Eat, pray, love: A convert’s booklist
KUALA LUMPUR, May 29 — Having good food and good company regularly at your dinner table will redeem many a crappy week. Good company to me is folks you can argue with about matters you have stubborn views on. The kind where offence can occur and the volume might pitch higher. I don’t have any friends worth keeping that I can’t vent some spleen with over pasta, or say room-quieting words to.
Now before you go full fatwa, I’m not trying to get anyone to switch religions. (Well, not to another religion anyway.) I’m trying to tell you about three books, and how one of them converted me.
“Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer
I love my bacon. The pig is my favourite dead animal. I think of all the animals destined for the supermarket meat section, the pig is the one most born to be food. Pigs don’t give milk, don’t lay eggs and don’t make good belts. Its life seems best served, being served. And then I read Eating Animals, a book about “factory farming”.
Before they reach my plate, my slices of pig once lived in a pen so cramped they invariably rub up against each other. They don’t like that, so they bite each other’s rumps and tails. And pig farmers don’t like that, so the tails are “docked”. Chopped right off. Baby pigs are castrated without anaesthetic. Piglets that don’t make weight and size get “thumped”. That’s when a piglet is swung by its legs, head first, onto the concrete floor of the slaughterhouse to kill it. It’s not always a one-smack thing. Many have to be “re-thumped”.
Foer also gives us the grisly rundown on other common factory farmed animals: chicken, cows, fish (Foer dramatically but not inaccurately describes fishing as warfare). I won’t recount them here. But I will say I’ve learnt that chickens eat a lot of antibiotics. And we, in turn, eat a lot of chicken. Some perspective: Americans (Foer’s research focus is understandably State-side) are prescribed three million pounds of antibiotics as patients, but livestock are fed about twenty-eight million pounds.
But I digress.
Thanks to Foer’s book, I know how pigs live before they die.
I’m still not a vegan.
But I now realise I’m a kind of carnivore hypocrite. I know the cruel practices, the health dangers, the blatant and systematic inhumanity involved in bringing me my supermarket meats. I now feel there is no way to be an omnivore (even sticking to fish) and still call oneself truly ethical and blameless in the plight of animal suffering. They suffer. They don’t need to be loveable or intelligent for their suffering to be real. And when I order my bacon, I’m saying, “I’m ok with it”. I can no longer plead ignorance. And unless I convert, I will stay a hypocrite. Finally, I understand — we are what we eat.
So. Result: No conversion. But I’m now drawn to YouTube slaughterhouse videos, which, not coincidentally, is how a lot of vegans come to the faith.
“god is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens (Yes, small “g” in God)
I don’t think there is a God. And when I got into it with friends who have a faith, I would ask them to prove the existence of their God and they would fail. The religious friend would be pissed off, and I’d feel a little cheap. (Ok, a lot cheap.) But this is standard operating procedure for a lot of atheist texts. They catalogue the myriad inconsistencies and hypocrisies in the source documents for major organised religion, so you can learn how to humiliate the faithful. That isn’t very nice. It also isn’t very useful. If you don’t believe God exists, then you shouldn’t expect people to prove it. All you’ll get is dinner conversation that ends in “Let’s agree to disagree”.
I bought Hitchens’ book because I love his caustic style, but I expected it to be more of the same: well-researched, but still basically a list of quotable snipes. What I found instead was a new question to ask. One that isn’t inherently rigged or coloured by one’s own stance. It goes like this: “Name one moral thought or action that a person of faith could think or perform, that a faithless person could not.”
The conversation then isn’t does God exist, or which one is the One True God; it’s now “Do you need religion to be moral?”
And I can say that without needing to quote your Bible or Quran. I’m human and I have a conscience. That is all the qualification I — or you — need.
So. Result: No conversion, given my pre-existing status. But I suspect I’m now radicalised. Now I don’t agree to disagree. Instead, I ask friends of different faiths to admit to each other their religions all say the other’s is false.
“On Love” by Alain de Botton
“How did you meet?”
If a relationship is healthy (or new), you’ll get a knowing smile and one member of the couple will roll out a story that has as its theme “I thought it was luck, but it was really destiny”. I have such a story about my girlfriend. And when I read On Love, I had just gotten engaged.
In one chapter, De Botton actually shows you the math (and a seating chart!) used to calculate the likelihood of him meeting his lady on the same British Airways flight. He writes, “Flicking a coin, a probability of one in two prevents me from turning to God to account for the result. But when it is a question of a probability of one in 989 727, it seemed impossible that this could have been anything but fate.” It is your/my/everyone’s story not because we too have begun affairs with women met on BA, but because this is what we feel when everything falls into place.
And then, de Botton does something even more wonderful. He breaks it down and shows it as an extremely predictable journey of self-deception. It’s like describing a childhood memory you know only you could have had, and then have someone finish every sentence you make — and be right. The “unique” quality drains from your relationship.
When you start to question “meant to be”, you then question “built to last”. And the change is irreversible.
It’s a good thing.
I said I had a “what are the odds” story about my girlfriend, and I do.
My first girlfriend. I also got married. Just not to her. There is no meant to be.
Being shown how my romantic chemistry is predictable also helped me notice how I get when I fight, and now at least know when I’m weaponising things I know about the other person, just to win.
So. Result: Converted. There is a very direct relationship between what I do, and how happy my marriage is. Fate doesn’t control that. I do. And that is how it’s meant to be.