Kim Socha begins Animal Liberation and Atheism: dismantling the Procrustean Bed by introducing us to Procrustes and the ‘Procrustean Bed’ — a metaphor often employed to critique ill-formed arguments. Procrustes is a character from Greek mythology who invited travellers into his home - located conveniently near to an entrance to the underworld - and offered them a bed for the night. His bed, he boasted, would fit any occupant perfectly. But it was Procrustes’ guests who were forced to fit the bed. He would either stretch them, or chop off their lower legs until they met the requirements of his furniture.
A Procrustean Bed has come to refer to an arbitrary standard into which an idea or argument is forced by distorting, ignoring or discarding information that doesn’t conform. It is similar to ‘cherry picking’* which can be either deliberate misrepresentation of truth, or an accidental confirmation bias – both of which lead to selective presentation of evidence.
The subtitular Bed is the religious pro-veganism argument which, Socha demonstrates, is intellectually unintelligible and often disingenuous.
Socha does not situate herself as Theseus, who eventually defeated Procrustes*, but as someone intent on critically deconstructing the Bed. She writes in an engaging and provocative style and I found myself relating to her experiences as an atheist vegan (or vegan atheist) and broadly agreeing with the thesis of the book. Socha is an atheist in the same way I am: her lack of belief inspires a celebratory attitude towards life, a hunger for knowledge, and a strong ethical concern that so many sentient individuals waste the one life they get in suffering.
It is important to now imagine a world without religion (cue John Lennon here). As an atheist who cares about nonhumans, I have faith in one reality – the here and now […] I believe in one life, a life force I cannot explain but won’t chalk up to divine intervention or a cycle of rebirths. As such, I will fight for the end of abuse and violence in the lone world I know. (Socha 70-71)
More epistemology please!
Perhaps because she expects her readers to be in agreement, Socha does not present a thorough epistemological basis for the immorality of animal exploitation. As a phi-curious reader I was disappointed at this omission, although I realise it would likely have doubled the length of the book! Still, an accusation often leveled at atheists is that we have no moral foundation, and so I think the text could have benefitted from some rational, philosophical interrogation of the animal rights position. I was left slightly confused as to Socha’s own position. She seemed informed by utilitarian ethics but also by some post-modern conceptions of ‘truth’.
Similarly, her criticism of hierarchy, which runs throughout the book, requires a little more explication for the uninitiated. Socha quotes scholar and activist Riane Eisler to explain ‘domination hierarchy’ (based on force or threat of force) but then drops the ‘domination’ prefix and proceeds to advance the argument that all hierarchy is intrinsically dangerous and unnatural. I remain unconvinced on this point. I understand hierarchy as a morally neutral system that can be entered into voluntarily for rational, often mutually beneficial reasons, or as a stricture into which participants can be forced into for irrational or selfish reasons. I’m left wondering if this apparent disagreement is merely semantic, or if it’s an actual divergence of our perspectives on hierarchy.
Socha is clearly knowledgeable and astute when discussing the religious arguments for veganism. She excels at demonstrating the biases underpinning their arguments, which are at best flimsy and at worst deceitful. She does not restrict herself to criticism of Christianity briefly discussing eastern and neo-pagan religions, among others. Hers is a refreshingly thorough account of different religious perspectives on animal rights that had me applauding her spirit of polyatheism. When subject to honest scrutiny, it is clear that none of the religions examined support a case for veganism or animal rights. Socha provides a parade of examples of selectively edited or creatively rewritten sacred texts to confirm with the believer’s secular belief in animal rights. Her exasperation is obvious:
should [it] matter what Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed or any other purportedly divine being ate. Who cares what one person ate thousands of years ago when there are billions of nonhuman animals suffering today because billions of people are exploiting them today? Who cares about some semi-animal-friendly passage cherry picked from a religious text? Why should that one passage amidst thousands of others that ignore or defame animals be of interest to those who care about animal liberation? (Socha 30-31)
To support her challenge to this sort of irrational advocacy, Socha calls upon Donald Watson, who coined the word ‘vegan’ and founded the Vegan Society in 1944. I was thrilled to realise that he was of the same mind as Socha and myself – keen to advance Veganism informed by reason and evidence:
The [animal rights] movement must consist of people who are self-critical, truth loving, scientific, careful in judgment and eager to yield to evidence even if it tends to weaken their case. (Socha- quoting Watson- 161)
Socha demonstrates how religious thinking has sustained and perpetuated a belief in human exceptionalism that supports the human exploitation of animals. Her argument is based on the idea that religion is responsible for speciesism, and when atheists reject religion they must therefore also abandon speciesism. I agree that religion has fostered the myth of human exceptionalism, but I’m doubtful that the burden of guilt can be placed solely at the feet of the religious. I suspect that speciesism is an extension of the human propensity to favour our ‘in group’ – a genetically advantageous trait called ethinic neoptism that many sociologists argue creates the foundation for racism*. If human exceptionalism is a psychological propensity that predates religion, then, unfortunately, abandoning religion will not result neatly in the collapse of speciesism.
