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.