Talking Vegan Atheology with Kim Socha

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Talking Vegan Atheology with Kim Socha

Last year we had a chance to review Kima Socha’s book Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed, which explores how the concept of religion is inherently antithetical to animal liberation. Kim was kind enought to answer some questions about her book and her position in general.

Throughout the book you seem to vacillate between identifying as a vegan atheist or an atheist vegan. How did you come to this dual identity? And what lead to you writing a book exploring the intersection between these two philosophical positions?

The answer to this spans a twenty-year personal enlightenment period, but I will condense my response as follows. My path to indentifying as a vegan atheist (atheist vegan) began when I was a college undergraduate. I always had a fondness for other species, so I went vegetarian at the same time I took a class in world religions. I learned about religions such as Buddhism that seemed more compassionate than Christianity. However, my religious upbringing taught me that anyone not baptized in the Catholic faith was doomed to Hell when s/he died. This got me questioning the ethicality of the faith in which I was raised. However, even though I had learned of religious alternatives, none of them seemed sensible enough to me that they would replace my defunct Catholic faith. Very soon after that, I gave up Catholicism and became a sort of apatheist, or apathetic atheist. I just didn’t think about the supernatural much.

About fifteen years later, I finally went vegan, and soon after became an activist, during my graduate studies. I was researching the animal liberation movement for my dissertation, never having engaged in real activism before. Like many do, I purposely ignored the nagging realities about the lives of animals exploited to make egg and dairy products. I purposely avoided watching video footage of animal (mis)treatment in the animal industrial complex. However, as “research,” I watched the documentary Behind the Mask*, about the Animal Liberation Front*. Unbeknownst to me, the film contained undercover footage of how animals are treated in research labs, on farms, etc. I could no longer ignore the cruel realities of my diet and other consumption habits. I looked at my dog Siouxsie and knew she was just as important as me, just as important at the primate being cut open and mocked in a research lab, and just as important as the pig kicked over for “fun” by a desensitized farm worker. I then went vegan.

My research into the animal liberation movement inevitably included analysis of the things religion, especially Christianity, has to say about the purpose of other species in human lives. I had no option but to conclude that just as religion has been the source of so much terror and cruelty in the human realm, it also sanctions—and often demands or ignores—animal abuse. However, while many core texts of the movement are written by atheists, I observed that the religious still dominated the theological conversation on animal liberation. Coterminously, the animal question was being asked in the freethought community, but there didn’t seem to be a concerted, widespread effort to make the connections between animal liberation and atheism more overt. I then decided to write a deliberate argument for animal liberation from an (a)theological perspective.

The first part of your book focuses on vegans who support their advocacy efforts with reference to their religious or spiritual beliefs. You demonstrate how, by selectively quoting sacred texts, they imply that their faith advances a pro-animal message when in fact most religions promote human exceptionalism – and either support or allow animal exploitation. When engaging with religious animal advocates are you frustrated by their reliance on superstition over reason, or are you - as a fellow advocate - doubtful of the efficacy of this kind of approach?

I am both frustrated by and doubtful of religious pro-animal arguments, albeit for the same reasons. For example, there are quite a few books arguing that Christianity is an animal-friendly religion*, but the validity of those arguments ends with the very authors who are writing them. My frustration arises because I can easily go to the Bible and find passages condoning animal exploitation and slaughter*. Therein lies my doubt concerning their efficacy, as any religious non-vegan person can also go to the Bible and see if the animal advocate’s promises match up with their spiritual texts and traditions. Like me, that person will see the inconsistencies. Even worse, they will see that God gives them permission to eat other species!

The same reservations and aggravations apply to purportedly pro-animal religions such as Jainism. I won’t repeat the argument here that I make in the book, but it frustrates me when animal advocates appropriate Jainism as a religious pathway for vegans while wondering why more Jains are not vegan activists. My response: take the time to actually understand that religion’s perspective on other species and you will see why referencing that spiritual practice is futile if hoping to actually challenge speciesism.

You suggest that speciesism is a product of religion and while I agree that religion (and more broadly the concept of ‘souls’) has supported justifications for animal use, I am doubtful that religion is the primary cause of speciesism. Could you explain to what extent you see religion as a source and perpetuating force of speciesism and what lead you to your conclusions?

If looking at the span of human history on Earth, then religion is certainly not the sole source of speciesism (though it is the sole source of souls). There are evolutionary reasons why one species would, and should, be concerned primarily with the well-being of their own species and immediate families, prides, colonies, etc. As humans are animals, our species’ survival has likely depended on this “we come first” mentality.

