Should Pantheists by Vegetarian?
by Harold W. Wood, Jr.
It may be comparatively easy for most Pantheists to accept at least a basic denominator for their religious belief - ie., some kind of identification of "god"ness with "Nature"; but the responsibilities undertaken by individuals are likely to be a subject of much greater dispute. This essay explores the question of a particular moral question of interest to Pantheists; my views are necessarily those of only one Pantheist.
But before discussing the question itself, we must address a preliminary question: Are the questions of "how" a person behaves even a question of relevance to Pantheism? Some might argue that for most people Pantheism is an expression of feelings and reasoning which have to do with the emotions of how one feels when in the out-of-doors, or when contemplating the vastness of the Universe. How can those feelings have anything to do with ethics , or how one should live?
I believe that Pantheists do and indeed must adopt a moral code or ethical set of principles for their behavior. They may not always succeed in adhering behaviorally to the aspirations they have outlined for themselves, but it seems relevant that a Pantheist does outline a set of ethical principles for oneself.
Such an outline for me begins with the fundamental point that religious experience is the interaction of a person with the natural world. If you need a Creator-figure, why then I say that the Universe itself is our Creator. If you need only a way of gaining legitimate sensations of reverence, then our physical environment is for me the ultimate cause for reverence -- the stars, the sun and moon, the winds of the earth and its rocks and water and living things. If I, as a Pantheist, identify Deity with Nature, then therefore one of my goals must be, by definition, a creative union with that which I understand as my Deity. This means that I see my religious responsibility as one arising from my relationship with Nature, and my duty is to assure that I live in harmony with the natural world.
Harmony requires balancing: it is not to say that I must never affect Nature -- any more than to say that Nature must not affect me. Rather, just as in a healthy ecosystem the flow of energy revolves in such a way so the well-being of the whole system is maintained, my personal ethics require that I interact with Nature in such a way that we each remain healthy, for I am after all a part of Nature. I "consume" raw products from nature - the air I breathe, the water I drink, the food I eat. I return to nature various waste products as well as creative efforts. It goes without saying that I am not an "ethical" Pantheist if I allow my waste products to pollute nature - I would not want to poison a water supply, for example, with my own effluent or the products of man-made manufacture such as toxic substances. Yet, it must be permissible to put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - so long as the balance is within proper limits. I must of necessity have the right to breathe, but I must think twice before creating and using machinery if it places such enormous quantities of CO 2 into the atmosphere that it threatens the well-being of the earth's ecosystems or the stability of the global climatic regime.
What I wish to address here is the question of what my responsibilities are toward the things I take from Nature. In many religions, perhaps, dietary codes have more to do with sacrament or symbolism than with ethics. Certain foods may be proscribed because they are "unclean" or "unblessed." While some Pantheists may wish to develop some dietary code on their own for sacramental purposes, I am more concerned here with the ethics of eating.
First of all, can there be an ethics of eating? One might argue that it is wrong to "waste" food, both because of the food it may deprive of other beings, and because it would create an imbalance - a loss of harmony - to over-consume one of the earth's products. Certainly such a concept must be analyzed in context. It might not be a "waste" of food to, say, use only a small part of an animal harvested as game by a hunting and gathering culture, if game is plentiful and human population small. But if human population in an area is large, and game relatively unplentiful, our ethical code, if we lived in such a culture, might require us to utilize as close to 100% of any game we killed as possible.
But this question must also be analyzed from the individual's point of view. It would be a waste of food to over-eat as much as to leave massive amounts untouched on one's plate, if one was gaining fat or simply consuming more food than one needed for one's body to function properly. So quantity of food consumption has something to do with ethical choice, and must be explored critically within both the culture and ecoystem within which one lives, as well as relative to one's "best" body weight and nutrient needs for physical work. There is no one clear answer for everybody, but perhaps most Pantheists might agree that we should not "waste" food, so long as such waste is examined on a case-by-case basis.
