How Veganism Went From a Diet to a Dogma

The popularity of veganism and vegetarianism show a hunger for the transcendent.

James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes” (photo: Public Domain)

On April 8, massive protests by vegans and animal rights activists hit the streets of Australia. While many protests were peaceful, some extremists raided farms in the middle of the night, snarled up traffic in Melbourne’s CBD (Central Business District) and harassed farmers. The Gippy Goat Café in Victoria closed after a campaign of constant abuse from activists culminated in a raid in which they stole goats. (Ironically, the activists who claimed to be for animals were charged with animal cruelty).

While the protests in Australia are extreme, they do illustrate something about the vigor of the movement, and the human need for discipline and the transcendent.

Veganism and vegetarianism have gone from dietary disciplines, undertaken for moral or health benefits, to becoming religions in their own right. There is “excommunication” for offenses such as consuming fish or eggs. Vegan YouTubers such as Stella Rae, Rawvana, Alex Jamieson and Bonny Rebecca faced cyberbullying and threats from their “fans” when they consumed animal products or left veganism altogether.

According to a 2017 survey of the Vegetarian Resource Group, 47% of respondents described themselves as not actively religious. But a current court case could raise ethical veganism to the status of a protected religion. Jordi Casamitjana has gone before the Employment Tribunal in Great Britain, claiming he was fired because of his beliefs in ethical veganism. So it seems that there is a strain in veganism, with its own tenets and practices, that seeks to reach beyond and redefine religion.

It comes as no surprise, then, that some animal rights activists use the cleansing of the Temple, in which Jesus released the animals (Mark 11:15-19) to claim that the Lord was vegan.

And just as the Church has a liturgical calendar with feasts, there are vegan/vegetarian gatherings. (A recent one in Manchester, New Hampshire, proudly advertised its drum circles). These gatherings often involve rituals, like blessings and remembrances for “companion animals.” As Christians celebrate Easter as the high point of their liturgical year, Earth Day is the “spiritual” center of many vegans’ and vegetarians’ lives.

While the traditional kosher diet of the Old Testament condemned mixing meat and dairy (Exodus 23:19), vegans fervently renounce meat and dairy completely. Under Levitical law, keeping kosher was about separateness; it was about following God’s Holiness Code. With vegans, on the other hand, forgoing meat and dairy is more about the animals themselves than following God.

This kind of veganism is, in a sense, a return to paganism with its “Earth-centered” spirituality.

The In Defense of Animals website has a section devoted to “Vegan Spirituality.” Most “vegan spirituality” can be defined as New Age with its practices of yoga, guided meditation, mindfulness, as well as random Buddhist and Hindu beliefs.

Last January, San Rafael-based In Defense of Animals interviewed vegan Priestess Maple Rudynski (who calls herself “Maple Moon Song” on Instagram and Twitter, identifying herself as “queer and polyamorous”) who has led “Earth-based rituals for nearly 20 years.” Priestess Rudynski described her paganism as a reversion, going back to a religion that predated her ancestors’ conversion to Christianity. “Earth-based spirituality” is an idyllic Eden in which humans, animals and the environment coexisted in peace before the rise of monotheistic religions, particularly Christianity.

In this Earth-centered spirituality, the environment supplants the Holy Trinity, while animals are made equal to people. The Green New Deal is the new creed, and “climate change” is divine wrath. The Australian documentary “Dominion” (2018), narrated by actress Rooney Mara, seems like a blasphemous parody of God’s command (Genesis 1:28), “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God’s command is understood as a mandate for widespread animal abuse.

An edifying example of the religious dimension that veganism has developed appeared in February 2013, on the “Our Hen House” website in a blog by co-founder Mariann Sullivan titled “The Church of Veganism.” Sullivan described how she had grown up Catholic with crushes on Ingrid Bergman in “Bells of St. Mary’s” and Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story”; the moral of her story was making veganism and animal rights the core of her life. Instead of giving up meat on Fridays to commemorate the sufferings of Our Lord, it was Friday every day to end the sufferings of animals. For its true believers, veganism gives life meaning.

