I understand the problems people have with conventional religion and religious institutions--I hold many of the same reservations myself. It seems that many religious tenets are unexamined within the context of empirical knowledge, as well as the historical reliability of religious dogma. And, I see the great potential for manipulation and malevolence that organized religion has (and perhaps more pertinently in our lives, decreasing critical thinking and evaluative skills). But the grave mistake many people seem to make is equivocating between their notions of “conventional religion” and “theism.” Because religion in society is, on the whole, practiced in a relatively similar manner, many have the misconception that belief in a higher power is ascribing to these societal norms about religious practice. They are led to think that belief in a higher power or some other central tenets of religious institutions necessitates labeling themselves within a culturally constructed framework of what it means to be “Catholic” or “Jewish” or “Muslim.” In so doing, people forego philosophical examination of the question of God’s existence or other important considerations. They rule out the proposition of a higher power without doing the analytical work, and end up with a limited conceptual framework.
It is justifiable to believe in atheism, but do so on the grounds of philosophical reasoning rather than by dismissing societal religious institutions alone. Don’t be influenced to think that the Gods worshipped in Christianity, Judaism, Islam or other religious traditions are the only sorts of higher powers one can believe in. Additionally, there are many compelling, rational arguments as to why reason is a limited faculty, and how we ought to have faith in a higher power, if not the faith expected in your community (I won’t elaborate on those arguments here since their content is irrelevant--the point is, one should at least entertain them before reaching conclusions about God’s existence). Do the objective, philosophical examination, and then formulate your beliefs.
Argument #1- Eating meat is incredibly inefficient. Organisms only convert about 10% of the chemical energy in their food to biomass, and thus 90% of the energy is wasted (excreted, not digested, etc.). So, when humans feed livestock with food such as corn, 90% of the chemical energy in the corn is lost as it is converted into animals’ organic tissue. If you were to feed your cow 100 pieces of corn, essentially 90 of those pieces of corn would be wasted just to support the meat source. The inefficiency doesn’t become so concerning until you consider rapid global population growth and food shortages (see my entry below entitled “Population Dynamics and The Earth” for more statistics and figures). Worldhunger.org estimates that about 925 million people are hungry or lack some or all of the nutritional elements necessary for human health. So, if we didn’t eat the aforementioned cow, we would save 100 pieces of corn that could instead be fed directly to humans, without losing 90 of the 100 pieces due to the indirect, inefficient step of eating meat. On a large scale, if people were to eat less meat, the number of livestock would decrease and a significant amount of grains or lower trophic level foods would be available to help feed the 925 million people in need. Considering how much meat the United States and other affluent countries consume, it seems most ethical to forego (at least some of) the ephemeral pleasures of eating meat to ensure that another human being gets more to eat. Note, I understand that logistically, it may be difficult to get the corn saved by not eating the cow (presumably in an affluent country such as the US) to people who really need it (at least initially), but I believe that it would eventually be exported or find itself there somehow.
Argument #2- Factory farming, which contributes more than 99% of the meat we (contemporary Americans) consume, puts animals through excruciatingly unpleasant conditions to “farm” them for human consumption. I’ll let you do the research, but if you look into the practices and conditions imposed on billions of animals, it is horrific. Although virtually any compassionate person would be perturbed watching videos of factory farm practices, you may be inclined to think that animals do not have any ethical rights or claims that might warrant these practices as ethical. There are many ways a philosopher could respond (see literature by Peter Singer or Tom Regan, for instance), but I’ll say this. Animals, if not possessing the cognitive abilities of humans (though some animals may have more advanced cognition than the most mentally deficient humans), do seem to experience pleasure and pain. They exhibit similar, distressful reactions to the infliction of pain as humans, and some have even been found to commit suicide amid unpleasant circumstances (http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1973486,00.html). If we at least afford animals the capability of experiencing pleasure and pain if not sentience or other cognitive capability, is the incredible suffering we impose on billions of animals worth the transient human pleasure of eating meat? Also (appealing to our empathetic intuitions), consider how we find Michael Vick’s dog fighting or other incidents of animal cruelty particularly egregious. We tend to not have nearly as much concern for factory farmed animals, probably because we are not exposed to them. But not being exposed to the suffering and cruelty imposed on these animals does not justify the practices- if each of us were forced to witness a “factory farm-esque” slaughter in our back yards before a steak dinner, we might think twice about the merits of modern meat eating practices. Note that this argument appeals to contemporary times and practices (since more than 99% of the meat we eat today comes from factory farms), and does not suggest that other forms of farming, hunting or meat acquisition and consumption is unethical.
