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Diet is the New Religion

Ethical eating in a secular age.

Food has always played a role in religious practice, both as a marker of membership within a community (like abstaining from pork) and as a spiritual ritual (like taking the Lord’s Supper). But with the decline of religious practice in the West and the resulting loss of a common code of ethics, many Westerners have turned to diet as a means of practicing ritual and asserting values.

In fact, according to Gillian McCann and Gitte Bechsgaard, for some segments of the population, food choice has become even more important than religion. 

McCann, a religious studies professor at Nipissing University, and Beschgaard, founder of the Vidya Institute in Toronto, are co-authors of The Sacred in Exile: What it Really Means to Lose Our Religion. The two writers dedicated a section of their book to exploring modern dietary choice as the crucible in which secular codes of ethics are being forged. 

“Food,” they suggest, “has become a rallying point for a variety of solutions that take seriously the sacredness of relationship to land, to food, to community.” In other words, food regimes become both an answer to a problem and a source of meaning. 

McCann has suggested in her earlier work that food helps people separate the sheep from the goats: “With any religion, food is a way of creating community and boundaries and a way of saying ‘We’re pure,’” she explained in a 2015 media release. “Because you are virtuous, you can construct people who don’t participate in your movement as unclean.” 

Grace at the table
One of the chief criticisms of religion is its divisiveness, and McCann demonstrates that food has been a means of marking our differences. But divorced from religion, food is still being used today to mark out us and them. You need only visit any number of blogs promoting the “gluten-free lifestyle” or the “vegan philosophy” to see both community-building and exclusion (or even demonizing) at work. 

As Christians, we need to carefully discern our motivations for the diets we adopt. Are we using food to demonstrate moral superiority, to exclude others from the table, or to shut down dialogue with people who don’t share our values? We need to make sure we’re not using food to alienate others. 

In his recent Banner article “Eating Toward Shalom,” philosopher Matthew C. Haltman explores stewardship in the context of our modern food system. This can be a contentious topic, but Haltman urges open-mindedness: “Ideally, there will be spirited discussion but still generous fellowship among omnivores, ‘reducetarians’ (those working to eat less meat and more plants), vegetarians, and vegans, all committed to working together to set a more gracious and compassionate table in an age of resource scarcity, ecological degradation, and increasing awareness of the needs and capacities of God’s other creatures.”

As Haltman hints, the subject of ethical eating often centres on the debate around eating meat, due in part to the work of vocal activists. But ethical eating should be neither so reductive, nor so polarizing. An ethics of food can incorporate a wide range of issues, from reducing food waste in our own homes, to fighting food insecurity for at-risk populations, to advocating for policy that supports sustainable local farming sectors.

Today, more than ever, consumers are asking questions about the ethical implications of the food they eat. Christians must be part of the conversation so that we can rightly order food choice as an expression of faithful living – not a value system in itself. 

  • Marie works for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which focuses on long-term issues facing agriculture and is supported by 4,000 farm families across the province (christianfarmers.org).

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