I received a thoughtful and respectful comment in response to my article on animal sacrifice, disagreeing with my stance. I am grateful to the writer for being willing to engage with me on this topic, and I felt the response to this comment deserved its own article.
The comment in question read:
“I applaud the author for trying to write about this topic with a sense of compassion and an authentic intention of trying to promote understanding. However, not all of us who disagree with animal sacrifice think that it makes someone “savage” if they practice it. Instead, I think that it shows a lack of interest in moving on from something that can and should be left in the dustbin of history. Tradition is no excuse for cruelty, and we really need to move beyond the idea that animals are tools or objects, whether for our faith practices, for food, for clothing, etc. Is there no other way to honor the gods without enslaving and killing animals? Those are the conversations that I wish we could all start having. Holding ourselves to higher standards of ethical practice is possible, especially with all of the many wonderful an innovative polytheists out there. Let’s work together for peace for all beings.”
Thank you for your thoughtful and respectfully worded comment. I very much appreciate the opportunity to delve further into these complex issues. I wanted to address a few of the points you brought up here, because I think these are important.
“…and we really need to move beyond the idea that animals are tools or objects, whether for our faith practices, for food, for clothing, etc.”
I respect that many folks have strict vegan ideologies, and I absolutely support your right to have these principles govern how you make choices. This is not my personal ideology, though emotionally I have sympathy for it. I abhor suffering, anyone who knows me knows this about me. I have been a professional healer for 14 years, and before that I worked in crisis intervention. I have no more stomach for the suffering of humans than I do for the suffering of animals, plants, nor the planet. But there are several factors that for me have made a vegan lifestyle not feasible nor desirable for me.
One factor is my health. I was vegetarian for about 8 years, largely because I felt that, if I could not bring myself to end an animal’s life with my own hands, I didn’t have the right to eat one. But then I became seriously ill. I developed a debilitating autoimmune disorder that included severe multiple food allergies. I no longer had the luxury of having my ideology dictate my dietary choices, I was simply too sick. I began eating some meat at that point, after a great deal of introspection and prayer. I decided that, if I were to eat meat, I needed to become more comfortable with the entire process of death. For me, participating in animal sacrifice helps to put me in direct responsibility for the death of an animal. I try to have my diet choices guided by ethical guidelines as much as my health and my budget allows, and working professionally as a clinical nutritionist, I have a good sense of what works for my body and what doesn’t. My 14 years of clinical experience shows me that most people don’t do well health-wise long term on strictly vegan diets (some people do just fine long term, but most get sick after about 5 years), though I support anyone’s right to adopt this lifestyle choice for themselves despite this fact.
Another factor that for me is an important consideration is that, ultimately, I am an animist. I believe that plants, animals, land features, spirits, gods, humans, even sometimes things like cars and computers have sentience and some type of consciousness (whether or not I am able to understand or communicate with that consciousness). For me, I believe plants are as sacred as animals, and both are as sacred as humans. We are all equal in my mind, in this way. And yet, life feeds on life, and we all need to eat in order to survive. Plants are able to find their nourishment from sunlight and water; animals (including humans) cannot and must consume other beings that are alive. But even plants require the decayed remains of other living things (plants and animals) in order to live, in the form of soil. For what is soil, but the decayed remains of things that were once living, along with a whole vibrant microbiome of fungi, insects, single celled organisms, water, and minerals from evaporated water and eroded rocks? I find the idea of the web of life to be one of my most important and central sacred spiritual concepts, hence the name of my column.
There is a prayer I say frequently as part of my regular practices. Part of the prayer says, “every breath I breathe in, breathed out by another. Every bite of food, every sip of water, nourishing and sustaining me, connecting me to the great web of life. Every breath I breathe out, every bit of waste and matter that leaves me, returning to the web to nourish and sustain others.” When I eat, whether my food is plant based or animal based, I am participating in this most holy interconnected relationship. I see myself as part of the great web of life – not higher nor lower, but interconnected and part of the great blessed web. Why should I value the life of an animal over the life of a plant?
Plants know when they are being eaten. Plants know when other plants are being attacked – new science is emerging that examines these forms of communication and consciousness. For some absolutely fascinating reading on the sentience of plants, check out the following articles:
“Let’s work together for peace for all beings”.
