Is Veganism a Religion?

(The following material has been excerpted from an article by reporter Bob Egelko in the San Francisco Chronicle)

Court Rules Veganism Not a Religion Practitioners May Not Claim Religious Discrimination

As a dietary practice, veganism goes a step beyond vegetarian abstention from meat, chicken or fish; vegans won't consume milk, eggs or honey, either. They also won't wear leather or silk derived from animals or use products that have been tested on animals. .......Vegans don't eat, wear or use animal products, but that's a moral philosophical practice, not a religion, a state appellate court ruled Friday. Thus, the court said, vegans can't sue for religious discrimination. In the nation's first known ruling on the issue, the three judge Court of Appeal panel in Los Angeles threw out a lawsuit by Jerold Friedman, a vegan who claimed he was denied a job because he refused a mumps vaccine that was grown in chicken embryos.

But in a 41 page ruling that surveyed decades of past cases on religious issues, the court said a religious creed must address "fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters." (A belief in a supreme being is not required; the Supreme Court has granted conscientious objector status to atheists who said their moral and spiritual opposition to killing was equivalent to a religion.)

...(The)he appellate court said veganism does not meet the test, even though Friedman says it shapes his entire way of life and view of the world. "There is no apparent spiritual or otherworldly component to (Friedman's) beliefs," wrote Presiding Justice Paul Turner. He said those beliefs do not address "the meaning of human existence; the purpose of life; theories of humankind's nature or its place in the universe; matters of human life and death, or the exercise of faith." The absence of religious ceremonies, teachers or leaders, holidays and other conventions was further evidence that Friedman's veganism is "a moral and secular, rather than religious, philosophy," Turner said

It would be hard to imagine a more inflammatory and threatening set of findings, carved in judicial granite, that would trouble Vegans of conscience. While the level of outrage it provoked among Vegans to whom I showed the article varied from furious to scornful, I found none who dismissed the ruling as insignificant.

It is clear that there are a significant number of Vegans whose deep feelings of respect and reverence for all life has acquired the force of conviction, a core of principled moral philosophy that not only characterizes, but shapes and informs their lives. Their uncompromising observance of a plant-based diet is only one expression of what is for them, a genuine belief system. For these Vegans, the ruling of the Court categorically denies them a kind of "civil rights" protection, challenges the legitimacy of their beliefs, and raises a storm of issues beyond the scope of this brief commentary.

Genuinely troubled by the sense of the ruling, my initial response was the question: " What conceivable kinds of evidence could support that conclusion? Then I thought, "Well, if I knew absolutely nothing about Veganism, to what sources of authoritative information might I turn?" My first visit was to the dictionaries:

Veg-an n. A vegetarian whose diet consists of plant products only. [Short for vegetarian.] --veg"an-ism n. American Heritage Dictionary

Not quite right ... look again.

Vegan: a strict vegetarian who consumes no animal food or dairy products Merriam --Webster Dictionary

Still not complete ... nothing to suggest any element of religion, so to the Encarta Encyclopedia, where "Veganism" appears under "eating," and "vegetarian."

In "eating" I was pointed to:

"diet and nutrition, see Calorie; Carbohydrate; Human Nutrition; Kosher; Vegetarianism; Obesity; Anorexia Nervosa; Bulimia; Veganism"

In "vegetarian" I hit pay dirt:

"Vegetarianism, practice of eating foods from the plant kingdom. There are several types of vegetarians. While all vegetarians avoid some or all animal foods-that is, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and milk-semi-vegetarians avoid meat but eat poultry and other animal foods. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians avoid poultry and fish as well as meat, but do include milk and eggs in their diets. The only animal foods consumed by lacto-vegetarians are milk products. Some vegetarians practice veganism, eating no animal foods at all. Many vegans avoid wearing animal products, such as leather and wool, and are also more likely than other vegetarians to shun alcoholic beverages, processed foods, and foods grown with chemical fertilizers or pesticides."

here it was.... Vegans are just a very fussy kind of vegetarian, with the longest list of foods they refuse. They even abstain from things that have nothing to do with animals. It was not clear why they denied themselves alcohol, processed foods or chemical fertilizers, but they sounded very strict about what they put into their mouths. Not much here that sounded spiritual or religious.

