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Two days ago, Pope Francis was challenged by 12-year-old Genesis Butler to try eating a plant-based diet for Lent, with a promise of a million dollar donation to a charity of his choice should he say yes. Ms. Butler cited motivations including climate change and animals. This campaign may be surprising, but the links between plant-based diets, climate change, animals, and religious values should not be.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already familiar with the many connections between industrial animal agriculture and climate change, but you may be less familiar with their link to religious organizations. Faith organizations have published dozens of religious statements on how their spirituality calls them to fight climate change. And religious communities can make excellent forums to discuss the connection between farmed animals and climate change.
While no major religion testifies consistently about our obligations to nonhuman animals or the environment,1 all of America’s major religious faiths—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and indigenous faiths—guide and encourage increased respect and care for nonhuman animals. Empathy, compassion, stewardship, care for creation, lovingkindness, and nonviolence are just a few of the practices commonly encouraged by these traditions, and over the years, their inclusion of nonhuman animals in the circle of compassion has only increased.
Advocates for issues like environmentalism and animal welfare would do well to pay greater attention to religious communities. Houses of worship take seriously the challenging moral questions of our age. This is the role they’ve played in society for centuries. Religious leaders speak to the open hearts and minds of people seeking guidance in their moral and ethical lives. People of faith are interested not only in these ethical precepts, but in how to apply those teachings in their lives with integrity.
In the past, as I’m preaching a sermon about human responsibilities to other animals, or about how our support of factory farms contributes to the desecration of the environment, I’ve worried about how the congregation will receive my words. After all, the links between food, animal welfare, and climate change is a subject that many would rather avoid. Yet consistently I’ve found these topics very well-received. It’s not unusual for congregants to contact me later to let me know that after the presentation they decided to reduce their meat consumption or even go entirely plant-based. One congregant who decided to go vegetarian recently wrote, “Thank you for helping me do something I’ve been hoping to do for such a long time.” Spiritual communities provide fertile soil for genuine ethical consideration, even transformation, that is not always possible in the secular world.
When a topic such as compassion for animals is lifted up in a house of worship, this indicates to believers that the subject matters greatly, deserving not only consideration but action in everyday life. When a faith community begins to discuss adopting an institutional food policy, plant-based eating is demonstrated to be not only an ideal but also a practical choice. Engaging these topics in our communities gives adherents a place to process their own changing viewpoints, and as the community becomes more accepting—even encouraging—of plant-based diets, community norms reinforce and support the individual shifts, leading to lasting changes.
Whether we believe in a God who has a plan for humanity, or that spirituality has more to do with actions than beliefs, or that we are on our own to make our way in this universe, these beliefs place a special responsibility on us: to build a more decent society. For me, that means engaging religious communities to reflect and act on their own traditions’ best teachings about our responsibilities to the environment and to other animals. For more about how to involve faith communities in this topic, contact us.
All of us have a role to play. Whether or not you happen to be the Pope, going plant-based for Lent—or encouraging others to do so—is a good place to start.
February 8, 2019
Historic Catholicism, for example, produced both St. Francis of Assisi (in honor of whom Pope Francis took his name), who referred to animals as his brothers and sisters, and St. Aquinas, who taught that “neither women nor beasts” had souls. Western religions have no monopoly on such paradoxical teachers or teachings; seekers hoping to find more uniform messages in Eastern teachings discover similarly jarring discrepancies.