In this article, we’re going to be asking the question, “is veganism a religion” and look at why people keep comparing the two. This article explains why veganism is not a religion.
Veganism as a religion or “Philosophical Belief”
An ethical vegan is someone who doesn’t consume animal products for moral reasons e.g. that animals have a right to life and not be harmed unnecessarily.
Ethical vegans avoid products that involve the exploitation of animals as well as animal products themselves. This is in contrast to a plant-based lifestyle which may not have an ethical dimension at all.
In 2020, it was ruled by the UK courts that ethical veganism, as described, is a “philosophical belief”. A panel ruled that ethical veganism satisfies the relevant conditions detailed in the Equality Act, including:
- Veganism is not incompatible with human dignity
- It does not conflict with the fundamental rights of others
- It is worthy of respect in a democratic society
Essentially, this ruling entitles UK vegans the same legal and workplace protections that people of religious groups hold.
For example, a vegan worker may refuse to stock a meat aisle with lamb legs or offer samples of a non-vegan product. This is similar to how a Muslim worker may refuse to serve alcohol without fear of repercussion.
And yet, the next day, a lot of tabloids couldn’t help themselves with their headlines, insinuating veganism is a religion.
Comparing vegan behavior to religious zealotry was, no doubt, an attempt to rile up a readership already antagonistic towards vegans for trying to take away their bacon sandwiches.
While most vegans would baulk at the idea of veganism being called a religion, it’s important to establish exactly why. Perhaps there are more similarities than we like to think.
So, is veganism a religion by any conventional use of the word?
In order to answer this, I’m going to directly compare and contrast what I see as the similarities and dissimilarities between ethical veganism and religion.
In teasing apart the individual aspects of religion, we will be able to compare veganism more accurately.
The Similarities Between Veganism and Religion
The actual definition of religion given in the Equality Act is “Religion means any religion, and a reference to religion includes a reference to a lack of religion.”
This illuminating definition isn’t particularly helpful for analysis. It seems that religion is just one of those “we know it when we see it” deals.
Despite this, below is a table that details what I believe to be the most significant hallmarks of a religion.
Following that is an analysis of how they compare, in particular asking whether veganism exhibits that particular religious hallmark.
|Beliefs and Believers||✓||✓|
|Rituals and Ceremonies||✓||?|
|Sacred Texts and Writings||✓||?|
|Supernatural or Transcendent Worldview||✓||?|
1. Vegan Beliefs and Believers
The philosophical definition of “belief” is basically an attitude that something is or is not the case. And it’s important to note that a belief can be held whether it is true or false, justified or unjustified.
All of us, at some point, have held beliefs that have later turned out to be false. What’s more, a lot of us even hold beliefs that we can’t really justify.
Belief and religion go hand in hand. Most of these beliefs regard life, death, family, conduct, the Earth, the nature of the Universe, God, good and evil, and, oddly, even which clothes to wear.
Through these beliefs, religion gives solace and meaning to people in a world that can appear confusing, hostile, and dark.
Shared Belief and Ideology
And of course, with beliefs, come believers, specifically, people who share beliefs. It’s very hard to imagine a religion existing without people who believe in what that religion states.
How about veganism?
Well, yes, vegans do have a shared belief system. For example, every ethical vegan will agree that the consumption and use of animals, unnecessarily, is wrong and that we should attempt to reduce the amount of animal suffering in the world.
veganism /ˈviːɡənɪzəm/ A way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism
And vegans are themselves believers in this creed and hold certain beliefs centrally important. Not only this, but Vegans want others to see the truth in their claims and change their behavior accordingly, e.g. animals have rights and should not be used as food.
In this way, veganism resembles religion quite a lot. Vegans seek converts, spread the truth as they see it, and build a community with a purpose around their ideology. Just like religion.
Some vegans even evangelize and preach on street corners like our religious friends. We cannot deny the similarity in regards to this behavior.
Belief vs Practice
That said, unlike a religious belief, which can be held despite one’s behavior, it is, ultimately, the practical application of vegan beliefs that decides membership to the “vegan community”.
For example, we see no issue in the phrase “a non-practising Jew”, but the phrase “a non-practising vegan” is self-defeating.
That is simply to say, if you eat meat, you can’t call yourself a vegan.
You can respect and maybe agree with vegan ethics and beliefs, but the actual act of animal consumption excludes membership by definition.
