For those of you who don’t follow the goings-on in the veganosphere, a vegan was excommunicated recently. Kalel, a former “vegan YouTuber,” will no longer use the word “vegan” to refer to herself after the outcry that resulted from her admission that a few times a year, she eats a milk chocolate candy bar. Oh, and she sometimes also orders the movie popcorn. Plus a couple of cosmetics.
The problem with veganism is that vegans don’t recognize that it’s a religion, and vegan fundamentalists don’t see the connections between themselves and Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or other fundamentalists.
Alain de Botton, in Religion for Atheists, writes,
The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true . . . . It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes.
And so we have secular religions—communism, say, or veganism—and these often don’t recognize their affinities with religious dogma and fundamentalism.
Watching the Kalel video “I’m Not Really Vegan?” I’m struck by the ways that she herself could likely better understand her experience if she were to couch it in terms of religion.
What she says: “I’m just so scared that people are going to freak out on me and take away my vegan card and discredit me as an animal rights activist, and it’s just very scary. . . . You just feel like when you’re vegan, you have to be 100% perfect vegan; otherwise, you’re not really vegan.”
What I hear: I’m coming to you, my community, with a confession, and I’m afraid. Most religious communities have mechanisms to account for imperfection. Most religious communities understand that having a larger number of adherents is better for the long-term survival of the faith than is demanding 100% perfection, and thus they find ways to keep people in the fold.
What she says: “How can I feel OK getting popcorn . . .? I know better. Why am I still doing this? . . . . Even to me, this does not make sense on paper. . . . But sometimes I just feel so sick of caring about every tiny thing I do, and so I feel like I’m holding on to these, like, few things that I just don’t really care about because I’m just so sick of structuring my entire life, checking every label, googling every uncertainty, asking the server to go in the back and pull out this big binder that has every single ingredient of everything. At a certain point it just becomes exhausting.”
What I hear: Sometimes I don’t have the will to be ascetic. 100% vegan perfection, in an economy that is built on the exploitation of non-human (and hey, let’s face it, also human) animals, is like the Desert Fathers in Christianity, like St. Simeon Stylites, who lived for 37 years up on a pillar so that he could avoid temptations and commune with God. That shit is hard.
What she says: “I have a really heavy conscience . . . . I feel like an absolutely terrible person.”
What I hear: In the religion to which I adhere, I am a sinner, and I feel bad. My first attempt at veganism was in 1998, when I was also a deeply involved Catholic. I did OK for about six months, but then it was Halloween season, and I was so sad not to be able to eat the Brach’s mellowcreme pumpkins that I have loved my whole life, so I secretly bought a bag and ate them furtively when no one was looking. It was indistinguishable from Sin—something a believer does, with shame, often in secret. I stopped even trying to be vegan shortly thereafter, as I already had enough guilt and shame about Sin going on from the Catholic religion and didn’t need to add Vegan Sin into the mix.
After Kalel released the video, the backlash was such that she decided to stop calling herself vegan:
Every religion has fundamentalists, but only in veganism are non-fundamentalists so quick to cower in shame before the fundamentalist (and I’m not saying Kalel is cowering in shame but that in general I see too few people pushing back against vegan fundamentalism). The thing about fundamentalists is that they are assholes, in the sense propounded by philosopher Aaron James in Assholes: A Theory. According to James, the asshole:
(1.) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
(2.) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
(3.) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.
In the case of religious fundamentalism, in which I include vegan fundamentalism, the “entrenched sense of entitlement” derives from a conviction that the ideas and principles to which the believer adheres are capital-T Truths that are overwhelmingly superior and more True than the ideas and principles (which they might well themselves consider to be True) to which others adhere.
I used to be a Christian, and calling myself “Christian” meant something about my aspirations and values. It called me, inspired me, and motivated me to be a better person every day than I would have been if I had thought of myself as trying to become perfect so that I could someday call myself a Christian. I call myself a vegan now, but I’m not a 100% perfect vegan, and I don’t aspire to be, because I know from my Christian days that trying to be perfect makes me unhappy, anxious, and obsessive. I’m never going to be the Simeon Stylites of any religion. But claiming that identity is important to me, and it’s important, I would argue, largely because of the ways in which veganism is a secular religion: a way of ordering one’s life in alignment with values shared with a community.
It doesn’t take any particular courage for me to confess that I’m not a 100% perfect vegan, because I am not a “popular vegan YouTuber.” Good on Kalel for talking about her struggles with feeling like a sinner and being exhausted by the demand for ascetism, even if she didn’t describe it in those terms. I learned somewhere along the line that St. Augustine scored a huge point for Christianity’s march to become a world-dominant religion by offering theological support for infant baptism, even though by definition infants have no idea what baptism means. The more adherents a religion has, even if they’re not perfect, the better for not only the religion, but also (and not incidentally) the ideas and principles on which that religion is founded. That is, more vegans = fewer dead and suffering animals. Vegan fundamentalists, take note.