By Rohit Ravindran
In the spirit of the holiday season, I’d like to suggest that you not only spare a turkey, but also the cows, pigs, and chickens that you consume every day. This is, of course, an unpopular opinion to voice. A majority of Americans are deeply attached to their succulent meat, and it is often seen as offensive to preach a change in another’s life choices. But atheists, more than any other demographic group, should remember that majority status does not by itself guarantee that one is in the right. We should consider even the most unpopular opinions through rational and ethical thinking before passing judgment. Animal welfare proponents who speak up about the moral issues surrounding factory farming may indeed have something valuable to say, and this is becoming apparent in the increasing number of atheists who are turning vegetarian or vegan.
Each Thanksgiving, more than 46 million turkeys are slaughtered for their meat. And the process by which they are killed can hardly be considered humane. The most common factory farm consists of large sheds overcrowded with artificially inseminated animals that are subjected to living in their own excrement and breathing in the toxic fumes that emanate from these feces.
If these birds survive the blindness, lameness and broken limbs that go with stress-based aggression from other animals, the only light at the end of the tunnel that they could possibly look forward to is being hung on a conveyor belt for their throats to be cut, after which they are dumped, often fully conscious, into scalding water to get rid of their feathers. This is the bloody torture that we are willingly complicit in as we dress up the bird for a grand family dinner.
But why should we care? The argument that humans have evolved to eat other animals may well be true, but we should fully understand that evolution has no moral direction. Making life choices today is based on independent decision making. We no longer act on indiscriminate evolutionary instincts, like our sexual urges, without steering them through the moral prism that we use to live in a just society. It is important to examine every practice, including animal subjugation, under this same prism. We fully understand it as scientific fact that an abundant number of animals are sentient and share physical pain and suffering at comparable levels as humans. We may have trumped them in intellect, but we still share sensation, feeling, and a nervous system capable of processing these stimuli. Suffering, not intelligence, should be the relevant moral criteria. As we continually fight against –isms like racism and sexism, it is time we reevaluate the dogma of specieism that allows us to act in deplorable ways toward other animals.
The environmental reasons to go vegetarian or vegan are very strong, if the moral reasoning isn’t sufficient. The meat industry currently contributes about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and the waste management needed to sustain factory farms leads to devastating effects on the surrounding land, water and air. It has been widely shown that from an energy perspective, the process of bringing meat to the dinner table involves an energy input to protein input ratio of up to 54:1. The number of scientific studies that have concluded the inefficiency and wastefulness of producing meat are innumerable, and backed by every leading environmental advocacy group. In fact, the United Nations has urged that the world move towards a vegetarian or vegan diet in order to combat global issues of hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation. As stewards of this planet, it is our responsibility to rethink every life choice that threatens the sustenance of this planet, and this includes our diet.
It is true that most of us are well shielded from the reality of what goes on inside a factory farm. Paul McCartney’s famous quote, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian,” is very compelling at bringing us to face the harsh implications of our dietary choices. It didn’t do the job for me, though. Growing up eating meat, I often witnessed the shrieking cries of chickens on the streets of India as they were grabbed from overcrowded cages and plopped up on wooden surfaces, to have their necks chopped off in one quick stroke of a heavy blade. I would be temporarily numbed as the injustice of what had just occurred shook my conscience, but it never diminished the taste of fried, juicy chicken I would later consume. Much later, as I entered my sophomore year in college, I grew increasingly intrigued by the study of philosophy, and I started exploring the depths of my beliefs and life choices. This path led me to become an atheist and renounce meat at around the same time. I do not see this as a coincidence – while embracing a rational way of living, we cannot remain immune to the ethical and environmental implications of meat-based sustenance. As a progressive social movement, atheists should be on the forefront of social change, not the stragglers at the back of the line. I hope you shall agree, and make ethical choices as you celebrate the oncoming holiday season.