Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, digs deep into the question of whether veganism is a cult — or it could become one.
Very early in the morning of 2nd January 2019, I was at the BBC studios in London waiting for a radio interview that was going to launch a series of news items on all its platforms under the headline “Sacked vegan brings landmark discrimination case”. After that day, many media outlets in the world picked up the story too. About a year later, after a long campaign, the BBC had a new headline that repeated the whole media perfect storm again: “Ethical veganism is philosophical belief, tribunal rules.” As you can imagine, I had lots of press interviews between these two dates, and many of them started with the completely wrong assumption: that a philosophical belief and a religion are the same things.
I had to constantly explain that my legal case had nothing to do with religion, and a philosophical belief and a religious belief are different things. It was precise because I claimed I was dismissed by a former employer for being an ethical vegan, and ethical veganism is not a religion, that I had to go through a process in which a judge had to check if my philosophical belief fulfilled a series of conditions — known as the Granger test — to be protected under the Equality Act 2010. Had veganism been a religion, it would have already been protected.
But many journalists had not done their homework (here is an example: “Sacked activist fighting to have ‘ethical vegan’ recognised like a religion”) so they still thought that what I did was to remove the secular carpet from underneath veganism, firmly placed there by the Vegan Society since 1944. Vegandeniers and Veganphobes went even further. They raised in anger chanting: “I told you so! Veganism is a cult!!”
I recently realised that, although I have talked extensively — and also written in my book “Ethical Vegan” — about how veganism is not a religion, I have assumed that I don’t need to do the same regarding the allegations of being a cult, as it seems obvious to me that is not. However, as not all cults may be religious, I thought it may be worth looking at this accusation in more depth, and not dismissing it without due consideration. Especially because those who belong to cults do not normally admit so — and live in denial.
Why Veganism Is Not a Religion
Let’s begin with the easiest bit: showing that veganism does not really fit the concept of religion. Here is what I wrote about it in my book:
“It’s easy to prove it is not a religion, because one of the main conditions of joining one is to abandon any previous religion you were part of, and this does not happen when people become vegan. We have vegans who are Christian, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, pagan, agnostic and atheist. Veganism doesn’t have a metaphysical mythology which explains how the world was created or what happens after you die, as many religions have. It does not have sacred books or scriptures. It does not have temples, priests, monks and rituals. It does not require acts of ‘faith’ or trust in any leader. It does not have common supernatural, transcendental or spiritual elements all vegans share. You don’t even have to join the Vegan Society to be a vegan. You don’t have to register anywhere, go anywhere, be initiated in any particular way or even tell anyone. Veganism is not a religion, as pacifism, teetotalism, feminism, patriotism, environmentalism and socialism are not either.”
I should also add that there are no vegan gods, saints, prophets, or supernatural vegan creatures all vegans believe in — or that form, in any way, part of the vegan philosophy. And no contemplative or meditation-style practices are associated with veganism (although many so-called “yogi vegans” practice meditation, not because they are vegan, but because they follow spiritual paths which benefit from vegan diets). What I call spiritual vegans may indeed enter veganism because of their spiritual or religious belief, but that is just one of the five gateways into veganism (the others being health, animals, the environment and social justice), rather than defining pillars of the philosophy itself.
What Is a Cult?
Answering this question is more difficult, as not everyone agrees on what a cult (sometimes also referred to as “sect”) is. The term cult is derived from the French culte, (meaning “worship”), but in its colloquial meaning, a group of people devoted to an unusual religious or spiritual belief may be considered a cult. However, what does it mean to be “unusual”? What happens if the popularity of a cult grows and their belief becomes “usual”? Were all religions cults then, as they started being unusual when they were created? Is Sikhism a cult now because most people in the world practice other religions?
Clearly, we need a more academic definition that can tell apart cults from non-cults. Here is an early one: “a set of religious devotional practices that are conventional within their culture and related to a particular figure, and often associated with a particular place”. A person (the cult leader) and a place (a particular community in a specific location). We are getting somewhere. In modern times, though, academics have extended the definition of cult to “any a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object or goal”. As you can see, we have “philosophical belief” added into the mix now, so I am glad I decided to investigate this issue as veganism is indeed a philosophical belief (and a judge has now confirmed it).
