Confessions of a Vegetarian

“I respect animals; I don’t harm other sentient beings;  Vegetarians care for the planet.  I’m a vegetarian!”

Wow, doesn’t that sound fantastic?  It was my enthusiastic mantra for many years.

My vegetarianism began after being served brains inside of a goat’s head when I was a guest in a Pakistani village. I remember vividly walking home alone after the meal on a moonless night over a lonely mountain dirt path feeling morally corrupt after eating the soul of the goat — its brains.  That night I swore I would not eat any animal products again and remained a vehement vegetarian for many years.  But I slowly gave up my sacred vow, and here is the progression of my fall back into moral corruption:

Before reading further, please consider taking this poll to share how you see your diet now.  Chose the description that closest fits your thoughts — don’t be too picky — this is just for fun.  If you want to see a more elaborate classification of diets, see my post here.Back to the story: Eventually, my vegetarian obsession faded.  But even though I was transitioning out of being a vegetarian, I kept calling myself a “vegetarian” because the label had become an identity with many benefits I was not excited about giving up. Yet as I added foods that would clearly disqualify me as a “real vegetarian”, I had to eventual re-label myself.Below is a chart to share how my self-labeling ridiculously persisted while I slowly re-entered carnivore land. Each row is separated by months or years.  Check out my questions at the end of the post.
My Rationales Foods Gradually Added
I think I can eat yogurt — I miss its creamy flavor.  Besides, I’m not killing an animals to eat this. Heck, the most religious of Hindu vegetarians eat it too.  I can give up the Vegan label — I am still vegetarian.  Besides, yogurt offers “probiotics” — that sounds good.
If yogurt is OK, other dairy products should be fine too.  Yeah, I can add cheese and milk. Yum, boy I missed cheese.  And I will be careful to buy these from places where animals are well treated.

Eggs are also an animal product that don’t involve harming an animal. Eggs are like the fruit of trees. So, if no chickens are hurt in producing the eggs, I will eat them.  But I will have to be sure the eggs are not fertilized and the chickens are free-range.

I can’t live in Japan if I don’t eat some seafood.  Shrimp are barely animals.  The are mindless twitching things in the ocean.  I can handle eating them.  That way I can eat sushi with people.  Besides, it is not a mammal or a bird — shrimps can’t really count as ‘sentient’.
Shrimp wasn’t bad.  I don’t feel guilty.  Wheew, I wasn’t sure how that would go. Fish aren’t mammals either.  Besides, they certainly don’t look like us warmblooded creatures.  They have no expressions, so how can they have a soul? Even Japanese Buddhists eat fish.  My life here is Japan will improve greatly if I eat fish — I can eat with everyone.  Besides, fish are just swimming vegetables, I am still a “vegetarian”.  These are not warm blooded animals.

I will only eat chicken occasionally.  I am tired of embarrassing my hosts by refusing food. I am still essentially a vegetarian.  I won’t eat any mammals.  Chickens don’t have lips.  I don’t eat things with lips — that has got to be a kind of vegetarian.  Besides, I remember Hindus who felt it was OK to eat chicken.

Heck, I am eating chicken.  Pork is white meat too.  At least I will still be eating a health, partial-Vegetarian diet.  I am “vegetarian-friendly”.   Besides, I won’t eat pork often and I will eat it with thankfulness.

Pigs weren’t bad and they were mammals. The impotence of the rationales generated by my mind naturally dissipated.  And when I was offered grass-fed cow meat which I felt was also healthy meat, beef entered my life again after more than 25 years of purity.Once I accepted the Holy Cow back into my diet, I was forced to give up any qualifing adjectives to describe the vegetarianism in my life.  Instead, I had to confess: “OK, so I admit, I am no longer a vegetarian!”

Oh what the hell, I’ve come this far.(all things I have eaten after my fall from vegetarian purity — all while in China)

Next?

