Wednesday, June 25, 2014

On fundraising excess

Have you ever had to write a letter like this to a favorite vegan charity?
"Thank you for the amazing work you do for animals, and for your role in raising awareness about the importance of protecting them. As longtime vegans and longtime supporters of your organization, we are grateful for your efforts and will continue to support you financially when we can.
That being said, I must relate my concern with the amount of money you've recently spent on securing donations. In the last few months alone, we have received between 15 and 20 individual pieces of mail exhorting us to give or renew our membership. We've also received a few phone calls.
As someone who works with nonprofits, I know that many donors appreciate an occasional reminder to give. However, I also know precisely how much these campaigns cost—and I know that twenty touches in two months is, by any measure, excessive.
Please remove us from all telephone and USPS mailing lists, effective immediately. Please also reconsider the amounts of solicitation you do, both because of the cost (much of it could be going to the veterinary care and feeding of the animals) and of these "hard sell" efforts' tendency to alienate people who otherwise support your work."
As someone who sincerely appreciates this organization and its work—I've even raised funds for them on my own—I hope the right people receive (and take to heart) this message.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

10 important moments in Christianity & vegetarianism

By John A. Zukowski

I give presentations on religion and vegetarianism. And when I do, the section on Christianity leads to the most questions.

Eastern religion is easier to explain—mostly because of a belief in reincarnation.

Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains believe all sentient beings have souls. They become new life forms after they die based on the karma they’ve accumulated. That seems to have created empathy toward animals—who are viewed as fellow creatures in the cycle of reincarnation. These religions also embrace an ideology called ahisma where it’s a virtue to practice non-violence toward both humans and animals.

But Christianity is a different story.

Christianity has had a problematic relationship with vegetarianism. But since the days of the New Testament, a minority of Christians have been vegetarians. And in recent years there’s been a slow but increasing movement toward Christian vegetarianism and veganism.

So why has Christianity been so ambivalent about vegetarianism and veganism? Here are 10 important moments in the history of Christianity and vegetarianism

#1. Book of Genesis: Both humans and animals were originally vegetarian

After God tells humans they have dominion over the world (more about that later),
he tells them they’ll live on vegetables and fruit. And all animals will too. (The exception is that
Adam and Eve can’t eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge. We know what happens there.)

But after The Fall, things changed. When Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves,
God gives them skins to wrap themselves in – did God sacrifice an animal to do this?
And later Abel offers an animal sacrifice which God prefers over Cain’s sacrifice of vegetables.

Why it’s important: The idea that God originally designed all life forms as vegetarian before The Fall to this day inspires some Christians to be vegetarian. Some Christians also believe the world will return to this state of paradise where living creatures will all exist peacefully (Isaiah 11:6-9).

#2. After the flood: A mandate to eat meat

After the flood is over, Noah comes out of the ark and performs an animal sacrifice.

After Noah’s sacrifice, God says he won’t destroy humans again. And God tells Noah,
 “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green
plants, I give you everything.” Humans are now commanded to be omnivores, it seems.

But as vegan author Victoria Moran told me in an interview, this could be interpreted as a
temporary dispensation. After all, the plantation on the earth would have been destroyed
by the flood. What else was there to eat?

Interestingly, in the recent “Noah” movie starring Russell Crowe, the sacrifice and
command to eat meat aren’t shown. And before the flood, the villains are meat eaters
while Noah and his family are vegetarians.

Why it’s important: God’s order to eat meat has been cited many times for centuries as a defense of eating meat.

#3. Post-flood Old Testament: Kosher diet, animal sacrifices

In the Old Testament a diet that pleases God is outlined in detail. Now called a kosher diet, it prohibits eating pig, shellfish and other creatures considered unclean.

Animal sacrifices also went on regularly the Jewish temple. They were made every day—more often during religious holidays and other events. Sacrifices were usually meant to atone for wrongdoing.

It’s Jesus himself who seems to call for an end to animal sacrifice. In the Gospels when he overturns the moneychangers’ tables in front of the temple, it’s his signal that the idea of sacrificing animals to atone for sin is no longer acceptable. Part of the business being done there in front of the temple was to sell animals for sacrifices in the temple—and it’s clear Jesus doesn’t approve.

