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The Church of Veganism

By Mariann Sullivan — February 07, 2013

Expressive PortraitWhat would you do if your job required you to get a flu shot?

More to the point, if you’re vegan, would it matter to you that eggs are used to produce the vaccine? And how would you handle it?

This is actually an issue that has come up in a couple of lawsuits, one filed very recently in Ohio. The basis of the lawsuit (and of the similar unsuccessful one brought a few years ago) is that it violated the employee’s rights – under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act – to be fired for refusing to participate in an activity that’s not vegan.

This lawsuit has been getting a lot of play in the blogosphere, particularly since a federal judge, a couple of weeks ago, denied a motion to dismiss, allowing the claim to proceed. Frustratingly, most people writing about it are getting it wrong. They are acting as if the question before the courts is whether veganism is a religion, like Catholicism or Judaism, but that’s actually not quite it. Title VII, at least the clause that the plaintiff is asserting, certainly outlaws discrimination based upon “religion,” but the real question is not whether veganism fits into most people’s ideas of what constitutes “religion,” but what “religion” really is. And, unsurprisingly, that is a pretty tough question in our very diverse society, and one the courts have struggled with. It’s often been interpreted to reach beyond what most of us think of as religion, per se, and in some circumstances it has been held to also protect people’s right to practice and follow a “sincere and meaningful belief that occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by . . . God.” Thus, moral and ethical beliefs, not connected to ideas of God, that are so important and strongly held that they play the same role that religion plays in other people’s lives may also be protected.

Belief systems in general, and veganism in particular (the deep kind, not the health-benefits kind or even the personal preference kind), have different roots for different people. For some, veganism is indeed based in the scripture of their particular traditional religion. For others, it is based in a more abstract understanding of a deity who has created a world full of creatures who need our respect and care. Others are vegan not because of God at all, but because it’s the right thing to do.

I would say that for most vegans, certainly for me, veganism – regardless of its roots – is exactly the sort of belief system that religion plays in (at least some) people’s lives. It’s not, as the defendant argued in this case, a dietary preference or even a “social philosophy.” For me, it is a fundamental moral imperative, one that drives my life, based in my deepest beliefs about my role in the world and my relationships with its other inhabitants. Veganism is at the core of the way I live. It is always there, and I have come to it through both thought and emotion. It makes the world work for me. Fundamentally, the thought of consuming animals completely freaks me out.

Whether or not veganism can be the sort of core belief that is protected by Title VII isn’t the only issue in the case, however. Employers don’t have to accommodate people’s beliefs categorically. They only have to do so to the extent it’s reasonable. Particularly since the plaintiff here works in a health care facility, the defendants will no doubt argue that it was not reasonable to expect the facility to have an employee who would have a greater chance of coming down with the flu when she will be around others who might become infected. Since she is an office-worker, she may make a counter-argument that she didn’t have to work with patients. There will be questions about the sincerity and the parameters of her veganism  — does she regularly refuse any product derived from animals in the way flu shots are? Vegans, after all, might go different ways on that one. And no doubt there will be other arguments as well, based on the particular facts of the case.

So, as in any legal case, there are many twists and turns that could take this lawsuit in different directions. But the bigger point, which I hope does not get lost, remains clear to me: For people who care about animals, veganism is serious stuff that runs deep. For some of us, it runs really deep.

Needless to say, religion is serious stuff as well. And, as we all know, whether or not we are religious, it, too, runs deep. I should know. I grew up Catholic, although I lost it along the way. At some point, there was just too much to believe that didn’t seem true any more.

Confession: I miss it. Or at least some parts of it. I still get a good, peaceful feeling when I go into a church, and I love the stories of the saints. Admittedly, I think my childhood desire to be a nun was based primarily on the outfit (this was back in the day of serious, floor-length, black skirted, white-wimpled, habits). And though I lost that aspiration pretty early on, I’m still a sucker for old movies about nuns – anything from The Bells of Saint Mary’s (Ingrid!) to The Nun’s Story (Audrey!). Catholicism also left me with a permanent fondness for medieval times (primarily acted out through watching reruns of “Cadfael” and visiting The Cloisters) that is no doubt completely unwarranted, since I’m sure it was a fairly horrid, brutish time to be alive.

On the more serious side, my days of church-going and after-school religious education entailed a good deal of discussion about what it meant to be a good person in difficult situations, much of which is still quite useful.

imagesThe best thing, though, was the company. When you believe in God, there is always someone to talk to. And Catholics get the added bonus of being able to chat with Mary (who is pretty much always sympathetic – “O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary”), not to mention to a whole bunch of saints – at least one of whom, Saint Anthony, helps you find things when you lose them, which is a great convenience for those of us who are hopelessly absent-minded. (Here’s one more confession: I still sometimes seek the help of Saint Anthony. Occasionally, it works.)

