Is Veganism a
(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;
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
"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
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
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