When You Hear “Veganism Is Just A Religion”
I find that one of the most common objections to veganism from non-vegans is the classic line – “but isn’t veganism just another religion?” I’m sure we’ve all experienced this at some point in our conversations with non-vegans, and it’s an easy one to rebut. You simply explain how veganism is based on moral principles that recognise the fundamental right of sentient beings not to be used as property; it is no more a religion than being opposed to rape or child molestation is. It’s a matter of basic morality – not faith. Most of the time, the non-vegan will not have an answer to that. You’ve guided them to the realisation that, just as they hold solid moral principles with forms of exploitation they do recognise, veganism represents a set of moral principles that they haven’t recognised so far in their lives – but which are very much there. You’ve successfully rebutted their idea that veganism is a religion of some sort, by connecting the dots of exploitation, and showing them that animals, as sentient beings, have the same right not to be treated as resources as the victims of oppression that the non-vegan does recognise. If they want to call veganism a religion at this stage, they would have to call any moral position concerning the exploitation of humans a religion as well. Thankfully, most don’t, and at this point are on the same page as you – at least so much in not calling veganism a religion any more.
There are, however, some people who really won’t give this argument up, and – despite your rational rebuttal – remain steadfast in their nonsense. If this happens, there’s another argument that I find useful to throw in the mix – and it really stumps them. It involves the work of philosopher and private property theorist, John Locke (1632-1704), which Professor Gary Francione discusses in his book – Introduction To Animal Rights. Locke’s theory on private property is enshrined in our common law to this day, and dictates our interactions with both animal and non-animal property. Locke believed that we had a natural right to own private property based on the labour that one exerted into a thing. The interesting thing is that, Locke’s theory of private property – which is what keeps animals relegated to the class of things today – is informed entirely by religious belief.
He maintained that humans owned everything in common – as per gods will. But due to his interpretation of Genesis 1:26, he believed that gods grant of “dominion” over animals meant that it was cool with god for us to exploit animals. This was where it became tricky for Locke, though, because even though everything was owned in common, that didn’t help us progress profitably as a society. He maintained that if humans were going to make use of natural resources – including the animals to which we had “dominion” over – we needed to be able to take things out of the common and appropriate them for our use. This is where he devised his system of labour. For example, someone could go out into the woods – where everything was owned in common – and pick some apples and berries. By exerting labour over the apples and berries, that person had taken those things out of the common, and appropriated them for their use. In doing so, the human – via exerting labour – had made those apples and berries their property.
This heralded the beginning of the system of private property that we use today. It gave the one who exerted the labour complete control and use of whatever they had taken out of the common. Locke believed that god had given humans exclusive control over animals, and that through the exertion of our labour we could take animals out of the common – where animals were already lesser than humans, as per his interpretation of Genesis – and appropriate them to pieces of private property to use, sell, and engage in just about any other legal interaction between property owners you can think of. This was how it had to be if we were to make any sort of profitable use of the animal population. Locke believe this was gods will.
And so the claim that veganism is a religion is really quite ironic when you consider that the entire foundation of non-veganism – the system of private property that keeps animals treated as nothing more than things in the first place – is founded entirely on religious belief. Non-veganism represents the blind acceptance of someones interpretation of a religious text; veganism is about recognising and elevating the victims of that oppression to rightful personhood and full membership in the moral community.
If the non-vegan is religious themselves, the same argument will apply to them. It is the interpretation of the religion that is wrong. Whatever their religion, it can and should be interpreted in a peaceful way. There will be aspects of their religion that they ignore that involve the oppression of others – women and homosexuals, for example. They have made a conscious decision to ignore those parts of a religious text that constitute unjust violence or discrimination to others, based on their own principles of morality. It’s just a case of showing them that they are required to do that in the animal context too.