Church was a major part of my life growing up. I went to both church service and children’s Sunday School on Sundays, choir practice on Tuesdays, and a kids’ program on Wednesday nights aptly called “Wednesday Night Kids’ Club.” Every summer, I’d spend a week of mornings in someone’s backyard for Vacation Bible School along with a full week at a Christian summer camp.
I loved church.
Church was like school, which I also loved, but with better food and cooler activities. We listened to adults tell stories and watched videos like McGee and Me! about a real-life kid who learned lessons from his skateboarding cartoon friend. We ate snacks and played silly, Double Dare-style games. We sang and prayed. Everyone was happy and everything we did felt fun.
In middle school and the first two years of high school, I attended youth group on Sunday nights as well as occasional Friday night youth events. Instead of quitting the Sunday School, Kids’ Club, and Vacation Bible School I’d aged out of, I became a teacher.
Naturally, I invited my school friends to church. I wanted to let them in on the good time. Most of my friends were Catholic, and they were amazed at how different and fun my church was compared to theirs. I’d been taught that although Catholics prayed to the same God we did, most hadn’t been “saved” because they hadn’t accepted Jesus into their hearts.
When I was in middle school, I began asking friends to accept Christ after church leaders suggested it. My church didn’t preach fire and brimstone. They essentially said anyone who hadn’t accepted Christ wouldn’t get into Heaven, a place they described as perfection itself. I wanted the fun I had with friends to extend into eternity.
Shortly after, our youth pastor took me aside to congratulate me on making two of my “secular” friends regular youth group attendees. They’d both accepted Christ recently, and he praised me for being “calculating” in leading them to this decision.
I felt proud of myself, but didn’t know what “calculating” meant. After I asked my mom to explain it later, I didn’t feel right about his compliments. I hadn’t plotted out the best strategy for changing my friends’ beliefs. I was genuinely excited about Jesus and shared my excitement.
That same faith led me to stop eating animals when I was in Mexico for a youth group missions trip over spring break of my sophomore year of high school. We helped build a local church and spent lots of time reading the Bible, praying, and reflecting. In quiet reflection, I felt spiritual, and closer to God than I ever had in my life. Perhaps I was actually feeling close to “the Universe” or aligned with my true self; regardless of what you want to call it, the experience was great. I felt a sense of connectedness to all life, completely in tune with my path, and full of love.
When I read dictates such as, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” and “How blessed is he who considers the helpless,” I couldn’t help but think that they applied to non-human animals as well.
I suddenly understood what people meant when they said God “called” them to do things. I felt God calling me. To stop gossiping with friends. To stop listening to music that called women “bitches.” To go on another missions trip. And to stop eating animals.
In the prior years, I’d experienced a few moments at the dinner table in which I felt unnerved by the idea of eating animals. I’d always pushed the feeling aside and eaten my meals. Now, as I was intensively praying and reading the Bible, these twinges seemed less like they’d been odd quirks to ignore and more like the voice of God.
The Bible is full of instructions about aiding the disadvantaged, such as, “Defend the oppressed” and “Help the weak.” When I read dictates such as, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” and “How blessed is he who considers the helpless,” I couldn’t help but think that they applied to non-human animals as well. An animal bred solely for food seemed like the epitome of weak, voiceless, and helpless.
I followed my callings.
I became a vegetarian on my 16th birthday. It was a landmark birthday, occurring during the first week I’d spent outside of the United States. My life felt bold, and in the midst of transformation. Vegetarianism wasn’t a part of our church’s religion, and I didn’t know any other vegetarians.
(I should note here that vegetarianism is part of some Christian religions, most notably, the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Thank you, dear Seventh Day Adventists for providing a pool of vegetarians that researchers can study long-term! And of course Christianity doesn’t have a hold on abstention: many Buddhists are vegetarian; many Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork; many Hindus don’t eat beef.)
A few months later, I went on a 6-week long summer mission trip to Mexico and Guatemala with an outside Christian organization. This trip was different. Instead of building a church and spending time in quiet reflection, we were full-on proselytizing.
With two years of high school Spanish under my belt, I approached people on the streets of Mexico City, Guatemala City, and Antigua, Guatemala, asking if they knew Christ. Being Catholic, many said yes. I shared tracts with them that explained they had to accept Christ to get into Heaven, and emphasized that having experienced the rites of Catholicism wasn’t enough.
In rural areas near Monterrey, Mexico and Champerico, Guatemala, we went door-to-door, asking if we could come in and talk to people about Jesus. Many people pointed to figures of Christ on the cross hanging on their living room wall or front door to show they were already Christian. In broken Spanish, I’d muddle my way through explaining the difference between works and faith.
The discomfort I had felt years earlier when the youth pastor called me “calculating” reappeared, only it was much stronger this time. I was unsettled. The word “calculating” hadn’t fit back then, but it did now. Our group leaders had encouraged us to be strategic as we “witnessed,” talking about what was important to those we encountered. We asked mothers, Don’t you want to see your children after you die?
After returning home, I felt distant from the faith that had been inseparable from my identity for my entire life. My friend group at school was expanding. I wasn’t only friends with fellow “born again” Christians and the errant Catholic, as had been the case in elementary school and middle school. I now had a Muslim friend, a Buddhist friend, and a growing number of friends claiming Atheism.
I took an anthropology course and learned words like “ethnocentric,” which applies to people who unfairly judge other cultures according to values of their own. I read “Body Ritual of the Nacirema,” a mock anthropological report on people who maintain special shrines at which they purify themselves. Of course, the Nacirema are Americans, and the biased “report” describes their bathroom habits from the viewpoint of an outside observer. I knew I had similarly judged Mexican and Guatemalan Catholics from an outsider perspective.
I could no longer call myself Christian.
As a Christian, my beliefs were genuine and my motives in evangelizing pure. I believe that’s true for most religious people, including those on my mission trip. People with pure hearts can still act in ethnocentric ways, however.
As I disentangled myself from my Christian faith, my vegetarianism remained. Later, it became veganism. Although I no longer believe a Christian God is “calling” me to abstain from animal products, I do feel that same inner tug telling me veganism is the best course of action.
On some level, I want to be a vegan activist. I feel terrible about how poorly factory farmed animals are treated and know the abuse will only stop with the mobilization of many people. I recognize there are many health benefits of a plant-based diet. I urgently want us to stop climate change, and I know the spread of veganism could help.
Yet, the parallels between Evangelical Christianity and veganism stop me from trying to spread veganism. You will go to Heaven or Hell. The earth will remain habitable for humans or will not. You can be saved or damned. Humanity can survive or go extinct. You are a follower of God, or living in sin. You are vegan, or you contribute to murder.
I’m not comfortable using a scary story to persuade people to change their beliefs or lifestyles, even if I believe that scary story is true.
The descriptions of what will happen as climate change becomes more severe even mirror how the Bible discusses end times. Revelations 8:7 says, “[T]here came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down on earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.” Climate change is expected to bring bigger hailstones and has already doubled the area of forest fires in the U.S.
I’m not comfortable using a scary story to persuade people to change their beliefs or lifestyles, even if I believe that scary story is true. Like religion, food is culture. As a white middle-class American woman, I don’t believe I should tell anyone that the way they eat is wrong, just as I wish I hadn’t ever told anyone their religious beliefs were wrong.
For now, I am content with being vegan, but not being a vegan activist. I also think being a quiet vegan could have a greater impact since it’s less likely to backfire, though I’m not staying quiet as a strategy. I’d rather be a thoughtful vegan who explores questions rather than supplies answers or takes a judgmental stance.