Is veganism a religion? This is an important question because it affects how we perceive veganism as a social movement. I am not so much interested in dictionary definitions of veganism, but in how veganism actually operates in practice. What do vegans actually do, believe, and think?
In 2002, a vegan claimed religious discrimination because his job required him to do something that wasn’t vegan. I was sympathetic to the guy, but questioned whether his case was legally sound. At the time it seemed to me that he’d have a better legal case if he was a member of an existing religious group (maybe a new sect of Zen Buddhism?) that required veganism.
But it didn’t make sense to me to say that veganism itself was a religion. Veganism doesn’t have any metaphysical beliefs, no “creed,” no theology at all. Veganism isn’t a comprehensive belief system. There are no vegan places of worship, and a lot of vegans are atheists. (Some of these points, in fact, were made by the court itself, which rejected his claims.) In fact, many vegans would regard the suggestion that veganism is a religion as an insult, as when someone says, “you’ve made your dietary opinions into a religion,” suggesting something arbitrary and irrational.
Similarities of Veganism with Religious Belief
Since then, I have somewhat rethought my opinion on this subject. Veganism does have some similarities to religion. Vegans often speak informally using religious terms. The vegan movement seeks “converts,” and vegans speak of their own “conversion” to a new way of life. It is seen by many vegans as an all-encompassing philosophy. Moreover, they seek to convert others to their point of view, and often regard their point of view as of overarching importance — dwarfing other political, social, or even religious views. Their self-identification as “vegan” is of central importance in their life, coloring all their associations.
It’s true that there is no vegan metaphysics or theology. But religions sometimes have a quite vague metaphysical ideology, or do not have a metaphysical structure at all — Confucianism and Buddhism are prominent in this regard. The Buddha specifically discouraged metaphysical speculation, even though modern Buddhists often disregard this.
Vegan gatherings and potlucks are places where vegans can breathe a sigh of relief and feel comfortable just being themselves — something they cannot do when surrounded by non-vegan co-workers and neighbors, when there is always something deeply important to them which they cannot freely express.
As a practical matter, a vegan is unlikely to have time for active involvement in a religion and active involvement in the vegan community too. (Vegan atheists would have the same difficulty in being involved with their local humanist association.) It’s not impossible to do both, and some vegans are likely managing to do it; but it’s not a common thing. For most vegans, veganism is really a foundational element of their lives. They experience veganism socially in the same way that religious people experience their religion.
Veganism places the same kinds of demands and offers the same kind of social support as a religion. In short, even if veganism doesn’t look like a religion in many respects, it plays the same social role in the life of vegans as the church, sangha, or other religious community plays in the life of those who follow its precepts.
Vegan Attitudes Towards Religion
Most vegans, even those who think of themselves as “religious” or “spiritual,” have had some negative experiences with established religion — which means, for the most part, Christianity. Vegans are often unfamiliar with the diverse roles that religion and religious experience takes in other societies (and even in our own). We tend to think of all religions as being like a modern evangelical suburban mega-church. Mega-churches are not only very recent, but in many ways atypical.
The attitudes of vegans towards religion itself, rather than to a specific religion, breaks down into basically three groups:
1. Secular vegans. These are agnostic, atheist, or humanist vegans who despise, or ignore, religion.
2. Religious vegans. These people are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, etc., but practice veganism within their religion. Their main identification is with their religion, but they consider veganism to be a consistent practice within that tradition.
3. Spiritual vegans. These people consider themselves spiritual, but distrust established religion. They would consider their private religion to be consistent with veganism, and would reject any religion that was hostile to veganism.
There is a fine line dividing the spiritual vegans from the religious vegans, and there is a grey area separating them. But the basic difference is that the spiritual vegans try to integrate their religious beliefs into their vegan ethics, while religious vegans try to integrate their veganism into their religion. It’s the difference, broadly speaking, between “spiritual books” like The World Peace Diet by Will Tuttle, and “religious books” like Christianity and the Rights of Animals by Andrew Linzey or Judaism and Vegetarianism by Richard Schwartz.
Rachel MacNair has actually done an informal survey on the religious views of vegetarians, which I suspect can be extended to vegans as well (read this blog to see why). Her survey showed the following results for vegetarians:
“Undefined Spirituality” 27.4%
Atheist or agnostic 21.2%
Other Tradition 6.6%
Other or no response 5.4%
(This study has still not been published, but she showed me the “PowerPoint” of a talk she gave at a conference.)
The interesting thing here is that “undefined spirituality,” probably a “throw-away” category, actually leads the way! (By “throw-away” category I mean a residual category like “other,” which she probably expected would be just a small percentage.) If you add “undefined spirituality” to “other tradition,” then you get fully 1/3 of all vegetarians unwilling to identify themselves with any of the world’s major religions, yet still in some sense “religious.” Christianity, which is the nominal religion of 75% of the U. S. population, is only 1/4 of vegetarians.
This survey was for vegetarians. We can’t say what the results would be for vegans, but here is my educated guess. MacNair also found a slight negative correlation between religious practice and intensity of vegetarian beliefs — the more vegetarian you were (with veganism ranked as the most intense form of vegetarianism), the less solid your religious practice, and vice versa. I suspect also that some of the people identifying as Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc. are highly alienated from their own tradition, and might actually fall in the “spiritual” rather than the “religious” category, and there might be more atheists and agnostics. The division among vegans might be 40% spiritual, 30% religious, and 30% atheist and agnostic (but this is speculation based on just the barest amount of empirical research).
Understanding Vegan Attitudes Towards Religion
If you asked the question, “is veganism a religion?” of vegans, the majority would likely answer “no.” But the reasons they would give would be very different.
Atheists and agnostics would answer negatively because they would regard describing veganism as a religion as an insult. The religious vegetarians would answer negatively for the opposite reason. They regard religion highly, and would want to avoid the suggestion that veganism and their own religions might conflict. The spiritual vegetarians would be the most receptive to this thesis, but probably even some of them would answer negatively, because they would have bitter memories of encounters with religious hostility to vegetarianism.
If you asked a slightly different question, “is veganism a form of spirituality?” you would likely get a different, and more positive, response. Many people who have negative associations with religion would not have negative associations with spiritual practices generally. A scientific survey would shed further light on this subject.
How Does Veganism Actually Function?
So we have an irony. Even though veganism functions in many ways like a religion, most vegans themselves would be hesitant to say it or express it that way.
Spiritual vegans may be the largest single group within veganism. They think of veganism as an integral part of their beliefs. They often have vague or non-dogmatic beliefs on the subject of religion. They may believe in God, but not the God portrayed in the Bible; or they may believe in reincarnation, meditation, and other things.
The expansion of veganism may change this dynamic. It could increase the number of religious vegans; when the larger religions see the trend, they will start looking at this question themselves and start becoming friendlier towards veganism. On the other hand, people coming to veganism will likely have hostile attitudes towards religion, so it could also reinforce vegans hostile to religion.
Veganism will be in competition, or sometimes in cooperation, with different religions and different religious ideas as it expands. Many people throughout history, especially in the East, have had no compunction at openly practicing or supporting more than one religion. Ancient Chinese emperors would sometimes support Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Christianity at the same time. Japanese would honor both Buddhism and Shinto.
You may argue on various technical grounds that veganism is not a religion; but in our culture, it functions in the same way that religion does. We do not need to officially declare it a religion, to see that it may spread in some of the same ways that a new religion does.