Angela Tilby: the secular religion of veganism

09 November 2018

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THE resignation of William Sitwell as editor of Waitrose’s Food magazine was inevitable once his email comments about vegans had been made public (he suggested “killing vegans, one by one”).

Perhaps it was mean-spirited of his correspondent, Selene Nelson, to expose what was intended to be a private correspondence. Her action turned what were, at worst, some silly and ill-judged remarks into a virtual hate crime.

It is hard to criticise vegans because they are, at least in part, right. For health reasons and for the sake of the planet, we should all eat less meat. It is surely good that vegan cookery is becoming more refined, even if it takes more effort to produce palatable vegan food than it does to turn out eggs and chips. In many ways, the battle of vegans to be taken seriously has been won. The numbers of committed vegans are rising, and the supermarkets are responding.

But there is still something in me which revolts against the moral puritanism of the vegan movement, and this is the point at which I should declare a shred of sympathy for Mr Sitwell.

Veganism presents itself as a kind of secular religion, insisting that we can become pure in body and mind by an exercise of will. It resembles Jainism, with its impetus to do no harm to any living being. As a philosophy, this seems to me to be perfectly legitimate; but that does not mean that it can be imposed on others who do not share its assumptions.

Biblical faith and Christian tradition accept that most people will eat meat and dairy products from time to time. We are, after all, omnivorous mammals, we suckle our young. The sacrificial principle of Christian living depends for its resonance on the sacrifice of life for life, the greatest sacrifice being that of Christ himself. Obviously, no one has to eat meat or dairy products, but to live successfully on plants still means destroying plant-eating animals: slugs and grubs, for example. And, of course, ultimately, we have no idea of whether plants have some weird sentience — trees seem to.

The Jains and others who base their strict dietary rules on non-violence extend this principle to human behaviour. But some vegans, while campaigning against animal cruelty, have resorted to threats of violence against people in the food industry which I have found disturbing, even hypocritical. Those who are targeted are inevitably tempted to express their frustration, and I suspect that this was what Mr Sitwell was doing.

In my worst moments, I could say some pretty scathing things to those who are self-righteous in matters of food and drink. The Lord, too, was not over sympathetic to those who broke the law of charity while insisting on the strictest dietary rules. He, of course, “declared all foods ‘clean’”.

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