I had been considering the move to vegetarianism for a while but Lent gave me the perfect excuse for a test run. It’s like a new year’s resolution but better because it’s a finite period. Of course it’s unlike a new year’s resolution in its specific religious context and for the past few years I hadn’t bothered to do anything particular during Lent, partly due to my lapsed religious practise and growing agnosticism, but mainly because I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to give up. This year, I decided that eating meat would be a good pleasure to forgo for many reasons. Today’s mass meat consumption involves immense animal cruelty, harms the environment, and harms our health. Lent’s religious context should not prevent a secular involvement with the tradition. Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether I’m fasting to get closer to Jesus and his suffering or to make some small stand against the suffering of animals, the material reality would be the same: no meat for Kate.
I have to admit it’s been a very easy ‘challenge’. Veggie food is delicious. I have been introduced to a world of Quorn (the cheese and broccoli escallops became a staple) and many exciting combinations of beans and pulses. The sweet potato and the broccoli, already favoured vegetables, only grew in my estimation. In Durham I didn’t miss meat because I enjoyed the food I cooked, but my new dietary requirement did involve a more social kind of sacrifice. My housemates and I usually all eat together and since I was eating separately I saw slightly less of them during the last few weeks of term. It was a shame but it was only temporary and working on my dissertation was far more socially isolating than my vegetarianism.
Back at home I felt the lack of meat more keenly because my dad is a great cook and tends to buy more exciting kinds of meat than I do in Durham. My nut roast was great but couldn’t compete with the roast lamb. My jeering brothers didn’t help much either. My family also brought up the annual debate over whether or not Lenten activities have to be obeyed on Sundays. Personally, I wanted to complete my challenge over an uninterrupted stretch of time. I also really missed fish, probably the most out of all the different meats. Some vegetarians will eat fish, which I can understand, but I thought if I was going to try no meat I should go all-out and commercial fishing is detrimental to the environment.
Now I’m at the end of the forty days and nights I am pleased to have avoided meat for what feels like a pretty long time. I am looking forward to eating meat again but I know I can manage fine without it. I will try and eat only organic meat and even then, far less frequently. I don’t believe that eating meat is the same as murder but I do think that commercial farming methods are cruel. Over the past year my attitude towards animal rights has developed somewhat. I have always, like most people, found battery farming repulsive, especially when faced with a shocking documentary. But in order to change eating habits, there has to be a deeper and more concerted kind of engagement. Meat is tasty, convenient, and seemingly everywhere. There’s a disconnect between the cutlets in the supermarkets and the reality of where they have come from.
An even greater issue for me is the issue of empathy and what the humanities call anthropocentricism. Do we really empathise with animals? Generally speaking, I think not. I have certainly found this a struggle; I like animals but I have had to break past a few underlying assumptions in order to properly care for them or see them on anything resembling equal terms. During childhood when I was first trying to make sense of the world and its denizens, as well as absorbing various messages from my upbringing (which was, among many things, Christian), I can remember pondering the cosmic importance of animals. It appeared clear to me that animals don’t go to heaven, animals can’t have souls. Or if they did, they went to that beautiful and child-like idea of a place: animal heaven. Of course this lovely notion is complicated by the fact that the category of ‘animal’ includes many forms of consciousness. A mayfly and a monkey are as different from each other (if not more so) as a human and any other animal. Is there a separate heaven for every species of animal?
I’m afraid I have little to say about souls and the afterlife but these thoughts have led me to consider the relationship between Christianity and vegetarianism. Different religions have innumerable different attitudes towards the ‘animal’, what with animal-headed Gods, sacred animals, and complicated fasting rituals. However, especially in more recent times with fewer major pagan religions, religious worldviews are pretty anthropocentric. In Genesis God created the birds and the bees, but he granted us ‘dominion’ over them. While modern secularism may claim to have done away with certain religion-derived ideals, the one that will be hardest to shift is the idea that humans are essentially superior to animals. On the one hand it is important to assert our superiority in terms of our greater moral agency; it is the reason why we condemn human violence towards animals but not the other way around. On the other hand, ‘dominion’ doesn’t mean battery farming.
As I hope this reflection has shown, Lent can provide a valuable time of moral contemplation as well as a changed diet for everyone regardless of religious conviction.
Photograph by MapHobbit via Flickr