The latest data on Christianity comes from a recent report from the Pew Research Center on religion and public life. It sounds as if Christianity is on track to disappear as the dominant religion in America within a generation or two. In fact, it’s possible that Christianity might eventually disappear from American life altogether. Is this good news or bad news? The answer might seem to depend on whether you identify with Christianity. If you’re some religion other than Christianity, or atheist or agnostic, it’s great news; otherwise, not so much.
I’d like to ask a slightly different question — what does this mean for vegans? Even Christian vegans hold a perspective which is so different from that of other Christians, that the decline of Christianity does not clearly have a good or a bad implication.
The Pew Research report shows that Christianity in the United States is in sharp decline. Between 2007 and 2014, the space of just seven years, the number of people who are self-identified Christians has declined from 78.4% to 70.6% — nearly eight percentage points. As recently as the 1990’s, Christianity’s reported support was around 85%. When you look at the details, this decline is even more striking, because the decline is most pronounced in the younger generation. Christianity is hanging on to its majority status just barely, and only because there are many elderly Christians still around who are slowly dying off. The drop in allegiance to Christianity is not just serious; it is catastrophic.
Personally, I am a believer in radical change. I want to see life transformed. Whatever happened to simple living and nonviolence? The idea of integrating veganism into a comfortable Christianity supported by the upper class, by adapting veganism to the current religious framework, or by handing out vegan pamphlets at Christian gatherings, just has no appeal to me at all. This is not the radical transformation I’d like to see. But at least there was a pragmatic reason to support such actions; Christianity is the majority religion, and someone has to take the gospel of veganism or vegetarianism to these people. I once heard of an atheist who would hand out Christian vegetarian pamphlets at Christian gatherings just for this reason.
Now that this comfortable upper-class Christianity is in irreversible decline, even this pragmatic reason seems to be kicked away. Why try to change a dying religion which is hostile to veganism? Why not just let it die on its own, since it doesn’t seem to need any help? If there is something of value in the message of Jesus — and I think there is — then it needs to be removed from dying contemporary Christianity, and injected into a new spiritual movement that would have veganism as one of its foundational principles.
Here are two potential alternatives. The first is that as Christianity shrinks, it may change its nature. If we go back in time to the first through fifth centuries, we can see the opposite process. As Christianity expanded into the secular Roman world of the fourth and fifth centuries, Christianity lost the message of compassion for all creatures, simple living, and nonviolence, and became a platform for conventional morality. Perhaps as Christianity contracts, it will change again, by regaining the original message. Perhaps by working with (or as) Christians, we can aid this process.
A second possibility is something like “Vegan Spirituality,” a project of In Defense of Animals. This is a non-sectarian group with people from all different religions. It does not have any particular metaphysical system, saying that “compassion, empathy, and reverence for all living beings are essential qualities of Vegan Spirituality.” This might be the seed of a new spiritual awakening that would have more in common with the message of Jesus than anything in contemporary Christianity.