Today, however, we are living at a point in history when humans, or at least those in industrialized societies, do not need to consume or wear other species for basic survival. As such, we certainly do not need to exploit and torture other species for vanity and sport. Why do we continue to do so? What keeps us mired in the myth of Homo sapien supremacy even within atheistic communities both small and large? My answer is obviously “religion.” Religion took what was a questionable and temporary assumption—justifiable speciesism and human exceptionalism—and made it a fact beyond question. There is a vast difference between the following statements: “Humans are more important than other species” and “Humans are more important than other species because a divine being from another realm has said so in a holy book.” The former opens itself up to question and critique while the latter is a closed case. Religion, thus, can be seen as fuel for speciesist fire.

The second section of your book addresses the dissonance you’ve noticed on the part of acclaimed rationalists who recognise the irrationality of speciesism and yet continue to participate in the exploitation of animals. As I mentioned in my review I was excited to see this hypocrisy discussed as it has frustrated me for years.

When did you first become aware of the irrationality of many of our most esteemed atheist intellectuals on animal issues and how have the atheist community responded to your critiques on this issue?

I became painfully aware of the cognitive dissonance and irrationality of our culture’s esteemed atheists when doing research for Animal Liberation and Atheism. To focus my research, I re-read some of the work of the New Atheists, coming this time from a vegan atheist perspective. What I observed were some solid arguments for veganism and against speciesism coming from individuals who appear only mildly interested in the lived realities of other animals*. This dissonance, in fact, was so great that it determined the content of my second chapter. My initial plan was to use atheist scholarship mainly to debunk religious perspectives on other animals. That plan changed when I realized the untapped and mostly unacknowledged potential to have conversations about animal liberation within the freethought community. Hence, my second chapter homes in on the promise and perils of secular thought in initiating new conceptions of more-than-human animals.

As to responses from that community, they have been generally positive within my local atheist scene. Indeed, after a book talk for the Minnesota Atheist Association*, I was delighted when a non-vegan atheist said the following to me: “My only problem with your argument is that it makes perfect sense.” In contrast, when Hemant Mehta excerpted my book on his blog “The Friendly Atheist”*, the responses were overwhelmingly caustic. Within a day or two there were about a thousand comments primarily by individuals resounding their “right” to eat meat in a fashion akin to the religious arguing that a higher power gives them that same “right.” It was disheartening to see such vitriol and religious thinking from those within the atheist movement, but I still believe that movement to hold the most promise for a revolution in the way humans view the purpose and value of other sentient beings.

As an atheist, I oftrn find myself having to wade into epistemology and explain how I determine and or define morality. Since I’ve been advocating veganism as a moral imperative, my ethical position has been subject to even more scrutiny than the average atheist. When reading Animal Liberation and Atheism I was heartened to see I was not the only one who faces these challenges*. Can you sketch out the basis of your secular morality and discuss the evolution of your thinking on ethics?

As an atheist and as one who must, I believe, argue against moral realism if I am to argue against God, this is a difficult question to which I have become unafraid to respond: “I don’t know for sure, but it certainly does not come from any divine beings or holy books, and I refuse to let unanswered questions hold be back from acting on my ethical principles.” (I also hope other atheists become more comfortable with responses such as that, for they are still far better than claiming supernatural forces drive our actions.)

I am not fully sure where my ethical values come from, but I depend a lot on empirical evidence when determining my actions/non-actions. I do not like being the cause of another’s pain, and if something I am doing, saying, or not doing results in physical or emotional distress for another, I feel bad and want to do what I can to stop the other from suffering. Some might call this selfish—doing good so you don’t feel bad—but if such feelings stop me from saying something hurtful to a friend or from supporting industries that torture animals, I am okay with being that kind of selfish. Most importantly, my responses to suffering, especially that of other species because their abuse is so normalized, have compelled me to actively fight for their freedom through literature and street-level activism. Perhaps it is because I am not a philosopher, but I don’t think the burden of proof is on my shoulders to explain why it is just to avoid doing harm whenever possible. In contrast, the burden is on those who willfully engage in cruel practices when other options abound.

As I read your book I inferred your commitment to non-violence expands beyond the rejection of authoritarian deities and the exploitation of non-humans. I was particularly interested in your critique of animal advocates who demand legal enforcements of animal rights that rely on threats of violence. Could you elaborate on the broader theories that inform and unite your opposition to religion and animal abuse?