Well, it was a nice long vegetarian run. I felt pretty good about calling myself a vegetarian while it lasted.  In light of my past self-righteous fanaticism, I can see several options my mind could use to handle the tension of my cognitive dissonance:

  1. I am a compromising loser  - I gave up beautiful ideals of animal kindness and/or sustainability.
  2. Vegetarians are stupid, I am smarter than them. I saw through all that idiocy.
  3. Vegetarians come from a good place, but they just don’t have enough information.
  4. Vegetarian diet is better than the SAD (Standard American Diet), but a healthy carnivore diet is better yet.
  5. We are all silly and make imperfect decisions.  Though I am committed to my present preferences, I am willing to change again if the evidence is clear.  Meanwhile, I smile.

Here are some questions to inspire comments:

  • Do you see the parallels to changing religion?
  • Do you agree that we are silly in everything we do.  Or is it just me? Have you ever done anything like this?
  • Can you think of other framing concepts I could embrace to package my contradictions?

Important Notes:

  • See my other Confession Tales
  • See this article by Jill Dubisch’s: “Religious Aspects of the Health Food Movement”.  It is my hope that this post and Dubsiche’s article may help some Atheists see that though they may feel so superior to believers, they may be blind to how they do the same sort of quasi-religion-building [identity anchors] in secular arenas of their life: like diet, politics, sex …  Likewise, believers may understand this phenomena and then see how their religion is doing something very similar for them.
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29 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

29 responses to “Confessions of a Vegetarian

  1. I just finished my own post on the subject which I started sketching out in my mind last night. I tend to think our motiviation for why we get involved with vegetarianism has a lot to do with it. I’m not unmoved ty the ethical aspects, but afforadability and health concerns probably carry a little more wieght for me. I do agree that we can be quite silly sometimes in the things we do, and that applies especially to religion and politics.

  2. We often use labels to justify some silly things we do and to hold on to some silly ideas that don’t pan out once thought out. For instance, there is often this idea that by going vegetarian, one ceases to harm animals for food production! However, this just isn’t the case when we look at the way modern agriculture plays out, shipping products all over the world relying on a heavily mechanized process. I understand the food choices I make have impacts, and I try to mitigate those more often than not. Budgets however, often get in the way, but that is a bit beside the point of this post.

    I think your gradual procession back to omnivore reflects my journey OUT of Christianity in my youth. Once I learned that dinosaurs were real, and lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and learned about the mythologies of other religions, I gradually came to the concluscion that Christianity was likely nothing but another myth.

  3. I too was vegetarian for a spell (six years) and eventually went back to eating meat. I am much happier for it, I might add! But yes, I am strongly inclined toward the fourth and fifth categories that you put down. I do think eating healthful meats in sane portions is better for a person than the SAD and the SAVD.

    The silliness thing is crucial, though. Most (the overwhelming majority of) vegetarians build their personal identities around what foods they choose to/not to eat, just like religious people do around their particular favourite narratives, or politicos do around their ideas about how everyone in the world ought to live. But it really is just absurd, when you pay attention to it: I don’t know that there are many out there who are anti-antipastoists. (Heh, I like that.) The trick is that none of us really have it right about anything (there probably isn’t a right to begin with).

    And dang it, I was working on a similar post about my transition from unthinking omnivore, to vegetarian, back to omnivore. You stole my thunder! :)

  4. I was veggie for 12 years. During the first week, I still ate fish but was on the fence about it, then promptly gave it up. Never did vegan. 99.9% of those 12 years I was precisely lacto-ovo: no animals died to feed me. And since it was a mostly ethical stance, the lacto-ovo made sense. Then one day I ate of peice of fried chicken and it was all over – straight to unabashed onmivore and have been so since. Not that the weren’t internal transitions, I suppose, but it was all rather sudden.

    The label was adopted and dropped rather instantly, too. I had come to be attached to the “vegetarian” term as part of a close-to-nature view on life. But I think I avandoned it easily because the part of the worldview/personality I wanted to have was not vegetarianism itself, just seemed compatible with it. The label left, but the qualities I was really attached to stayed. It was really about me, I wasn’t worried about cred.

    I can imagine someone going through the transitions you describe above in relation to religion, but I’ve never witnessed it. When I’ve seen people change religious views it’s been with the speed and apparent suddenness of my dietary choices. And I think I get that. When I look at your rationale above, your reasoning makes sense to me until the shrimp, then it’s hilarous denial. I don’t see much of a true spectrum. Likewise, I would see, say, Christianity as being defined by a belief in the divinity of Jesus. As much as there are extreme variations in and out of it, in my mind, it is fairly dichotomous. I can go through a lot of changes and not switch labels, but a particular change, once finally made or decided, would precipitate an instant label switch. And I would probably accept the label switch for the same reason I dropped “vegetarian” without remorse. But, of course, that could just be me.