Why it’s important: In the post-Flood Old Testament, God has a required diet. And it isn’t vegetarian. Animal sacrifices imply that God approves of killing animals.

#4. The early Christian divisions over vegetarianism

Scholars debate how extensive it was, but the early Christian movement squabbled over Christian doctrine.

And some of the debate focused on food. There were Christian vegetarians in the early church. And the Bible has a mixed view of them. The best view is tolerance; the worst is condemnation.

In the Book of Romans, Paul writes that “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” But he goes on to say that both meat eaters and vegetarians must not judge each other and that God welcomes both. But in 1 Timothy, the writer (who may or may not be Paul) condemns “deceitful spirits” that lead people to abstain from some food—as well as marriage.

Some early church fathers were vegetarians including Basil the Great, Jerome, Tertullian and Oregin. Most of the early Christian vegetarians were ascetics, who believed that self-denial, fasting and sacrifice of some worldly things could bring one closer to God.

Why it’s important: Although the church rejected vegetarianism as a regular practice, the church later incorporated the ascetic practice of abstaining from meat during Lent and other fasting periods.

#5. St. Augustine condemns the gnostics and vegetarianism

After converting to Christianity in the 4th century, Augustine regretted a lot—his mistresses, his hedonism, his years in a gnostic sect. As anyone who is familiar with “The DaVinci Code” knows, gnosticism was an alternative view of Christianity considered heresy by the orthodox church.

The gnostics believed in a dualistic view of the world. There was both a good god and an evil god. And flesh was associated with the evil god. So gnostics often were celibate vegetarians because they believed there was something inherently evil in flesh.

Augustine spent nine years in a gnostic sect led by a Persian man named Mani. After he left the group and converted to Christianity, he condemned Mani, the group and its practices – which included vegetarianism. Augustine said it was superstitious to not eat meat and wrote that the commandment “thou shalt not kill” didn’t apply to animals.

Why it’s important: Augustine’s influential writings make vegetarianism associated with gnosticism, which the church considers heresy.

#6. Thomas Aquinas: Animals don’t have immortal souls

In a section of “Summa Theologica,” Aquinas differentiated humans from animals. Animals were sentient beings, but they didn’t have an intellect necessary to have an immortal soul, Aquinas said. They couldn’t choose morality, they operated on instinct.

However, this wasn’t carte blanche to do anything to animals. Aquinas believed animals were to be eaten, but he didn’t support killing animals for pleasure. And he said being kind to animals was a good spiritual practice to be a better person.

Why it’s important: Because of the belief that animals don’t have immortal souls, Christians weren’t motivated to be vegetarians for that reason. Instead, the reasons have been for improved health, asceticism to be closer to God, and ethical considerations of animal treatment.

#7. Ellen White starts a veg-friendly denomination

With a public anxious about disease and death, there was a health movement in the 19th century – which called for a change to a plant-based diet.

The first vegetarian society in the United States was founded by the Rev. Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey. Graham believed sickness sometimes was created by not following the pre-Fall vegetarian diet.

One of his followers was Ellen White who with her husband started the Seventh-day Adventist denomination in 1863. She wrote of a vision she received where God wanted people to be vegetarians. “It was contrary to his plan to have the life of any creature taken,” she wrote. “There was to be no death in Eden. The fruit of the trees in the garden, was the food man’s wants required.”

Why it’s important: The idea of a healthy God-made pre-Fall diet went further toward full-time vegetarianism than the ascetic Lent fasting.

#8. Tolstoy documents the slaughterhouses

When someone was curious about why the Christian Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was a vegetarian, sometimes he’d take them on a tour.

He’d bring them to a slaughterhouse to see animals being killed. Usually after seeing the carnage and the screams, the shocked spectator stopped eating meat.

Tolstoy’s landmark essay on vegetarianism called “The First Step” was more than just a description of slaughterhouses. Tolstoy believed non-violence was a central component of Christianity. He wrote about how the early Christians were pacifists and that killing was against what the Gospels taught. He also believed that self-control and self-denial were essential virtues for Christians. Eating meat was contrary to Jesus’ examples of anti-violence and self-control. He wrote this about eating meat:

“Its use is simply immoral, as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to the moral feeling – killing; and is called forth only by greediness and the desire for tasty food,” Tolstoy wrote.