I would love to see greater harmony and balance for the entire Web, but attempting to avoid death does not bring balance, in my mind. When apex predators are removed from ecosystems, it spells disaster for the entire ecosystem – I remember growing up in NY and there being a tremendous State-wide problem when all our wolves and coyotes were killed off when I was a kid. The deer, having no remaining predators, became so numerous that they ran out of food that winter. The forests where this was being a problem became tremendously defoliated, which put the entire area in serious imbalance as the forests began to die, which impacted all the other animals living there. The deer began to starve to death. There were dead deer everywhere, which caused an increase in scavenger activity, including rats which were spreading diseases. It was a nightmare that went on for several years. The park and game management agencies in my State began issuing a tremendous number of deer tags to hunters, because humans had to step in to the gaping hole left in the local ecosystem that wolves and coyotes had previously occupied. This tragedy was entirely human-wrought, because we shortsightedly believed that removing these predators would somehow make the area “safer”. Death is a part of life, and death, in balance, is required to maintain balance. I don’t think that attempting to avoid participating in death is possible, nor do I think it ultimately results in peace for all beings. Certainly, removing apex predators from an ecosystem does the exact opposite of providing peace for all beings. And I don’t believe that humans are somehow exempt from our participation in the ecosystem – we are not “smarter” nor “more ethical” nor more spiritually evolved nor superior in any other way to other beings who are also part of this planet’s complex and interconnected ecosystems. For a thoughtful article on this subject (which mentions the ecological tragedy in NY during my childhood), read this:
Truly avoiding causing death is not really possible, even if we wanted that. Eating a vegan diet does not actually release the eater from responsibility in the death of other beings, whether those other beings are plants or animals. There was a fascinating study done evaluating the “least harm principle” in dietary choices, and the author’s conclusion was that, ultimately, fewer total animals die when a human diet includes large herbivores. The author looked at the number of animals killed during agricultural activities, and the list of killed animals simply from harvesting plant foods was significant. A quote from the study:
“Animals living in and around agricultural fields are killed during field activities and the greater the number of field activities, the greater the number of field animals that die. A partial list of animals of the field in the USA include opossum, rock dove, house sparrow, European starling, black rat, Norway rat, house mouse, Chukar, gray partridge, ring-necked pheasant, wild turkey, cottontail rabbit, gray-tailed vole, and numerous species of amphibians (Edge, 2000). In addition, Edge (2000) says, “production of most crops requires multiple field operations that may include plowing, disking, harrowing, planting, cultivating, applying herbicides and pesticides as well as harvesting.” These practices have negative effects on the populations of the animals living in the fields. For example, just one operation, the “mowing of alfalfa caused a 50% decline in gray-tailed vole population” (Edge, 2000). Although these examples represent crop production systems in the USA, the concept is also valid for intensive crop production in any country. Other studies have also examined the effect of agricultural tillage practices on field animal populations (Johnson et al., 1991; Pollard and Helton, 1970; Tew, Macdonald and Rands, 1992).”
He goes on to cite one other study that showed that up to 52% of all animals living in a field used for agricultural purposes are killed. Organic agricultural procedures do not necessarily reduce this number, either. Here’s a link to the study in question:
Animal-derived products are used in many items, including food, clothing, personal care products, and medications. My father is an insulin-dependent diabetic; I am very grateful for the advances in medicine that enable my father to live an otherwise healthy and quality life, and his insulin is derived from animal sources (for information about the use of animal products in medications:
I generally prefer to use products that have not been tested on animals when possible, and I prefer to know the sources of my products, so that I can make informed choices around what products I use. But in my mind, it is not really possible to live in the world as it currently exists and to not participate in some way in the death of other beings.
For me, I try and be thoughtful and intentional about the ways in which I participate in this larger web of life. And for me, animal sacrifice allows me to sanctify the death of an animal in such a way that I can guarantee that the animal has had a humane and sacred death, and maintain a carefully chosen place in the larger Web. I don’t eat meat often, and when I do, I eat the meat left over from a sacrifice as often as I can. Because for me, I feel more comfortable knowing that I was there when the animal died, I know how the death occurred, and I had a chance to say thank you to the animal before it died. If I don’t have access to such meat, I try and stick to humanely hunted, wild-caught, grass fed, or otherwise humanely raised and slaughtered meat. We all wrap this stuff up differently, and this is how I have made my peace with these important and difficult questions.
I know I have been lengthy in this response, but I feel that the discussion is an important one to have, and I am grateful that you have chosen to engage with me in this discussion.