Let’s dig deeper. In this definition, the operative word is again “unusual”. Therefore, if a cult becomes mainstream, it may no longer be a cult and may become a main religion or philosophical ideology — which does not fit its common use as most people do not see cults as “sprouting” religions or social movements. For instance, under this definition, Christianity started as a cult in the Roman Empire, and at one point the Empire itself became Christian. When in 1517 Martin Luther published his Ninety-five Theses as a reaction against the Roman Catholic Church, he started a cult according to this definition, but now Protestantism is the second-largest form of Christianity with up to one billion adherents worldwide. If we look at “figure-based” cults, did George Washington followers start a cult that culminated in a Union with a population of 329 million people? Or Gandhi’s followers in a nation with a population of 1.38 billion? Or Mao Zedong’s followers in a country of 1.40 billion? And if we look at “objects” or “goals”, was there a cult for democracy that started in ancient Greece, or a cult of Oscars that started in Hollywood? These “unusual-based” definitions are not very useful.
There are other definitions of the term “cult” that have a more pejorative meaning. In some sociological classifications of religious movements, a cult is a social group with socially deviant beliefs, and they consider that the “deviation” of the orthodoxy is a “bad thing” (they would be labelled as “un-Christian”, “un-Islamic”, “un-democratic”, etc.). The general public also sees the term as negative, because they associate it with particular notorious cults where acts of violence or abuse were committed, or they were led by despot leaders – often very delusional or power hangry – almost venerated as gods. Scholar Megan Goodwin defined the term cult when used by the general public as a shorthand meaning “religion I don’t like.” Although sociologist Amy Ryan has argued for the need to differentiate those groups that may be dangerous from more benign groups, these types of “loaded” prejudicial subjective definitions will not work either for us.
We may need a more specific objective definition used by those who study cults: The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) in the USA has an extensive list of characteristics associated with cultic groups, but many can easily be found in many other types of groups (from corporations to political parties). On the other hand, the Cult Information Centre (CIC), a British charity founded in 1987 providing advice and information for victims of cults, has a useful definition. It defines a cult as a group of people that has these five characteristics:
- It uses psychological coercion to recruit and indoctrinate potential members.
- It forms an elitist totalitarian society.
- Its founder leader is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and has charisma.
- It believes the end justifies the means in order to solicit funds or recruit people.
- Its wealth does not benefit its members or society.
That’s more like it. With this definition, we should be able to tell apart a cult from a non-cult in an objective and non-partisan way
Veganism As a Cult
We know that veganism is not a religion or a spiritual movement. And we can say that, in the sense the general public uses the word, veganism as a whole is not a cult either. But let’s see if it fits any of the more academic definitions I found.
Veganism in general does not fit the early definition as no figure or place are central to the philosophy or movement. If you think about Donal Watson, one of the most well-known founders of the Vegan Society but by no means the first vegan that ever existed, and where this society was created (in England first, but other countries followed suit), you will find that most vegans around the world have never heard of him, and they do not associate veganism with the UK at all. If veganism was a cult all vegans would somehow “worship” him or read his writings as if they were “scripture”, which clearly doesn’t happen. And there isn’t anyone else that plays that role. In fact, as the chapter on the history of veganism of my book shows, the origin of veganism is much older and more geographically dispersed than most people realise — with roots in India, the Middle East, and the Far East.
What about the more modern definition I mentioned that goes beyond spirituality? Considering that veganism is still a minority social movement, it could easily be classed as “unusual”. And vegans can be seen to form a social group defined by a philosophical belief (rooted in the ancient concept of ahimsa, which means “do no harm” or “non-violence”) and defined by the common interests in seeking to exclude all animal exploitation. Therefore, considering all this, is veganism one of those benign non-religious cults Amy Ryan talks about, then?
To answer this question, we will have to use the more specific definition of the CIC with its five defining characteristics. Let’s look at each one separately.