I think the answer to this lies in how I define “animal liberation.” Animals have and continue to suffer in the most unnecessary ways because of the presumption of human exceptionalism bolstered by religion. Thus, animal liberation is certainly an imprecise term, for it implies opening all of the cage doors and setting animals free in one fell swoop, which is an unlikely occurrence. Rather, a key element of liberating animals comes through a revolution in how humans, as a violent and oppressive species, view the worth and function of non-human animals.

To be clear, I am not opposed to laws against animal abuse, but I believe the legal-change strategy to be severely limited when considering how much corporate interests are served by the legal system, at least in the United States. Instituting laws that prevent the abuse of some species (i.e. dogs) does little to nothing to radically change the way humans view other species, such as those we deem food. Indeed, even despite so-called “humane” laws, dogs are still horribly abused and neglected on a regular basis in both overt and covert ways.

Even if the legal system were suddenly to declare it illegal to eat pigs (which is not going to happen), such sanctions would still be backed by threat of imprisonment and violence from the state, thereby maintaining a culture of fear and repression. This sounds like religion to me and most like those Eastern faiths that caution against eating some animals for the effect it will have on the human animal. Such institutions — state, religion, law — maintain the human-centric status quo. Thus, to truly speak of “animal liberation,” we must consider how to transform human perception of other species. I don’t believe force is a viable avenue to real, radical, lasting change.

Throughout the book you refer to ‘hierarchy’ as an oppressive force, and suggest that it is intrinsically dangerous and unnatural. As I wrote in my review, I was a little confused by your definition of hierarchy and found myself unable to concur that all hierarchy is negative. The example of a positive hierarchy that sprang to my mind is when someone willingly defers her authority to someone with superior knowledge to lead them in a particular situation.

I also reflected on how we seem to see hierarchies in the animal kingdom - although not necessarily positive ones - which would indicate they are to some extent ‘natural’. Am I misunderstanding the manner in which you define hierarchy or have we encountered an ideological difference on this point?

This is a good question and one that I wish I had explained more fully in my text after reading your review! As a teacher, I regularly act as one with “superior knowledge” to lead students in a particular direction, and as long as I don’t abuse that power, I feel that dynamic is justifiable and even beneficial. However, I do not necessarily see that as hierarchy but as an agreed upon knowledge exchange.

For example, I once had a student who worked as a martial arts instructor. When he was in my classroom, I was an authority in terms of my knowledge of writing and literary analysis. That script was flipped when I enrolled in one of his classes, at which point he became the one with “superior knowledge.” Situations such as this always exist when one is (temporarily) imbued with more authority, for teacher can easily become student in almost all settings. Further, there are instances when humans must look to others for guidance, such as child to parent. I am willing to and regularly do give up control to others who know more than me and from whom I can learn as an activist and writer. To prevent negative hierarchy from flourishing, one must consciously remove any “better/more important than” mentalities from all such situations. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen enough and negative hierarchies thrive.

The hierarchy I critique in Animal Liberation and Atheism is that ingrained in Western thought through tacit acceptance of the Great Chain of Being* as an inherent truth. That form of hierarchy is seen to have develop once human animals began plant agriculture and animal farming systems about 10,000 years ago. Scholars such as Murray Bookchin*, David Nibert*, and Peter Stearns* note that moment in human evolution as one in which social stratifications, patriarchy, and violent speciesism commenced. In my view, it is the moment in which hierarchy, for lack of a better term, became unnatural.

As you note, there is observable hierarchy in the animal kingdom. My response to that is similar to what I said in response to your third question: such hierarchy is natural and necessary for the survival of some species, but some human societies have evolved to a state where hierarchy is no longer needed, yet it is still used as an unquestioned, oppressive, brutal tool of social and ecological control. As with speciesism, humans have taken what may have once been necessary for survival and distorted it beyond recognition to justify some of the most egregious standards of brutality and indifference to those deemed inferior.

The term ‘Vegan Atheology’ thrills me, and I hope it becomes much more prevalent in our discourse over the next few years. The last section of your book concerns the future for us as vegan atheist/atheist vegans and the development of a new discipline. For those yet to read your book, can you give a brief definition of the term and explain how you see the development of this philosophical movement unfolding?

