Beliefs Chris Stedman: Faitheist Culture Ethics NBP Opinion

Should atheists be vegetarians?

Assorted vegetarian dishes. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Assorted vegetarian dishes. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Assorted vegetarian dishes. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Assorted vegetarian dishes. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was in college, I temporarily became a vegetarian.

But after a few months of complaining about my meal plan and announcing my vegetarianism to my family at Thanksgiving, I was back to eating meat.

While my short-term vegetarianism was probably less about my ethical concerns and more about my subconscious desire to rebel, I eventually began to revisit my decision. I started reading serious arguments for vegetarianism—some I encountered on my own, and some suggested by friends. Inspired by what I read, I had numerous discussions with vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters about the arguments for and against consuming other animals.

Eventually, I was convinced that a vegan or vegetarian diet is more consistent with my values than eating meat. Thanks to the patient counsel of a number of friends—including Chelsea Link and Vlad Chituc, among others—I decided to cut meat from my diet.

Chituc—who edits and oversees NonProphet Status, a blog I started in 2009—first became vegan when, inspired by Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, we experimented with adapting the practice of Lent (minus the theology).

For atheist Lent, I pledged to tell at least one person every day why I was grateful to know them. (I didn’t do a very good job, to be honest.) Chituc became a vegan. His Lent practice was more successful than mine, and it had a lasting impact: He has been a vegan since early 2013.

I continued to talk with him and others about my views on eating meat, and eventually decided to take action. So at the beginning of this year, I started proactively cutting back. Before long, I was going several days a week without eating meat.

I got comfortable there and then, in the last couple of months, finally decided to go further. This was partially inspired by the fact that I adopted a wonderful rescue dog this year—sometimes we need an extra emotional push to help us live in accordance with our values.

Chituc’s writing on the subject has been a helpful resource for me as I’ve made the switch, and I find his arguments for why more atheists should consider veganism pretty convincing. In September of this year, he wrote:

I should qualify this, but not by much: atheists should be vegans. Most serious issues have some inherent fuzziness involved, and this is no exception. The issue is fairly clear, however, for most of us. While there are some factors worth taking into account, like strict dietary needs, recovery from eating disorders, and surviving in areas where animal farming is necessary, most atheists nonetheless have no good reason to consume factory-farmed animal products.

After making a number of thoughtful arguments, he concluded:

This leaves us in an uncomfortable place—we know animals can suffer, have no divine reason to suppose that only our suffering matters, and we’re currently inflicting constant and severe suffering to a staggering number of conscious creatures. If we’re going to pretend to take morality and rational argument seriously, we can’t ignore the obvious right in front of us. This requires perhaps a radical change in the way we live our lives, and that may very well be demanding on us. It’s a shallow complaint, though, to say that being rational and moral isn’t easy enough.

His piece sparked a lot of discussion, with some people suggesting that instead of cutting meat from our diets, atheists (and others) should just eat ethically-raised meat. I confess, this is an argument I employed for years when explaining why I wasn’t a vegetarian.

So Chituc responded in a follow-up piece, arguing that raising animals to kill them is morally questionable, and that if cost is an argument against veganism, it’s even more of an issue for ethical meat, which is rare and expensive. I encourage you to read the full piece.

More recently, Chituc interviewed U.S. Senator Cory Booker about veganism, and he said something that really resonated with me.

“I want to try to live my own values as consciously and purposefully as I can,” said Booker.

As a Humanist, I share in that goal—and, for me, not eating meat is a step in that direction.

What do you think? Are you convinced by Chituc’s arguments? Should atheists be vegetarians or vegans? If not, why? What are some other arguments you find useful in this discussion, either for or against? Let me know in the comments.

13 Comments

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  • Chris,
    re: “Should atheists be vegetarians?”
    I am fed up with your notions of what Atheists should “be”. There is not, nor should there be, any linkage between non belief and any political agenda, save the right to be a non believer.
    You are welcome to have Chris Stedman causes, but please do not demand that others share your concerns as pert of their “Atheism”.

  • I became vegetarian when I was in college (back when Ronald Reagan was president, CDs were a new exciting technology, and big hair was still a thing). Welcome to the loyal order of tofu-eaters, Chris. Always glad to see new folks excluding meat from their diet. 🙂

  • I’m a lifelong atheist and a vegan for nearly 25 years. although I wish that ALL people would be vegans, this topic is “apples and oranges”. the two are mutually exclusive and one has absolutely nothing to do with the other.

    Atheism is the lack of a belief in god(s) and veganism/vegetarianism is a diet style. other than the lack of god belief, atheism has no dogma, world view or set of morals, nor required common moral behavior. there are no atheist 10 commandments. although atheists seem to share many commonalities, most of my friends are atheists, but NOT vegetarians. some are liberal, others more conservative. some staunch environmentalists and others that couldn’t care less about the earth or it’s inhabitants. most pro-choice, but some pro-life.