Firstly, veganism does not use psychological coercion to recruit and indoctrinate “potential members”. Most vegans would not even know which psychological methods this refers to (we are not “trained” in vegan camps by vegan “masters”, you know?) and when we do the so-called “vegan outreach”, we do not “recruit” people in the strict sense of the word. The objective is to help people who want to become vegan to do it sooner than later, not to join the group or any community.
It could be argued that some modern vegan street outreach events (by no means all) use some relatively sophisticated “selling” techniques (standard in the commercial world, though) to draw passers-by into conversations. These may involve politely asking questions in a Socratic manner while standing in non-threatening postures by some emotion-inducing imagery under a relaxed atmosphere. But if anyone considers these are methods of psychological coercion, then all advertising companies — and all businesses who hire them — could be blamed for using them extensively.
The key point is that passers-by who become vegan after stopping and chatting with these vegan outreachers in the street don’t have to “join” any new community and abandon their current one. No names and telephone numbers are taken (as you sometimes see in the outreach activities of proselytising cults). No address of meeting places given for them to go (as is common after chatting with cults’ members in the street). If they wish to become vegan after the conversation or watching a documentary, that would be their personal choice which they would manifest in their own personal way — and at their pace and timing — being completely self-policed. Hardly the idea of an all-controlling brainwashing cult.
Secondly, the objective of veganism is never forming an elitist society, as we dream about a vegan world where everyone is vegan, not a world “run” by vegans. And most vegan activist groups are far from totalitarian. They tend to be very democratic, and even anarchic. But even if some may be more hierarchical than others, veganism as a whole is not. There is no leadership running veganism. There is no leader, nor an elite group. There is no “power” in veganism reserved for just a few. There is no “knowledge” only those on top have access to. Veganism is un-hierarchical and equalitarian per excellence.
Thirdly, there is no founding leader that was self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and with lots of charisma. There is no leader, or leaders, full stop. Not even Donald Watson qualifies. He actually left the Vegan Society he created just a few years after, and he did not form any splinter group seeking to “steal” any power. And very few vegans would even know who succeeded him in running the society (which, by the way, was not a Head-Quarter-type society ruling over any of the other vegan societies that were created all around the world).
Fourthly, veganism does not postulate that the end justifies the means in order to solicit funds or recruit people. Unless in very rare cases of specific campaigns with a purpose, no funds are generally collected during vegan outreach “for veganism” or “for vegans” (there is not a financial department running veganism’s finances or a central fund hub from which any vegan group, or any vegan, can get money from). And, as we already said, no “recruiting” takes place as people do not “join in”, they just become vegan when they got rid of their misapprehensions after meeting vegans face to face. Vegans do not work for the vegan cause under a role structure assigned to them. Every vegan chooses the kind of vegan they wish to be, identifies under whatever sub-category of vegans they feel comfortable being labelled under, and decide when, how, and even why they will manifest the philosophical belief of veganism. No vegan is accountable to anyone else other than themselves.
And, certainly, veganism doesn’t aim to make people vegan “no matter what”. The principles of veganism would not allow “exceptions” to achieve any particular “goal” of a group or organisation. Veganism does not condone consuming animal products to stop others from doing so. It does not condone the use of violence against another sentient being to stop somebody else from being violent against another. On the contrary, the philosophy of veganism is highly ethical and consistent. Veganism does not ask people to act on others but themselves. By becoming vegan people change their behaviour, not the behaviour of others.
Finally, the issue of wealth. Veganism doesn’t have any. Some vegans might, but they generally keep it rather than share it with the rest of the vegan community. Veganism doesn’t have land owned by the vegan movement, buildings belonging to the whole vegan community, Swiss bank accounts with cash for vegans, or any asset like that. If you are thinking about the commercial value of alternatives to animal products that have been developed and commercialised (or the value of the shares of those vegan companies that have become public), they cannot be classed as the wealth of the movement as they are not owned by the movement itself — in fact, many companies producing vegan products are owned by non-vegans now, as many multinationals end up buying small vegan businesses). And remember that vegan products are not “just for vegans”. Vegetarians, flexitarians, reducetarians and pescatarians are probably the consumers that use them the most. The commercial vegan sector is the least subsidised economic sector in most countries, despite the recent rise in investment in some. Most capital and work generated by vegans end up in the non-vegan world. Just as well, as the vegan world vegans dream about is not a separate world. Is everyone’s world.
