Veganism, Propaganda, Paleo, & Religion

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This is not a treatise on the merits of a veg*an diet versus a paleo diet from a health perspective. In my sphere of perception, the veg*an world is less often interested in the health perspective anyway.  Among other things, that sphere includes dating multiple veg*ans off and on since the 5th grade.  Like Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction, I’ve been able to relate to, “my girlfriend is a vegetarian, which pretty much makes me a vegetarian“, more than I care to relive. Other than my (varied, but n=1)  anecdotal research into the claim that “vegetarians taste better”, this is important because, unlike the stereotypical straw man of crass caveman machismo, I’ve had deep emotional connections with vegans whom I’ve loved, respected, and actively sought to understand and relate to. No… this isn’t about the health argument… It is partly a response to the anti-paleo polemics envisaged by ad hominem propaganda, self-righteous moralizing, and aspersion based marketing pap thinly veiled in intellectually disingenuous quasi-debate.

And yeah… disclaimer… qualification… yada yada yada… the protagonists linked above aren’t necessarily explicit participants in a vegan vs. paleo battle. But let’s face it, paleo’s pro-animals are nutritious position makes it a logical target for anti-carnivory prophets pundits… despite the fact that it’s possible to be paleo and vegan, but not vice versa. And yes, referring to all veg*ans as a monolith would be an error. This is not about segregating everyone into two sides of a false dichotomy, but looking at the potential range of two non-opposite generalities.

A more accurate title for this piece may have been: “Why Veganism Can Be a Religion, and Paleo Can Not”

“Religion” as a Smoke Screen

Titles such as, “The Paleo Diet: Fad, Religion, or Solution?”, are meant to imply religion in its pejorative colloquial usage and induce a hyperbolic guilt-by-association. Essentially, it’s being used as a synonym for dogma. This tactic ignores that while religion (in the strict sense of the word) relies on dogma, dogma does not imply religion. It’s nothing more than a cutesy linguistic trick playing on flawed logic. Translation: Bullshit. Fortunately for propagandists, human brains are inherently non-logical.

Casting aside the red herring of dogma, there are two human biases and a resulting rationalization that allow religion to infiltrate human minds:

  1. Agency
  2. Anthropomorphism
  3. Dualism, Spirits, or “Energy”

Bonus Point: Fundamentalism

I’ll flesh out those ideas in a second, but it’s useful to step out of the blog echo chamber for a moment to gain some perspective. Wouldn’t you know it? The conversation about the religiosity of veganism has taken place many times. In fact, there’s even U.S. legal precedent!

What do the Courts Say?

In Friedman v. Southern Cal. Permanente Medical Group (2002), the plaintiff argued that his own veganism was a religious belief. Friedman was denied employment by a medical group because he refused to accept a required vaccine based on the fact that chicken embryos are used in its production. The Court ruled against Friedman, essentially viewing his belief as being too rational to qualify as a religion. Other courts had indicated that  ”decisions point away from a strictly theistic definition of religion. A belief in a supreme being is not required. . . .But, something more than a philosophy or way of life is required.”[1]

Indeed, there is an important difference between philosophy and religion. From this point of view, veganism and paleo seem to be on similar footing.

The U.S. Supreme Court expressed similar interpretations in the distinction between philosophy and religion in United States v. Seeger,[2]Welsh v. United States,[3] and Wisconsin v. Yoder[4]. From these cases courts reached the conclusion that Constitutional protection is not afforded to merely philosophical and personal belief. Put another way, religion is more than a “way of life.”

I tend to agree with the courts in these cases… both in their definition of religion and the ruling that Mr. Friedman’s veganism was not a religious belief. The problem is, Mr. Friedman simply isn’t a good representative of a religious vegan. I’ve endured breathless pleas from vegans insisting that consuming animal products infects one with the spirit or negative energy of the dead creature (curiously, the corrolary of getting power from good spirits from animals would be just as likely, and has been more popular throughout history). This has come to me by way of personal contact and regarded books that detract from their value by the author’s relentless mysticism. Had these people been in court instead of Mr. Friedman, veganism would probably have some narrow legal precedent as a religion.

