I should qualify this, but not by much: atheists should be vegans. Fuzziness in most serious moral issues is to be expected, and there are definitely some factors worth taking into account, like strict dietary needs, surviving in areas where animal farming is necessary, and limiting consumption to carefully vetted animal products (like oysters, for example, which seem to be ethically okay). Such extenuating circumstances aside, atheists have no good reason to consume factory-farmed animal products.
I don’t know if there’s a causal connection between atheism and veganism, but my own observations and informal polling suggest atheists on the whole are more likely to be vegans. Since there’s no data on this as far as I know, I’ll leave the empirical issue aside and instead address the rational link between atheism and veganism—if there are good reasons to avoid being vegan, they’re not available to atheists.
We can eat meat and be weak, we can eat meat and be selfish, but we can’t eat meat for defensible moral reasons.
Simply stated, forgoing factory-farmed animal products is an ethical no-brainer. Let me channel Peter Singer and suggest that we’d all agree on the following moral premise: if we can prevent serious harm without giving up something of comparable moral worth, we ought to prevent that harm. We don’t even need to look at the substantial toll factory farming takes on human lives—like an unsustainable carbon footprint and overuse of antibiotics—to condemn the whole practice of factory farming. A look at what we’re farming is enough.
Factory farming causes extreme, unnecessary harm to animals. The benefit we get from animal products over vegan alternatives isn’t something of comparable moral worth to the lives and happiness of conscious creatures. So we ought to prevent the harm caused by factory farming. It’s as simple as that.
The case for eating meat is often as crude as pointing to our incisors and laughing about how delicious bacon is. But if we live in a world where vegan alternatives are relatively convenient and a vegan diet can provide every necessary nutrient with minor or no dietary supplements, then we can’t eat meat and do something morally defensible. As delicious as any steak tastes, the pleasure it provides over and above any vegan or vegetarian alternative is nowhere near the suffering any given chicken, cow, or pig undergoes in modern factory farms. We can eat meat and be weak, we can eat meat and be selfish, but we can’t eat meat for defensible moral reasons.
There are a few ways around this obvious point, but none are easily available for an atheist. Believers can appeal to overriding moral commitments, like the will of God or the word of their holy books (“have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds in the heavens,” and so on), and it certainly seems like an intelligent designer made us with animal consumption in mind. Atheists don’t have much luck here—though we certainly did evolve to eat meat, a moment’s thought shows that evolution is no guide for good behavior. Atheists could give up the idea that we ought to avoid serious harm unless we have strong moral reasons to do otherwise, but that seems pretty foundational and indispensable to our moral beliefs and reasoning. If we’re going to throw that away to keep eating hamburgers or avoid eating tofu, then our moral compasses are embarrassingly weak.
Insofar as we think suffering should be prevented, we ought to think all suffering should be prevented.
The only other option, then, is to deny that animals can suffer, or suffer in the appropriate ways, or that their suffering matters. Here, believers have far firmer footing—belief in a soul, as well as the paramount importance most religions put on humanity, provides the only compelling way to make this objection. Without God to peg humans as the only creatures of moral worth, and without souls to point to as the source of conscious experience, how can an atheist treat human suffering as the solely relevant kind?
It’s not obvious that they can. If we don’t think souls are necessary to explain consciousness, then we can’t treat all animals like Descartes did—as unfeeling meat-machines that only seem as if they experience. Instead, we know that at some point in the branching tree that connected our simplest ancestors to our most recent primate ones, consciousness developed. We can dispute where that line is, but it’s hard to peg that line lower than the animals we farm and consume. So we cause animals to suffer.
There are certainly some cognitive skills that are less developed in animals, sometimes greatly so, such as reasoning, memory, a sense of self, and so on. It’s not obvious why this should make animal suffering less bad and worth preventing, though. After all, many animals are more developed than human children on certain cognitive tasks, yet we think the suffering of human children matters. We don’t think abusing an infant becomes fine simply because they won’t remember it, or don’t know who they are, or can’t do algebra. Unless we can point to a relevant difference between infants and animals, other than the arbitrary happenstance that infants share our DNA, we can’t coherently hold that infant suffering is bad while animal suffering isn’t. Insofar as we think suffering should be prevented, we ought to think all suffering should be prevented. We don’t have the convenience that believers have in being the stars of the moral play at the center of the universe.
This leaves us in an uncomfortable place—we know animals suffer, have no divine reason to suppose that only our suffering matters, and we’re currently inflicting constant and severe harms to staggering numbers of conscious creatures. If we’re going to pretend to take morality and rational argument seriously, we can’t ignore the obvious right in front of us. This requires perhaps a radical change in the way we live our lives, and that very well may be demanding on us. It’s a shallow complaint, though, to say that being rational and moral isn’t easy enough.
Vlad Chituc graduated with distinction from Yale University with a B.S. in Psychology. He now works as a researcher in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he lives with his dog and drinks on porches.
Image from Wikimedia Commons via איתמר ק