Christians Are Vegetarians, They Just Don't Know It Yet
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Jacob Quick, Hemlock and Hedgehogs
October 2016

This is the first installment of a three-part series about why Christians are ethically committed to being vegetarian.

factory farmed chickens

Let’s make a little bet. I wager that, by the end of this blog post, you will be convinced that you, as a Christian, are morally committed to being a vegetarian. I’m not wagering that you will actually become a vegetarian, nor that you will want to do so. I’m just wagering that you will agree that your basic moral and theological beliefs commit you to abstaining from the purchase and consumption of factory farmed meat which, as we will see, de facto commits you to vegetarianism. If I win, then you should commit to reducing meat in your life. If I lose, then tell my why I didn’t convince you. Then we’ll go from there…

Let me begin by clarifying what this argument will NOT do. The success of this argument does not rely on the belief that human lives and animal lives are of equal value. I am assuming that you believe that humans are more important than animals. This argument will not challenge that belief. Likewise, this argument is context-dependent. This is addressed to Christians in developed countries, not people in life-or-death scenarios where they must eat meat in order to survive. Accepting this argument does not commit you to the belief that it’s never permissible to eat meat. That’s a different topic for another day.

I was originally convinced to become a vegetarian (and later, a vegan) by this article by a former professor of mine, Dr. Mylan Engel. Engel argues that all people with sufficient access to vegetarian nutrition are obligated, by their own beliefs, to be vegetarians. My argument is based on his approach, but addresses Christians and a Christian ethic.

Now that we have all of the caveats and disclaimers out of the way, let’s go…

There are some things that, as a Christian, you believe, such as...

1) A world with less cruelty and suffering is better than a world with more cruelty and suffering.

Basically, you believe that the less cruelty and suffering, the better. This is a basic belief. Any time you shake your head when you hear about another bombing, mourn a tragic catastrophe, condemn murder and abuse, you are working off of your belief that, ideally, there would be less cruelty or suffering in the world. The ideal world, as pictured in the Bible (Isaiah 11:6-9), is one of harmony, of Shalom. Cruelty and suffering disrupt the harmony which Christ seeks to restore in the world (Romans 8:18-30).

“But wait,” you might add, “we are not called to live a life free of suffering. In fact, God uses suffering for his good.” Yes, but that in no way implies that it’s better to have more cruelty and suffering in the world than less. Just because Jesus was able to use the death of a child for good (to bring her back to life; Mark 5:35-43) does not mean that we should refuse to take steps toward preventing the death of children.

As a Christian, you also believe…

2) Animals experience pain and suffering.

Do you believe that it’s wrong to torture an animal for fun? Do you approve of efforts to prevent violence against pets? Of course. The belief that animals feel pain is not only supported by scientific studies, but also your personal experience. You empathize when you see an animal in pain. You don’t have to believe that they experience pain the same way that you do. But you do believe that they can experience pain and suffering.

3) God loves animals, and calls us to treat animals well and prevent unnecessary suffering when possible.

God loves all that he has created, and animals fall in that category. The love that God has for animals is often overlooked, but the Bible goes to great lengths to demonstrate God’s love for animals. God feeds and takes care of animals (Matthew 6:26). God makes covenants with animals (Genesis 9:12-17; Hosea 2:18). Not one sparrow is forgotten by God (Luke 12:6). In Jonah 4:11, God refrains from destroying Nineveh, in part, because he did not want to destroy the animals residing in the city: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

4) It is wrong to cause animals pain for no good reason.

While we can imagine scenarios in which we are forced to cause an animal to feel pain (they need a painful surgery in order to survive, etc), we must remember that there should always be a justifiable reason to cause an animal pain. The fact that we want to eat animals does not justify their torture. Unnecessary suffering should always be avoided.

5) I should take steps to prevent, or at least not participate in, unnecessary cruelty and suffering in the world.

As a Christian, you are committed to making this world a better place: increasing love, reducing cruelty. We all fall short of this ideal, but we should nonetheless seek refrain from participating in, and contributing to, unnecessary cruelty in God’s world.

