VEGETARIANISM (Religious Movement)

The avoidance of meat is a common feature of religious practice and observance, from ancient and great religious traditions such as Hinduism to small sects and religious movements. Seventh Day Adventism strongly advocates it, UFO ‘cults’ such as the Aetherius Society practice it as do those New Religious Movements of Indian provenance such as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and it is extremely prevalent among devotees of New Age Movements. Vegetarianism not associated with any particular set of religious beliefs, especially when motivated by ethical concerns, is also often perceived as having underlying religious, quasi-religious or, at least, spiritual overtones.

Vegetarianism in the general sense is, of course, not an organized movement or activity but a matter of individual, personal choice and practice. However, it exhibits a number of attributes which might be said to be religious or spiritual.

Vegetarianism as taboo behaviour

A striking aspect of accounts of the process of conversion to vegetarianism is the frequently reported experience of revulsion towards meat that accompanies it or results from it (Amato and Partridge, 1989:70-1; Beardsworth and Keil, 1992:267-8).

Such sentiments suggest that a type of belief and behaviour commonly regarded as religious in nature that might also be applied to vegetarianism is perhaps that of taboo and ritual avoidance.

A feature of things which are commonly tabooed is that they are anomalous with respect to categories and boundaries (Douglas, 1966) because such things are seen as having a special power associated either with the sacred or with impurity and that which is polluting. Meat, especially red meat and its bloodiness, is, according to Twigg (1979, 1983), a particularly anomalous and powerful substance. This idea might be extended to animals in general situated as they are on the boundary between culture and nature, the human and the non-human, especially mammals which are warm and red blooded, copulate, give birth to live young which they suckle and which manifestly experience pain.

Reverence for life

Ethical vegetarianism expresses a rejection of violence and is traditionally associated with pacifism as well as a host of unorthodox, radical and oppositional stances. It extols reverence for all life like our own by abstaining from acts of violence towards other sentient living things. This might be seen as quasi-religious in that it appears to be as much motivated by the need to define what it is to be human as it is from concern with the welfare of animals. Further, meat in itself may operate for vegetarians as a symbol of violence which in being rejected expresses symbolically a reverence for life.

Denial of death

Vegetarianism may also express a denial and rejection of death. Meat may symbolize not only violence and aggression but also death. Blood and the shedding of blood in particular is a symbol of death. For ethical vegetarians it stands as a horrific reminder of the pain and suffering of the animal. This is, perhaps, why many people stop short of full vegetarianism and only avoid eating red meat.

Death is problematic in a culture which places a heavy emphasis upon this-worldly pleasures and pursuits, bodily health, fitness and attractiveness which the unpalatable fact of inevitable death threatens. That which reminds us of death tends to be tabooed and avoided; meat, from the dismembered carcass, presages one’s own death and decomposition.

Discipline and observance

Religions throughout the world impose certain disciplines and observances upon their followers often involving dietary practices. Vegetarianism might be seen as a form of observance that expresses the identity and moral standing of the individual and his or her apartness and distinctiveness. There is a sectarian tinge to vegetarianism associated, perhaps, with a sense of moral superiority. This concern to be among the select is demonstrated in the hierarchy of status and prestige that seems to obtain between vegetarians, vegans, and at the very top fruitarians, reflecting the hierarchy of foods themselves defined by Twigg (1983) in terms of a reversal of the status these foods have in the dominant meat-eating culture.

Rejection of domination and repression

As a symbol of violence meat also symbolizes domination. According to Fiddes (1991) meat symbolizes human power over nature and vegetarianism represents a move away from the desire to subject nature to human control.

Alternatively meat might be thought to symbolize the social power of the wealthy and those with high status since until the modern period it was an expensive food which the mass of the population could rarely afford to eat. In Europe meat was associated with the militaristic and hunting culture of the aristocracy. The rise of vegetarianism may reflect a progressive movement away not only from this culture of violence but from the values of domination and hierarchy.

It is the symbolic association of meat with masculinity and violence which leads Adams (1990) to interpret red meat as a symbol of male dominance over women and of patriarchy. However, this view neglects the fact that meat consumption was a class and status symbol rather than a gender related matter.

In conclusion, while several aspects of vegetarianism may have religious or spiritual associations it has to be acknowledged that such sentiments are clearly not in the forefront of vegetarians’ minds nor overt aspects of their motivation, a fact which should make us cautious about the claims outlined previously.

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