Vegetable Gods

Over at Aeon, Rhys Southan wonders what would happen if powerful vegan aliens invaded earth and applied vegan ethics to helpless humans. It’s a thought experiment in the grand tradition of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. While not entirely persuasive (because marginal ethical improvements are better than none), it gives vegans food for lofty thought.

I couldn’t help but think that Southan’s piece will probably fall on deaf ears, if only because those deeply committed to vegan ethics, animal rights, and health food are often impervious to these kinds of arguments. At a fundamental (and usually unexamined) level, the good-natured and well-intentioned people involved in these movements have faith, their beliefs are sacred, and the whole amounts to a kind of religion. And when something akin to religion is at stake, anything that threatens the sacred worldview will be dismissed, countered, or ignored.

For those who doubt whether these movements are in any way religious, I encourage you to read Jill Dubisch’s essay “You Are What You Eat: Religious Aspects of the Health Food Movement,” in which she concludes:

As this analysis has shown, health foods are more than simply a way of eating and more than an alternative healing system. If we return to Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion as a “system of symbols” which produces “powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations” by “formulating conceptions of a general-order of existence” and making them appear “uniquely realistic,” we see that the health food movement definitely has a religious dimension.

There is, first, a system of symbols, in this case based on certain kinds and qualities of food. While the foods are believed to have health-giving properties in themselves, they also symbolize a world view which is concerned with the right way to live one’s life and the right way to construct a society. This “right way” is based on an approach to life which stresses harmony with nature and the holistic nature of the body.

Consumption of those substances designated as “health foods,” as well as participation in other activities associated with the movement which also symbolize its world view (such as exercising or growing an organic garden) can serve to establish the “moods and motivations” of which Geertz speaks. The committed health food follower may come to experience a sense of spiritual as well as physical well-being when he or she adheres to the health food way of life. Followers are thus motivated to persist in this way of life, and they come to see the world view of this movement as correct and “realistic.”

In addition to its possession of sacred symbols and its “convincing” world view, the health food movement also has other elements which we usually associate with a religion. Concepts of mana and taboo guide the choice of foods. There is a distinction between the pure and impure and a concern for the maintenance of purity. There are “temples” (health food stores and other such establishments) which are expected to maintain purity within their confines. There are “rabbis,” or experts in the “theology” of the movement and its application to everyday life. There are sacred and instructional writings which set out the principles of the movement and teach followers how to utilize them.

In addition, like many religious movements, the health food movement harkens back to a “golden age” which it seeks to recreate and assumes that many of the ills of the contemporary world are caused by society’s departure from this ideal state. Individuals entering the movement, like individuals entering any religious movement, may undergo a process of conversion. This can be dramatic, resulting from the cure of an illness or the reversal of a previous state of poor health, or it can be gradual, a step by step changing of eating and other habits through exposure to health food doctrine. Individuals who have undergone conversion and mazeway resynthesis, as well as those who have tested and confirmed various aspects of the movement’s prescriptions for better health and a better life, may give testimonials to the faith.

For those who have adopted, in full or in part, the health food world view, it provides, as do all religions, explanations for existing conditions, answers to specific problems, and a means of gaining control over one’s existence. Followers of the movement are also promised “salvation,” not in the form of afterlife, but in terms of enhanced physical well being, greater energy, longer life-span, freedom from illness, and increased peace of mind.

While the focus is this-worldly, there is a spiritual dimension to the health food movement. And although it does not center its world view around belief in supernatural beings, it does posit a higher authority — the wisdom of nature — as the source of ultimate legitimacy for its views.

Health food people are often dismissed as “nuts” or “food faddists” by those outside the movement. Such a designation fails to recognize the systematic nature of the health food world view, the symbolic significance of health foods, and the important functions which the movement performs for its followers. Health foods offer an alternative or supplement to conventional medical treatment, and a meaningful and effective way for individuals to bring about changes in lives which are perceived as unsatisfactory because of poor physical and emotional health. It can also provide for its followers a framework of meaning which transcends individual problems. 

In opposing itself to the predominant American life-style, the health food movement sets up a symbolic system which opposes harmony to disharmony, purity to pollution, nature to culture, and ultimately, as in many religions, life to death.