Compare this to, say, Catholicism, where someone may fail to fulfil their Catholic duties. This could be a failure to take mass or confession. By not participating in these acts, they are not necessarily non-Catholic, but simply not a very good Catholic.
A “not very good vegan”, however, is not a vegan, by definition.
Carnism as a Belief System
While I concede that the holding of certain beliefs is similar between religion and veganism, it would be unfair not to do the same in regards to Carnism.
Carnism is the dominant, invisible belief system that justifies and enables the use and consumption of animals. Most people don’t even realize they hold these beliefs, and their truth is simply taken for granted.
Namely, these beliefs are that eating animals is natural, normal, necessary, and nice. These beliefs are then used to justify their behavior towards animals.
You probably won’t see many people preaching on street corners in defence of carnist beliefs, however. Although there are some who do.
This is almost certainly due to the common acceptance of meat and animal products in society. This makes the act of evangelizing carnist beliefs simply redundant. Why preach to the choir?
Well, advertisements are, in fact, continually preaching to the choir. It’s an unusual day when you haven’t seen an advert for a burger or milk.
The benefits of carnist beliefs and the enjoyment of animal products can, in a sense, be seen to be doing exactly the same as vegan outreach.
That is, attempting to persuade people to an ethical position, albeit a bad one: that eating and using animals is fine and you should carry on doing it.
So, veganism does indeed resemble religious belief in some regards. Namely, the sincerity of belief and the coming together under the canopy of that belief.
However, the same can be said to some extent for traditional carnist beliefs that the majority of people still retain.
2. Vegan Ethics
Another key characteristic of almost all religions is that they provide practical rules on how to govern our behavior.
The Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have the Ten Commandments, Sikhism has the 5 K’s, Buddhism has the Five Precepts, Hinduism has the teachings such as Ahimsa in their core texts like the Bhagavad Gita.
These core precepts guide the follower’s behavior and instruct them on what they should value in life.
In this way, the ethics of religion has a practical and prescriptive flavor. Rather than answer the meta-ethical questions, religions tend to keep things simple and codify ethics into easy-to-follow and remember precepts.
Vegan Rules and Commandments
Vegan ethics is similar in that it has core concepts and values that guide the behavior of followers. In our case, there are generally two key rules of veganism:
- Do not consume animal products.
- Seek to reduce and minimize harm to other living creatures as far as practically possible.
This is prescriptive in that it tells vegans what to do. That is, how to do what’s right as veganism sees it.
Like religion, these prescriptive edicts are backed up with values and underlying beliefs that we can hold a light to and inspect closer, namely:
- Animals are sentient and have the capacity to suffer
- We should recognize and concern ourselves with their interests.
Like religion, then, veganism does have guides on how to behave and reasons for why. Vegans believe in the truth of these values and that practising the rules keeps one on the right side of things.
It seems this ethical, rule-following aspect of veganism is what resembles religion most. Veganism is like a religion in this sense.
Vegans consider themselves to be behaving ethically because of their adherence to these rules, just as religious people do. And just as an atheist may see religious adherence as misguided or based on falsities, so may a non-vegan.
To the non-vegan, this behaviour may indeed appear to be some sort of vegan religion where non-adherence to the “rules” is forbidden.
To the outsider, the vegan community could indeed appear as devout followers who carefully watch their actions for reasons that are quite alien.
Vegan Beliefs are Not Controversial
Unlike religions, however, the two values of veganism that we stated above are seemingly accepted by any rational adult.
That is, vegan beliefs are not controversial.
Not many people would disagree that animals have the capacity to suffer. Likewise, we also regularly recognize and concern ourselves with their interests.
This is evidenced by labels such as “free-range,” which are used to appease our pre-existing moral concern for animals.
This differs from religion, however, in that religious beliefs are not widely accepted. For example, while an atheist may respect the Christian faith, it’s not universally believed or even scientifically falsifiable that Jesus was God the Son Incarnate.
We don’t all believe in Jesus, but we do all believe animal suffering matters.
With veganism, there needn’t be any leap of faith or great change in beliefs about the world. Most rational people will agree that animals can suffer and that we should avoid harming them when we can.
All veganism does is show us a way to live in accord with these values that we already have.
To the outsider, strictly adhering to these rules may, indeed, appear “religious”. The reality, however, is that vegans are simply morally consistent.
3. Vegan Rituals and Vegan Ceremonies
Ok, this one doesn’t fit.
There are no vegan rituals or ceremonies. In this sense, veganism is not at all like a religion.
