Religion and Vegetarianism — Some Surprising Results

Jesus in the temple (Greco)

Rachel MacNair, Ph.D., who has done some pioneering research on the psychology of vegetarianism, recently gave a talk on religion and vegetarianism at the International Peace Research Association conference in Australia. O. K., I wasn’t there, but I did have a chance to talk to Rachel about her research (which I hope will be published soon), and several conclusions about religion and vegetarianism stand out. (You can visit Rachel’s web site at

She surveyed over 500 vegetarians and nonvegetarians in an online survey and on a vegetarian cruise in 2008. Everyone was ranked in five categories in decreasing order of strictness: vegan, vegetarian, vegetarian with some exceptions, not vegetarian but sympathetic, and not vegetarian at all.

The most surprising result was that there was no real correlation between strictness of diet and religious practice. In fact, there was a slightly negative correlation (r = -0.18): the more you participated in your religion (reading scripture, reading literature, prayer / meditation, and going to services), the less strict you were likely to be about your diet.

While not a scientific survey of vegetarian attitudes, the breakdown of spiritual traditions was also quite interesting. The leading category among those surveyed was “undefined spirituality” which led the way at 27%, Christianity was in second place with 26%, and 21% were atheist or agnostic. Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and “other tradition” occupied the remaining 26%. For comparison, the U. S. had about 76% people self-defining as “Christians” in 2008, down from 86% in 1990. Christianity in Canada is experiencing a similar decline.

Why the slight negative correlation between religious practice and vegetarian practice? One possibility is that the scriptures, services, etc. of the dominant religion (translation: Christianity) aren’t particularly supportive of vegetarianism. So, obviously, intensifying these religious practices doesn’t strengthen vegetarianism, it actually tends to weaken it. One wonders whether, had this survey had been done on Zen Buddhists or Jews, the correlation might have been positive. Another possibility, which Rachel raises herself, is that vegetarian practice may serve as a replacement for religious practice.

The number of those who identify as Christians appears to be in a slow but steady decline in the general population. But among vegetarians, support for Christianity is even less, with barely a quarter of vegetarians in this survey identifying themselves as Christians. I don’t fault those who are trying to take the message of vegetarianism to orthodox Christianity; it’s a tough job, and someone has to do it.

But there’s an obvious explanation for these survey results: organized Christianity is indifferent or hostile to vegetarianism. Vegetarians seeking to create an alternative spirituality which includes Jesus, would do well to try to come to grips with the decline of Christianity in our larger society. They would likely get as much (or more) support by going outside the Christian tradition as by joining it.

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