By Maynard S. Clark
I think that, among many vegetarians, there is a "sense" that there's something about the Biblical monotheistic traditions that is inherently and indelibly anti-animal. Despite the large number of Jewish vegetarians and prominent vegetarians in Christendom historically, and Mohammed's provegetarian comments in the Koran, the sense many folks seem to get from hearing and watching moderns in any of those three "branches" of monotheism is that they couldn't care less about anything OTHER than the folks they care about, that they couldn't have an ethical thought about animals if they had to.
Why is this idea so powerfully gripping among sensitive vegetarians? Is it true, or nearly true, or often true, or statistically so significant a hypothesis that it's unshakeable?
Has the idea appeared before the 20th century? Has it appeared in the 19th century despite the rise of the food reform movement in the Christian churches, which compelled many to vegetarianism? Surely Jewish folks have shekitah [Shekitah = ritual slaughter; Shoktet = someone who does this] to live down. Has it appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries despite the rise of the vigorous anti-vivisection movement in the Protestant churches?
Are the social dynamics of the vegetarian vis a vis religious communities different before 1900 than they are in the 20th and 2st centuries?
Well, our perception of how anti-religious vegetarians think of religions in general, or of their religious backgrounds in particular, is shaped in our time, in our circumstances?
Yet this perception is widespread! Consider the arguments in Jeremy Rifkin's Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall fo the Cattle Culture and the Beyond Beef movement it spawned.
But there's another perception, too, often found within the faith communities, that the participants in organized religion seem to come from the broader social culture, participate in it, affirm it and affirm themselves through it, and can only partly socialize themselves within their respective faith communities, something they have inherited socially.
Those who feel "called out" of modern life seem, oddly enough, compelled to repeat its values and reaffirm its core insensitivities to animals because, perhaps in reality, they have no higher connections to reality than the lateral, this-worldly socializations which are judged higher or lower based entirely upon educational insights, intelligence, philosophical rigor, social position, and the seeming outcomes of one tactic in living or another.
The social activists is treated with comic kindness, not because her or his insights are disliked or disagreeable, thought that may also be the case, but more likely because s/he doesn't seem to be authentically practical in organizing her or his life towards more long-term satisfactions. It seems impractical and thus "unintelligent". Given that, what opinion can confront anyone who dares who stand outside A frame of reference (since there are many, it is only one of many possible frames of reference)? Anomie? Disconnectedness?
Well, is one's religion the reason animals are mistreated? If that were the case, why do (so many) Hindus and Buddhists capitulate to the social cultures into which they emigrate (if Hinduism and Buddhism had strong indictments against meat-eating)? Well, perhaps many people don't really BELIEVE their highest and noblest religious and spiritual and ethical teachings? There IS such a thing as "going along with the crowd" and "appearing to belong" (however one is motivated).
And taking cues socially from others around us, wanting to be liked by others, seeking "emotional parity" among peers and colleagues, even neurotically "needing" anyone and everyone to affirm one can land any of us in various tubs of hot water.
Conform or perish? I think not, but I think, too, that many folks think that way.
Do I believe Jewish or Christian teachings point towards mistreatment of animals? No! Do I think either or both will often be used to justify wrongdoing by miscreants? Yup!
Heifer International! Horrible! Despicable! Hellish! Tragic!
Look at the President's use of Bono! Bono claimed that he was not a man of the cloth, unless the cloth is leather! Now what kind of President who affirms that miscreant could responsible, ethically-motivated vegetarians respect? Remember, both candidates were like that: Kerry AND Bush! And if our values are not those of Dennis Kucinich or Tom Daschle or Pat Robertson or J. C. Watts, where do we stand in a society where talk of politics is on the lips of most of the folks we know?
I suggest that, to step back and think more broadly than I've just done, we may wish to look sociologically at our society, realize that in some communities certain values or topics have salience, intelligent opinions on these topics or insight into the dynamics of these values is respected, and contributions to human insight and well-being is always valued (and often rewarded). Despite differences and fundamental disagreements, we can make significant and at times historic contributions.
How tragic if, despite monumental efforts we can only be recalled for our nonvegetarian contributions in a culture that stubbornly refuses to abandon the killing of animals for food - how tragic to be remembered like a Gandhi, a Wesley, a Pythagoras, a George Bernard Shaw, - but only for the nonvegetarian contributions we had made.
But tragedy is never total, nor is "redemption" at OUR hands. Any hope that we hold would NEED to be far deeper, higher, and truer. And yet, how grievesome to see the horrible web of suffering that gets only worse and worse and worse.
Yes, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Jains, Muslims, and others have reflected deeply upon the tragedy and needless suffering that permeates our world.
Is Camus the final word on things? Must we find solutions largely through scientific and pragmatic efforts to alleviate suffering, first among our own species, then among others, the nonhumans (after the insistent humans are finally satisfied that they have everything they want)? Those are historical and historic) questions, I'd suggest.
And I'd wager, too, that, when we successfully hold these questions forward, the reflective traditions will adopt them as their own questions and ask them with great vigor - perhaps claiming them as their own original questions.
If a religious community's practice is never better than the actual consciousness of the persons who comprise it, should the religion be judged by those persons who are seeking something from identification, involvement, participation? I'm not really sure, but some -- a great many vegetarians seem to reflect their own social context in insisting that we ouht to judge, not only them, but their religion. Perhaps it makes more sense to judge the people than the standard beyond them that they never reach. Indeed, don't those standards ALWAYS stand "over and against" the people who struggle to reach greater integrity and moral authenticity in such a light?
Myt last word on the topic is that no where in the Scriptures do we find that we are to make the faith community the ultimate standard of what is right and wrong, but surely we ought not to be any worse than their actual standard of practice. The correlate of that is that we (vegetarians) ought not to demean what is of value, and there are ways we can respectfully share when we earnestly believe that any particular religious expression is lower than should actually be the case.
And I believe that religious conservatives can hold this position as well as religious liberals, and that's an issue that has yet to be explored among us, I think. However, the criticism is often that religious conservatives are more deeply enmeshed in wicked institutions of animal exploitation and ecological degradation. I can't defend them against those charges; pointing out that they're no worse than the surrounding culture is no real defense; it merely defuses the singularity and uniqueness of the charge.
Just watch a social liberal and see whether, after lots of systematic watching, you really think that they are morally exemplary. I tihnk you'll find that all human standards are missing the mark more than just a little.
It is curious, too, how "social causes" that become popular in Christendom can cut across the liberal-conservative split, permeating all stripes and varieties of Christendom. What do you think of the tendencies of the other monotheistic religions to identify with their social causes more than with their religious values?
Does anyone believe in any religion any more?
But that's different from whether these causes do what they purport to do. I agree that the Heifer Project is "a wrong cause for the wrong reasons at the wrong time" (to paraphrase one of Sen. Ted Kennedy's current soun bites). But more than that, it's just one more way that organized religion under the guise of Christendom goes wrong! Very wrong! And there seems to be little, perhaps no twinge of conscience about how dreadfully wrong and immoral it really is! I'm not going to look for inspiration at that community's actual source of inspiration, but there may be something beyond what they're actually doing that is more true to the teachings than their practices are.
If we look at what Richard Schwartz does around his Jewish faith - and he really seems to be religiously Jewish, he outlines the core teachings and values which stand over against the prevailing social mores, and he testifies to why those are deeper, truer, better, nobler, and wiser values than those more superficial ways into which we're all somehow being commercially homogenized. [Sorry, vegans!]