I am admittedly convinced by these arguments, yet I guiltily continue to eat meat. It is somewhat comforting, though, that I suspect many others are placed in a similar, conflicted boat- often there are only a few if any vegetarian options at most restaurants, and many of our cultural traditions and norms (i.e. Thanksgiving turkey) involve eating meat. Not to mention that on a personal note, I am an athlete that depends on a viable protein source, which meat can easily provide (though I acknowledge that there are several vegetarian protein sources that may even be superior). Yet despite these sentiments, I do believe that ethical considerations outweigh pragmatic ones. Thus, given that I am convinced of some of the arguments for vegetarianism, ideally I should avoid eating meat regardless of how ever inconvenient it may be. I also acknowledge, though, that there may be some ethical merit to not refusing Aunt May’s traditional roasted chicken or a certain meat source on a religious holiday. It may be somewhat of a gray area, as many ethical dilemmas seem to be, but I am convinced that I ought to forego the pleasures of my palate for what seem to be weightier concerns. That being said, I believe there is ethical merit in reducing or cutting back on meat consumption, especially given that there are ambiguities underlying the absolute, “right” answers. Eating vegetarian at one dinner reflects the “intent” (I acknowledge that animals may be killed regardless, but I believe it is the ethical intent that matters; besides, I am confident that if enough people were to forego eating their “roasted chicken at dinner,” eventually, less animals would undoubtedly suffer) to reduce harm or suffering, whether to the factory farmed animals or people who don’t have enough to eat. If every American were to eat just one less animal per week, I am convinced that a significant (utilitarian) amalgamation of pain would be avoided, and that is more of an ethical condition than if Americans were to continue their meat-eating practices normally. And so, I believe there is some merit in reducing meat consumption if not going vegetarian altogether. I do hope, though, that in the future I will have the wherewithal and conviction to completely forego the conveniences and pleasures of eating animals. For now, consider me the guilted omnivore.
Video of the explosion:
Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason
Know What You Can Control and What You Can’t
Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.
Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us. These areas are quite rightly our concern, because they are directly subject to our influence. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives. Outside our control, however, are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society. We must remember that those things are externals and are therefore not our concern. Trying to control or to change what we can’t only results in torment.
Remember: The things within our power are naturally at our disposal, free from any restraint or hindrance; but those things outside our power are weak, dependent, or determined by the whims and actions of others. Remember, too, that if you think that you have free rein over things that are naturally beyond your control, or if you attempt to adopt the affairs of others as your own, your pursuits will be thwarted and you will become a frustrated, anxious, and fault-finding person.
Happiness Can Only Be Found Within
Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control. We cannot have a light heart if our minds are a woeful cauldron of fear and ambition.
Do you wish to be invincible? Then don’t enter into combat with what you have no real control over. Your happiness depends on three things, all of which are within your power: your will, your ideas concerning the events in which you are involved, and the use you make of your ideas.
Authentic happiness is always independent of external conditions. Vigilantly practice indifference to external conditions. Your happiness can only be found within.
How easily dazzled and deceived we are by eloquence, job title, degrees, high honors, fancy possessions, expensive clothing, or a suave demeanor. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that celebrities, public figures, political leaders, the wealthy, or people with great intellectual or artistic gifts are necessarily happy. To do so is to be bewildered by appearances and will only make you doubt yourself.
Remember: The real essence of good is found only within things under your own control. If you keep this in mind, you won’t find yourself feeling falsely envious or forlorn, pitifully comparing yourself and your accomplishments to others.
Stop aspiring to be anyone other than your own best self: for that does fall within your control.
The Pursuit of Wisdom Attracts Critics
Those who pursue the higher life of wisdom, who seek to live by spiritual principles, must be prepared to be laughed at and condemned.
Many people who have progressively lowered their personal standards in an attempt to win social acceptance and life’s comforts bitterly resent those of philosophical bent who refuse to compromise their spiritual ideals and who seek to better themselves. Never live your life in reaction to these diminished souls. Be compassionate toward them, and at the same time hold to what you know is good.
When you begin your program of spiritual progress, chances are the people closest to you will deride you or accuse you of arrogance.
It is your job to comport yourself humbly and to consistently hew to your moral ideals. Cling to what you know in your heart is best. Then, if you are steadfast, the very people who ridiculed you will come to admire you.
If you allow the mean-spirited opinions of others to make you waver in your purpose, you incur a double shame.
To strive and to reach are such curious things,
Alas not every man can be King,
What ought we esteem if not zenithal heights,
The epiphany of answers or ultimate might?
Cramped in these skeletons, subjected to space,
Slaves to master time going her pace,
Earthly convention and habit abound,
Obscuring the cosmos’ melodious sound,
Where does it lie? Is it within reach?
Surely a beast no mortal can teach,
But save us from yielding our resolute eye,
Lest our spirits that journey surrender and die.