  • I am an atheist and have been for about 34 years. I feel the guilt of eating meat everyday. I think you have been reading my mind. Although I would feel much better if beef, poultry, fish etc. etc. and on and on were regulated or at least treated well until their death (including animals maintained for eggs, cheese, fur and so on) I don’t have any direct control over it. I wish i did. I evolved to eat meat and maybe some if not all or most of the other animal products.
    Also I am too poor to be a vegetarian or vegan. I won’t get into that ridiculous argument with anyone on that topic ever again. Been their with PETA many times and I get nowhere with people who deny reality as well as deny more reality. I think PETA hurts more animals then it helps due to the members and supporters caring more about themselves, their images and so on then the animals themselves. As far as the health issue goes. I think biologically human are meat eaters and we are healthier if we do so.
    I believe if animals were treated well until killed for there bodies and/or kept for years for eggs-milk etc. then I would personally not feel so much a shit head. Killing your own meat hunting is such a better way, but do to overpopulation of humans and many other reasons this is no longer possible except for short hunting seasons and so on. The biggest issue of course regarding all these things including global warming and so on comes down in large part to to many people. Overpopulation. This of course almost never enters the debate as the vanity of people to have their own children along with tax breaks and so on and so forth stops that issue cold in its tracks.
    I wish I could be a vegetarian in short. Not a vegan. I think most vegans are assholes and less interested in animal welfare then their own and their self image. I have a friend who was a dairy farmer his whole life until recently and his milking cows had it made. I understand the bigger argument but think at least for the next half century or so we should focus on animal welfare and population and climate etc.
    PETA is a group that is totally irrational as well as being liars and distorters of the truth.
    As for the bigger question of Atheists not eating meat as you have asked. I have only one thing to say. It begs the same questions as many humanist and religious questions do. Is it worse to eat an intelligent chimp or a brain dead human. I think maybe it is. When we disregard the religious and other majical thinking bs that controls and fucks up so many of otherwise rational humans what is left in this case is just the flesh of dead organisms. Disregarding things such as eating the brains of primates and so on being dangerous. As well as excessive consumption of some organ meats etc. I suppose the “intelligence question” or self awareness if you will is the main pt. in discussing what flesh can be eaten in good conscience. Don’t know the answers to all that but would for sure feel more comfortable (other than the social, legal and so on restrictions) eating a human who died in say a car accident and was in good health (minus of course the fear of prion transfer etc.) then going out of my way to say raise a pig, chicken, cow or other farm animal(or as most of us due by proxy, pay some one else to do the dirty deads-we should all cut the throat of a live cow or the like and show are children to do the same-so we aren’t total hypocrites and do the same as sending others to kill in war) (in highly constricted torturous conditions such as kobe beef, birthing cages and so on).
    In short if we are atheists and have no concern for human life as the theists claim then certainly we have no concern for the lives of other animals. Problem is I do. I “believe” but to a lesser degree that evolution has taught me to respect animals other then humans with respect (even if I will eventually eat them) but to a lesser degree then humans. “sometimes though I question that”,
    Quess more comfortable eating a banana then a human, but i suspect the human would taste better, and yes if given the permission and the person was healty at time of death. Other then the brain and so on I would be quite tempted to eat the human flesh before the say deer that was killed against its will. In no small part to at least just prove to myself that im not full of shit

  • Not a big fan of vegetarianism even from a dietary standpoint. Its mostly murder on the taste buds.IMO vegetarian cuisine only really works well as something palatable when it is traditional cooking styles. Indian food or “Buddhist” cuisine of the East Asia. Tofu substitutes for meat are usually pretty heinous.

    That being said, I have no problem with ways to reduce meat intake. The easiest is using meat sparingly as a flavoring agent to vegetable dishes.
    ex.
    -Tofu is great as mabo-dofu (with ground meat and a spicy sauce).
    -Homemade miso soup is awesome with little clams or pork belly slices.
    -Noodle soup dishes with small chunks of meat like typical pho or real ramen.
    -Okonomiyaki

  • I took it to mean that *everyone* should move toward a vegetarian diet, and that atheists are no exception, and we also don’t have the religious hangups to excuse us.

  • Totally agree! Vegetarian for over 27 years (I’m 31), and buying mostly-vegan for 12 years. It’s not about personal purity; it’s about trying our best not to inflict suffering.

  • I agree that we should respect nature. I do not agree that we should romanticize.
    Temple Grandin has the better insight.
    “Of course they’re gonna get slaughtered. You think we’d have cattle if people didn’t eat ’em everyday? They’d just be funny-lookin’ animals in zoos. But we raise them for us. That means we owe them some respect. Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be. I would’nt want to have my guts ripped out by a lion, I’d much rather die in a slaughterhouse if it was done right.”

  • Hello! Thank you for this post. I have actually written a book about this issue called *Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed* in which I lay out the reasons why atheists should be vegan and why religion will always fail to speak to true animal liberation.

    Best,
    Kim

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