For me, the conclusion is clear. For veganism to be a cult it should clearly tick the five CIC boxes, not just one or two. I don’t think it ticks any. Therefore, veganism is not a cult.
Veganism in Cults
If veganism is neither a religion nor a cult, this doesn’t mean that a religion or a cult cannot use principles of veganism or have its members follow a vegan diet. If we consider ahimsa the most important philosophical principle behind veganism, this is also a key principle in many religions — such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Ajivikism, and especially Jainism. And when, historically, we can see the manifestation of ahimsa in following at least a vegetarian diet, we can find it practised in many unusual spiritual and religious groups that could easily be classed as cults.
For instance, the Pythagoreans in ancient Greece. Pythagoras was the “leader” of this “unusual” group that originated in the 6th century BCE in Crotone, Italy. They did not follow the “usual” religion of that region. They believed in the transmigration of the soul after death into a new body (human or animal), that the metaphysic of numbers and the conception of reality (including music and astronomy) is mathematical in nature, that philosophy is a means of spiritual purification, and in the appeal to certain mystical symbols. They demanded that members of the order should observe strict loyalty and secrecy. Pretty much a cult under all definitions. And they were all lacto-vegetarians, which in Europe at the time was considered as extreme as some people consider veganism today. And like all cults that don’t’ lose their cult status to become a major religion, the Pythagoreans were eventually persecuted by the orthodoxy and extinguished into the history books.
Manichaeism is an interesting religion created by the Mesopotamian Prophet Mani in the 3rd Century CE which lasted until the 13th century. Manicheans were dualists who broke everything down into good or evil. The Elect was an elite of Manichean priests who may have been vegan (definitively vegetarian who did not consume alcohol). Although this became an important religion in China and central Asia for a while, in most places they were persecuted as a cult of vegetarian demon-worshipers.
In 1794, the Yorkshire-born William Dorrell created a new utopian Christian cult in Leyden, Massachusetts, called the Dorrelites. Dorrell preached a vegetarian message that was founded upon the principle that people should not eat animal flesh or cause the death of any living creature. Unusually for a protestant church, he advocated a philosophy of free love, including before marriage. They held the view that each generation had a Messiah and William Dorrell was theirs (cult alarm!!). Dorrell and his followers wore wooden shoes instead of leather, and eat mostly vegetables —they drank milk, though.
The Grahamites did not drink milk or eat cheese, but they might have eaten eggs. They were created in 1830 by Sylvester Graham, an American Presbyterian minister, who advocated for dietetic and hygienic principles including cold baths, hard mattresses, open windows, a vegetarian diet with ‘Graham bread’, and drinking cold water.
In Britain, the Concordites were most likely vegans. They were created in the 1830s by James Pierrepont Greaves (a teetotal vegan who was also against tea and coffee) in a commune in London initially called Alcott house (but later renamed the Concordium), where open-air education was stressed and punishment was frowned upon.
In modern times, we still find some “unusual” spiritual groups around the world (outside or within the major religious traditions) with an alleged cultish nature, whose members are vegetarians or dietary vegans — they may even run vegan restaurants. For instance, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Source Family, Adidam, or the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association.
It is not surprising that through history we can find aspects of veganism within cults, as cult leaders may want to control the diet of their followers. A different diet from the prevailing culture at the time — especially one that leads to better health outcomes — may help cults recruit more people. Cults always go against the mainstream grain anyway, and in a carnist society, challenging “the system” often leads to acquiring a vegan diet, so some anti-establishment vegans and cult sympathisers are bound to intersect. And the rhetoric of “us” vs “them” that sometimes we have seen in vegan narratives suit those cult leaders who are seeking to shelter their members from mainstream society (as otherwise applying their psychological methods may be more difficult). For a self-appointed charismatic messianic leader and his or her elite of close followers, using a vegan diet, with its ethical and health advantages, can be a very easy and available tool for their cult building.