But the folks who write dictionaries and encyclopedias are "laymen," outsiders. To get the inside story, I looked for what insiders had to say about vegetarianism and Veganism. A web search for "vegetarianism " and "Veganism" yielded 184,000 entries of vegetarian and Vegan organizations and publications that consistently confirmed the fact that Veganism was primarily about eating. Here is a sampling of "official" definitions:

"Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, and poultry. Vegans are vegetarians who abstain from eating or using all animal products, including milk, cheese, other dairy items, eggs, wool, silk, and leather. Among the many reasons for being a vegetarian are health, ecological, and religious concerns, dislike of meat, compassion for animals, belief in non-violence, and economics."

"Veganism, or strict vegetarianism, is the conscious choice to refrain from eating or otherwise using any animals or animal-derived products. There are as many reasons to be vegan as there are vegans, but generally one chooses a vegan lifestyle for either health reasons or compassion for animals, or both."

"If you want to prevent violence toward animals, the single most effective action you can take is to go vegan. A vegan, or "strict vegetarian," is someone who avoids purchasing or consuming animal products or products tested on animals."

"Vegetarianism is the fastest growing dietary form in the Western world today, and within it veganism is also steadily growing in popularity... In Australia, over one quarter of teenage girls are vegetarian."

An announcement of a national conference on vegetarianism invites us to:

"Learn from experts in the fields of health, nutrition, exercise, animal rights and the environment" ... in a descending order that roughly corresponds to the amount of program time. The theme of animal rights -- the only one with a strong element of conscience comes after "exercise."

Other than publications that explicitly identify themselves-- and use the word "Vegan" in their title-- almost all periodicals destined for national vegetarian and Vegan audiences make scant use of the words "Veganism' or "Vegan." VegNews stands out as a notable exception; "Vegan" appears as a high-frequency word throughout every issue, and it regularly features articles and essays dealing with Vegan philosophy, touching on themes of conscience, ethics and moral values.

Since the Supreme Court has already removed a belief in God as a necessary criterion for "religion," what would it take for Veganism to qualify as a "religion?" This alternate definition of religion is compiled from several dictionaries: "

A set of beliefs, values and practices; a cause, a principle, a belief held to with faith and ardor, or an activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion."

In the light of this definition, how prominent, then, is the evidence that supports a claim of religion? What elements of public relations, promotion, outreach programs, mission statements clearly testify to a purpose and a foundation of deep convictions, faith, ethical principles and moral fervor?

Is there frivolous and superficial content, or patent self-interest that weakens a claim of deep convictions?

Hard to find is the expression of serious, thoughtful contemplation, built around serving others or relieving the suffering of the abused, the hungry, the exploited, the oppressed, the afflicted, irrespective of species. Where are the strongly positive statements of principle and conviction? With the exception of a few outstanding sources, the preponderance of evidence regarding the essential values, beliefs, practice and motivations of Veganism fails to make a convincing case for "Veganism as a religion." Voices in the popular media loudly trumpet the healing power of Vegan food choices for the human body, but speak softly, cautiously and gingerly of the healing power of Vegan values for the human conscience.

Veganism has entrusted its image- the perception of its principles and ideals- to a new "mainstream" of vegetarian practice, with all its limits and constraints. At its noblest moments, Veganism emerges as strict vegetarianism, enriched by a strong commitment to the relief of animal suffering. Compassion for animals as a powerful and persuasive motivating force can be considered a necessary -- but not sufficient-- condition to justify a claim to the status of a religious faith.

If Veganism is to attain the respectful recognition that Mr.Friedman and other Vegans believe it merits, Vegans must first insist on plainly labeling the motivations that distinguish Veganism. Then they must earnestly strive to cultivate a climate of understanding and appreciation of Veganism as a universal philosophy, a lifestyle of mindful, non-violent, gentle, compassionate and unconditional beneficence.

Stanley M. Sapon, Ph.D.


An extensive exploration of Veganism and religion will be found in Dr. Sapon's forthcoming book, "Vegan Renewal: Reclaiming a Moral Imperative."

©Stanley M. Sapon, Ph.D., 2002

This article appeared in the December 2002 issue of VegNews

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