15 March 2011

Veganism, religion, and the division of activists

In vegan activism, along with most other types of activism, we fight for the rights of those who are oppressed. After a while people start to see the big picture, that all oppression is related stemming from the same place. To effectively fight oppression it is important to see this link, but there is one oppressive force that is only mentioned when in the comfort of friends or behind closed doors.

That force is religion. Religion is not just Christianity, keep in mind, but all religions; Christianity is just the religion in most of our regions doing the oppressing. It’s different all over the world. Regardless if you exercise your right to freedom of religion or not, you can’t deny that it is used to control populations. In some cases through forced assimilation, religion is used as a tool that goes so far as to even attempt to erase a culture’s past traditions and values. If you are having trouble swallowing this, then just learn about the Franciscans in early pre-America a little bit. We no longer usually attempt this type of assimilation because now we have figured out it is easier to go to impoverished countries and build them churches and give them food in exchange for religious devotion. Are you starting to see how religion on a large scale is oppressive? It oppresses all human beings and animals alike. I could go on about how it oppresses each individual group of people, or how it oppresses animals in various ways but that’s not what today’s article is about. If you have realized the oppressive power behind religion and you are an activist, then you know that this topic is rarely brought up during conferences and workshops. If it were brought up in a large group of unified people against one issue, there is a very high chance that labeling religion an enemy of sentient beings is going to cause a big split.

The division of a unified activist group is not anyone’s goal, regardless of whomever you may consider your enemy. The oppressors like when the people fight amongst each other so it is their goal to keep vegans looking like elitist nut jobs, feminists looking like crazy man-haters, homosexuals looking like sinners, African Americans looking like dangerous thugs, Hispanics looking like job thieves and invaders, etc. What good this does them? We stay afraid of each other, resulting in a lack of communication between many different types of groups. How can you work together for a better community if you are afraid of your neighbor? You cannot, and that’s how they like it, because if there was no fear then everyone would be talking about everyone’s issues. This means that a whole lot more people will start to see the big picture. So then instead of organizing one small group to protest a company for mistreating animals, there would be many groups protesting the same company for animal rights, worker’s rights, environment, etc., as one big group. Imagine the difference this would make in our country alone, not to mention the entire world. This solidarity between progressive groups is already starting to happen, and is what many of us are working for.

So what happens in an ideological world where we stop animal oppression and everyone has full equal rights? There’s still religion. Religion would divide us in the end worse than anything. You have one group that feels they are not being oppressed by religion and that it’s their right to practice it, and another group that feels that religion is oppressing them and that it’s their right to fight against it.

How do we approach this issue now so that something like that could never happen? I speak up on issues such as animal cruelty, sexism, racism, the S.O.A., the environment, immigration, and many others. I admit even though I disagree with religion’s oppressive force, that even I usually stay mostly silent on this issue. On my campus I was even skeptical of our atheist club speaking out against religion. I stopped to ask myself why, and realize it is because I am scared there is no way to win. But there is a way to win. In fact it’s the simplest and most classic expression of tolerance. Agree to disagree. That’s right; we all are not going to agree about everything, so we need to slowly build an understanding of tolerance and understanding. We can do this by simply sitting down with activists who are religious and non-religious and expressing our views. Those of us who are atheists and agnostics must remember that the individuals are not the oppressors; they are our brothers and sisters who we must make a connection with. Religious followers must realize that we do not mean to attack them and their religion, but those in power who use their religion wrongly as a tool to maintain and control a population. I truly believe that through education, tolerance, and understanding that all activists can unite against religious oppression. Once you have established that you can’t agree on everything, what is the next step?

There are so many directions we can go with this issue and we as activists are still trying to figure it all out. Atheist and agnostic activists, sit down with other activists that do practice religion and talk about why you are against religious oppression. Let them know that you can act against religious oppression while still practicing your religion of choice. Activists, who are religious that understand this concept, try sitting down with your atheist and agnostic activists. Try discussing with them how you can still practice your own religion while joining hands with them to fight religious oppression in harmony with all other types of oppression. Instead of participating in some churches that practice oppressive tactics, maybe there is a way for you to start your own fellowships. These are all just ideas and if anyone reading this article would like to discuss more ideas on how we can approach this issue please contact me, I will be glad to hear from you.

I feel that for the cause of veganism, spreading this message of tolerance through religious and non-religious unification is extremely important. We have to start slow, but keep pushing forward. The key factor in all of this is first and foremost to get people to see the big picture and how it all fits together and involves all sentient beings. If perhaps you feel that this article had little to do with veganism and more to do with religious oppression and activism, perhaps you as well are not seeing the bigger picture. Take a look.

Steven Garnett | Facebook | @stevengarnett
Steven is currently pursuing a B.A. in history and women's studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the founder of Vegans and Vegetarians of the Tri-Cities and a student animal rights organization at ETSU. Steven is a vegan, active feminist, and environmentalist. He enjoys film, art, and delicious vegan cuisine and wishes to educate others about oppression, regardless if it's animal oppression or human oppression. Steven's blog.

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/annstheclaf