Let me first start with theology, which most understand as the study of God, his plans for humans on Earth (or other planets if you are a Mormon), and how humans should understand and act within the universe in light of God’s relations with us. I was introduced to the term “atheology” in Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto*, and it literally means “without” or “in opposition to” theology. Taking “without,” atheology is an attempt, through science and philosophy, to understand and learn how to act within the universe through non-supernatural means. Taking “in opposition to,” atheology seeks to expose the damage that often lies in the wake of religious texts, traditions, and authorities while offering alternatives to those oppressive customs.

For example, I consider neuroscientist Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values* to be an atheological text, albeit it a speciesist one, of the “without” and “in opposition to” kind. As I am not a scientist, I consider my book Animal Liberation and Atheism to more of an “in opposition to” atheological text, but also one seeking to expose the theological thinking that subversively motivates some of our culture’s premiere atheologists.

This brings me to the last part of your question. I obviously believe that mainstream atheological works are leaving other species behind. Consequently, my book’s final chapter touches on social justice movements and activists who have identified religion as an obstacle to their liberation. Most activist atheists would agree with them; however, they are as of yet unwilling to acknowledge that religion has been wrong about how we should view other animal species as well. This is where my book comes in, and I am not alone.

Websites such as yours prove that secularists are making the ethical connections between their beliefs/non-beliefs and veganism. I have also been glad to see the animal question being asked on other blog sites, as well as in scholarly texts. Western culture is in the midst of an “atheist turn,” so to speak. There are more individuals acknowledging their atheological worldviews and conversations about a secular world are more common than ever.

My deep hope is that other-than-human animals are part of these conversations not as side topics or passing novelties, but as relevant individuals who deserve to be released from religious domination as much as do the human beings with which mainstream atheists are most concerned. I feel it my ethical duty to keep pressing this topic until more listen and come to more sensible, just conclusions.

Your book is rigorous and academic and yet as a reader I never lost sight of the passionate, often witty, activist aspect of the author. Your practical engagement in animal rights clearly informs your scholarly work, I wonder if you see educating activists and activating academics as vital to the animal liberation movement? And, lastly, how do you balance the two sides of your advocacy – and what in either or both arenas are you working on now?

First, thank you for your kind words! My first monograph was Women, Destruction, and the Avant-Garde: A Paradigm for Animal Liberation* (based on my doctoral dissertation), and I think I make valuable arguments therein, but it is somewhat of an esoteric study suited to a niche audience. With Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed, I wanted to write a scholarly yet accessible book that speaks to topics in a relatable, entertaining way. Your commentary makes me feel I may have succeeded in doing so.

As one who writes academic texts but also engages in street-level activism, I find it so important to encourage others in academia to become activists while simultaneously urging animal advocates to critically assess the issues for which they passionately fight, urging them to see how issues of animal liberation relate to other anti-oppression movements. Some academics think scholarship should be apolitical, just as some activists think scholars cannot also be “in the trenches” of activism. I think both of those views are circumscribed and unfair, so I proudly wear the label of activist scholar.

To be honest, wearing that label does not require much of a balancing act, as I see the importance of both the written word and the acting body. Not everyone is interested in both arenas, but as I am, I will continue to write and act for other species as well as for my own. In the realm of scholarship, I am contemplating my next project: a developed, insistent, but non-dogmatic vegan atheological text. As an activist, there is always everyday something to do. I am primarily working on two local campaigns. Close Ribnick Fur & Leather* aims to shut down a Minneapolis store that profits from animal slaughter in the name of vanity. I also organize with Progress for Science* against the work of Dr. Marilyn Carroll of the University of Minnesota who has been addicting primates, rats, and mice to alcohol, nicotine, and hardcore “street” drugs for over a quarter century on the American tax-payer’s dime. By taking part in regular visits to Carroll’s work and home, my fellow activists and I hope to make animal torture a business in which budding scientists do not want to engage.

I also teach writing and literature at a community college outside the Twin Cities of Minnesota. I love my official work as an educator, but I am forever bound to the other species who most choose to ignore. However and wherever their exploitation and abuse arises, I will do my part, however small, to make their lot in life better. It is an avocation to which I am dedicated until I or the violence cease to exist.

Thanks Kim for your thoughtful answers and for the important work you do advocating the cause of both veganism and atheism. And for introducing us to a Vegan Atheology that I hope will shape the future of the animal Liberation movement.

Most importantly thank you for the difference you make in the lives of non-human animals and those oppressed by religion. If you are interested in reading Kim’s book, and I recommend you do, it is available on Amazon or from Freethought House.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at rebeccaonpaper.com. Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

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