Secular vegetarianism and the Montreal Declaration on animal exploitation

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I signed the Montreal Declaration on Animal Exploitation, along with nearly 500 other philosophers. The signatories include such notables as Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher well known for his work on “animal liberation.” Secular thinkers should embrace this Declaration and the idea of secular vegetarianism.

The Montreal Declaration condemns animal exploitation that inflicts “unnecessary violence and harm” onto nonhuman animals. It imagines “transforming numerous institutions fundamentally.” Broad social change will not occur overnight. But we can stop eating meat.

We are all animals

If it is wrong to inflict unnecessary harm on animals, then you should become a vegan or a vegetarian. If meat is not necessary and meat-production causes harm, then you ought not eat meat. Behind this simple syllogism, there are complicated questions.

One question is which animals and how much suffering? Wild salmon and free range dairy cows may be different from factory farmed chicken or pork. Vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and pescatarians continue to argue about these details.

But they generally agree that meat eating is not necessary. This is a counter-cultural claim. Western religious traditions typically hold that nonhuman animals are inferior to human beings and exist for our use. God gave Adam dominion over the animals. And animal sacrifice was once viewed as pleasing to the gods.

These ideas make little sense in a secular age. The theory of evolution teaches us that we are animals too. Humans and nonhumans share a common neurophysiology. We also share a similar experience with other social animals. Human beings suffer when cut, burned, beaten, and killed. And we suffer when separated from the herd, isolated, and confined.

What is necessary?

The vegetarian argument holds that harm done to nonhuman animals is not necessary. But what do we mean by necessary? It is fairly easy to establish that meat is not necessary for human health. A diet heavy in meat is not healthy. And vegetarians can live long and healthy lives.

But words like “necessity” and “health” are complicated. There are layers of meaning here embedded in culture, customs, and social practices. Health is not merely a physiological concept; it also contains cultural elements.

For a bull fighter, killing the bull is “necessary.” And one might argue that meat eating is “necessary” given a certain form of life. Meat eating was thought to be a “healthy” part of American and European diets for a long time. Think about the role of hot dogs and steaks in American culture. In Germany, beer and sausage go hand in hand. And in Greece, lamb is often on the menu.

The vegetarian argument calls these norms into question. It asks us to rethink forms of life and cultures that are oriented around meat. This is why the vegetarian argument often strikes a fundamental nerve. If you argue that meat eating (or bullfighting) is not necessary, you seem to call a person’s entire way of life into question.

There is a parallel here with arguments about religion. Religious believers typically react strongly to atheists who argue that religious belief is mistaken. For the believer, the critique of religion is not just an exercise in logic. Rather, it is a matter of fundamental existential import. Atheists who suggest that belief in God is not necessary will be perceived as attacking the very foundation of the believer’s form of life.

Sectarian vegetarianism

This is why atheists and vegetarians should tread lightly. And maybe we can find common ground. Vegetarianism has often been pluralistic, drawing on multiple sources in religion and in secular thought.

Gandhi provides a famous example of an eclectic and pluralistic approach. His vegetarianism was influenced by Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. But Gandhi explains, in his autobiography, that he also learned a lot from the Vegetarian Society of England. Even before Gandhi visited England, Christians and humanists in Europe and America were embracing plant-based diets.

One significant example in the United States is John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg’s advocacy of plant-based food was influenced by Seventh Day Adventism. Yes, corn flakes had a vegetarian and sectarian birth. And in pursuit of plant-based protein, Kellogg invented peanut butter.

Kellogg wrote a primer on vegetarianism in 1899, in which he chronicled religious views of meat eating and abstention from meat. He explained, “the ethical argument against flesh eating is found in the fact that lower animals are, in common with man, sentient creatures.” Kellogg put this in theological terms, stating that God is “actually present, living and working in every created thing.” He concluded, “the slaughter of animals of any sort for mere pleasure ought to be prohibited by law.”

Secular vegetarianism

The vegetarian argument has evolved in a more secular direction. The Montreal Declaration is not focused on theology. It reflects secular, moral philosophy. And my sense is that secular thinkers are becoming more sympathetic to the vegetarian argument. Indeed, there is a growing number of vegetarian atheists and humanists. One recent survey shows that there is a substantial demographic overlap between atheism and vegetarianism.

This makes sense given the fact that a substantial critique of our misuse of animals depends upon a critique of the anthropocentrism of the Biblical worldview. Atheists and humanists are less likely to conform to outmoded social norms. And nonreligious people seem to understand the evolutionary argument mentioned above, which puts humans and nonhumans in the same predicament.

If this is the only world we’ve got and suffering is not redeemed in another world, then it is incumbent upon us to reduce suffering here and now—for ourselves, for other humans, and for our fellow animals.