Green RisottoShould Pagans be vegetarian? It’s a question that comes up with some regularity in Pagan circles, and opinions vary widely, as they do among Pagans on virtually anything.

Some look back with fondness on the habits of our Celtic and Germanic predecessors, for whom serious feasting always included beer or mead, rowdy song and dance, and plenty of meat (on the bone, with knives being the only utensil likely to be employed from time to time). Others are more drawn to gentler ways of living, and would prefer not to harm any living thing.

Wiccans and many other Pagans honor the spirit of the Wiccan Rede: an it harm none, do what you will. And few of us would limit “none” to mean “no member of the species Homo sapiens“; most of us are firmly devoted to the idea that all beings, not just humans, are alive with spirit and are more like us than unlike us. Thus, for those who follow the Rede, the question is whether killing animals for food can be reconciled with our core ethical principles at all, or under what circumstances.

Truth be told, I have some sympathy with several different perspectives on the issue. I do believe in a life that seeks to avoid harm to myself and others, and animals are certainly included in that (as are plants as well). I think the fact that the slaughter happens “invisibly”, far away behind the pristine scenes of the supermarket counter, makes it easy for many people to eat meat who could not, with a clear heart, do the necessary killing themselves. As Pagans (or as ethical persons of any persuasion), it seems we are obliged to be informed about the true ramifications of our choices. When I lived in England twenty years ago, the local butcher shop had carcasses hanging on hooks out front, unskinned. I think they made more vegetarians among the university students there than they made customers. There was, at least, a kind of honesty to that – something that might do suburban meat consumers in the US some good.

And, if one somehow gets past the gruesomeness of killing animals, there remain serious ecological and economic issues. The reliance on animals for food is extraordinarily wasteful and damaging to the planet. It takes something like 10 times the resources to produce a pound of meat than it does to produce a pound of grain or vegetables. Most of the grain farmed today goes to feed animals for slaughter, not to feed people directly. When you start to contemplate the wastefulness of this – not just the land, but the water, the fossil fuels used to run the operations, and the pollution produced – it becomes hard to see meat eating as a wise and responsible choice. Most Pagans claim to be quite concerned about what we are doing to the Earth, whom we regard as mother and goddess. We buy carbon credits, hybrid cars, reuse our shopping bags, compost our kitchen waste, and so on. These are all important steps, but if you work the numbers, eating meat undoes all the good we achieve with these Earth-friendly practices.

On the other hand, I find myself out of step with the hard-core animal rights culture. For me, one of the lessons of the Pagan faith is that death is a natural part of life, and that we are all connected in an ecological and spiritual web, whose many strands include creatures becoming food for other creatures. I don’t believe that what the coyote does to the rabbit is immoral. I don’t believe animals (or people, for that matter) have some sort of abstract “right” to remove themselves from nature’s great system of life and death, which is sometimes violent. For me, rights are a legal concept created to solve certain problems between humans living in competitive societies; they are not some great underlying moral directive.

Instead, I find myself more in sympathy with indigenous cultures around the world, whose people subsist mostly on plant foods, but who supplement their diet with meat from hunting. When only rudimentary technology is used, a human hunter becomes something like a coyote after a rabbit. Such cultures live in close enough contact with the plants and animals they use for food that they respect them and know the spirit that lives in them. It is very different from the callous, numb consumerism that dictates eating habits in developed countries.

If I lived in the pre-industrial world of the Pagans of long ago, I might be inclined to eat meat from a hunt, on a fest day, with the spirit of both the hunter and the prey animal very much alive in the moment of the act, and honored.

But I don’t. I live in a world where meat doesn’t come from a contest between predator and prey that honors the spirit and prowess of both creatures. I live in a world where meat comes from breeding animals and subjecting them to lives of suffering, for no other reason than to serve the casual gluttony of a civilization that has lost its sense of connection with all other living things, and lost its respect for the Earth that is the source of all life.

So, should Pagans be vegetarian? I do believe it is a personal choice. My way of looking at it is not the only valid one. We can all live better lives than we do, in some area or another, and I don’t judge the priorities of others in that regard. I will say, however, that if being Pagan has anything at all to do with honoring the spirit in other living things and honoring the sacredness of the Earth, then eating meat is not something Pagans can simply take for granted, as followers of so many other traditions do. It should be a point of concern and reflection for each of us.