Unsurprisingly, I certainly don’t miss all of it. There were way too many rules, too many of which didn’t make sense to me (and some of which seemed downright mean). There were too many people who pretended to possess utter authority based on knowing things that they didn’t – couldn’t – know at all. There was too much avoidance of the scary problem that we just don’t know a whole lot about the nature of the universe and what we are doing here. There was also absolutely no mention of even a possibility that it might be better to just be honest and admit to that. And, of course, there was the troublingly skewed view of sexuality, which has ruined way too many lives in way too many ways.

And when it came to my childhood church-going days, too many important things simply got left out of the discussion. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, animals were the big one. The Catholic view of the world, when I was growing up, pretty much began and ended with humans and their God (and, of course, Mary, the saints, and a few angels pulling up the rear).

I still occasionally have people tell me, quite seriously, that one of the things that sets animals apart from humans is that animals have no souls. I mean, it’s not surprising that people would say that, since it’s a common religious belief. But it’s so ingrained in people’s consciousness that they announce it as if it were simple fact. As if they honestly don’t realize that souls are not an identifiable part of human anatomy.

Believing that animals have no souls (or that humans do) is a religious belief. So it’s legally protected (though it’s hard to imagine a situation in which anyone would be discriminated against for believing it). So why shouldn’t the belief that animals matter, that it’s wrong – evil, even – to hurt them without a damn good reason, be protected as well, regardless of whether that belief is accompanied by a certain theory about the origin of the universe?

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(15) Readers Comments

  1. February 7, 2013 at 8:18 am

    What a powerful piece! Thanks for explaining the Ohio case -- I didn't quite get how the case was being framed in the courts. And having grown up Catholic as well (I had a brief moment of wanting be a nun, too!), I can relate. Truly for me, veganism is (to borrow the quote above) a sincere and meaningful belief that occupies in my life a place parallel to that filled by God.

  2. February 7, 2013 at 8:50 am

    Excellent! I would also add St. Francis to my list of favored saints. Never have figured out how we Catholics often leave out the "and the greatest of these is love" part of our faith. I understand there is a flu shot that isn't made with eggs. Not sure of the rest of the process or ingredients so I'm wondering if that type of shot would be a compromise.

  3. February 7, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    I appreciate the honesty in this post. The truth is the reason I am a vegan is because I am a Christian. I know that sounds crazy to many people who look at Christianity today. But the God I serve asks me to love creation all of his creation and it's out of that obedience that I couldn't kill an animal. I want to live a fully compassionate life free from unnecessary violence and death. God gives us free will and in that we can make a variety of choices-both bad and good. With that freedom comes responsibility and consequence. My hope is that my choice to refrain from eating animals is one more way I can show the qualities of a loving God. The Bible says that in the end, there will be no death and that the lion will lay down with the lamb. I can't wait. Until then, I'm doing my part to create peace on earth. Thank you for the post.

  4. February 7, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    I remember arguing with my high-school religion teacher on the matter of whether animals have souls or not. I was sixteen, not a vegan back then, not even a vegetarian. But even though I was raised to think some animals are ok to consume (and hadn't had, at that age, the clarity of mind or the kind of stimuli and information to think otherwise, yet) the idea that animals have no souls was unthinkable to me. Maybe because I had actually seen, touched, played with animals as I was growing up, even though I never had a pet; I used to visit my grandma's village on my summer holidays and many times we had sheep roaming in the back field. I still remember the horror I had felt when I witnessed the killing of one of those lambs a few weeks before Easter, one year. How can you see the suffering in such an animal's eyes, or experience the range of feelings they are capable of, and still think they don't have souls? Luckily I'm not religious now (not that I ever was much, even though I was baptised an Orthodox); but the refusal of some religious people (especially christians) to acknowledge that animals can have souls is something that will forever baffle me.

  5. February 7, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    Thank you! Nearly every word of this resonates deeply with me (I was raised Baptist instead of Catholic). I've been a vegan for nearly three years, and I find it more meaningful to me than religion ever was.

  6. February 7, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    I remember once while tabling at a health fair (for veganism) a passerby scowled at me and said I was nothing more than a street corner evangelist. I was taken back by that, but later sought him out and explained that the fundamental difference is that religion is purely based upon a belief system whereas veganism is fundamentally based upon fact. It's a fact that most animal life feels pain, senses, and possess emotion. It's a fact that animal farming is terrible for the environment. It's a fact that a plant based diet is healthier than one based on animal flesh. The only part of veganism that is about belief is the question of whether it's ethical to cause pain onto animals - and for what reasons. And of course the questions encompassing the smaller animal life such as microscopic life, and more simple animal life - in these cases it's harder to "prove" that they feel pain and are sentient, so our belief system comes into play here. great topic...