We can try to shoe-horn veganism into the definition of religion by pointing to demonstrations, protests, and vegan fairs but, ultimately, these are just events.
A religious ritual or ceremony seeks to strengthen the relationship between the followers and Ultimate Reality as they see it.
This can be called different things by different religions. God, Jesus, Allah, Buddhahood, Moksha, The Void, or Nirvana, to name a few.
Religious ceremony and ritual is a deliberate strengthening of common belief and faith.
The act of meditation in Buddhism, for example, is typically conceived of as a way to strip away false concepts and encounter reality as it really is through our underlying awareness. Mass is considered a way to remember the Last Supper of Jesus: to remember His life, teachings, and sacrifice. Muslims, too, pray five times a day, connecting them to other Muslims in prayer and unifying their common belief in God with ritual.
Vegans, on the other hand, normally get together to eat lots of cake and junk food.
This is no vegan ritual and no vegan ceremony. There is no transcendental aspect to vegan events.
In terms of ritual, veganism does not resemble religion, with demonstrations and protests being perhaps the closest equivalent, except their purpose is to alter events in the real world, not strengthen one’s own belief as such.
4. Vegan Sacred Texts and Writings
This one is a little trickier. Sacred texts and writings are considered authoritative in religion and can arbitrate disputes and govern behaviour.
We have the Bible, The Koran, the Upanishads, the Buddhist Sutras and obviously many more genuinely fascinating and wonderful texts from our history.
And these books are respected and adhered to, at least somewhat, by the followers of each text’s religion/belief system.
With veganism, however, we don’t get this so much.
There are many important vegan books that relate to veganism that contain some important ideas. While vegans should probably take the time to read them at some point, this doesn’t mean they are in any way sacred texts.
This is because the word sacred, at the very least, means something that requires veneration.
While some Christians may disagree on how one should read and understand the Bible, they all agree that the Bible plays an important and vital role in their faith, understanding and history.
But with veganism, there is no “sacred” text, there is no vegan religious book.
In fact, a strength of veganism is that it can be debated, understood and adhered to for more than one reason.
Some people are vegan for ethical reasons, and within that you have deontological vegans and consequentialist vegans.
Some vegans are in it primarily for the health benefits, and some believe it to be the best way to help the planet with the moral consideration of animals being secondary to this.
We cannot consider veganism as resembling religion in this sense.
One could be a committed and erudite vegan without having read these or even know they exist.
5. Supernatural or Transcendent Worldview
Lastly, an obvious and significant difference between veganism and religion is that veganism doesn’t require a person to believe in a deity or hold any transcendent or supernatural beliefs.
All religions and even cultural philosophies like Buddhism lay importance on something “higher” that explains reality as we know it. For the Buddhists and Hindus, we have karma, samsara and suffering and in the Abrahamic religions we have God’s will.
Religions tend then to have a cosmogony, that is an origin story to reality, and an explanation to the way the world is, or appears to be, e.g. the fall of Man in the Garden of Eden.
Veganism is not concerned with this. Veganism doesn’t seek to explain the why and how of things but instead wants to change the way things are, namely, the treatment and use of animals at the hands of humans and their influence.
It is perhaps simply impossible to call any kind of ideology a religion without this transcendent element. It is the purview of religion to bridge the gap between the unknowable and ourselves, and this is not the domain of veganism.
Conclusion: Is Veganism a Religion or Not?
The comparisons between religion and veganism, perhaps, shouldn’t be surprising given the fervour and passion vegans have for veganism itself.
It does, after all, resemble enthusiastic religious belief in its motivational force and power to move people to alter their lives.
But the comparison falls apart in 2 key ways:
- Veganism doesn’t seek to explain humankind’s situation or connect us with some higher Truth or aspect of reality
- It also doesn’t resemble religious activity in that vegans don’t have ceremonies or rituals by which vegans identify themselves.
I believe what people mean when they say veganism is like a religion is more likely that they think veganism is a cult.
That is to say, a community where ex-members are shunned and certain beliefs and ideas are frowned upon.
Of course, this is nonsense, the vegan community, on the whole, is supportive, rational, and friendly but resolute in minimizing animal suffering.
As a final word, I will say this, veganism can give life purpose. A key part of most religious traditions is to be selfless and help others.
In doing so, a person finds a kind of meaning in their life. For some vegans, their diet is nothing more than a logical consequence of their values.
To others, veganism can fulfil the same role religion does: filling a hole in a person’s life, giving it purpose and meaning. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.