Eating Animals, Nonreligion and Reconciling Human-Nonhuman Relations

In this blog, Anna Sofia Salonen considers the need to incorporate nonreligious people when looking at the relationships between humans and nonhumans.

Eating in general, and eating animals in particular, is a key aspect when considering human relationships with nonhuman others. It is also a question at the heart of the study of religion. How people relate to the question of eating animals is pivotal in many religions and embedded in theological questions concerning human relationships with and responsibilities towards nonhuman creation. But how should we approach the question of eating animals in a world where nonreligion is thriving? Does the rapid rise of nonreligion change how people relate to the nonhuman world, or even who we eat?

Christianity has been accused of promoting a theology of dominion that sets humans above nature as masters and abusers. This position justifies humans’ overconsumption of the earth’s food sources. On the other hand, the Christian idea of stewardship coveys an idea that humans should take care of the world around us. However, with the implicit hierarchy between humans and the rest of creation, the idea of stewardship also implies that the nonhuman world is a resource to be utilized for human use.

Lately, Christian thinkers have explored insightful new ways of envisioning humanity’s place and responsibility within creation (e.g. Warners & Heun 2019). This relationship would be based on reconciled relations between humans and nonhuman others and lead to more sustainable eating practices. Reconciliation is a theological concept that addresses the renewal of relationships. It is said to remove distortion and create the conditions for harmonious relationships (Voster 2018).

As fruitful as these explorations of restored relations might otherwise be, they often exclude many people from their scope by referring to their audiences as “we Christians”. This seemingly inclusive, yet ultimately exclusive language not only ignores other religions, but also nonreligious people. In the face of the environmental crisis, the challenge to reconcile broken relations between humans and nonhuman others, which includes changing harmful eating practices, confronts all people regardless of religious or nonreligious identity.

There is a need to explore humanity’s place and responsibilities within the world that expand and transcend religious boundaries and make room for nonreligious views and practices. A way forward is to seek points of converge between religious and nonreligious views. In my research on ordinary people’s accounts of eating animals, I found that concepts of dominion, stewardship and reconciliation all resonate in how both religious and nonreligious people talk about their food choices (Salonen 2019).

What I found was, first, that the idea of human dominion over the rest of creation does not only appear in explicitly religious accounts. Nonreligious people use this framing too. They do so by drawing from an idea that humans are naturally carnivores or animals who eat other animals. Further, human dominion is accounted when resorting to the idea that eating animals is a matter of unrestricted individual choice. This view echoes human dominion where people can choose freely what they consume.

Second, my research has found that both religious and nonreligious people draw from a cultural imaginary that emphasizes responsible stewardship. The language of stewardship has influenced the way people, whether religious or nonreligious, tend to comprehend the human-animal relations. In other words, identifying as nonreligious does not straightforwardly lead to the rejection of the idea of human dominion nor stewardship, views which have often been associated with religion, and in particular Christianity.

Further, both religious and nonreligious imaginaries can contain efforts to reconcile detrimental relations between the human and nonhuman world, which are epitomized in how humans mistreat food animals and the factory farm system. The possibility for reconciliation opens once people acknowledge that their eating patterns can cause suffering to animals and when they are no longer sure what the right way to approach the question of eating animals actually is. In other words, reconciliation requires uncertainty, willingness to question one’s actions and withdrawal from justifying one’s views.

Due to this uncertainty and ambivalence, pursuits towards reconciliation and respect do not automatically lead to rejecting eating animals completely, but they can herald a more conscious consumption of animal meat. However, in the context of contemporary consumer society, there is hardly a cultural repertoire that would foster nonreligious expressions of reconciliation. Without ways to express the need and will to reconcile and show respect to food animals, people are left with justifying their existing eating practices rather than seeking change. 

The case of eating animals shows that there is a need to incorporate nonreligious people into the scope of analyses that focus on relationships between humans and nonhumans. The concepts of dominion, stewardship and reconciliation help to make sense of how religious and nonreligious people navigate the consequences of their everyday actions. These ideas guide people in how they tend to see the world – and perhaps inhibit seeing the world in a different light.

Nonreligious people are not one and the same. They do not form a unified group in terms of how they see themselves and the world, and in many ways, they are indistinguishable from the rest of the population. Yet, despite this diversity, it is not enough to approach nonreligion as an absence of religion, or as an abandonment of religiously influenced cultural repertoires of thinking and acting.

Nonreligion and food can bring out points of convergence between religious and nonreligious views. Only a small fraction of people in my study framed their ideas and ideals about eating animals in explicitly religious terms, yet much of what they said resonates with theological accounts that discuss human-nonhuman relations and the humans’ roles and responsibilities in the world. Nonreligious people are both affected by and participate in constituting, reproducing and reimagining relations between humans and nonhuman world. Thus, their views should be counted when discussing these issues.

Keywords: dominion; stewardship; reconciliation; meat consumption; food consumption; nonreligion

Sources Cited

Salonen, A. S. 2019. Dominion, stewardship and reconciliation in the accounts of ordinary people eating animals. Religions 10(12), 669.

Vorster, J. M. 2018. The doctrine of reconciliation: Its meaning and implications for social life. In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi 52: 1–8.

Warners, D. P. & M. K. Heun, eds. 2019. Beyond Stewardship. New Approaches to Creation Care. Grand Rapids: Calvin College Press.

Anna Sofia Salonen is a theologian and sociologist of religion, with a broad interest in nonreligion, food consumption, morality, everyday life and social inequality. She works as an Academy of Finland postdoctoral researcher at Tampere University, Finland. Her current project (Im)moderation in everyday food consumption (2018-2021) explores the content and construction of ethical lives of ordinary people by asking what they consider to be moderate with regards to food consumption and by analyzing how they construct these views.

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