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By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

Just over two years ago, DaylightAtheism featured an essay discussing vegetarianism – though coming at it largely as an environmental issue. Seeing as so many faces on here seem new, I thought I’d tackle it again and hit the moral question head-on: can we justify eating meat?

Many religions include restrictions on consuming meat, from total abstention to restrictions on eating certain animals, considered either sacred or unclean. Even the Christian Bible contains a passage prohibiting eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:10-12), though I think the number of Christians who observe this is small.

Nevertheless, in the west, religion has often been used to justify eating meat. Did God not put animals on Earth for our convenience? Are we humans not specially created by God in his image? Do we not to hold dominion over animals?

Hopefully we atheists can see this for the arrogant nonsense it is. We humans were not specifically created at all. We are animals ourselves; descended from the same ancestors as every animal alive today. Animals are, albeit distantly, our cousins. That is not to say that there is nothing that sets we humans apart. Every species is unique, and it seems humans have achieved heights of awareness, intelligence and civilisation unmatched on Earth. But does this difference justify killing animals to eat?

Certainly it is important to get all the nutrients to keep ourselves healthy, but in an age and society where our supermarkets are kept stocked with food from all round the world, sustaining a meat-free diet which includes everything we need to stay optimally healthy is easy. The myth that a vegetarian diet is often lacking in protein – or any other dietary necessity – is just that, as millions of perfectly healthy vegetarians across the world can attest to.

In fact, insisting that humans are, by nature, meat-eaters very quickly sounds remarkably like something a Creationist might come out with. ‘Humans were designed to eat meat’ might be changed to ‘Humans have evolved to eat meat’, but the argument is essentially the same. We cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The fact that humans can eat meat says nothing at all about whether they should. Yes, we can eat meat, but we can also survive perfectly well without it. Our ability to eat meat carries no moral obligation to do so.

Nor can meat-eating be sufficiently defended by insisting that we would be overrun with animals in a world of vegetarians. Battery farms have hugely inflated the numbers of animals kept as livestock over the past century to meet the demand for meat, and if that demand was reduced, the numbers of animals kept for meat would inevitably follow.

Meat is, of course, tasty. That I won’t deny. When I ate meat, I loved it. But how much weight does that carry morally? I’m sure it’s nice to be pampered and have your every whim attended to by your own personal slave, but I don’t think that justifies the institution. Exploiting others may bring material rewards, but surely a moral person will be troubled by the fact that others have paid a dear price for their convenience.

Note that I am not arguing that animals should enjoy the same rights as a human being. I am not saying the life of an animal is more, or equally, valuable than the life of a human being. Faced with an angry bear, I would indeed shoot it. But this is simply not the situation we face with the meat industry. We are not locked into a them-or-us conflict. The question is whether the life of an animal is worth more than whatever preferential pleasure we might get from eating them as opposed to a vegetarian meal.

Atheists are, by definition, not united by any common belief, merely by a common lack of belief in something specific. However, most atheists I know claim to follow a broadly humanitarian code of ethics – seek to maximise happiness and minimise suffering. But why should only human happiness or suffering be taken into consideration? Anyone who has ever owned a pet will, I am sure, agree that their animal could suffer and feel a range of emotions. Is the pain a pig feels less important than the pain a human feels?

Not that I think meat-eaters are indifferent to animal suffering. I’m sure I don’t know a single person who would happily watch anything suffer for fun, and many of my meat-eating friends purposefully seek out products of ‘free range’ animals, wanting their meat to have had as pleasant a life as possible. But surely this is a good argument for eating our pets – something many meat-eaters would, I suspect, find repulsive? And even then, is a painless killer blow justified? Is murder acceptable if it is done painlessly? And if not, why is the killing of an animal different?

In our mainstream society, vegetarians tend to get a rather bad reputation. All too often they are portrayed as irrational and outraged militants, and their opinions mocked rather than honestly addressed. In that, they share something in common with atheists. But atheists, I hope, know what it is like to swim against the tide of popular opinion and think for themselves. We know what it is like to take a stand and hold to our convictions against a herd mentality.

And so I ask, can we justify eating meat?