If you like to listen to something more productive than music when you’re commuting, I recommend Librivox — a very large free library of audio books of public domain works. When I was browsing their catalogue a title jumped out: “Vegetarianism and Occultism”. Interesting, I thought, I wonder if this is an anti-vegetarian rant that claims vegetarianism results in occult practices? It sounded good for a laugh so I downloaded and listened to it. It was in fact the opposite. It was a pro-vegetarian rant with occultism thrown in as a bonus. Oh well! Still, that’s even better to look at from a skeptical perspective.
The book is by C.W. Leadbeater who was a theosophist in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s quite short and he makes three main types of arguments for vegetarianism: moral arguments, health arguments and arguments to the occult. The moral ones I have no issue with, finding them generally convincing enough not to eat at least mammals, birds and reptiles. However it is interesting to note that he devotes very little time to the moral arguments, perhaps believing they’re too obvious.
The real fun begins right at the start when he lists “selfish” reasons for being vegetarian, namely health reasons. His book should be read by every skeptic as an early, historical blueprint for modern medical crankery. The claims he makes are extremely bizarre to say the least. Meat is low in nutrients. Meat cannot be digested by the body. Meat makes you depressed. Meat makes you lethargic and tired. I think he might have even said meat has little to no useful protein compared to vegetables because it can’t be absorbed by the human body. He sweepingly generalised. He argued from assertion. He argued from selected anectotal evidence, for instance a town of mine workes in South America who supposedly ate mainly wheat and no meat and could carry hundreds of kilos without a problem. (That and they were ten feet tall, breathed fire and were impervious to bladed weapons.) He quotes (selectively) from medical doctors, saying that the medical consensus is now starting to shift. Just like the “growing dissent” against “Darwinism” that’s about to take off any day now.
Of course it is true that in his time medical research was in its infancy compared to today. At the time, probably even the most intellectually rigorous didn’t have much more than anecdotal evidence at their disposal. Still, this is the problem of hanging your ethical stance on very specific claims in a complex area such as health. It makes your ethics appear dependent on the health claim (to irrational creatures like humans).
It was in his discussion about occultism that I began to convulse with laughter. He says eating meat (and thereby contributing to the suffering of fellow creatures) is very detrimental to occult studies. And he should know, having advanced greatly in the field and having found many Spiritual Truths that us unoccult mortals shan’t know. It’s not necessary to be a vegetarian to advance in occultism, he says, but why disadvantage yourself by dragging yourself down? And of course eating meat will cut you off from the levels of the highest oneness with Gaia or the Goddess or Beelzebub’s Niece.
Of course, useful information can come even from a dubious book like this one. He mentions something I wasn’t aware of: the appalling combination of the horrors of the industrial revolution and the grittiness of animal slaughter. Namely the employment of young children in slaughterhouses in the 19th century. Indeed this bit of child labour is even more Dickensian than the traditional Dickensian occupations, given working in a slaughterhouse is the most dangerous job, with annual industry turnover being 75%-100%.
But mainly the book shows that crankery hasn’t changed too much in the last century. The tone is of a person who Knows what’s true and seems genuinely and honestly uninterested in the evidence for/against his position. His crankery is part of a worldview and his factual claims proceed from his worldview. If eating meat is immoral it MUST be bad for your health. This is very similar to modern crank counterparts:
- If drug companies engage in unethical practices, their drugs/vaccines MUST be bogus.
- If food companies engage in unethical practices GM food MUST be bad for you.
- If abortion is immoral, getting an abortion MUST be bad for your health.
Sorry Leadbeater, that’s the interesting thing about this world. The morality of something is independent to its benefit. Even if something is immoral (eg. drinking the blood of infants…mixed with puppies), it could be the healthiest, most rejuvenating thing in the world.