“Your god is not vegan.” This is Kim Socha’s provocative parting message to readers of Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed (Freethought House, 2014). “Cease imagining your religion lends itself to true parity for animals.”
The author is a disillusioned atheist and “advocate for unconditional animal liberation.” She seeks “a more peaceful planet with exponentially less suffering and slaughter” via a “vegan atheology.” Mostly she wants humans to quit torturing and killing non-human animals.
Socha’s two-part solution for achieving animal liberation starts with eliminating religion, which she blames for causing and perpetuating animal exploitation by teaching that some residents of Earth are more important than others. People who try to find animal-friendly strains in faith traditions are fooling themselves because, she claims, religions are fundamentally “anthropocentric, speciesist, [and] hierarchical.” They fail humans as well as non-humans because “the God concept functions to justify political and sociocultural systems of oppression,” so “responsible humans should not believe.”
Socha has stern words for secular animal advocates as well. Atheism, she argues, could be a powerful tool for advancing animals’ interests, but is roundly overlooked. Socha explores “the lack of interest in animal concerns within the secular world” – and worse, the lingering, religion-based speciesism still deeply instilled in atheists who, after all, were “raised in a culture saturated with the ideologies of [religions that teach] cruel worldviews and mindsets,” like human exceptionalism. The second part of Socha’s solution to animal oppression is to shake atheists into realizing the logically and ethically inescapable fact that humans are not a superior species. She describes one goal of her book as challenging “secularists to think about the ways in which their views of other-than-human animals spring from and reinforce domineering religious social norms.”
Eliminating hierarchical thinking is the foundation of Socha’s vision for world peace – not just for animals, but for all beings. Religions almost universally posit one or more supreme being(s) that are above humans in a hierarchy, and place non-human animals at the virtual bottom, making their interests inherently unimportant. More specifically, “all living organisms, from plants to women, are for man’s use, and man is to serve God. This is hierarchy [and it] is the basis by which one group is given greater consideration than another,” causing “many of society’s inequities,” including speciesism.
Atheists, Socha argues, have broken free of hierarchical thinking by rejecting the notion of a higher power. This decision necessarily “acknowledge[s]…a lack of human exceptionalism.” If humans aren’t exceptional, then there is no excuse for our abuse of non-human animals: “One of the most important facets of a secular worldview is it sees humans as just another animal species trying to survive in a not-so-intelligently-designed world.”
This anti-speciesist worldview isn’t always translated in secularists’ behavior; they are just as likely as the religious to do things – like eating animal products – that torture other sentient species and can be justified only by the religious notion of human exceptionalism. Socha levels her most venomous insult at the purveyors of this hypocrisy: she accuses them of being atheists who nevertheless “ultimately maintain […] speciesist norms on very shaky and inadvertently religious premises.” In other words, atheists would reject speciesism if only they weren’t clinging to some remnants of religion. Well, that, plus if they didn’t like the taste of meat and animals’ reproductive secretions, didn’t fear that switching to veganism would lead to social rejection and alienation, and weren’t in extra-strength denial about “the horrors nonhumans undergo” for them.
Despite condemning pretty much every idea and individual she can get her hooks into (e.g., “there are vegetarians and vegans who are complete assholes”), Socha has hope for animals. She envisions a “vegan atheology,” a system of ever-evolving ethics that would force atheists to “question their unspoken supremacy and dominion” over other animal species and to cast out the lingering remains of religion that keep them thinking hierarchically.
The vegan atheology, sadly, is not an entirely coherent panacea. One problem is its lack of clarity as to whether it is hierarchical or not. Socha represents hierarchies – i.e. religious doctrines – as vertical lists, while expressing her own “spectrum of being” in one horizontal line:
Does this mean that minerals and monkeys deserve equal consideration? Or does the listing of plants and minerals after animals mean that they remain less important than animals? Socha is silent.
Also unclear is what “vegan atheology” means. Socha declares that “there is no atheist doctrine at all,” and that this is what makes atheism so promising for animals; because it is a blank slate, it imposes no limit on “the human ability to broaden our circle of compassion within a secular framework.” Yet her vegan atheology is “a system of ethics based on an ever-evolving world that expands consideration of who gets counted in the moral community.” That sounds like an atheist doctrine to me, even if it does constantly evolve.
Now, about that title – what the hell is a “Procrustean bed”? Take a journey with me back to eighth grade Greek mythology. Procrustes was the guy who promised his overnight guests a bed that fit them exactly, but left out the fine print. He adjusted the people, not the bed, to get that perfect fit. Short guests were stretched on the rack, while taller visitors’ legs were chopped off.
What does that have to do with animal liberation? Socha argues that religious animal advocates try to stretch or trim their faiths’ traditions to prove that they call for decency towards animals; the ambitious even claim that religious sources champion veganism. Socha claims to show that atheism is already the perfect bed for animal liberation because it is adaptable: “there is no sacred atheist dogma against which to confirm or contradict our morals and ethics.”
As the Procrustes title suggests, this is an academic book. Socha devotes quite a few pages to interrogating and responding to other academics, individuals whose writings she analyzes as they relate to religion, atheism, oppression, and animals. But her target audience is regular misguided folk – the religious, the non-vegan atheists, and the vegans who treat their movement as a religion. One needn’t know the work of her academic targets, like Victor Stenger and Sam Harris, to catch her drift: good-hearted religious people must become atheists, atheists must become vegans, vegans must not view or portray their convictions as a religion, and problem solved.
Piper Hoffman is an insatiable reader and an attorney. She is Executive Director of Uncrowded, an active member of the New York City Bar Association’s Animal Law Committee, and a regular contributor to Our Hen House. Check out piperhoffman.com for more.