Factory Farming

You may see where this is going now. So far, I’m reminding you that animals can be victims of cruelty and experience suffering and that you should take steps to prevent, or at least not participate in, unnecessary cruelty and suffering.

So are the sources of meat that we have cruel? Let’s take a look. Reader discretion is advised. If you are already aware that factory farms are cruel and would rather not read the proof, then you can skip to the section below entitled “Putting It All Together.” If you are not convinced that the sources of your meat are cruel, then keep reading.

Factory Farming and Animal Torture

Let’s walk through the life of an average factory farm animal...

In current factory farming practices, offspring are separated from their mothers shortly after birth. This begins a life filled with unceasing torture. Animals are confined to crowded crates and feeding lots. Sheds contain 10,000 to 100,000 birds (chickens, turkeys, ducks) while veal and pigs are stuffed into crates where mobility is impossible. Beef cattle are placed in feedlots that can contain up to 100,000 animals. These confined conditions lead to many horrors. The inability to move causes severe foot injury and stress to the body. Likewise, the conditions are unsanitary, since the animals have no choice but to wallow in their own excrement.

In order to prevent the usual onslaught of disease that would come from these unsanitary conditions, animals are fed a steady diet of growth hormones and antibiotics. In order to save money (profit is king in this industry), animals are fed 1) the ground-up remains of their predecessors, who died from injury or disease and are therefore unfit for human consumption, 2) ground limestone (to fatten cattle up) and 3) their own feces. These feeding practices are not limited to a few shady factories. Instead, the practice of feeding animals their ground-up relatives and their own feces, among other horrible things, is legally sanctioned by the government.

The cramped quarters and inhumane conditions force animals to deny their basic instincts and engage in destructive behavior. Birds will peck and claw one another and pigs will bite the tails off of the immobile pigs caged in front of them. In order to prevent this, factory farms use a scalding blade to cut off birds’ beaks and amputate their toes. Likewise, pig’s tails are removed and many animals are castrated, dehorned, branded, tagged and have their teeth pulled. All of these practices are performed without anesthesia. They feel everything, from the slicing of their flesh with a scalding blade to the ripping of teeth out of their mouths.

When the animals are ready for slaughter, they are transported in overcrowded crates that are exposed to the elements. The animals become dehydrated and malnourished due to the conditions of the cramped journey. The journey is not short. In fact, livestock can be transported an average distance of 1,000 miles in these conditions. The transportation process contributes to the death and disease of farmed animals. For example, in 2015 the USDA condemned over 148 million pounds of poultry prior to slaughter (over 478 million pounds of poultry were condemned after slaughter). It’s important to remember that these animals, which were declared unfit for human consumption due to death, disease or injury, were ground up and fed to their own family members, who were then ground up and fed to you.

If the animal makes it through the horrible journey, they arrive at the slaughterhouse. At the slaughterhouse, pigs and cattle are hung up by one leg, which often breaks due to the weight. The line of animals is then moved, conveyor belt style, to a blade that slices their throats. Many remain conscious for this entire process. In fact, an investigation by Gail Eisnitz of the Humane Farming Association discovered that the slaughtering process is so quick (remember, efficiency is everything) that animals do not have time to bleed out before the next stage. As a result, they often remain conscious through the process of being skinned, dismembered or, in the case of pigs, immediately lowered into a vat of scalding hot water.

If you believe that these descriptions are exaggerated, then feel free to watch some undercover videos of major slaughterhouses here and here. Or, for a list of multiple undercover videos, you can find lists here and here. Viewer discretion is advised.

Unfortunately, the descriptions I’ve provided only scratch the surface. Factory farming is home to horrors beyond belief. This was proven when, last year, the New York Times investigated a government-funded program where experiments are conducted on factory farm animals in order to find out how to produce more meat for less cost. The data reported is horrific. They report one incident where, in order to test and learn about bull libido, a teenage cow was placed in a pen with six bulls. The cow’s head was confined to a device that rendered her immobile. The six bulls mounted the helpless and confined cow for hours. Some workers intervened, but it was too late. The teenage cow died a few hours after the horrible experience. She was raped to death.