So how does one make the transition from a philosophical belief to a religion?

Agency

Here’s a bit of irony: Religion is chronologically paleo in the sense that it thrived after human language developed sometime in the late Paleolithic era. This coincidence is irrelevant to the question of whether or not the current “paleo” movement has anything to do with religion, but I find it amusing nonetheless.

The initial seed of religion is agency, or the assumption that events are caused by something. This isn’t a claim about thermodynamics or anything else within the realm of physics, but a claim of purpose and/or meaning. In the Paleolithic, this would take the form of something like… “Oh damn, why did the sun disappear and what does it mean? Why is our light being taken away? Did we break something? What can we do to fix it?” We enlightened apes simply refer to it as an eclipse or the earth rotating on its axis. Remarkably, modern religions make the same type of mistakes as our paleo ancestors… “Oh damn, Why is the ground shaking violently? This must be punishment for using the wrong orifices during sex”.

Humans simply have a bias toward assigning agency. Since primates evolved in a world where most knowledge was first-hand observation of other primates and other animals, this sort of bias is easy to predict. But agency by itself isn’t enough.

Spirits and “energy” and gods (Oh My!)

If you live in a world that predates math, physics, astronomy, and geology by tens or hundreds of thousands of years, figuring out the “agent” behind the agency is basically impossible. It’s one thing to observe the path of rocks thrown by others in your social circle; it’s quite another to explain where the wind comes from, why the sun comes and goes, how the seasons change (but remain unreliable), why glaciers are encroaching upon your habitat, et cetera. The magnitude of human confusion is dramatically compounded when considering that spoken language has only been around for tens of thousands of the millions of years encapsulating hominid evolution. We couldn’t hash out our ideas under chemical influence on long college nights.

When the basics of your physics is the folk physics of hyper-local observation, it’s easy to assume these same principles are at play on a larger scale. If I can make a little wind by blowing out through my mouth, simple extrapolation assumes the existence of a bigger, stronger something to make a storm. “I can’t see it, but it must be somewhere over the horizon. If it’s not over the horizon, it must be invisible. There must be a god or spirit making things happen. There must be an energy I can’t see. There has to be an explanation for everything going on around me. If energy can exist apart from bodies, maybe my spirit energy exists apart from my body. Maybe all animals are animated (eh hem, the bias is deep enough to underpin language) by a spirit apart from their bodies. Golly gee whiz! Wouldn’t that be cool?”

Out of agency, folk physics, and rationalized explanations of cause and effect, the insidious concept of dualism is imagined. Something sacred apart from biology emerges in the explanatory framework of the human mind. Once the soul has broken free of the body, we are free to assign sacred souls to anything with a body. But we still haven’t completed the descent to pure mysticism. For that, we need one more important bias of the human mind.

Anthropomorphism

Humans, being the arrogant primates that we are, tend to assume that we’re pretty much the coolest in every category we can invent. However, we’re not very creative as isolated individuals. That results in imagining that the agents behind the agency are probably just creatures like humans, but with superhuman humanness. You know, just like us, but a little more or a little bigger. Given the chance, we’ll attribute just about any unknown to humanness. For example, we’re quick to mistake a human shadow for a human, but we never mistake a human for a shadow. Our instinctive first response: Assume human, act accordingly, reevaluate (last step optional!).

It’s no coincidence that humans invariably described humans as being created in the image of gods. This is the obvious prediction to make of an egocentric and naive being lacking sufficient spontaneous creativity who makes up stories about gods.

Our default assumption of agency is always human… unless…

Tying it all back to animals

“Mommy… will Fido go to heaven when he dies?”

The only other agents our visually biased selves saw over evolutionary time were animals. Unlike inhabitants of the supermarket era, our ancestors would have seen more animals than other humans. There was no abstraction between cow and beef or pork and pig. There were only animals… some elusive, some scary, some much more powerful than us, and some… well… dinner.

Humans have been attributing agency to animals for longer than there have been humans. Dualism allows us to imagine the sacred souls of animals and anthropomorphic arrogance allows us to attribute characteristics of our own imagined souls to those of other biological machines. Thus, animals attain sacred sentience. Thus, animals are spiritually similar to humans. Thus, speciesism is a reprehensible moral error with inherent normative evils similar to those of racism and sexism. Thus, veganism can now, neigh… must now break free from philosophy to float into the realm of mystical religion.