  5. You could believe that animals stopped having souls in the order in which you started eating them again. (Hey, you were looking for possible rationales, not purely sane ones. :) )

  6. Ok, here’s a more plausible one:

    Most sensitive people go through am important vegetarion phase (see comments here as exhibit A). We hit a point at which we realize for the first time that animals are LIKE US. Stunned by the sudden appreciation of our animalness, our knee-jerk reaction is to pull away to avoid anything that might violate our humanity. Then, over time, we come to hold in balance the similarities AND differences between humans and animals – some in another sudden realization, others some animal groups at a time based on degree of similarity. We go back to eating meat, but would probably still feel ill at the thought of eating, say, a chimpanzee. We are better for our journey of discovery regarding our own natures and we retain a healthier view of animals and the natural world for having done it.

  7. TWF

    A) I can see some definite religious parallels. My deconversion was not really quite like that, but it seems to me that there are large numbers of Christians who don’t really do what Christians should, and yet still consider themselves as Christian because they accept the skeleton of the beliefs. They are essentially at your poultry or pork phase.

    B) I have a hard time believing that everything we do is silly, but maybe that’s just my pride talking. I’m skirting the fringe of silliness with my approach to eating less meat, using less plastic, etc., but I am trying to stay on the sane side of the fence. :-)

    C) Oh, I think that all fits classic rationalizing of your own behavior. Of course, quite often in those cases it’s OK for you to break a law, but not necessarily OK for someone else to do that. Did you find yourself thinking less of “cheating” vegetarians while you were one?

  8. exrelayman

    I am ovo-lacto vegetarian, since hearing the terrified cries at a slaughter house, more than 40 years ago. Even in plant sustenance, as much as is practicable, I eat things that are derived from plants without killing them. I have never read any material advocating any particular diet practices.

    I do not concern myself with how others eat or how they perceive my eating. I just do what I feel compelled to do. If there is some requirement as to how I must eat in order to better fit in, I don’t think I do fit in because I am not being allowed my freedom to be me. I am not big on fitting in.

    Funny you should tie this topic to religion. My thinking is that the notion of sinfulness comes in at the beginning of most religions because of reflection on the idea that, for the most part, in order to live I must kill something for food – that concept and $5 will get you a cup of coffee at one of those vile ready made coffee places.

  9. CRL

    I suppose I am an ovo-lacto-pescatarian, though by not much more than force of habit. While I stopped eating meat at age 12 with the standard “I don’t want to kill animals to eat” reasoning, brought on mainly by my family’s adoption of a dog the year before. Of course, the realization that predation is the way of nature, from which we humans cannot entirely separate ourselves, somewhat quickly hit. As this compassionate motive faded, much more reasonable, justifications, mostly environmental. After all, it IS extremely inefficient to grow crops and feed them to animals, rather than eating the crops directly.

    Of course, this also applies to dairy products, but, while I didn’t feel I was sacrificing anything by giving up meat, I’d find it rather hard to become a vegan for any extended period of time. My semi-current rationalization of this choice is that, by choosing to eat only certain animal products, I reduce my total overall consumption. While it would make more sense to eat sustainable animal products in slightly greater quantities, rather than cheap, dirty ones in small quantities, can’t quite convince my family to double our food costs or shop somewhere out of one hour round trip walking distance.

    Still, there is no reason for me to be a burden at restaurants in the name of eating fewer animal products, so I suppose this is where the religious devotion comes in/force of habit comes in. (Though, rather than religion, my chosen metaphor is having to say, “Wait, never mind, I’m actually straight,” after mistakenly coming out of the closet. In other words, a return to the norm, though I don’t think either of our metaphors quite capture the feeling of “giving up” which bother me so.) I’m looking for some sort of logical break in my life which would provide an opportunity to announce the change: probably either college, in a year and a half, or in a few months, when I both hit the five-year mark and become able to use a summer spent giving mice melanoma (For Science!) as a justification to ignore animal rights.

