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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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.