Why it’s important: It shifted the debate to animal ethics. Previously, many vegetarian Christians focused on health reasons or returning to a pre-Fall vegetarian diet from the Book of Genesis.

#9. C.S. Lewis: Do animals go to Heaven?

The Christian apologetic author C.S. Lewis believed animals didn’t have immortal souls. It seemed illogical to him that all animals could go to heaven.

“Where would you put the mosquitos?” he wrote.

Animals had no concept of either sin or virtue, Lewis believed. The animal world was so brutal with wild animals cruelly killing each other that maybe Satan had corrupted the animal world the same way he caused the Fall of Man, Lewis wrote in his book “The Problem of Pain.”

But Lewis loved his pets. He nicknamed himself “Jack” after a neighborhood dog that was run over and killed. He owned more than a half dozen dogs and several cats in his lifetime. He returned home from his job as a professor every work day to eat lunch and walk his dogs.

Because of his affection for his pets, he believed that some animals developed a sense of self or personality. That didn’t seem to happen often to wild animals. He believed it happened when man made them tame. So he left the door open for seeing his pets again in heaven.

“Certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters,” he wrote.

Why it’s important: This indicated a spiritual perspective toward animals where pets are in a different category than animals killed for meat.

#10. Smashing Stereotypes: The new conservative vegetarian movement

In pop culture, vegetarians and vegans are often portrayed as either radical flaky hippies or overly sensitive girls.

But that stereotype is changing. Veganism now has a more health-conscious image—and some conservatives are responding to that.

Where I live in Eastern Pennsylvania, the churches that have regular vegan groups and pot lucks are at conservative non-denominational churches. Not at Unitarian, Quaker and liberal Protestant churches. What’s going on?

In some Christian conservative churches, the idea that the body is a temple and one must honor it by being healthy is increasingly gaining popularity. (The animal ethics part of vegetarianism seems to follow after the initial emphasis on better health.) And the idea of a purer pre-Fall diet in the Book of Genesis is being talked about in more than just Seventh-day Adventist churches.

The catalyst for the conservative vegetarian/vegan movement was probably the 2003 book Dominion. Matthew Scully (former speech writer for George W. Bush) wrote that the concept of dominion over the earth and animals from Genesis needed to be redefined and re-examined. God told humans to be caretakers of the natural world, not ravagers of it, he wrote. Practices such as safaris, factory farms and whaling expeditions were out of line with how God intended humans to care for the world and its creatures.

So why do some liberal churches resist vegetarianism? Maybe some liberals are part of foodie culture—which abhors asceticism or self-denial. Vegans and vegetarians on the left may be more countercultural or libertarian (and live in rural or urban areas) than some mainstream liberals (who often live in suburbs—a mecca for foodie culture).

Why it’s important: The growth of vegetarianism among conservatives isn’t a huge trend yet. But it’s a cultural shift that may have far-reaching implications. It could smash the hippie vegetarian stereotype and extend its appeal.

John A. Zukowski is an award-winning religion journalist whose website, Spiritual Pop Culture, critiques popular media with a spiritual and ethical perspective. Book one of his  engaging hour-long presentations on religion and vegetarianism for your upcoming church Bible study.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Interview: How to be Vegan author Elizabeth Castoria

Interview by Tom Epler

Elizabeth Castoria is not yet a mononymic vegan like Isa or Victoria, Gene or Wayne, but with last month's publication of How to be Vegan (Artisan, 2014), the former Editorial Director of VegNews is well on her way. The well-written, beautifully-designed handbook makes a great gift for vegan-curious friends and colleagues, since it's fun, conversational, and informative without being preachy or pretentious.

This week, Elizabeth answered a few questions about her vegan journey, her tenure at VegNews, and the publication of her colorful, fact-filled new book. I recommend ordering a copy for yourself, friends, and family—even though I don't normally encounter words like "zillion" or "nohow," I loved How to be Vegan, because reading it felt like a conversation with a fun, enthusiastic friend.

New Vegan Age: Why, when, and how did you become vegan? Did you have any close vegan friends or family members who modeled or encouraged veganism?

