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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Veganism, Religion, and Controversy!

Well, it's finally happened... after hundreds of positive feedback entries in my jewelry shop, I got my first 'neutral' feedback. And not because of the product itself, but because of my evil vegan propaganda (those are my words, not my customer's, whose opinion I do respect). I figured sooner or later someone would complain about the vegetarian pamphlets I include in all of my outgoing packages; to tell the truth, I'm surprised it took this long. Fortunately, up until now, all of the feedback I've received on the pamphlets has been positive.

My customer wrote that she finds this type of outreach to be "just as distasteful as when people try to foist their religious beliefs on others"... so that got me to thinking about a few things. How is ethical veganism similar to religion? How is it different? And how can those of us who work to improve the lives of animals do so effectively without being perceived as zealots? These are not questions with easy answers, obviously, and individual reactions, I'm sure, vary widely. I would venture to guess that this is not the first of my customers to bristle at the information I included in her package; she's just the first to vocally state her opinion.

As for the religion comparison, I actually see a lot of parallels between religious practice and ethical veganism. Consider the following definitions of religion, and I'm sure you will see what I mean:
  • a personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, beliefs, and practices
  • a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
Much as a deeply religious person adheres to the particular beliefs and practices of their chosen faith, as an ethical vegan*, I adhere to a set of moral guidelines that influence many aspects of my daily life. In my case, my moral baseline is that I should cause as little harm (to humans, other animals, and the planet) as possible within the limits of reason and practicality.**

* I use the term 'ethical vegan' to differentiate between someone like me, who applies veganism to many aspects of life, and someone who choses veganism solely as a dietary choice, perhaps for health or other reasons not linked with animal rights.

** I don't include 'within the limits of reason and practicality' as a loophole to let me abandon my beliefs whenever they become inconvenient, but rather as an acknowledgment that it is impossible in today's world to live a completely cruelty-free life. Tires contain animal byproducts; bugs and other small animals may be killed in the production of fruits and vegetables, etc. I do the very best that I can, but for me it's not about being pure or perfect.

The ways that this moral baseline influence my life go beyond the obvious food choices. They impact my relationships with other people and with the animals in my life, they affect what I choose to put on my body (clothing, shoes, personal care items), and they compel me to make socially and environmentally responsible business decisions (avoiding animal-derived materials in my designs; donating a percentage of sales to charity; using re-purposed/recycled packaging materials whenever possible; etc.). I'm sure I could think of many other examples but I don't want this post to go on forever so I'll move on.

So I do accept that there are similarities between veganism and religion. And I agree with my customer that people who foist their religious beliefs on others are annoying. But here's where our opinions diverge... I view religion as a deeply personal choice - a relationship between an individual and their god(s) - but I view veganism and animal rights advocacy as a social justice issue, similar in many ways to the anti-slavery movement, the womens' rights movement, the environmental movement, etc. Would anyone be offended to find a flyer in their package describing how to fight domestic violence or prevent teen suicide? Why does it become offensive when the oppressed beings we're fighting to protect are non-human?

The animal rights movement is a fight to protect the weak from the strong - to keep those without power from being abused from those with power. It is a fight for lives and souls. It is a fight to end violence in all of its forms. It is a fight in which the losers suffer the worst fate imaginable.

Choosing to consume animals and their excretions is not an ethically neutral decision; I don't buy the "it's my choice" argument (although I've heard it often). When you eat a hamburger or drink a glass of milk, you have in essence paid someone to torture and kill an animal for you. I'm sorry if that sounds harsh but it's true.

This goes beyond deciding whether to worship at a mosque or a chapel or choosing between Christmas and Hannukah. The voiceless victims of our daily actions suffer endlessly, and I have chosen to use this one small bit of advocacy (brochures in my outgoing packages) as a daily protest against cruelty, against suffering, and against senseless death. If I offend anyone with this choice, please be assured that is not my intent. If the information you see bothers you, guess what - you should be bothered! This is horrific stuff. But if you take a deeper look at the emotions that the information elicits, I suspect you may find it's not really me you're mad at.


Lotta said...

And just after I convoed you about the pamphlet, too. Now I feel compelled to defend myself :( although I don't think I'm really the kind of person you most want to reach, since I already eat vegetarian and try to make less impact on the environment. Well, maybe that's part of the thing, those who feel most guilty are those who already try to do better? I always feel there is more that I should be doing (or not doing, in some cases).

Oh, and I do get your point.

Andrea said...