Beware the human imagination after it has imagined dualism.

Bonus: Vegan Fundamentalism

One of the less savory characteristics of fundamentalist religion is its incessant doublespeak and intellectual dishonesty. With religious fundamentalists, all conversations relating to science or reality are conducted behind a proxy layer of intellectual facade. It’s impossible to have an honest discussion. Debates about evolution are abstracted by a veneer of intelligent design or absurd truth claims that space-time fluctuates to accommodate for inconsistencies in carbon dating and fossil evidence. After that, the very meaning of “7 days” inevitably comes into question. And all of this just to prevent direct analysis of the underlying beliefs based on nothing but social reinforcement.  Meaningful discussions of abortion are precluded by a mind-numbing dance around baseless speculation regarding the moment the soul attaches to DNA. Nevermind that the sacred souls survive the destruction of biological bodies, because the biological cells are more important while the souls cling to them, but the soul is really actually the sacred part. Say wha? The endless construction of quasi-scientifical arguments deflects the conversation from the real disconnect: reality is not important to the fundamentalist.

Such are conversations typical of fundamental vegans. Religious beliefs about the spirit energy of animals are subjugated by the very same denials of anthropology and biology that Creationists invoke to defend their beliefs.

The next indicator of a vegan fundamentalist religion is the proselytizing. Being vegan isn’t good enough for vegans. Like Christopher Hitchens observes of Christians: their beliefs do not suffice to make them happy. They can only be happy if you everyone adopts their beliefs as well. And hey… talking about it is fine for a while, but if you don’t comply, violence is an option.

Sure, paleo diet adherents are often excited to spread their beliefs, but their concern is for the person they’re trying to share the belief with; there is no imaginary third party benefactor. Christians may be about saving souls on the surface, but the ultimate concern is for protecting their god’s ego from having his feelings hurt by the sins of an unintentionally, but totally intentional botched creation that has the audacity to sin exactly as intelligently designed. Vegan religious fundamentalists play the same shell-game when they pretend to be concerned for health, but are ultimately concerned with protecting animals from having their feelings hurt being eaten in the same way virii and bacteria constantly seek to devour us.

The Christians and Muslims certainly have a better chance of success. Have you ever seen your local vegan priest successfully convert an eagle to veganism? If you think human culture has duped us all into a nefarious speciesarchical belief that it’s okay to eat animals, don’t watch the true crime stories of misguided feline hunger perpetrated against the wildebeest on Animal Planet. It’s going to take more than the resurrection of Pavlov and Skinner to train those morally debauched deviants to eat a banana.

Paleo Religion?

Paleo, as a guiding principle for diet and health, can be a philosophy, a logical framework, a way of life, true, false, and even complete wishful thinking, AND still not be a religion. Paleo does not, and simply cannot, make claims about agency, spirits, spirits, and other dualistic concepts; it does not operate in the realm of invisible superheroes. At it’s worst, paleo can be dogmatic. Dogma is bad, but the dogma + unsubstantiated spiritual claims + proselytism of spirit cults is bad and dangerous.

Religion is for people who think some people will go to heaven. Religious Veganism is for people who think some people and all pets will to go to heaven. I would love for them to be right about that, but wanting, hoping, and believing are inferior to understanding

The defense rests.

Now can we get back to work on ending CAFOs, sustainable farming, ditching Frankencrops, chemical free agriculture, and a diet over drugs philosophy? Jesus fruiting mice!

References

[1] ___ Cal. App. 2d at ___, ___ P.2d at ___ (citing, St. Germain Found. v. County of Siskiyou, 212 Cal. App.2d 911, 916 (1963); Fellowship of Humanity v. Co. Alameda, 153 Cal. Ap.2d 673, 692 (1957); and Smith v. Fair Employment & Housing Com., 12 Cal.4th 1143, 1166 (1996).

[2] 380 U.S. 163 (1965).

[3] 398 U.S. 333 (1970).

[4] 406 U.S. 205 (1972).