Putting Everything Together

Over 9 billion animals are killed for food in a year, and that’s just in the United States. And factory farming is not just limited to the US: 56 billion animals are annually slaughtered worldwide. The majority of the world's meat is produced under the torturous conditions just described, and factory farming is a rapidly growing global phenomenon. As Mylan Engel explains, “Suffice it to say that no other human activity results in more pain, suffering, frustration, and death than factory farming and animal agribusiness.” The cruelty is excessive, the suffering is horrendous and the death is unnecessary.

After reading this previous section, let’s add another believe that you have:

6) Factory farming is a needlessly cruel and unethical enterprise.

So let’s consider all of your beliefs together.

  1. A world with less cruelty and suffering is better than a world with more cruelty and suffering.
  2. Animals experience pain and suffering.
  3. God loves animals, and calls me to treat animals well and prevent unnecessary suffering when possible.
  4. It is wrong to cause animals pain for no good reason.
  5. I should take steps to prevent, or at least not participate in, unnecessary cruelty and suffering in the world.
  6. Factory farming is a needlessly cruel and unethical enterprise.

You believe that animals can experience pain and suffering, and that animal cruelty is contrary to God’s design. You also believe that at the very least you should take steps to not participate in or support industries that increase the amount of cruelty and suffering in God’s world for no good reason. You do not need to eat meat in order to receive adequate nutrition. You also believe that our sources of meat are inherently cruel. As a Christian, you are committed, by your own beliefs, to refraining from participating in factory farming as a consumer. Since factory farming accounts for over 99% of farmed animals that are raised and slaughtered in the United States (and the majority of meat worldwide), your beliefs commit you de facto to vegetarianism.

As you take stock of the implications of your beliefs, I hope that you will take steps to reduce your consumption of meat and re-evaluate your interaction with God’s creation. I am constantly in the process of re-evaluation, so please continue in the journey with me as I write about Christianity and animal ethics, along with providing practical advice such as recipes and plant-based alternative foods. If you want a place to begin, then check out my resources page for practical advice and guidelines for adopting a veggie diet.

Christ-like consumption is complicated and requires much study, discussion and prayer. But let’s agree on this: animal cruelty has no place in the kingdom of God.

If you do not believe that you, as a Christian, are already committed to vegetarianism by virtue of your pre-existing beliefs and values, then the burden of proof rests on you. You must defend why Christians can, and should, contribute to an industry that abuses and devastates God’s creation. You must accept the belief that God desires his followers to participate in an industry that perpetuates relentless acts of cruelty. I submit that the belief that God is pleased by inordinate cruelty in the world is a theologically, philosophically, and ethically indefensible position.

If you are not convinced, then keep reading. I have some brief responses to common objections below. Many of these objections merit their own blog post, which I will get to in due time. But for now, I will attempt brief answers to your concerns.

Objection #1: Does going vegetarian/vegan actually help anything in the end?

It’s easy for compassion fatigue to set in after reading all of these statistics and traumatic stories. Agribusiness is so big that we often feel powerless against it. However, I’m reminded of something that an economist friend told me about money: “Every cent you spend has an effect on the system, even if you can’t see it.” When you reduce your meat intake, or refrain altogether, it does help the cause to end animal cruelty. For example, the number of animals who are raised and killed in the US dropped by 400 million from 2007 to 2014. Much of this was due to the decline in meat consumption. 400 million animal lives is nothing to sneeze at, and we can do even better.

Objection #2: Are vegetarian/vegan diets nutritionally adequate alternatives?

Veggie diets are not only nutritionally adequate, they are usually nutritionally superior to the carnivorous alternatives. Factory farmed meat causes cancer and is linked with heart disease and other diseases. Veggie diets reduce the risk of these diseases while providing excellent nutrition, as studies have shown. In a 2010 report, the USDA notes, “In prospective studies of adults, compared to non-vegetarian eating patterns, vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes—lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality.” Vegan and vegetarian athletes have been setting world records in the Olympics since 1956, if not earlier. The recent surge of world-renowned athletes with veggie diets demonstrates the exceptional nutrition that veggie diets provide.

Objection #3: What about “free range” meat?