Veganism also takes up “sexual liberation,” not just animal “liberation” from farms. The VINE (Veganism Is the Next Evolution) Sanctuary in Springfield, Vermont, describes itself as an “eco-feminist, LGBTQ-led animal sanctuary,” tackling such subjects as “sexism, racism, ecocide, and queering animal liberation.” Similarly, Our Hen House did a short documentary in September 2015 called “Coming out for Animals,” and its other co-founder, Jasmin Singer, frequently writes and podcasts about the “intersection of gay rights and animal rights.”

Long before the term “intersectional” was used in identity politics, many politically minded vegans equated “LGBT” rights with those of animals. Animals, vegans, and “LGBT” people are identified as oppressed groups. The equation is made that just as animals are bullied and cruelly treated on farms, so are “LGBT” people bullied. The wrongness of bullying is used to justify “same-sex marriage.” The belief that humans are more valuable than animals, with immortal souls, made in God’s image and likeness, is viewed as “speciesism,” just as considering homosexuality sinful is “heterosexism.” It is noteworthy that Marlon Reis, who calls himself the “husband” of Colorado governor Jared Polis, is taking up animal rights as his “pet” cause.

While ancient paganism celebrated fertility, to quote G.K. Chesterton in The Well and the Shallows: “It has been left to the very latest Modernists to proclaim an erotic religion that exalts lust and forbids fertility… The new priests abolish fatherhood and keep the feast to themselves.” According to a 2013 survey by M. Butterflies Katz on Facebook, 40% of vegans are “child-free.”

In this new “Earth-centered” faith, having children contributes to climate change and the mass extinctions of other species. The fertility of animals is celebrated. That of humans, not so much.

Abstinence from carnal pleasure means not eating meat, but sexual self-restraint is seen as out of the question. It is no wonder that sites like VegNews and Bustle promote vegan contraceptives.

But in themselves, the practices of veganism and vegetarianism are morally neutral diets. For example, some religious orders, like the Carmelites and Trappists, tend to be vegan/vegetarian, while others, like Jesuits and Franciscans, are not.

The trendiness of veganism and vegetarianism show the appeal of discipline. Having a discipline sets a goal; there is a bigger picture. Traditionally, the Church has used diet: The indulgence of Mardi Gras balances the penitence of Ash Wednesday. Many Catholics still go meatless on Fridays, instead of substituting another Friday penance outside of Lent. Paying attention to diet connects us to our identity as Catholics, and to the procession of the life of Christ.

Appreciating this, there have been occasional and sporadic revivals of Ember and Rogation days. Traditionally, the Ember Days are a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday that fall in each season for prayer, fasting, and abstinence. They fall on the first week of Advent, between the first and second Sundays of Lent, between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, as well as the liturgical third week of September. The Rogation Days fall on April 25 (the Feast of St. Mark), and the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension. Since 1969, the Ember and Rogation Days have been optional. Last year, Bishop David Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh called for Ember Days to repent of abuses in the Church. And this year, St. Stanislaus in Nashua, New Hampshire, celebrated a Rogation procession.

Ember and Rogation Days show the Church’s balance between fasting and feasting. Even when one has celebrated Christ’s Resurrection or the Descent of the Holy Spirit, we still live in “the whole creation (that) has been groaning in travail together until now” (Romans 8:22). Easter and Pentecost joy need not preclude self-discipline, for as Our Lord counseled (Matthew 6:16-17), “Do not look dismal… when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.”

The popularity of veganism and vegetarianism show a hunger for the transcendent. It is about making life meaningful again. There are vegan souls who would love to hear the Good News. The Real Presence in the Eucharist demonstrates the ultimate transcendence they are seeking, as Our Lord said (John 6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger.”

As part of Jewish-Christian dialogue, a joint concert was given on Sept. 4, 2021, in the Dohány Street Synagogue by the Solti Chamber Orchestra in Budapest. Hungary.

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