Absolution for the Lapsed Vegetarian?

In my “real job” (at least until it ends in a few weeks) I have spent a fair amount of time trolling the internet for exemplary stories covering the intersection of religion and public life (for example, whether/how religion plays out in coverage of gender issues, entertainment, politics, science, etc. – see our website for more on that). One topic that has come up frequently in my searches is the environment: Does religion affect one’s view of the current environmental crisis? Are people looking to their religion to answer questions about how they should treat the environment, or are they making a green lifestyle their new religion? 

Animal lovers of all stripes have been on a similar bandwagon for a long time now (PETA would probably qualify as the extremists of that “religion” – I actually find the term “vegeterrorist” rather amusing in this light. It seems that more and more spiritual/religious leaders are promoting a centrist view, teaching that compassion and mercy for what is in our care (i.e. the animals, the earth, our oceans, etc.) is mandated by just about every religion. According to the majority of them, it is morally justifiable to eat meat as long as the animal that produced it was not maltreated in its life or in the method of its death.

Last week, a message from the Humane Society landed in my inbox and referred me to their site on Animals and Religion, where I found, among other clips, a trailer for a documentary titled Eating Mercifully. On the same page, you can also find representatives of Judaism, Islam, and from Christianity the Episcopal Church and the Catholic Church, as well as academics and others extolling the virtues of choosing wisely when we choose to put animal flesh on our plates.

From the HSUS website:

Just last summer, The Humane Society of the United States began asking religious leaders rank and file faithful to join in a new campaign to underscore our moral responsibilities to animals, including often overlooked farm animals. From a wide range of faiths and from one coast to another, America’s religious communities responded and joined ranks.

I have toyed with vegetarianism for the past 18 years, at times more seriously than at others. My original pretensions to it were based on health reasons, not any moral qualms about eating meat. As the years have passed, however, I find myself drawn toward it more and more for ethical reasons as well. I do feel healthier when I eat a diet based on plants, but living with 3 carnivores has also taught me the pleasure of occasionally eating meat that is sustainably/humanely raised. I’m happy to see that there is a moderate faction to the movement – naturally, the extremists would say that ensuring humane treatment is almost completely impractical and therefore we should all be vegetarian at the least, if not vegan. But for those of us who are “conflicted vegetarians” (lapsed vegetarians?), this does give a share of hope (absolution?).

As the economy crumbles and prices soar, it will be interesting to see how the members of the “eating green” religion survive – it’s a fact that sustainably/humanely raised products, from food to clothing to cleaning products, often cost more than their commercially produced equivalents. I think about this every time I buy pastured chicken, beef, eggs, and bison at our farmers’ market. But I don’t think I can ever go back to eating conventionally raised (now there’s an irony!), petrochemical-dependent produce or animals. We may next become more vegetarian for economic reasons….

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