    And, now, a question for you: had you been considering vegetarianism when you ate the goat brain, or did this experience trigger your choice out of the blue?

  10. @ CRL:
    Great question. Yes, I was primed with Vegetarianism by Vegetarians I respected and I was heading to India where it would be easy for me to start my new life (kind of matching your thoughts of starting a change in college, after leaving home). Interesting. Thanks.

    @ exrelayman:
    Your self-inspired, rather pure vegetarianism is interesting. As far as “sin” being a concept coming from killing to survive, I highly doubt that because, we naturally kill to survive. Living off cultivation opportunity only came after millions of years of mental evolution. But I have been wrong lots before. It is one of the questions we will probably never know the answer to. But I like how you tied it to coffee ! ;-)

    @ TWF:
    Thanx for shortening your name.

    I agree, most folks are cultural Christians, just enough to feel accepted and normal — kind of Vegetarian friendly.

    And yes, it was a rhetorical hyperbole — certainly viewing everything as silly is silly. :-)

    As for your question: When I was a strict vegetarian, I looked down on those who cheated — they were scum. As I began to cheat, they seemed like normal healthy folks. After I got out of vegetarian, they became hypocrites. Later, I really didn’t care at all as long as they did not influence my life or condemn me. I am sure you see the religious parallels.

    @ Christine:
    Your experience is different from mine. My deconversion and those of almost all I know was gradual — very gradual. But maybe I just know much more stable people than you. ;-)
    But then, when deconverted folks announce their deconversion, it may sound sudden to those shocked because they are still in the flock. But my experience is that it is slower than the listeners, and even the confessor often imagine.

    Like my shrimp story, I think believers (on their way out) often make hilarious denials too. It can be painful to leave all that is familiar behind.

    Concerning the “divinity of Jesus” being core — I think people are very much a spectrum on that — conscious or not. Only to those who value correct doctrine does such a core seem “common sense” — but most Christians are not doctrinal in their beliefs — they embrace their faith for very different reasons than their pastors or priests would like to imagine.

    @ James:
    Ah, right your post anyway. Each of our spins is important !

    @ Adam:
    You illustrate well the complications in trying to live “right”.
    Concerning your transition out of Christianity. I have many friends for whom science was their undoing, but I never embraced an anti-science Christianity. Instead, it was meeting cool folks who were suppose to be damned — an intuition I’ll be we share too.

    @ Doug B:
    I agree, our silliness extends to politics, food and religion. I’ll go visit your post.

  11. Sabio: I agree there is usually a long mental transition that happens first (food or faith). But I’ve see a long of sudden external changes, whereas your gradual meat-eating did come in external stages (but going veggie was outwardly sudden).

  12. @ Christine Yeah, I agree — outward changes may be abrupt.
    Did you post a brief snapshot about the history of your “faith life” history somewhere?

  13. Ah, well I am glad that you approve! It’s up now.

  14. Nice, James. Fun read. It is good to see so many other people share food-neurosis with me.

  15. I’m glad you liked it. There are many, many of us with food-neurosis. I don’t know whether that’s a universal thing or a peculiarity of Anglo-American (particularly North American, mind you) culture. I don’t think the French, for instance, are quite so prone to this sort of thing.

  16. When I went to China after acupuncture school I determined to eat whatever I was offered (after being strict vegetarian for 7 years). I survived snake, dog, camel, reindeer, and many more critters. I didn’t even feel very spiritually polluted (well, except by the air).

  17. @ ancientwaykevin,
    Yeah, I never felt spiritually polluted unless I talked to someone who felt I was. Even then, my loyal mind would come to my rescue within minutes and just write them off as a nut anyway! :-)
    Sounds like we had similar culinary and atmospheric experiences in China.
    I lived in dirty Chengdu. I wonder what too much Moxa smoke does to us too? You still breathe the stuff, I gave it up. Your website is fun!

  18. A fascinating history, Sab!

    I missed most of the conversation above, so I hope I don’t rehash too much. What intrigues me is that the first experience was so visceral, emotional, and that is what inspired the change of attitude.

    But then on the journey back, all the steps needed some kind of emotionally-negotiated rationale.

