Why the New-Atheists should become the New-Vegans

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Factory farmed pigs showing sow & piglets in crate. (Image courtesy Animals Australia)

The best available evidence currently shows that eating meat and animal products is bad for animals, our health and the environment. Leading New-Atheist, Sam Harris, agrees. Dr Steve Stankevicius calls on other New-Atheists and their associated colleagues to take a similar stand.

PHILOSPHER AND neuroscientist Sam Harris, who has written and spoken extensively on morality and its inextricable link to the wellbeing of conscious creatures, recently addressed the fact that he eats meat. Speaking to psychologist Paul Bloom in a podcast in 2015, Sam Harris admitted

…the fact that I participate in a system that does this knowingly (animal factory farming) more or less condemns me as a hypocrite… We are two people who have admitted to participating in a system that is not only in some sense objectively bad, but perhaps so bad as to be the kind of thing that would be on the short list as to be an embarrassment to our descendants.”

Happily, in a podcast released in January, Harris has reported that since that statement six months ago, he has been a “vegetarian… and aspiring vegan”. Given his position as a vocal and persistent champion of reason, I always suspected this day would come.

Other than just providing a few more decibels to my small and intermittent efforts to encourage others to consider the implications of what they have on their dinner plate, this willingness to mercilessly introspect on the ethics of ones own way of life is inspiring. What will my descendants be embarrassed about?

It’s time that Sam Harris’ fellow scientists and public intellectuals start realising that the ethics of eating meat is an important issue. As each one of them is arguably attempting to contribute to build a just and humane global civilisation, they should stop pretending that nonhuman animals are not its citizens.

Given advances in neuroscience, biology and evolution, we have known for years that animals have the capacity to suffer.

Couple this with our technological abilities to meet our food requirements without relying on animals, our burgeoning knowledge of human nutrition and health (including the impact of animal products on the development of many chronic diseases), and the huge contribution the meat and dairy industries have on global warming (arguably our greatest challenge), it should seem quite obvious where our moral compass is currently pointed.

As I wrote in ‘The Pollution of Good Ideas’,

'…unfortunately arguments for a vegan lifestyle are misrepresented by quantum healers with crystals, recommended by naturopaths and homeopaths, and endorsed by those who claim that broccoli has a vibrational quality that is in-sync with our bodies… As a result, vegan philosophy tends to be viewed as lacking reason and logic, and strongly associated with anti-modern medicine sentiments.'

The vegan lifestyle has been highjacked by misinformed hippies in the some way that meditation has been stained by a similar trend of idiocy. Both have been strangled between pseudo-spiritualism and pseudo-science, and almost entirely obscured from the view of rational-thinking people in the process.

Harris has attempted to vaccinate (pun intended) spirituality from woo-woo, and his first steps towards advocating veganism are echoing this. However this cannot be achieved alone, and it’s about time that others with a suitably endowed platform come to share the load.

Like the "New-Atheists" movement in the early 2000s, it appears we are on the precipice of a similar avalanche in gaining the attention and megaphones of public intellectuals in the question of meat-eating; a "New-Vegans" movement.

As I’ll detail below, we are both frustratingly close and far away; many traveling down the road of moral progress have arrived at the destination of veganism intellectually, but not in practise.

In a discussion between biologist Richard Dawkins and moral philosopher Peter Singer, Dawkins noted

[It] leaves me in a very difficult moral position… I think you have a very strong point when you say that anybody who eats meat has a very strong obligation to think seriously about it and I don’t find any good defence. I find myself in exactly the same position as you or I would have been, well probably you wouldn’t have been but I might have been, two hundred years ago […] talking about slavery… I think what I’d really like to see is people like you having a far greater effect on, I would call it, consciousness raising and trying to swing it around so it becomes the societal norm not to eat meat.

‘Guys like you’? You mean like you, Richard Dawkins?

Michael Shermer, author of The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People, tweeted

'Ugh. Watched The Earthlings last night researching moral progress. Feels like moral regress when it comes to animals”, as well as writing an article titled “Confessions of a Speciesist”. 

However promising these signs were, sadly he has also admitted

'No I’m not a vegetarian but think we should expand the moral sphere to include marine mammals and all primates as a good start'.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss recently had Peter Singer on stage with him as part of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. Though he started off the event by bragging about wearing vegan shoes, and discussed the ethics of meat-eating at length with Singer (describing the argument for vegetarianism as “powerful”), he only suggested that he might become vegetarian.
This kind of moral hypocrisy should be scrutinised and ridiculed accordingly – ridiculed to the point where it would be career suicide for any public intellectual to stubbornly persist with it.
Absurdly, Sam Harris has been dragged over the coals for simply pointing out that torture of humans in very rare and extreme circumstances would be justified (mostly the result of gross misinterpretations of his argument), but his colleagues who openly admit to implicitly support systematic torture of non-human animals causes no such damage to their reputation.
The psychologist Steven Pinker, a hero of mine, wrote the brilliant and extensive book ‘Better Angels Of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes’. Whilst impressive in both its length and density, Pinker dedicates barely over five pages to the topic of meat-eating and factory farming. Though optimistic in its accounts of declining human versus human violence, Pinker says

'These imponderables, I suspect, prevent the animal rights movement from duplicating the trajectory of the other Rights Revolutions exactly. But for now the location of the finish line is beside the point.'

What point is that? Human well-being, I guess.

The poster-boys and girls of atheism, secularism, science and reason have done wonders for so many domains of public discourse. Whilst they fittingly weigh in on many moral questions not just restricted to religious indoctrination and its impact on human rights, animal rights has so far garnered little attention. However, the great thing about reason is that it is a tool.

Reason does not presuppose its answers in advance, but is rather a process by which conclusions germinate under the light of the best available evidence.

The best available evidence currently shows that eating meat and animal products is bad for animals, our health and the environment. Many of the New-Atheists and their associated colleagues have realised this, they just need to come forth into the light.

Editor's note:

This article also appeared on under the title 'New atheists must become new vegans: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the extra burden on moral leaders'. The original title was as above: 'Why the New-Atheists need to become the New-Vegans'. Altered by Salon without Dr Stankevicius's consent to contain the words "must" and "moral leaders", Dr Stankevicius believed it was deliverately misleading given the content of the piece and was prompted to write a follow-up article in The Daily Banter. The article entitled 'Letter from the rubble of a Salon article' can also be found today on Independent Australia here

You can follow Dr Steve Stankevicius on his blog or on Twitter @scepticalshrink. 

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