But what of "quality" of food? Is there any types of food which must be seen as improper for consumption on ethical grounds? Certainly consuming toxic chemicals (even if approved by the FDA!), as "food additives" must be unethical because they harm one's own body, thus promoting dis-harmony. But what about food in relation to others? We live in a world of soaring overpopulation, a world where protein is in short supply. According to some studies, a major cause for the shortage of protein is an over-dependence upon domestic livestock, which consume plant proteins in a wasteful manner in order to provide meat proteins to humans. Moreover, livestock grazing in many parts of the world appears to be a major cause of desertification and destruction of natural ecosystems. This supports an argument for either eliminating completely or reducing our personal consumption of beef, in preference to plant proteins.
Another argument is frequently made on behalf of vegetarianism in terms of animal welfare. The condition in which calves are raised for veal, or chickens for poultry or eggs through factory farming methods, means unnecessary suffering for millions of animals. For concerned Pantheists, meat produced by factory-farming must be seen as unethical for consumption.
But do such considerations forbid one from eating meat entirely? What if one produced one's own food in a humane manner - raised one's own livestock which was slaughtered humanely? If such livestock could be raised in harmony the environment, there ought to be nothing unethical about consuming that livestock.
However, there might be some objection on the grounds of using introduced animals in a ecosystem to which the species is not native. Unquestionably, cattle production has been responsible for massive destruction of ecosystems, such as the grasslands now sagebrush in much of the American West, or the loss of incredible diversity in California's Central Valley. Just so, East African ecologists are learning that "game ranching" is far more productive with far less ecological impacts than cattle ranching in the grassland ecosytems of East Africa. It is likely that we could have preserved a healthy and diverse ecosystem and still provided food for human consumption in the California Central Valley if we had turned to game ranching of native wildlife - grizzly, Tule elk, deer, and others - instead of bringing in domestic cattle which quickly eliminated native plant life and eventually caused the demise of most native game species in that area. Perhaps cattle are appropriate in their native Europe, but not elsewhere. Arguably, it would promote dis-harmony to produce cattle or sheep in California, but not to produce native Tule elk, assuming one could bring the population of the latter species back to a respectable level.
Of course, there are a number of obstacles here. The fact is that Tule elk are plainly unavailable for eating, ass a practical matter, given its current low population. But deer, for example, are estimated to be more plentiful today in much of America than they were in pre-Columbian times, due to habitat modification and extinction of native predators. Thus, it might seem ethical Pantheists could live an appropriate lifestyle based on deer hunting. On the other hand, if the ecosystem is continually artificially maintained for deer production without the possibility of re-introducing native predators, for example, participation in a game management system which prefers deer to non-game species would surely be unethical. So once again we must examine carefully the particular situation in which we live.
Based on these considerations, I personally would conclude that while there may not be any absolute moral proscription for eating meat for Pantheists, we do have an ethical duty to avoid most forms of meat widely available today - whether produced by factory farming methods or by disruption of natural ecosystems. Consumption of wild species, such as fish perhaps, might be appropriate where it can be shown that man is not depleting the supply or disrupting the ecosystem. Otherwise, it seems the easiest thing to do would be much greater reliance on plant protein - grains, soybeans, tofu, and so on.
Of course, this conclusion may help give us guidelines for the problem of our use of animal protein, but it leaves many other unanswered questions. Is the grain or soybeans or whatever grown in an ecologically valid manner, or is it an introduced species grown as a monoculture so that it wears out the soil or causes soil erosion? Are chemical used in the production which disrupt natural ecosystems?
Is it necessary for ethical Pantheists to grow their own food? What if the only native plants simply do not provide the nutrients most suitable for human beings? Is it possible for us to discover some food plants which are under-utilized in our modern world? These are only some of the other questions which are open for further exploration and discussion among us as we attempt to be ethical Pantheists. Perhaps the great questions of life will never be fully answered, but we shall at least be the better for embarking upon what we hope is an appropriate path of inquiry.
Reprinted from Pantheist Vision