Virtue and Vegetarianism, or, Why Would an Atheist Give Up Meat for Lent?

On a recent episode of “The Atheist Experience,” one of the hosts, Matt Dillahunty, had a conversation with a caller about veganism Along the way, he talked about the difference between a moral obligation and a moral virtue. He said that he doesn’t consider not eating meat a moral obligation, but that it might be virtuous.

I agree on both points. My sister, my aunt and uncle, and one of my cousins have been vegetarian for the past several years. I definitely view them as more virtuous.

Even if I can’t say that humans have no moral obligation not to eat meat, I’m becoming less and less able to ignore the treatment of animals by the meat industry. These are animals whose lives are miserable, from beginning to end. There are alternatives, but they are more expensive, and my mother (who does most of the food shopping for the household) is not willing to spend two or three times the money for meat. My sister’s solution was to go vegetarian.

I’ve tried to go vegetarian previously, but I ran into trouble; rather than helping my bipolar disorder (which the internet had assured me it would) it made things worse. (I’ve had a lot of statistically unlikely reactions to various medications; for example, Nyquil keeps me awake.) I ended up going manic.

This time, though, I’m going to be taking a multivitamin as a nutritional “backstop.” And since I have my family around, they’ll be able to make sure that I’m still on an even keel. If I have to, I’ll bail on the whole project; I’m not going to sacrifice my health, mental or otherwise.

So why Lent?

The short answer is, I was an Episcopalian for a lot longer than I’ve been an atheist. Lent still seems like an appropriate time of year to give something up.

The longer answer is, if I think about never eating meat for the rest of my life, it seems overwhelming. It’s way too much of a commitment. But giving up meat for a month and a half? I can do that. I’ve given up chocolate multiple times, and, in what was the longest and most frustrating 40 days of my life, I gave up profanity. I can do this. And hopefully, it will be the springboard for a more lasting change, and a more virtuous life.

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