Thus while foods are the beginning point and the most important symbols of the health food movement, food is not the ultimate focus but rather a means to an end: the organization of a meaningful world view and the construction of a satisfying life.

If these conclusions come as a surprise, it may be because you’re a believer and didn’t even know it.



Dubisch, Jill. 2000. “You Are What You Eat: Religious Aspects of the Health Food Movement,” Chapter 26, Nutritional Anthropology: Biocultural Perspectives on Food and Nutrition, eds. Alan H. Goodman, Darna L. Dufour, and Gretel H. Pelto. Mountain View, Calif: Mayfield.

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7 thoughts on “Vegetable Gods

  1. Dominik Lukes

    As a (non-proselytizing) vegetarian (bordering on vegan) of over 20 years, I don’t think this gives a very complete picture. Not of vegetarians or health-food nuts, so much, but of meat-eaters and religion.

    After you’ve had 20 years of reactions to your declaring your meat preferences (as I’ve had in over 20 countries including Kazakhstan, Albania, Uganda and Jordan), you’ll discover that everything described in that quote applies to the “meat-eating” world view / way of life. Eating meat is a way of preserving order, a natural way of eating, getting in touch with your ancestral heritage. People tell stories about meat. They make fun of people who don’t eat meat as a way of establishing their own mood of reality. And this happens even with no vegetarians around. You only have to visit a Czech pig killing (as I used to in my youth) to see the rituals and community organization around meat. The same way health food nuts organize themselves around their nuts, berries and supplements. They have a system of ethics (expressed through innocuously looking recipes) and they certainly have a proselytizing bend bordering on the inquisitorial when encountering a vegetarian. You not only have to eat right but also explain why you are the way you are.

    Which for me is interesting. I became a vegetarian to win a philosophical argument about the intrinsic superiority of humans (based on precisely that same notion of invading aliens described in the vegan-bashing article) and not out of some personal affinity for animals. Over time, it just became a way of life. In the same way I am an atheist (I don’t actually actively NOT believe in God, it’s just an irrelevant concept to my life), I am a vegetarian. I don’t actively avoid meat, I just don’t perceive it as an option. It is to the extent that I experience cognitive dissonance when rereading books from my childhood and my heroes eat meat. I don’t judge them or reject them but it feels odd.

    This gets us back into the question of “does religion exists”? Certainly Geertz’s conception seems to simply describe culture rather than just any one aspect of it. I guess the ethnomethodologist in me sees too many aspects of our existence as unobvious or even “unrealistic” that it has to take “a system of symbols” to “establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations” to make what we do seem normal. And the contortions of religious practice and belief are no more bizarre than those of eating meat or crossing streets in particular ways.

    PS: I didn’t read the first article as being against veganism. Just pointing out a missing element of the vegan philosophy with respect to one particular justificatory metaphor. It didn’t seem to make any argument for actually eating meat. Of course, it was based on a gross caricature of the movement which, of course, is just as aware of the importance of preserving habitats as the author who failed to mention that by stopping the mass production of meat, the destruction of animal habitats per one person’s nutrition could decrease dramatically.There was nothing in that article I disagreed with but there was also nothing in it that would convince me to start eating meat. And while it may have been a good argument for why not-eating meat is not a morally superior choice, it only underscored the point that it is a vastly ecologically superior choice.

  2. Anonymous

    “Which for me is interesting. I became a vegetarian to win a philosophical argument about the intrinsic superiority of humans (based on precisely that same notion of invading aliens described in the vegan-bashing article) and not out of some personal affinity for animals.”

    I find this to also be a statement of faith.

  3. Dominik Lukes

    Sure, in as much as saying anything is a statement of faith. “I like burgers because they’re delicious” is a statement of faith. But that’s my broader point about religion as being continuous with culture/way of life. We have to make so many commitments to action or belief in life. They are all based on an affinity to one system of symbols within a particular community with specific expectations. Do I go to college or not? Do I drive a big car or a small car? Do I vote for Obama or Romney? Do I wear boxers and briefs? All of these have a “faith” component while at the same time being completely ordinary in that they feel natural and real. I may have made a choice to stop eating meat on some vaguely religious grounds in as much as it involved reasoning on explicit moral values. Somebody eating meat simply had that choice made for them by the existing mores but it doesn’t make their actions any less religious in the sense of confirming commitment to the common ways of being nor any less ordinary and common place. But neither of us makes that choice every day. We make choices between tofu and veggieburger or turkey and beef within an established symbolic value system.

