. There are of course some concerns surrounding omega 3 and vitamin B12 for example, but with the abundance of vegan products available today, many of which are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals, and detailed research into nutrition and foods, it is entirely possible to thrive on a vegan diet. So once again, for vegans, veganism becomes a means of caring for one's own body. (Disclaimer: there are many yummy unhealthy vegan foods available too though!)
So veganism in Abrahamic religion isn't all that absurd after all. Sure, it's not common, but then again veganism has never been as prevalent anywhere in the world as it is now.
Perhaps the biggest reason why veganism is so hotly debated in religion is the simple reason that religion seeks to preserve tradition and ritual, whereas veganism challenges dominant norms and consequently those same traditions and rituals too. So to some it can seem like an affront to the religion itself. But is this really the case? Allow me to leave you with some food for thought: are your practices truly in line with what your religion teaches?