No two books have changed my life quite so much as, first, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and a year later, The Qur’an.
I picked up the former at Heathrow Airport, and by the time my flight landed I had decided to stop eating meat.
My decision wasn’t based on the idea that eating meat was inherently wrong (although I know people who feel that way). I became vegetarian because Pollan’s book convinced me that the way factory farming raises, contains, feeds, medicates, and slaughters animals, and then distributes their meat, is completely unethical.
There seems to be no single area untouched by factory farming.
Environmentally, meat requires massive energy consumption, immense landmass to grow soy or feed corn, and the meat industry pumps tons and tons of nitrates and other chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico making way for poisonous algal blooms and “dead zones.”
In terms of labor, meatpacking remains one of the most physically dangerous and dehumanizing industries in America.
But it’s no surprise that laborers are poorly treated, considering the abysmal care for the animals themselves. I read about cows forced to live in their own feces on concrete lots, fattened on cheap corn that their stomachs weren’t made to digest, painfully prodded and abused on their way to the killing floor, or chickens with burnt-off beaks so densely packed into cages that they pile on and suffocate one another. Not surprisingly, conditions like these breed diseases treated with antibiotics, leading to the emergence of more and more antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria as well as viruses that put us all at risk. Beyond such terrifying threats as E. Coli and Swine Flu are the more mundane killers that come from eating cheap meat: heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and so on.
Having faced the ‘omnivore’s dilemma,’ I could no longer live my life as I had before.
I could either ignore the problem, or change my life.
Though I understood that I could use my dollars to support sustainable, ethical meat producers, as a broke college student it seemed a lot more affordable to just opt out. I never once looked back, and the comfort I took in my decision was enough to banish any cravings for a hamburger that I might have otherwise had.
The decision to become a vegetarian was deeply informed by a desire to live a “good” life in which, as a moral agent, I choose to do the greatest amount of good in the world and reduce my negative impact as much as possible. I was an atheist at this point, and wanting to be a good person came from my own observations of the world and a rather utilitarian belief in the overall value of goodness.
I formed a strong belief that the choices we make about our food impact more than just our health. Our food choices affect our communities, our environment, and the welfare of other animals and human beings as well. This was the first time in my life that I took a stand, on anything. As a child I accepted what my parents offered by way of moral education, which mostly consisted of ‘make your own mistakes and learn for yourself’, peppered with the regular injunctions to be useful, helpful, kind, and generally a good person. Being a vegetarian separated the world into good and bad foods, where ‘good’ and ‘bad’ meant much more than simply ‘healthy.’
What I discovered, however, was that vegetarianism to me became very much an “-ism,” an ethical identity and perspective of the world.
On the one hand, vegetarianism offered me a new way to be in the world. I was a vegetarian who could relate to others from that ethical position.
On the other hand, my vegetarianism limited my participation in ethical decision making to the realm of food. Of course, being a vegetarian or vegan doesn’t mean that a person isn’t a lot of other things as well. It’s just that after embracing “being” a vegetarian I realized that I needed to be more than that. At first, I assumed that this meant making more of the same kinds of decisions. If I said no to eating meat, then I had to take a stance on fish (after all, deep-sea trawling is a horribly destructive practice), eggs (awful conditions), and milk (if you knew what was in your industrial milk prior to pasteurization, believe me, you wouldn’t want to drink it either).
Later, I realized that what I really wanted was an all-encompassing means to live the best way possible.
I sometimes say that being a vegetarian was the first step on my path to becoming Muslim.
What I mean is that taking small steps towards being what I would call a ‘virtuous’ person introduced me to the very idea of virtue itself. I was never a ‘bad’ person, but nor did I ever try to be particularly ‘good.’ Ultimately, the best life possible seemed to me to be a virtuous life, one where I not only did the most good and the least evil, but could operate within a system that didn’t just promote but required ethical decision-making.
When one day in a college class on Islam I realized that I actually believed the Qur’an was a divinely revealed text, I felt a similar confrontational shock. Presented with information that I considered clear and irrefutable, I could either ignore it and continue to live as I had been living, or I had to change my life.
Admittedly, I embraced vegetarianism faster than I did Islam, but at least I was as graceful in letting go of alcohol as I had once let go of my favorite meat dishes.
These days I am no longer a vegetarian, though I rarely eat meat. My identity as a Muslim has a farther reach than my identity as a vegetarian ever had; it informs all areas of my life. I try hard to live the best way I can, doing the most good in my own life, in my friends’ and family’s lives, in the lives of acquaintances and strangers, and certainly in the lives of the animals that do occasionally make their way to my table. My husband and I carefully source our meat, and we hope to one day raise our own animals for milk, eggs, and dinner.
My relationship with food has taken on an entirely new dimension as I explore its spiritual significance. What I believed as an atheist about food as well as environmental stewardship has deepened and broadened through Islam, cultivating love for creation, human and non-human alike.