Good Reasons to Be Vegetarian

I am no vegetarian. A few years ago, I tried to, but I failed. It was too complicated. I did not want to make other people’s lives more complicated whenever they invited me to a meal. When I eventually consulted a nutritionist for the first time in my life, I learned a lot about protein and carbohydrates and why meat and fish are very efficient ways to give the human body what it needs. Unlike some vegetarians and vegans, I do not find meat disgusting. So, I became a “wannabe-vegetarian”: I only eat meat when I have a good reason, such as: I am invited by others, I do not find anything enjoyable vegetarian on a menu, or I really, really feel a desire for meat.

Nevertheless, I think there are good reasons to be vegetarian.

An ecological reason (which is also an ethical reason): Producing so many animals, transporting them hundreds and thousands of miles from the farm to the slaughterhouse, from the slaughterhouse to the food processing, from the food processing to the shops, from the shops to the kitchens: all that contaminates the land, expends unbelievably large amounts of energy, and pollutes the air. If we go on like this, we will ruin the fundament for our successors’ lives on earth.

An ethical reason (which is also an ecological reason): It is insane how much land we need to grow grain to feed animals for months and years to make them into food for humans. About one-seventh of the world population is undernourished. An eight-digit number of humans are presently at risk of starvation. It would be much easier to feed the starving if we did not use the land to produce grain as food for animals but produce grain as our own food. There is enough land on earth, we only do not use it efficiently for the nourishment of humankind.

Another ethical reason: We do not know what animals feel, what needs and hopes and fears they have, but we can observe that certain animals – at least the ones we like to eat – obviously feel something like joy and fear and pain, and they all desire to live. We need not put the animals’ needs above human needs, but we should never make any creation suffer without a good reason. The mass production of animals – regarding animals as a sort of industrial product – and the mass slaughtering of animals only for our own habitual culinary enjoyment is a sign of a receding respect for the nature that surrounds us.

Finally, a theological/spiritual reason: God’s Creation originally does not know meat consumption by humans or animals (Gen 1:29–30). The eschatological vision by Isaiah describes peaceful relations between animals that we know as predator and prey (Is 11:6–9). Christian monastic traditions have always administered vegetarianism. This does not primarily mean painful abstinence and chastisement, but instead, it is an eschatological sign that refers back to the origin of Creation. It is a sign of peace and salvation.

Maybe I should try again to become a vegetarian as good as I can. I could start with a period of, let me say, forty days.

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8 comments

  1. I still remember a wonderful cartoon of someone wearing a stock, Roman collar and tweed sports jacket (must have been Anglican — when was the last time you saw a Catholic priest wearing a stock and a tweed jacket?), talking to a friend. The caption read: “Of course, as a vegetarian I cannot accept transubstantiation.”

  2. “Christian monastic traditions have always administered vegetarianism. This does not primarily mean painful abstinence and chastisement, but instead, it is an eschatological sign that refers back to the origin of Creation. ”

    I think we should be cautious about assuming the second sentence is the traditional reason for the first sentence. It’s a good modern theological rationale, but if my memory serves me well, the primary reasons for the development of the tradition in Eastern monasticism (embraced selectively in Western monastic rules) is the ancient medical-philosophical understanding that consuming the flesh (especially of warm-blooded creatures – mammals and birds) stimulated the passions (blamed, for example, as increasing the risk of nocturnal emissions – which were regarded as sinful regardless of being involuntary in the moment), which was contrary to the overall thrust of ascetic struggle.

  3. On the other hand

    3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. 4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: 5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. (Gen. 4:3-5 KJV)

    1. As we can now see clearly, given that the Old Testament was written by and for people for whom pastoralism, animal husbandry, and animal sacrifice in their cultus were accepted practices, we should be very surprised to find anything there that does not support a meat-eating habit. On the other hand, we might understand that far more important in the OT than these impermanent cultural details are some more timeless moral lessons, among which are the promotion of the love of justice, and of the practice of mercy. The challenge for us today is, not to lie lazily back upon scriptural passages that comfort us in our appetites and pleasures, but rather to seek out all those creatures of Yahweh, He Who Makes Be, who stand in need of justice and mercy, and to show them the loving regard that their Creator means for them.

  4. It is certainly possible to make a much better argument for restricting one’s diet to plant-sourced foods (and fungi) than this writer could come up with. What is required is a sense of justice, in recognizing that all living creatures deserve some measure of moral regard, and that the nonhuman animals who are exploited and killed in the food industries deserve to be allowed to live. But the anthropocentrism that is so prevalent in the biblical traditions and in the historical practice of most Christians is likely to prevent a conservative Christian from seeing clearly in this very important matter.

    BTW, re “meat and fish are very efficient ways of giving the body what it needs,” let’s note, first, that by “fish” is meant the meat of rayfin fishes, and occasionally elasmobranchs, e.g. shark-fin soup, who have been shown to be creatures as sentient as other vertebrates; and so it is illogical to maintain the two terms. Secondly, there is no need for human beings to feed on animal-sourced foods for the sake of good nutrition; what “the body needs” can be well satisfied by a balanced diet of plant-sourced foods, including protein. Thirdly, nutritionists are human beings, needless to say, with prejudices of their own, so it’s very easy to find people in that profession who are most unwilling to say anything good about giving up animal-sourced foods; but there are plenty of others who are strong promoters of plant-sourced diets. Finally, once the issue of justice towards our fellow living creatures is acknowledged as serious and exigent, of course these matters having to do with what is merely convenient for human beings will be shown to have little weight.

  5. Or as comedian Jim Gaffigan noted, “‘Do you know what they do to those chickens?’ ‘No, but it’s delicious.'”

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