Should all atheists be vegan?
Most people in this world believe in one or multiple gods, if you do too then I’m sorry to say that this article is not for you. We have an article for Christians, but this article is aimed specifically at all the non-believers, both atheists and agnostics, who buy and consume animal products. If that’s you, then you’re in the right place! I’m an atheist as well, but I’m a vegan one, and I’m here to make the case that all of us in the godless community should go the vegan route.
Ditching religion is only half the process
Religion has been a part of human societies for as long as societies have been around. Understandably so, because religion provides answers to two main questions: Where did we come from? And how should we live? I think we can all agree that those are good questions to ask, but I think we can also agree that the answers religion has provided aren’t very satisfying. That’s why we left religion behind, right?
Now, it’s important for us to realize that by stating that religion isn’t the answer we haven’t actually answered the questions yet. We just ruled out one option, or thousands of options if you count every religion separately, but that’s all we did. Becoming an atheist without taking any steps after that is like the first part of moving house, the part where you leave your old house before you move into your new house. It’s half the process.
Thank God for science!
Luckily, the scientific method is at our disposal. It’s quite amazing how much we can do with reason and evidence. Turns out we’re made of stardust, and monkeys are our cousins, who would have thought? I can only imagine how happy women must have been to find out they weren’t made of some guy’s rib. Stardust is definitely a step up. Of course, our boogers are made of stardust too, so it’s not that special, but still.
In all seriousness, though, science has done an amazing job at answering the first question. My hat’s off to all the brilliant minds who have helped us understand the nature of the universe and our place in it better. The big bang theory and the theory of evolution go a hell of a long way in answering where we came from.
I also appreciate how science has taught us humility. We used to think the earth was at the center of everything and we were the pinnacle of creation. But now we know that we’re just another animal on a regular planet in some ordinary galaxy at the edge of a supercluster, of which there are millions in the observable universe alone.
How should we live?
Having answered question one, let’s move on to question two. A common fear from those on team God is that without a belief in God we won’t have any motivation to be good people anymore. But looking at all of us who are still against murder, rape, theft and other crimes, I think it’s fair to say that that fear is unfounded. It turns out we don’t need to be threatened with eternal damnation to want to be good.
I would even go so far as to claim the opposite, that ditching religion can help us to become better people than we were. Because instead of being focused on whether our actions are in alignment with pre-medieval books, we can actually focus all our attention on how our actions affect others in the here and now. And because we know we aren’t infallible, it’s much easier for us to update our morals when we find out we’re causing unnecessary harm.
Now, let’s tie those two answers together. We’re just another animal on a regular planet and we don’t want to cause unnecessary harm. So, why on earth are we unnecessarily using and killing billions of fellow animals every week?
If you ponder this question long enough, you’ll find that there are only two possible justifications. One, it’s not unnecessary. Two, morals should only apply to humans. Do these justifications hold up under scrutiny, though? Let’s find out!
Is it necessary?
Animals are used and killed for a variety of different reasons, but no one would argue that killing cows for leather couches or using mice to test makeup is necessary. We know there are alternatives to leather and different ways to test makeup. A lot of people will argue, however, that we need to use and kill animals for food. And since that’s what most animals are used and killed for, we’ll focus on that.
People in the animal industries often claim that what they’re doing is necessary because they’re “feeding the world.” And certainly, if taking animals out of the food chain would lead to mass starvation, one could argue that it’s necessary to keep them in there. It turns out, however, that when those industry insiders say they’re feeding the world, they’re actually telling a half-truth.
Of course, animal products are being eaten and in that sense they’re technically feeding the world. But they’re conveniently leaving out how much food they’re feeding those animals first. Animals aren’t magical food production units. If you want them to grow you need to feed them. A lot. So, a lot of crops are grown just to be fed to animals who turn all of that food into less food. Ten pounds of plant-based food gets converted into four pounds of chicken meat, or two pounds of pork, or one pound of beef. The rest just gets turned into shit.
Worldwide, only 7 percent of the world’s land is used to grow crops for direct human consumption. But that’s enough to provide us with 83 percent of all our calories. Compare that to the animal industries, that use 30 percent of all the world’s land to produce the other 17 percent of our calories, and you get an idea of how unnecessary they are. If we started using the crops that we’re already growing for animals for direct human consumption instead, we would have more food than we have now. If we distributed it efficiently we could even feed the 795 million people in the world who are currently undernourished.
Would we be healthy, though? You might ask. I answer that question in detail in chapter 6 to 10 of my free e-book Questioning Meat, with sources in the back of the book. But to give a short answer: Yes, we would be healthy. There’s not a single essential nutrient that we need animal products for. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has confirmed this in their official position paper:
“It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”
Should morals only apply to humans?
Since it’s not necessary to use and kill animals, the only possible justification left is that morals simply don’t apply to animals and that we can therefore use and kill them for any reason we like. But in order for that to be valid, there should be a trait we possess that our fellow animals don’t that disqualifies them from moral consideration.
Some religions claim to have identified that trait. They call it the soul. According to them, the soul is the key trait that separates humans from every other life form on earth. They claim that we all have similar bodies, but that only humans have a soul. And, naturally, killing someone with a soul is completely different from killing a soulless creature. But, of course, there’s no evidence whatsoever that a soul even exists. So, as non-believers, we can’t use that to justify using and killing animals. We need to find a trait that’s actually real.
We could focus on physical traits, like the ability to run, swim, climb, see, hear and smell. But there are plenty of animals who outperform us on all those trait. Not to mention all the animals with physical traits we don’t even possess, like the ability to fly and breathe underwater. And even if we did, why would physical traits even make a difference in terms of morality?
It would make more sense to look for the trait in the realm of feelings. If our fellow animals were unable to experience feelings like happiness, excitement, sadness, boredom, and fear, or if they didn’t experience pain or didn’t have a will to live, then it would make sense to exclude them from moral consideration. But they do. They experience all of that. They’re sentient, just like us. They can suffer, just like us. And they want to live, just like us.
So, how can we justify unnecessarily using and killing them? What trait is left that we possess that they don’t that would exclude them from moral consideration?
The only trait that we really excel at is intelligence. I still think we generally overestimate ourselves in that regard as well because we tend to base our view of human intelligence on how advanced our civilization is, while forgetting that civilization is a group project that billions of people worked millions of years on. And I think we generally underestimate our fellow animals because we just don’t often sit down and think about how incredible some of their achievements are. I mean, when was the last time you thought about birds navigating entire continents without any kind of map or GPS? But, for the sake of argument, let’s say we’re significantly smarter than all other animals.
So what? Why would morality not apply if the victim isn’t smart? When was the last time you heard about a murder trial where the murderer didn’t get any punishment because they murdered someone who wasn’t intelligent? And when was the last time you heard someone was being abused, but realized it was okay when you found out the abuse victim was a special needs kid? Never, right? More like the opposite. There’s a bigger power imbalance if the victim has low intelligence, which makes the abuse worse.
We can’t just invert that logic when we’re talking about other species. If harming a human can be considered worse if the human is of low intelligence, then we can’t use that same trait to justify harming animals.
The reality is that there is no valid justification to use and kill animals. As atheists and agnostics we should be the first to acknowledge that reality. After all, what’s the point of discarding religion if we’re not going to update our worldview based on reason and evidence? And by updating our worldview, we open our eyes to the opportunity we have to make the world a better place. We can stop buying and eating animal products right now. I strongly encourage you to do that! If you need any help, I invite you to read my free e-book, watch the documentary Dominion and sign up for the free Challenge 22.