From my childhood, I have been in the moral dilemma of consuming flesh of other animals for food. Being born and raised in a Buddhist backdrop, it is natural to be in such dilemma as it is still a never ending dilemma for modern day Buddhists, whether they are violating a religious moral code or not by eating meat.
There is a huge debate, and ideas from various schools of thought are being tossed around within the Buddhist community about the Buddhist stance of this matter. However, distancing me from all sort of religious affiliations in my adulthood, and deriving my ethics and morals from a secular moral zeitgeist, I am still unable to provide an answer to this dilemma.
The religious point of view regarding this issue varies from strict veganism (in Jainism and some forms of Hinduism) to pragmatic vegetarianism without strict rules, (some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism) and to treating that all non-human life forms as things that are put in place for human consumption (Abrahamic religions). Some Abrahamic doctrines put clauses about which types of animals and which days of the year are permitted; however, in general, Abrahamic doctrines has nothing against consumption of animal flesh. It is also interesting to note that in some cultures such as native Americans had to hunt and kill for their survival, but they sort of apologized to the animal for having to kill it. They ate meat with humility, not with pride.
In contemporary Sri Lanka, there is a tendency among the Buddhist community to condemn the consumption of beef while being indifferent towards meat from other animals such as chicken or fish. It is, in fact, pure hypocrisy that drives this school of thought and nothing else. This hypocrisy is adopted purely to hurt communities with Abrahamic faith (especially Islam). In theory, Buddhist point of view does not distinguish value of life among different forms of life, and treats all life forms as equal. So from a strict Buddhist point of view an ant, a bee, a fish, a bird, a cow and a pig are all equal. From a Buddhist point of view, I think, therefore, it is hypocritical in choosing which animal to eat and which animal not to eat. And, I do agree with the Buddhists who would laugh at these political Buddhists who speak only against beef.
Furthermore, it should be noted that from my point of view, death in itself is not the problem here. Every living being dies and, death is a natural phenomenon. In the natural world, in natural food chain, animals kill and eat other animals in the cruelest way. A wild buffalo being attacked, slowly killed and eaten alive by a pack of wild dogs, would have wished rather to be killed and eaten by a human hunter if it knew how less agonizing it is to be die at human hands.
Ergo, death per se does not matter. Nonetheless, the manner in which the animals are slaughtered does matter. If I am an animal being killed, I would choose a quick and painless death rather than an agonizing one. Therefore, I would rather chose to be stunned by a bullet on the head before being killed (like in most European slaughter houses) rather than slowly bled to death as in ‘kurban’ ( like in Arab and Muslim world).
There is a more pertinent question than how animals are killed. The question is, how they live during the lifetime of being reared for slaughter. Until recent times, I thought that farm animals in the western word live a very happy life. They eat and roam around in huge green pastures, grazing to their heart content, socializing with other fellow mammals and finally they are killed in a painless manner and prepared for meat. This is not bad at all. Until recent times, I lived in this illusion. Still, there could be such “classic” farms and classical forms of animal husbandry taking place in the western world. However, the regular meat industry is far from this. After watching a few recent and revealing documentaries about the meat industry, it became evident to me that the modern animal farm is a horrible and appalling place. Given the huge demands of meat for the increasing population, meat industry can no longer have huge spaces and green pastures to let their animals freely roam and graze. Rather, the animals are crammed in to very small cages, inside closed buildings. Some animals never see sunlight for their entire caged life. Intelligent animals like cattle and pig go crazy and they become psychotic in these horrible environments. In most cases, animals are fed with artificial food made of corn to which their digestive systems are not adopted, making their intestines rot while they are still alive. Most animals are kept knee deep in their own dung for most of their lifetime. This picture is not pleasant at all.
Therefore, I would choose fish over beef, mutton, pork, chicken or turkey at any given day and my choice is totally based on non-religious reasons.
Article by – Prasad Mapatuna
Editor’s note – As mentioned in this article, atheists differ in their positions regarding many philosophical, scientific, and political issues. So, there is no “official atheist answer” to the question of whether vegetarianism (or veganism for that matter) is ethically obligatory. Ideas expressed in this article are solely the ideas of the author. So, this article can not be considered as the “atheist position” about vegetarianism. Different atheists have different ideas about morality of eating meat. Some atheists are vegetarians for ethical reasons. Some are vegetarians for environmental reasons. And, some atheists are vegetarians for health reasons. Plus, there are atheists who are meat-lovers. The reason this article is here is that this article reflects critical thinking, and, as atheists, we recognize the importance of critical thinking.