Challenging the horsemen (and other ‘big name’ atheists)
The mid section of Socha’s book illustrates how pernicious human exceptionalism is. This part of the book had me despairing along with the author, while simultaneously being cheered by her insightful and sometimes caustic critiques. Several prominent atheists have discussed speciesism, remarked on the irrational basis of human exceptionalism and yet continued to participate in animal exploitation. I remember being particularly incensed by Richard Dawkins who, in the 1993 anthology The Great Ape Project, wrote:
The speciesist assumption that lurks here is very simple. Humans are humans and gorillas are animals […] But the melancholy fact is that, at present, societies moral attitudes rest almost entirely on the discontinuous speciest imperative. (Socha - quoting Dawkins - 97)
And yet, in conversation with Peter Singer, Dawkins wheeled out the same old tired excuses that all meat eaters rely on*. A particularly ridiculous example being his concern that eating vegan (as a wealthy man in a first world country) would be socially awkward and inconvenient. Socha levels some entirely deserved and acerbic critical commentary in Dawkins’ direction which had me underlining and scribbling exclamation marks in the margin.
Dawkins finds no compunction in critiquing, sometimes in the most arrogant and unforgiving terms, culturally accepted religious ideologies without apology or hedging. He has not shown himself afraid of shaking things up, so is he really that afraid of what people might think if he orders pasta with marinara instead of salmon? (Socha 98)
Accusing Richard Dawkins of ‘thinking like a Christian’ (page 121) may have had readers such as myself cheering, but upon reflection perhaps Socha should have been more circumspect. If the belief in human exceptionalism is not entirely a product of religion then her triumphant put-down loses a bit of its sting.
Socha goes on to deconstruct the incoherent nature of a few other prominent atheists’ and skeptics’ thinking on animals. A common and infuriating pattern emerges, wherein critical thinkers aware of the irrationality and injustice of animal exploitation are unwilling to change their behavior. They are, in fact, happy to endorse poorly reasoned excuses to wriggle out of facing their own inconsistencies. The challenge Socha presents to these writers is timely and important. To see a portrait of the moral schizophrenia of several of the greatest contemporary atheist thinkers is a sobering, eye-opening experience.
Towards a Vegan Atheology
In the final section of the book, Socha sketches out the basis of a Vegan Atheology:
…my hope is that by now, religion’s role in assuming non human inferiority is unmistakable… Thus, I trust atheism, when critically applied, also deprives humans of their supposed right to dominate other species. (Socha 143)
She is aware that she may face the criticism that her argument for vegan atheism is in itself a Procrustean Bed, but she presents her case well and opens up several areas for secular debate.
The fundamental challenge issued to atheists is this: if we reject blind adherence to tradition and accept the irrationality of speciesism then is there a coherent, rational, secular argument for inflicting suffering and death upon animals for human pleasure? By challenging both the religious and atheist perspectives on animals, Socha has masterfully shifted the burden of proof away from vegans. Previously, we vegans had to defend our non-participation in animal exploitation; now, non-vegans must defend their willing participation. For an atheist without recourse to nihilism, it seems like an indefensible position.
Socha is a pioneer in a field that I hope will expand over the next few years. Her book captures a critical moment in the history of animal rights. Secular, rational arguments are beginning to gain momentum and demonstrate their potential to change the world in a more efficient and irrevocable way than superstition ever has. I differ with Socha on some epistemological matters, but I recognise the uncompromising new voice that will help define an emerging Vegan Atheology.
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