I gotta tell ya. I went Vegan last August after reading a book that opened my eyes. I donate monthly to 2 animal charities and I appreciated the pamphlet that I received from you in my packaging. I even gave it to my 11 year old to read through to show her that being Vegan isn't weird or crazy like everyone acts like it is. Whe I talk about the horrors of milk and meat my friends always give me a "look" like, let's shut the crazy lady up now. They act as if I'm talking about religion.

The big Meat and Dairy industries has everyone brainwashed and fooled into thinking that you need to consume these products in order to live. Such crap!

I could go on and on. I'll just eat my tofu and rice milk and be just as happy.

Ok, off my soapbox now before I blow a blood vessel.

Tamara said...

My rant was not directed at you Lotta. And actually I really didn't intend for it to be a rant or to seem like an attack on any of my customers - I hope it didn't come across that way. It just brought up a lot of different thoughts for me that I wanted to share. :-)

Vegan_Noodle said...

Great post. I think it's great that you include vegan literature with your jewelry. And I think your arguement that ethical veganism is not like religion because it deals with the suffering of sentient beings is very important to understand. I hope you continue to include this with your packages, I can only imagine how many people you have reached with this.

Ravenfire said...

I don't see veganism related to religion any more than any other rights activism. No one ever says that feminist or civil rights groups are like a religion trying to preach to people. No one would say those who fought for the abolition of slavery were just as bad as religious zealots trying to convert everyone.

The sad fact is, if these people allow themselves to see it as a political/social topic, then they may have to actually give their behavior some serious thought. However, if they hold onto the belief that veganism is like a religion (ie based on faith not fact) they can remain happily in their fantasy world.

Tamara said...

Well said, Ravenfire. I especially like what you said about veganism being based on fact, not faith - that's what I was trying to say myself but you said it much more simply and concisely than I did. :-)

Lotta said...

No, I didn't really think it was directed at me :) I think I just reacted to your post because it coincided with my convo about the pamphlet.

Robin Marie said...

"When you eat a hamburger or drink a glass of milk, you have in essence paid someone to torture and kill an animal for you. I'm sorry if that sounds harsh but it's true."

I can see where your coming from, and for much of the world this is true. I have to say though that it's not COMPLETELY true. I live on a small dairy farm. We milk between 50 and 65 cows, and my father works tirelessly every single day to care for them and baby them. Each cow has a warm bed of sawdust in a covered, well ventilated barn, free access to a large field and stream, and climate control in the summer. Each cow is milked routinely twice a day, each calf has its own clean, dry, sheltered bed to sleep in an is fed by hand twice a day.

Unhappy cows aren't economical. They don't produce well, they get sick. Unhappy calves get sick and die.

My family eats meat. Once every two years my dad chooses a cow, and that's the cow that provides our meat for the next two years. We trade some of that meat for lamb, pork, and turkey equally well cared for by my relatives. Our eggs come from our neighbor who's chickens run all through her gardens. Our venison comes from deer that run all through our garden and corn fields.

I wholeheartedly agree that much of the animal industry is wretched, but not all of it. I think that more important than not supporting the industry is being aware of what your food went through and directing your support in the right direction. My family supports the animals, and the animals in turn support us. That is the circle of life.

beakee said...

I received one of your pamphlets and I've been wanting to pass it along to people I know (maybe this time colour pictures will emphasise the point better than my other b&w printouts). The attitudes of people I encounter are more of... I dunno, hedonistic tendencies (meat tastes good so I eat it) and the humans-are-superior mentality (they were bred to be consumed etc), rather than them likening veganism or vegetarianism to religion. I do agree about it being a social justice issue, and I guess the ones who don't see it that way still think that animal rights aren't as worthy of their time/effort/money as other human-centred movements. It makes me sad.

Btw I always thought that veganism by definition included the no animal byproducts lifestyle and was not just about diet. Anyway, I loved your post :)

Vegan Girl said...

You have a lot of support Tamara. And if you only had one small complaint out of the hundreds of packages you must send out, then you are getting the word out and you are doing good.

Anonymous said...

Well, I have various opinions here. I take no offense to receiving the pamphlets in my packages.

I do take offense to the constant talk of "abuse" animals go through. As Robin Marie states, not all animals are going through torture, and those that do are not economical to the farmer.

And, I do want to say that I have changed my eating habits significantly in the last 6 years. I still eat meat but it's very limited. I guess what I am saying is that I've gone from commercial/farm raised meat to mostly game animals. Being that I have a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Wildlife Management, this is a way of sustaining the population. If there were no hunters, we'd have major problems with wild animal populations. Everything from more diseases, to over-crowed populations, strained territories/mate selection, as well as general aggression between animals because of the above reasons I just mentioned.