  7. Jack Stray
    February 8, 2013 at 11:05 am

    I've been a Nichiren buddhist for many years. Most folks in my congregation are NOT vegan, which I find to be at cross purposes with the literature and basic tenants. We always have the argument as to whether Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy or a way of life. There is never any consensus and doesn't seem to be a great issue one way or the other. If a group relies on dogma and identifies a particular teacher to follow, then I would say "religion." If dogma and teacher are open ended, or not accepted on authority alone, then in my opinion,, it's more a philosophy of life. The Lotus Sutra is a basic document for my congregation. It specifically warns against associations with persons engaged in animal slaughter or animal cruelty. I suppose it's my mission to keep raising the issue at every opportunity because there is little enlightenment or compassion if you don't see anything wrong with dining on tuna sushi.

  8. February 8, 2013 at 11:05 am

    "...why shouldn’t the belief that animals matter, that it’s wrong – evil, even – to hurt them without a damn good reason, be protected as well, regardless of whether that belief is accompanied by a certain theory about the origin of the universe?" Exactly; thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I also see no reason that non-religious ideologies, codes of ethics, and belief systems (such as our belief in the importance of compassion towards non-human animals) should not enjoy the same legal protection as those associated with religious faith, if the latter are to be granted such privileges. On an unrelated note, I do take exception with your assertion that affection for the medieval period "is no doubt completely unwarranted, since I’m sure it was a fairly horrid, brutish time to be alive." For one thing, "medieval times" refers to a period of roughly a thousand years, and it can be argued that every historical period (including our own) can be described as "fairly horrid [and] brutish." The Middle Ages produced great thinkers, art, architecture, and literature; besides which, in terms of sheer fascinating eventfulness it's pretty hard to beat the 14th century: sure, they had plague, war,and famine, but so do we, and THEY had Chaucer! Anyway, just saying that people should give "medieval times" a break. And go vegan (not necessarily in that order)!

  9. Evelina
    February 8, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Thank you Mariann for this very interesting and thought-provoking piece! I'm vegan because I love animals and don't want to hurt them - other pros (healthy, environmental etc.) are welcome but come second - and being vegan is "like a religion" just like you said: it runs very deeply, and it drives my choices and everything in the way I live. It has given me peace, joy, inspiration, courage sometimes, a sense of belonging and purpose I never found in religion. I'm Italian and by default I was raised as Catholic - not as much as you, and I don't remember wanting to become a nun, but still I went to the catechism lessons and received the sacraments. Two years ago I got myself de-christened as I didn't bear anymore knowing that I was officially part of the Church, that they got money from the government on behalf of that, the Pope spoke for me too etc.. I did it both for religious reasons (there's so much I don't like in the Catholic religion) and because of the power the church still holds so strong on Italian social and political and even economical life. I've read some books about the relationship between religions and vegetarianism/animal rights as it is a topic I find myself fascinated with. I wasn't much surprised to learn that most religions have at their core values like peace, compassion, love, respect, and not only towards humans, that in many sacred texts we can find parts about treating animals well, eat a plant based diet etc. But then what really matters is what people do of that, and what become "normal" for them. Religions can inspire to do good - and indeed there are many people that consider veganism as part of the way they fulfill their beliefs - but can also be used to justify the worst atrocity, towards animals and humans, and history is sadly full of examples. As for the Bible... it seems sometimes that it can be used to prove anything and its opposite... I've been flirting, though on and off, with Neo Paganism, and I feel that being vegan is really a big part of this cults based on responsibility, on love and respect for the Earth and its habitants, and their safeguard, but then, the majority of pagans eat meat - there are of course also feminist-eco-vegan pagans. Like in other religions. But in the end "that animals matter, that it’s wrong – evil, even – to hurt them without a damn good reason, be protected as well" should be regarded and acknowledged - legally and at other levels - not only as a religious or ethical belief but as a fact, a simple and strong fact, for mankind to progress and aim for peace.

  10. February 12, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Thanks for this beautiful piece. I have gotten the flu shot, but didn't realize it had egg derivatives in it. I since discovered that and will no longer get them. I am a strong believer in animal rights and ethical vegan. I work in finance and my job requires me to analyze various companies and justify lending to the same. I have told my employers during the interview process that I will not work on businesses that deal with meat/ poultry or leather. So far, I have been fortunate and my wishes have been respected. If I am pushed to work on a business that operates in the meat or leather industry that would bring me to a very serious cross-road in my career. I think veganism is an all encompassing philosophy of life, in thought, speech, actions, habits and choices. I don't believe in an "a la carte" veganism, picking and choosing what is convenient to adopt. I suppose if I ever had to work in an industry that coerced me to take the flu shot, I would refuse. If REALLY coerced, I would quit. NOTHING justifies the torment, terror, agony and suffering helpless animals endure.

  11. February 16, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    Good article! No way would I ever get a flu shot or any other vaccine.

  12. InfamousCrimes
    October 22, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Veganism is not a religion. Converting to veganism can see similar to a religious awakening though I can give you that. The main difference is that veganism shows high moral character while religion does not. Animal suffering can be proven, existence of a soul cannot. There is only one reason to go vegan and that's to stop suffering. People that are on a vegan diet who don't do it for moral reasons aren't vegans. As far as the main point here, I would rather quit a job than be forced to get a shot I don't want. Stand up for your freedom people!

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