    I think we are pretty silly in the stories we tell ourselves after we go through a change, but I also think it’s an important process. We are driven to ‘make’ sense of things, even if it’s only a fragile, made-up framework. And stories do help in relating to other people.

    Do you miss being a vegetarian at all?

  19. matheroni

    I also claim to do many silly things and then find an rationale to explain it (foremostly for myself).

    Probably it was alreadíóy mentioned, but it occured to me that arguments for and against a vegetarian diet can also come from the ‘body and soul’ perspective.

    For vegan/vegetarian: you will become what you eat (so do not eat meat, they ‘carry’ violence — argument by Hare Krishna people). Here is a strong connection between body and soul (behaviour, emotions etc.).

    Against vegan/vegetarian: not what goes into your mouth is important, but what comes out of it (contributed to the Dalai Lama, meaning considerate speech and attitude defind you more of a good person than your diet), Here is no connection between body and soul.

    Greetings from Budapest!

  20. matheroni

    Sorry for the typos, not contrubuted, but attributed… It’s early morning.
    (See what I mean? :))

  21. @ Andrew :
    Yes, the first experience was very visceral. But then, I was raised in a very home, like most Westerners, very distant from my food. We never saw how animals were killed. We bought nice cleanly packaged meat at a grocery store. Had I been brought up seeing animals killed for dinner, it probably would not have been visceral.

    Interesting question you asked: “Do you miss being a vegetarian at all?”
    No, I don’t. But here are components of that question:

    (a) do you miss the identity? –> No, I have long ago left the security of identity

    (b) do you miss the food –> I eat vegetarian meals often, so no.

    (c) do you miss the community of fellow vegetarians –> No, if they need vegetarian friends (like many Christians, Democrats, Marxists, Republicans or Rich folks need friends of their group), then I don’t miss them at all. Again, I learned this years ago.

    (d) do I think I gave up something healthy –> no, I don’t. But that is a long story.

    (e) do I miss the moral sanctity that came with it –> actually, just the opposite. I love being free of my own silliness of moral purity. It was a joke.

    Thanx for asking

    @ Roni :
    I loved the contrast of those two rationales — thanx. It is nice to know that others laugh at themselves as I laugh at myself.

  22. Wonderful account of your gustatory journey!! Sounds so damn familiar. I’d love to hear your thoughts about traveling a bit further down this road. Can you imagine any circumstances under which you would be willing to eat meat from less accepted sources, say, horses? dogs? humans? Why does this bring the Donner party to mind?

  23. Thanx Dan, you’ve inspired me to add two additions at the bottom of the post. Take a look.

  24. Awww. If I got to China I’m totally not going to eat anything I can’t recognize. I love kitties!

  25. The closest thing I ever was to vegetarian was when I somehow managed to not eat for four days. Don’t remember the hows or whys. The first thing I ate was Taco Bell…a poor choice, but was with a friend.

    As to the stepping stones out of vegetarianism, it has many parallels to religion. There were steps of thinking about the validity of the Bible, and then a final breaking point at which I called it off, and then had to redefine myself.

  26. Great example, myrthryn.

  27. Very clever and very honest and true of many. A lot of hypocrisy–or not conscious hypocrisy but not very clear thinking about. I wear leather shoes! And do have dairy–I’ve never been vegan– and sometimes eggs. I guess part of the whole point though– and your post mocks this but also makes it clear–is that it is not so bad to have a greater awareness of what one puts in one’s mouth and where it comes from. And self-righteousness is pretty silly but self-awareness seems to me to be generally good. Factory farming does not seem terribly good for animals or people– especially the farmers who are so exposed to the chemicals and run-off and cruelty. Anyway very clever post and very apt exposé of thought processes. K.

  28. Ps– but I don’t think I’d ever feel too guilty for something eaten in a village. I’ve managed not to eat meat traveling pretty much, but I also try not to make too big a deal out of stuff. I’m sure you do the same. But my guess is that that may be harder for a man in many places, and certainly Pakistan would not be an easy one! (To be vegetarian, I mean.). Latin America not so easy–also one doesn’t want to be wasteful. All complex when traveling and especially as a guest. K

  29. @ Manic,
    Yeah, being a man in Pakistan made it tough not to eat every meal placed before me. Glad you saw my points. Thanks for dropping in.

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