And, lastly, I'm a true believer in saving the environment as my occupation is an Environmental Scientist. I can argue about everything said here as it's OUR OPINION and WE ARE ENTITLED TO IT.

You all might be all against eating animals, and they're "bi-products", but you don't seem to care about the trees. They're living organisms too, and very important to our environment as they supply us with oxygen. They also have several environmental benefits to their surroundings that I won't even bore you with...everything from erosion control to symbiotic relationships with animals. So, yeah, I'm not offended by receiving the pamphlet, just offended that you're so highly against the consumption of animals, yet don't really care about the trees from which your pamphlets are coming from.

thanks and good day :)

Anonymous said...

That's not true about trees and Pamphlets. We do care about trees.. Most of the Pamphlets come from recycled paper/Boxes... I am a vegetarian and I do drink organic milk and eat organic Yogurt. And I perfectly understand Tamara's point.

I think killing of animals is perfectly fine in the animal kingdom!!!

Anyhow there is always 2 sides to a story... Keep the debate going...

Tamara said...

Robin Marie, I appreciate that there is a big difference between mass production animal agriculture and the scenario you describe from your own family’s life, and I appreciate you taking the time to write. However, 99.9% of the animal products consumed in this modern day and age do not come from situations like those you’ve described – they come from animals raised in horrific factory farming conditions who die miserably slow and painful deaths in filthy slaughterhouses.

I disagree with your assertion that ‘unhappy cows aren’t economical’ – based on everything I’ve read (and I’ve read plenty), that simply isn’t the case in a factory farm setting. Instances of unhappy, unhealthy cows being exploited and ultimately killed for our consumption are far from the exception in these settings; rather, they are the norm. (I highly recommend that anyone who disagrees with this statement check out the book, ‘Slaughterhouse’.)

If you don’t mind my asking, what happens to the calves that are born on your family’s dairy farm? My understanding is that on most farms (factory or otherwise), the male calves (which are a necessary byproduct of keeping the dairy cows continually pregnant - and therefore producing milk) are sold for veal production. It is a well documented fact that veal production is inherently inhumane, but maybe you guys do something else with your calves? The unpleasant reality of dairy farming is that it is not economical to provide happy little retirement villages for (a) the male calves that are born as a byproduct of dairy farming, and (b) the dairy cows themselves that are no longer ‘productive’ – so these animals are killed as a direct result of dairy production.

I take issue with your statement that your family ‘supports the animals, and the animals in turn support us’ – the critical element missing in this line of reasoning is the animals’ lack of power in the equation. Did any of these animals ask for your care? For that matter, did they ask to be born at all, destined for a lifetime of servitude to humankind’s needs and desires? They are born because we cause them to be born, they do exactly as we force them to do for the entirety of their lives, and they die when we say they die – how is that fair or just? The animals of this world exist for their own reasons, not simply to fulfill our appetites.

I hope you don’t take any of this as a personal attack; that’s certainly not how it’s intended. Just my truthful response to the points you brought up.

Take care.

Tamara said...

Dear Anonymous –

I’m glad you don’t take offense to the pamphlets. Thanks for that. 

I strenuously disagree with your claim that ‘you all’ (meaning vegans, I assume?) ‘don’t seem to care about the trees.’ In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Eliminating animals and animal byproducts from one’s diet does more to benefit the environment than giving up your car. One of the biggest factors (if not the biggest, I’m not sure…) in the destruction of tropical rainforests is clear cutting to create grazing land for cattle. Fortunately, this is not a situation where one must choose to help either animals or the environment – by going vegan, we achieve both goals.

There seems to be a perception among many people that vegans only care about animals. I’m not sure where this idea comes from – most of the vegans I know are among the most compassionate, committed advocates I have ever come across, and not just when it comes to animals, but people and the environment as well. Becoming an animal advocate doesn’t mean you don’t care about other causes – it’s quite possible to be dedicated to more than one issue at the same time.

For me, veganism is a natural outcome of a desire to minimize violence and suffering in any form. Violence against animals goes hand-in-hand with violence against humans and violence towards the natural environment, and I am passionately committed to fighting all of these wrongs.

And for what it’s worth, as someone else already mentioned, the pamphlets I send out are made from 100% recycled materials and printed with soy inks.

Thanks for your comments, and take care.

jarvenpa said...

Oh, gosh, now I really can't wait for my order to arrive!!!

Delia said...

I do not mind at all the pamphlets. They are educational. People need to know there is so much abuse out there. Even if they choose not to become vegan, they still need to be educated. Until my best friend shared with me some information, I too had no idea or rather was in denial.

