Why Religions Must Unite Around Veganism

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”  Nelson Mandela.

Have you noticed how just one man used the internet and social media to hijack the peace, divide people across religious lines and cause conflagrations in the Muslim world? People are dying as a result and the majority seems powerless to stop such incidents from flaring again.

Have you also noticed how almost everyone in a public space seem to be busy swiping their fingers over their smartphones and are oblivious to their neighbors around them? Most people are disconnected to each other and to creation due to our increased digital connectivity and as an individual, I’ve felt powerless to do anything about it. Unfortunately, the more disconnected we are, the easier it becomes for an amateur video maker to divide us up and disturb the peace.

When my colleagues and I were working on the hardware infrastructure of the internet at the Ethernet standards committee in the nineties, we were mainly motivated by altruistic notions of how increased connectivity could lead to a better world. But that same increased connectivity that gave us the Tahrir square movement also gave us the Benghazi killings and the smartphone zombies. Tahrir square was an example of digital connectivity in social networks leading to concerted physical action in the real world, creating a virtuous feedback loop that snowballed into a movement. In February, I had lunch with Geoff Thompson, the head of the Ethernet standards committee during my times there and I asked him what we should do about this conundrum. His sage advice was that we have to figure out how we can truly achieve what we really set out to do – increased connectivity among people – by understanding how to trigger more uniting events such as Tahrir square, but in more diverse pursuits besides the toppling of dictators.

Last Monday, His Holiness the Dalai Lama told his 4 million Facebook friends,

“All the world’s major religions with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”

He used the analogy of tea and water, with water being a secular ethic, say compassion, while tea is a religion that espouses it. He said,

“But however the tea is prepared, the primary ingredient is always water. While we can live without tea, we can’t live without water. Likewise, we are born free of religion, but we are not born free of the need for compassion.”

His words must have been music to the ears of my atheist and agnostic friends, many of whom abandoned their religions of birth after becoming disenchanted with some of the ingredients in the tea they were taught to brew. The youth especially have become especially disenchanted with organized religion as they are savvy enough to see through the questionable ingredients in the brew.

Now imagine that a significant secular ethic, such as compassion, can be used to unite atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and adherents of all the religions of the world in a major common cause of pressing concern, such as the healing of the planet’s ecosystems and climate. This unity can be strengthened in a virtuous feedback loop, Tahrir square style, if it included concerted action, such as the adoption of veganism. When people the world over are doing things together concertedly, unitedly and not merely talking about unity, it would make it very difficult for a crank to sow dissension with just an online video.

While compassion is a qualitative emotion or feeling, a state of being, veganism is a concrete action step that exemplifies that quality, a state of doing. Consistent with the environment in their formative era, some religions drew the line at pork, some drew the line at meat, and some drew the line at mixing milk and meat, but it is time to take a concerted step further, to modernize our tea recipes based on the world we find ourselves in today. When half the world’s forests have been destroyed and three-quarters of its ocean fisheries have been overfished and destroyed, mainly to accommodate our eating habits, with half that destruction occurring in the last 50 years alone in an exponentially growing feeding frenzy, it is high time that we take such a step together. Besides, veganism draws a line where no religion has done before, thereby making this act of renunciation meaningful for all the major religions of the world.

The stage for such unified action was set during the UN Climate Change conference, COP-17, in Durban, South Africa, last year, when 40 interfaith leaders and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, signed an Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change and presented it to Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the climate change body. Along with the declaration, the leaders signed a two sentence addendum, specifying concrete action. This Durban addendum reads as follows:

“While climate change is a symptom, the fever that our earth has contracted, the underlying disease is the disconnection from creation that plagues human societies throughout the earth. We, the undersigned, pledge to heal this disconnection by promoting and exemplifying compassion for all creation in all our actions.”

Despite his wonderful words on compassion, his web site states that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not vegan. He has said in the past that he eats meat for medical reasons and I wish that he wouldn’t entrust his precious health to nutritional quacks. But wouldn’t it be amazing if the Dalai Lama follows up his words with this concrete action and urges his Facebook friends to go Vegan as well? With signatories of the Durban Addendum such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ela Gandhi (the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi), Bishop Geoff Davies, Sheikh Saleem Banda, Cardinal Napier, Rabbi Hillel Avidan and others setting examples alongside, the world can truly begin to see the unity and healing that we desperately need.

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