Is Veganism A Religion?
Question: Is veganism a religion? And what can we do about all the divisiveness and infighting that seems to characterize our movement?
For many years I have felt that veganism is not a religion, but my feelings about that have changed in recent years, and I now feel exploring the possibility of veganism being a valid religion is an illuminating exercise. I would say that veganism is the core spiritual teaching and ethical principle of all the world religions. It is a practice, a moral statement, a way of living, an aspiration, and also, in some ways, a religion as well.
Some people may deny that veganism is a religion, because a religion must, as defined for example by Merriam-Webster, “relate to or manifest faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity,” and we don’t see this typically as part of being vegan, at least in the beginning stages. However, as our veganism deepens, we begin to realize that it is an authentic, demanding, and rewarding spiritual path that not only positively transforms ourselves, but also positively transforms our society, as a religion should.
Looking deeply, we see that veganism does in fact relate to an ultimate reality, and that ultimate reality is the profound truth of the interconnectedness of all living beings. Veganism manifests as faithful devotion to the acknowledged truth that all life is sacred and interconnected, and that all living beings are deserving of kindness and respect.
A religion certainly doesn’t have to have a deity to be a religion. Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, and Confucianism are all examples of large-scale, long-established, respected, and spiritually vital religions that have hundreds of millions of adherents. Why not add veganism to this list? If we do, I suspect some will like to begin capitalizing it: Veganism. Personally, I prefer to capitalize none of them, but this is something that we’ll have to work out with time. What do you think? Perhaps we can have veganism (uncapitalized) as the philosophy and lifestyle, and Veganity as the religion (adding “ity” as in Christianity).
The non-theistic religions require no faith, blind or otherwise, in any deity or doctrine. Rather they are concerned primarily with ethical living, and with spiritual awakening. Veganism is obviously primarily concerned with ethical living, but I would also say that it is ultimately concerned with spiritual awakening as well, because you can’t have one without the other. Ethical living, to be authentic, arises from an awakened sense of compassion and lovingkindness for others that is not policed by inner or outer rules, but is joyfully self-fulfilling. When we awaken from the delusion of separateness, and see that there is one life living through all of us, we understand clearly that harming others is harming ourselves, and kindness to others is kindness to ourselves. Out of this, the proper foundation for ethical behavior and social justice is established.
Like veganism, many of the world religions are not exclusivist. There are many Buddhists, for example, who also consider themselves Hindus or Taoists, and they and their culture see this is normal and natural. Likewise, we can be simultaneously a vegan and also be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, or an agnostic or atheist. The beauty of veganism is that, as the living core of all world religions, embracing veganism will invariably make us better Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, agnostics, or whatever. Our lives will more genuinely reflect both the spirit and the letter of the ethical principles for living advocated by the religious and ethical teachings, such as humility, kindness, fairness, peacefulness, introspection, generosity, gratitude, and caring.
The word religion derives from religare in Latin, to restrain, and like veganism, has the connotation of exercising restraint in our behavior. The ancient Sanskrit word ahimsa, nonharmfulness, epitomizes this ethical teaching of restraint, and is clearly the essential teaching in veganism as it is in all the world religious teachings. At a deeper level, religare, or restraint, means to join again, and this reveals the deeper meaning of religion: reconnecting with our true nature of wisdom, compassion, and awakened consciousness. In a similar way, ahimsa means not only the restraint of nonharmfulness, but at a deeper level, Mahakaruna (great compassion in Sanskrit), the joyful, loving, and affirmative compassion born of spiritual liberation.
Just as there are stages in the spiritual life of people on a spiritual path, there are stages in our practice of veganism as a spiritual path. I have discussed these more in detail elsewhere, but basically, we begin with what I refer to as the shallow vegan stage, where we are shaky in our understanding of vegan philosophy and practice, and have a lot to learn. If we are able to survive this vulnerable first stage, we arrive at the second stage, which is the stage typically that I refer to as the angry vegan and/or the closet vegan. Though we’ve learned and absorbed enough to be able to live in a healthy way as vegans in our culture, because we are in such a small minority, we find ourselves often angry, outraged, and disappointed by the attitudes and actions of our neighbors, or we are afraid of being rejected, and become closet vegans. Beyond these stages lie the more psychologically and spiritually satisfying stages that I refer to as deep veganism.
With deep veganism, we are not only able to thrive as vegans in a not-yet vegan world, we are also able to understand the underlying cultural program that imprisons virtually all of us in disempowering attitudes of disconnectedness, entitlement, reductionism, and materialism. By doing the necessary inner work to free ourselves from these culturally injected attitudes, we begin to resurrect the sacred feminine within ourselves, and our natural wisdom and intelligence return. We increasingly live our life as an embodiment of veganism, which is radical inclusion, and we naturally become more non-violent in our relations not just with nonhuman animals, but with other people as well.
This hopefully sheds light on the question about how we can have less divisiveness in our movement. It requires us as vegans to realize that going vegan is just the very beginning of a long and rewarding journey of positive personal transformation. Going vegan in the world’s sense of this is certainly a beneficial achievement, but it’s not the end goal; it’s a commencement and the best is yet to come, provided we understand the critical truth that Gandhi articulated: that there can be no positive social change without positive personal change. As we increasingly live vegan ideals, and evolve in our vegan journey, we will learn to communicate non-violently and bring more healing to our world, our relationships, and our movement.
In sum, as our culture evolves, veganism will increasingly be seen as a religion that people can rely on, for example, to ensure they have access to vegan foods, for religious/ethical reasons, in typically oppressive environments like prisons and schools, and to justify refusing vaccinations, which contain animal ingredients and are tested on animals. Veganism in not just an animal rights movement, a social justice movement, a physical and mental health movement, an environmental movement, a peace movement, and a world hunger movement, but it completely embraces and nourishes all of these because it is, ultimately, a spiritual movement reconnecting us with the deeper, trans-verbal truths of existence. As we increasingly realize this and live it, we will not only regenerate the established religions, but also recognize veganism as the spiritual path of liberation for all, and the religion of the coming age (if we prove worthy to have a future here), drawing us to fulfill our proper destiny on this beautiful and ravaged Earth.
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Dr. Will Tuttle, author of the Amazon best-seller, “The World Peace Diet,” is a recipient of the Courage of Conscience Award and the Empty Cages Award. A vegan since 1980 and former Zen monk, he is the creator of several wellness and advocacy training programs.