Having grown up on a farm similar to Robin Marie's, I must admit made me a bit naive to all the animal abuse. My family too slaughtered once a year or every two years. My father would take me to see the animal after it was slaughtered to show me where my food came from. Never once were our animals treated inhumanely, but we knew they would be our sustainance.

My parents, who are from the old country, didn't have the luxury of tofu, or soy milk or even rice. So beef, poultry and pork was their main source of food, other than the vegetables they grew. But thankfully, nowadays, its unfortunate that we have to find options because of how these animals are being mutilated in order to end up on our dining table.

Angry Hippie said...

Here's the thing, everyone on this planet is responsible for spreading the truth and opening people's eyes. Our social structure is one built on domination and deceit, and the lies are more prevalent than the facts. If we ignore this opportunity then we help perpetuate the lies and become a part of it. What you are doing is wonderful!

Those that don't like it, don't like it because it makes them face the lies they don't want to admit, even if all they do is forget it all in a matter of days. They are at least having to face it. They don't like it because it points out that they are doing something wrong and cruel, and they don't like seeing themselves that way. But sorry, it's the truth of the situation. You shouldn't get mad about it, either accept your role or change it. It's that simple. Millions have done it.

When I get religious tracts, I don't get all angry because they are telling me I'm a sinner, because I know that I'm not. I know that I'm living a better life than most of the people handing them out. I also am not really affected by the tracts because I don't believe them to be true so I am unaffected. The mere fact that these vegan pamphlet's are bothersome to you, means that you know they are the truth, you know you are in the wrong, and you just don't want to face it. Well sorry, but other people want to know.

Other people want the truth and are compassionate and selfless enough to let the truth, not only be heard, but be a part of their life. Those are the ones the pamphlets are intended for, it's not her fault, you aren't one them!

Ravenfire said...

I'm sorry but I just don't buy the humane small family farm. Even if you treat the animals well you are still using and abusing them. I'd also like to know what happens to all of the baby cows on these small farms. Surely it isn't profitable to keep and raise them all.

Turn the situation around and imagine yourself in it. You live on a small farm and are used for milk. You are routinely impregnated against your will and milked twice a day every day. In this situation would you care that the person doing this to you didn't beat and abuse you in the process? While that would make matters worse, you are still in a horrible situation that you have no control over.

And as for trees being living organisms as well, let's not even get into the whole "vegans murder plants" argument. Plants aren't sentient and have no central nervous system so they can't feel pain. The ethics of killing a plant are in no way equal to those of killing a sentient being.

Angry Hippie said...

"I still eat meat but it's very limited. I guess what I am saying is that I've gone from commercial/farm raised meat to mostly game animals. Being that I have a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Wildlife Management, this is a way of sustaining the population. If there were no hunters, we'd have major problems with wild animal populations. Everything from more diseases, to over-crowed populations, strained territories/mate selection, as well as general aggression between animals because of the above reasons I just mentioned."

Then let me ask you this, how come before the lands were settled by man, this kind of biological marvel of massive population explosion didn't occur? Oh, that's right, because nature actually works to sustain itself in balance. It's the humans that have done everything you described here. We have pandemic "diseases, to over-crowed populations, strained territories/mate selection, as well as general aggression between" people. We've taken almost every available inch of land and run all the animals into tiny areas and then we claim that they will overpopulate...I guess it's only okay for us to do it, huh? Hopefully they don't decide to try and control our population!

Mindy said...

Robin Marie said "Each cow is milked routinely twice a day, each calf has its own clean, dry, sheltered bed to sleep in an is fed by hand twice a day."

That sentence clearly shows the problem with so called "humane farming". Those calves should not be hand fed, they should be drinking the milk of their mother.

ganymeder said...

I think putting the info in with the orders is a nice, easy activism tool. I don't get offended when people give me religious lit even though I'm not religious, so I don't see what the big deal is. It tells the facts. If you don't like the facts or feel implicated by them, then change what you do. Its not as hard as you think!

I can empathize with the people who think its pushy because I used to be one of them. But let me tell you, its probably not the literature that's bothering you. Being vegan is really not hard. I know it might seem like it is at first, but its really, REALLY not!

Try a stir fry. Make a casserole or stew or a nice pasta dish. Just leave the flesh and secretions out of it. Trust me. Its not as difficult as you think. :)

Robin Marie said...

Hi Tamara, I'm sorry I participated in this discussion and then didn't continue to! I took of for New Orleans and was without internet until today! I certainly don't take your comments as a personal attack, I find this an interesting conversation!