Unfortunately, the “free range” option does more harm than good when it comes to animal ethics. “Free range” is not as great as it sounds. In order for a farm to quality as free range, the USDA prescribes the following criterion: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” This can be interpreted in many ways. For example, no time is specified. So if a chicken is exposed to the outside for 5 minutes a week, and then placed back into the cramped warehouse, that chicken meets the USDA’s requirements for the “free range” label. In addition, the free range labels are not reliable, since there is little to no government enforcement. Finally, as Engel notes, free range animals are still subjected to the torturous transportation, mutilation and slaughtering conditions that have just been described in the previous section.

Much more can be said on this topic, but unless you personally know a farmer who raises their own animals in an open pasture and personally kills them, then you can virtually guarantee that the meat you are consuming has been subjected to at least one, if not many, of the brutal practices involved in factory farming.

Objection #4: Doesn’t the Bible permit us to eat meat?

Once again, this will be the subject of an entire blog post in the future. But for now, I will just say this: actually, no, the Bible does not directly condone our consumption of meat. Let me explain...

In the New Testament, followers of Jesus are explicitly permitted to eat meat. That much can’t be denied. But that does not mean that we, in our context, can use these passages to justify the practice of factory farming. In this blog post, I am taking issue with the unnecessary cruelty of factory farming, which did not exist in biblical times. Factory farming is a recent innovation, carrying devastating consequences for animals, our planet, and the human race.

Using biblical passages which condoned the eating of meat in the first century Roman Empire to justify factory farming in the 21st century Western world is akin to using Paul’s admonition for slaves to “obey their masters” (Ephesians 6:5) to condemn Harriet Tubman for disobeying her master and leading slaves to freedom. To be clear, I’m not equating factory farming with human slavery, just showing the inconsistency of bad hermeneutics. On that note, however, it’s important to note that slavery in America was ardently defended on biblical grounds by pastors and theologians. We should always be aware of how we might use Scripture to justify unjust enterprises, factory farming included.

Objection #5: Doesn’t God give us dominion over animals?

Yes, but what does “dominion” mean? God calls us to be good stewards of his creation. Just as a king cannot justify the torture of his citizens by appealing to his authority, we cannot appeal to our dominion to justify torturing God’s creatures for no good reason. On the contrary, the fact that God has given us dominion over animals places more responsibility on our shoulders for their well-being.

Objection #6: Aren’t animals there for us to eat?

Even if it were the case that animals exist for human consumption (a notion that deserves critical analysis), this does not give us the right to needlessly torture and abuse animals.

Objection #7: What about plants?

It’s common to hear plants brought up when discussing animal ethics. What if plants feel pain? Isn’t it just as wrong to kill a plant? These objections are often humorous, but sometimes they are raised seriously. Interestingly, the question of plant ethics strengthens the argument for adopting a veggie diet.

First, my argument above is focused on your beliefs. You don’t equate plants and animals. Consider two scenarios: in the first, someone gives you a saw and tells you that you should saw off a branch of a nearby tree for fun. In the second scenario, a person gives you a saw and tells you that you should saw off a dog’s leg for fun. Do you actually believe that both of those situations are morally equivalent? Of course you don’t. You don’t believe that mowing a lawn is equivalent to amputating the limbs of thousands of animals at once. So you don’t believe the plant argument in the first place.

But let’s take this a step further. Suppose you thought that plants are of equal value to animals. Even then, you would be committed to a vegan diet. The vegan diet requires less plant-based food, overall, in order to thrive. Animals consume large amounts of plant foods in order to survive. So when factory farmed animals are not eating cement, excrement and their own dead relatives, they are also consuming plants. By eating meat, you are requiring that more plants be eaten, overall, since the animal that you are eating required a vast amount of plant-based food in order to survive and grow. In fact, the majority of crops grown in the world today are consumed by livestock. By going straight to the source, vegetarian and vegan diets require less plants, overall, than a meat-based diet.

So, whether you don’t care about plants or you think that they’re worth saving, a veggie diet is still the way to go.

The issue of environmental sustainability is, in and of itself, enough to justify opposition to factory farming. It’s to that issue that we’ll turn in the second installment of this three-part series (coming soon).

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