Elizabeth Castoria: I went vegan when I was about 17. I had already been a vegetarian for a few years before that, and then made the switch after learning more about the issues. (And, yes, I did this learning by way of the cute vegan skater dude whom I was dating at the time!) There was actually a small group of friends in my hometown who were vegan, so that definitely eased the transition.

NVA: How did your daily work as Editorial Director at VegNews help develop your ability to engage readers in the book's chapters and capsules?

EC: Through my work at the magazine, I definitely got to develop both my writing and the ability to represent ideas visually, like the little charts and graphs in the book. It's really fun to add another layer of content that helps convey ideas in a different way.

NVA: What was glamorous about your time at VegNews? Travel? Parties? What might people be surprised to learn made it difficult?

EC: Ha! I don't know that I'd use the word "glamorous" necessarily. I did have the chance to meet and work with so many wonderful, amazing people in the vegan world, and report on all the completely inspiring work that they were doing. That was such a rewarding part of the job!

NVA: Your book tackles some difficult and serious topics (animal cruelty, nutrition, and factory farming) in an informative, yet non-accusatory and non-judgmental way. Did you ever have trouble striking that balance?

EC: When I first went vegan, I definitely had a different approach than I do now (admittedly, this was when I was a teenager, so I was a little bit more brash in general!). The older I get, the more I realize that people are dealing with different things in their lives—sometimes even depending on the day!—so it's really important to just meet people where they are and provide information so that people can make their own choices. Nobody likes being yelled at or talked down to (least of all me!).

NVA: Well, we hope the response since publication last month has been great. Your audience for this book is non-vegans; it introduces them to our world. Since you've been vegan for so many years, was it ever difficult to keep that newness in mind? Did you keep a particular non-vegan friend or family member in mind as you were writing?

EC: That was one of the really fun challenges of writing the book—going back and re-thinking through all those questions that someone who is new to veganism would have to ask themselves. I have a number of non-vegan friends and family members, and over the years the questions they've asked me about how I live this way definitely all bubbled up when I was writing the book.

NVA: The book is fun and well-written, and the charts, flowcharts, and Venn diagrams were unusually informative and useful. (The "Food or Not Food?" pop quiz neatly summarizes what it takes many other writers—including this one—entire blogs to develop). Do you think, or even doodle, in graphic representations?

EC: Thank you! I really enjoyed getting to come up with the concepts for the sidebars. Making graphic elements is definitely something that I learned working on the magazine content, and I always love seeing how other publications (in print and online) use graphics to tell stories, so it does seem like an ingrained part of storytelling now. (Though, I have to say, I'm immensely grateful for the amazing job that the design team did on the graphics, because the sketches I sent over were these horribly drawn little stick figures!)

NVA: They're sophisticated, with lots of great info, but somehow simple—condensed, clean, and inviting. I also really liked your meal-planning encouragement to enjoy beans, fruits, and vegetables for their own sake, and not to always seek out processed replacements for things we were accustomed to eating as omnivores. Has that appreciation come for you in time?

EC: You know, I love eating a variety of things—including vegan meats and ice creams and that sort of thing—but one of the main things I wanted to convey in that section was just that there are so incredibly many varieties of fruits, veggies, beans, and grains that people might not be familiar with or not be in the routine of eating. For anyone, vegan or otherwise, it's important to try new things!

NVA: Agreed! Have you ever successfully introduced a friend, family member, or reader (through VegNews or this book) to veganism? How does it feel to know that, with this book, you'll likely be doing that for strangers for years and decades to come?

EC: I love your vision of the future! (And I really hope you're right—I'd love to be helpful for decades!!) All the feedback so far on the book has been really positive, which is incredibly satisfying, and it sounds as though people are finding it useful. I've been pleasantly surprised that even folks who have been vegan for years are getting handy tidbits out of the book. It's all been such a fantastic experience!

NVA: It must be something to "cross over," from covering authors to being covered as one. What else are you up to these days? Any interesting plans or projects on the horizon?

EC: I've been developing a new project, but it's still very nascent, so I won't go into it too much. The newest thing so far has been that I've started blogging on my website (, which has been a fun challenge! I've been creating content in the framework of other organizations for a long time, so it's really fun to think of the kind of content that I want to create on my own. 

NVA: Thank you, Elizabeth! Please let us know when the new project is ready.