I completely agree with you that my family is a huge exception, and I guess my point was more that you're never going to convince everyone to stop eating meat, so it would be more effective to provide information on happier and healthier ways of obtaining it. If people supported small farming and interactive meat consumption as much as they supported organics we would be making great progress. Small farm meat is NOT as convenient as organics, and if people felt more responsibility and connection to their food they would be less inclined to allow terrible behavior to continue.

When I spoke of happy cows being more economical I was speaking purely from a dairy standpoint. It is true that huge farms can afford to let their cows be miserable, but outside of the midwest most farms don't operate that way. Mass production and consumption is the real problem.

In regard to our bull calves, in the last couple years my father has taken to raising them himself. He has secured a pasture and barn on a separate property from our own where they are moved once they have grown beyond the stages where they need to be fed by hand. In that environment they grow to maturity (about one year, I believe) at which stage he sells them to become breeding bulls. There is no perfect system, but my dad has spent a long time wrestling with how to give them the best he can.

As for humanity forcing life onto animals, I can't say I agree with you. Do children ask to be born? Cows will reproduce, it's a fact of life, it's their nature, so tell me, how would they survive in the modern world? Where would they go? If dairy and beef production were to come to a halt what do you suggest we do with all those cattle?

Robin Marie said...

To Mindy,

The calves do drink their mother's milk for the first two and a half weeks or so. Beyond this point the mother's milk is of no medical significance to the calf and is allowed to enter the tank.

True that after the first week the calf does not drink directly from the mother, but it is the mother's milk.

Tamara said...

Robin Marie, it’s nice to be able to have this discussion civilly and without feeling attacked (either of us, I mean), so thanks for that.

When you said that “you're never going to convince everyone to stop eating meat, so it would be more effective to provide information on happier and healthier ways of obtaining it,” what you’ve basically done is sum up the ongoing clash between the welfarist and abolitionist encampments of the vegetarian/animal rights movement. You have essentially stated the welfarist position, and there are many, many people who agree with you, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.

I see the range of opinions as a continuum ranging from welfarism on one end to absolute abolitionist on the other end, and I tend to hover more towards the abolitionist end. The reason for this is that it seems logically inconsistent to me to say (a) I believe cruelty towards animals is wrong, and (b) I support the killing of animals (if the methods are deemed “humane”) to please my taste buds. You can find a much more in depth analysis of the logical inconsistencies of the welfarist perspective in an article by Gary Francione at if you’re interested in reading more about it.

Put another way, since I believe it is fundamentally wrong to kill or exploit animals just to bring pleasure to humans, it doesn’t really matter to me whether the exploitation was done in a marginally less cruel manner; it’s still exploitation, and to me that’s morally wrong. I also believe that murdering a human being is morally wrong, and I would never dream of saying, “Well, it’s okay as long as you didn’t torture the person before you killed her.” It’s wrong either way, period.

The other aspect of your argument that I’d like to address is the idea that we have to farm and consume these animals because they will exist regardless, and “what will become of them if we don’t eat them?”…

I have to say that I find it hard to believe that anyone would actually be sitting around worrying about farm animals taking over the planet in the event that the entire world population miraculously decided to go vegan all at the same time. I mean, obviously that’s not going to happen. I certainly hope that as time goes on, more and more people will realize the effects of their food choices and begin to make decisions that cause less harm (to animals, the planet, and their own bodies). But if this happens at all (and I hope it will), it’s going to be a gradual process, and as demand for animals and their secretions slowly diminishes, so will supply. These animals are not allowed to reproduce naturally; they are only allowed to do so when it is profitable for the farmer. As the public’s hunger for these products goes down, the populations will naturally shrink as well. Colleen Patrick-Goudreau recently put out a podcast episode that addressed this topic in greater detail – you can listen to it at if you are so inclined.

Talk to you later…


ganymeder said...

Very nice post. I would like to address one point though, if that's okay.

>>>As for humanity forcing life onto animals, I can't say I agree with you. Do children ask to be born? Cows will reproduce, it's a fact of life, it's their nature, so tell me, how would they survive in the modern world? Where would they go? If dairy and beef production were to come to a halt what do you suggest we do with all those cattle?<<<

Cows are made pregnant in order to produce milk and offspring for the farmers profit. It's not really like the cows and bulls are off doing something romantic and a little baby is born from their encounter. Farmers force the cows to become continuously pregnant in order to continually produce milk. When lactation wanes, the cows are slaughtered. I'm sure there are some small farm exceptions, but the majority is done this way. My father grew up on a small farm, and they didn't have pet cows. Animals that didn't produce were killed. Period.

So in the situation where the world goes vegan all at once, the cow's would still decline because we wouldn't be forcibly breeding them for milk and slaughter.