  4. Cris Post author

    You (Dominik) have put your finger on the problem with Geertz’s definition of religion (which is stated in full at the beginning of the Dubisch piece): it is so broad that it can conceivably encompass all sorts of cultural formations ranging from sports fanaticism to economic orthodoxy. His definition has often been criticized for precisely this reason. Dubisch’s article highlights one of the ways Geertz’s definition can be extended or overextended.

    When I read the Dubisch article for the first time years ago, I was living with housemates who were all vegetarians deeply committed to the health food movement. Consequently, her analysis resonated with me: my housemates were indeed zealots and religious in the their fervor or outlook. It was extremely offputting and reminded me of my religious upbringing.

    Dubisch’s article seems aimed at these extreme types, as is Southan’s piece — his is aimed at the apparently most committed vegan ethicists (I don’t know any and have never read their stuff).

    So this is perhaps a shortcoming of both articles: they single out only the most committed. But having done so, I think both articles are effective in their own way, and both shed some light on what may be extreme positions.

  5. Dominik Lukes

    Cris, I think that there’s a deeper issue here and that is confusing the political and the analytical. This is the context in which we can very usefully look at epistemology as ethics (I’ve written more about that here

    I take great pains to distinguish my analytical views from my political views. Not by content but rather by context. I don’t enjoy the company of zealots which is why I avoid them. If I disagree with any of their views, I oppose them. But I don’t confuse this with the intrinsic worth of the views when I want to look at an issue out of more analytical interest. (I don’t claim to have achieved a perfect balance). Which is why I have been so interested in views labeled as extremist. I no longer believe that this is a useful analytic concept at all. I don’t have a TV at home but while I was visiting relatives, I spent hours watching the God TV and TBN that somehow got bundled in with their satellite subscription. I had done that before, and again, what struck me was how normal and run of the mill the views expressed there were in the context in which they appeared. They are only be seen as extreme from my perspective. This does not stop me from adamantly opposing their political efforts.

    Obviously, many of the views we now hold as normal (female suffrage, rejection of slavery, protestant Christianity, etc.) were once seen as extreme. But not only that, the once default positions are now seen as extreme. But their extremity is not to a result of their intellectual analysis but rather of their political context. So it is not hard to imagine that something like not eating meat won’t become the standard position and advocacy of the opposite will be the “extreme position”. (BTW: I think this also applies to your recent discussion of Scientology.)

    We may balk at some of the “civil disobedience/eco-terrorism” of the more committed vegans but early Lutherans got up to much worse (supposedly including defecating into sacred objects). Which is why I don’t like the two articles. They push an implicitly political agenda of “look at these do-gooders, they’re not so pure after all, give me my burger” rather than a more analytic one.

  6. Paul

    Nietzsche may have had the best argument: “not all that is unintelligible to humans is necessarily unintelligent.” Why should I question seven millions years of human evolution which clearly involved at least some level of meat-eating? I’m not questioning any particular individual’s choice to be a vegetarian, but as a betting man I know where I’ll put my money. In any case, I’m leery of most forms of absolutism.

    (And Cris, I apologize if I have taken this somewhat off topic.)

  7. Sabio Lantz

    I could not agree more, and thank you for sharing. I will be linking this to my post “Confessions of a Vegetarian“. I have been a Christian, a Vegetarian and many more “isms” — my mind is so foolish, it is laughable. And to watch it habitually filter out contrary data has now become almost a joke. My post, and others like it, are to help Atheists see that though they may feel so superior to believers, they may be blind to how they do the same sort of religion-building in secular arenas of their life: like diet, politics, sex … Likewise, believers may understand this phenomena and then see how their religion is doing something very similar.

    I love Dubische’s line which points to how religious thinking (no matter how wacky it seems to outsiders) has a function: ” It can also provide for its followers a framework of meaning which transcends individual problems.”

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