It is rewarding to be part of a group which reveres life, considers the planet, and is part of a spiritual movement. Vegetarianism stands for ahimsa which, taken at its most serene and symbolic refers to non-violence for all life; environmental protection; and good health.
Human beings, vegetarians say, have evolved far beyond Paleolithic Man and his need for fatty protein necessitated by his restrictive hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We no longer need marbled meat, flesh, and gristle to survive.
More importantly, we have evolved morally and spiritually. We understand and appreciate the interconnectedness of all life, and the sacred duty to preserve and protect it.
Of course most of the above is patterned prayer. Vegetarianism is more a sacramental practice than any real, practical regimen. Homo sapiens is in part the result of a fire-cooked diet. Perpetual grazing on uncooked, coarse, and fibrous vegetable matter required large, strong mandibles which required space. In order to survive early man had to forage and chew large quantities of hardly-digestible material, and his brain pan was consequently small. He could survive but not think very well.
Cooked meat gave a more densely-packed meal of proteins and calories, was far easier to eat than raw grains, grasses, and pulses, and tasted good. Once our early ancestors learned to hunt, slaughter, and cook, homo sapiens took off.
It is far more efficient to eat meat from chickens grown in efficient cells, configured to give maximum meat for minimum investment than it is to graze on bulgur, sorghum, or millet.
And once again, there is the question of taste. A roast chicken, browned with Dijon mustard, rosemary, and Kerala ground pepper, highlighted with garlic and lemon, and basted with a light lemon-lavender salt glaze is unbeatable. A salad of orzo, bulgur, and ground wheat – no matter how many tomatoes and onions are added – is tasty only to those who conflate taste with organic health. To most others it is rough, grainy, and inedible.
So why do vegetarians persist and with such passion and commitment? First of all, the tradition of vegetarianism is derived from very respectable roots. Hinduism posited the eternal Oneness of Being and the equally eternal quest for assimilation within it. The world is maya – illusion – and the only goal of a humanity randomly placed on earth was to be subsumed within Brahman.
As sophisticated and sublime as this philosophy might appear, it has its very immediate and practical expressions. If one respects the sanctity of all life as part of the Created Whole, then ahimsa and vegetarianism logically follow. Vegetarianism, even if practiced outside the context of Hindu cosmology, can be spiritually uplifting.
Everything spiritual happens within a context. Catholic popes have always dismissed Protestant fundamentalism’s ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’ as nonsense. Belief is based on a foundation of logic, rational exegesis, and Christian tradition; and is not some magic trick performed in a mega-church. Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, and many other Church Fathers understood the requirement of foundation for faith. One might be taken by the idea of The Risen Lord, but only an appreciation of his complex divinity and divine purpose would lead to redemption and salvation.
So it is in Hinduism. There is no quick way to sanyasi. Spiritual evolution requires years of discipline, meditation, and concentrated belief. Vegetarianism means nothing if it is not considered within the theological cosmology of the religion. American vegetarians who assert their belief on the basis of Hindu principles are only fooling themselves.
So what about animal cruelty? Surely that should be a very compelling argument for vegetarianism. Current research has shown that even the most primitive animals on the phylogenetic scale have sensations and can feel pain. Boiling a lobster or eating an oyster are not insignificant, morally neutral events. There is no need for parsing the Vedas or the Gospel of John, say vegan advocates, to understand that eating meat is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment when nutrition and taste can be had elsewhere.
Yet the Old Testament is nothing if not a story of territorialism, ethnic cleansing, ritual sacrifice, and murder. Yahweh did not mind collateral damage as long as his orders were followed and obeyed. Nor did He mind – in fact he appreciated – the lambs, rams, and bulls sacrificed in His name. Not only that, Genesis gives us humans license to dominate the rest of the world. The execution of animals in God’s name and in that of the human race was not wrong but normal.
It is not easy to make sense of all these conflicting if not contradictory arguments concerning vegetarianism. What about shoes, contrarians argue? Should we be wearing the skins of animals who died and suffered when other means of locomotion were available? What about antibiotics? Should we, as a matter of conscience, refuse them in the spirit of Jainism?
There was considerable flap a few years ago about Beyoncé going to a vegan restaurant dressed in furs. Adding insult to injury, she went to another one wearing an all-leather outfit:
And lo, within days of the announcement, Beyoncé made the first and somewhat predictable stumble in her life as a vegan when she was photographed walking into one LA vegan restaurant wearing the biggest fur collar seen this side of the 1980s and then, soon after, entering another one, wearing – and there really is no other way to put this – an entire cow, from a cowhide top to leather trousers. Bey was widely, and many would say rightly, mocked for wearing a bunch of dead animals to restaurants that exist purely to refute the idea that animals should be killed for humans. (Hadley Freeman, The Guardian, 12.11.13)
Beyoncé defended herself by saying that she was acknowledging the important place that veganism has in the world and using her celebrity to promote it. Who cares if I dress in mink, alligator, snake, or pit bull? , she implied. The end justifies the means.
Of course, it is just as possible that Beyoncé had no clue whatsoever about the philosophical conundrums that veganism poses or had never heard of Jains, Mahatma Gandhi, or non-violence. All she needed to know was that veganism was cool, so why not embrace it.
Ronald Reagan correctly stated that cattle were responsible for a significant share of the world’s methane and was roundly criticized. Yet, percentages were vague. How many greenhouse gases could be eliminated by a vegetarian diet was unclear; and as importantly how would such a reduction in animal protein and fats impact American energy and productivity? Was it worth it?
Vegetarianism and veganism, therefore, remain in the realm of personal fantasy. If it seems good and right not to eat Perdue chickens, raised in captivity and deprived of dignity, then eat only cage-free, free-range chickens. If the humane, kosher slaughter of chickens offends, go down the phylogenetic scale. Surely a clam or mussel is too primitive to suffer pain and the indignity of being eaten.
If this does not satisfy, and the hunger for animal protein persists, then eat eggs and cheese – animal products harvested without the sacrifice of the animals themselves.
And if all this still offends, then go fibrous. Bulgar, orzo, foraged grasses, organic millet, and first-growth oats are available, inexpensive, and easy to prepare.
The point is, there is really no reason to become a vegetarian. The Hindu spiritual promise is at best evasive; and at least requires decades of study. The question of animal sentience is still an open one; and while many can with no twinges of conscience or regret enjoy moules marinières or enjoy Belon, Totten Inlet, Hood Canal, Apalachicola, or Chincoteague Old Salt oysters, others may still be uncertain and hesitant.
Modern early 21st century America is obsessed with meaning and purpose. One cannot simply act and enjoy a succulent, briny Bay oyster or a tender, flavorful aged Prime filet mignon without reflection and some guilt.
There is a middle ground between the Biblical injunction about dominion over the beasts of the Earth and New Age concern about sentience and responsibility. It is called joie de vivre – an acceptance of human dominance, preeminence, and evolutionary superiority; and an understanding that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
In the end, as Francois Villon observed, we all end up in ‘un tas pêle mêle’ – an unceremonious, finished, depleted, end-of-life pile.
So, let vegetarians go about their business. It matters little whether or not there is any logical basis to their claims. They feel good about their lifestyle choice, and so be it. When belonging, association, camaraderie, and solidarity matter more than philosophical purity or logic, who can object?
Meanwhile there is always filet mignon, Sting Ray oysters, foie gras, marbled Oklahoma beef, Maine oysters, lamb shanks, veal liver, rognons and cervelle.