But one thing is the diet, and another is the entire philosophy that prevents harming anyone (including the humans under the leaders’ control). When the Vegan Society was created in 1944 as a splinter group of the Vegetarian Society founded in 1847, the secular journey of ahimsa began. This meant that you did no longer need to follow any religion — or any cult — to incorporate ahimsa in your life, and avoid harming yourself, other humans, all animals and the environment. Veganism was now free from any historical associations with cults or religions. It had become truly international and transcultural. The adjective vegan now tells which philosophy people follow, not which community they belong to. A major shift.
Cults Growing Within Veganism
Veganism as a whole is not a cult. Some historical — or modern — cults may have followed vegan diets, but they are neither part of the vegan movement nor subscribe to the modern secular philosophy of veganism. However, this does not mean that small cults cannot grow from vegan isolated communities or that, perhaps one day, important parts of the vegan movement may become a cult. Although it seems unlikely because the more mainstream veganism becomes, the more diverse and “usual” it becomes, we cannot say it is impossible. The good news is that, if veganism ever leans towards becoming cultic, there are clear warning signs we can look for, so if we are vigilant enough, we can prevent it.
The definition of cult from the Cult Information Centre has provided us with useful warning signs. We need to look for any vegan group or sub-section of the vegan movement that may start using psychological coercion to indoctrinate people. Here are some examples of “mind-controlling” techniques described by CIC that could be used: Hypnosis, Peer Group Pressure, Love Bombing, Rejection of Old Values, Confusing Doctrine, Metacommunication (Implanting subliminal messages), Removal of Privacy, Time Sense Deprivation, Disinhibition, Uncompromising Rules, Verbal Abuse, Sleep Deprivation and Fatigue, Dress Codes, Chanting and Singing, Confession, Financial Commitment, Finger Pointing, Flaunting Hierarchy, Isolation, Controlled Approval, Change of Diet (within veganism, with a more strict diet), Games, No Questions, Guilt, Fear, and Replacement of Relationships. Some of the above techniques used in isolation are not necessarily harmful in and of themselves. However, in a psychologically coercive cult environment, they are usually used massively, in extreme ways and for prolonged periods — so that’s what we need to be looking for.
I am not aware of any vegan group that does that at this scale, but I have occasionally detected some minor incipient “cultish” tendencies and behaviours that are worth keeping an eye on. For instance, peer group pressure telling other vegans that they are not vegan enough (or they should manifest their veganism in a particular way not universally accepted); or a tendency to reject all old values, not only the carnists ones (for instance, becoming anti-science or against “the system” as such); or insisting on strict ways of dressing during activism; or promoting extreme raw fasting-type diets with unsubstantiated health claims; or lacking self-criticism and blocking uncomfortable internal questioning; or promoting fear and distrust towards “outsiders” (such as intersectional vegans); or demanding unreasonable financial commitments for living in vegan communes; or obsessively chanting the same vegan slogans during many successive repetitive demonstrations; or the spreading of confusing doctrines by conspiracy theorists within the movement; or finger-pointing those who belong to another “type” of vegans; or participating in endurance events that lead to fatigue (like some “record-breaking” demos). Although such “cultish” behaviours may be sporadic and limited to a few individuals who don’t even realise the effect they may cause, and they can be easily corrected after exposing them, they may become a concern if they are systematically denied and persist over time, especially in vegan groups or organisations that are very leader-centric.
The other thing we need to keep an eye on is any attempt to form an elitist totalitarian society within veganism. I haven’t seen any sign of this yet, because there isn’t any group that has enough power, cloud, or credibility to ever have a chance to control the vegan movement in any significant way. Not even the Vegan Society. Being a member of the Vegan Society only allows you to vote in their AGM, but, apart from some discounts in some shops, doesn’t give you any power, access or privilege both inside and outside the vegan movement. Nobody is calling the shots in this movement. Not even the so-called online “influencers” have that much influence. Their “fame” often burst as soon as it grows, and their credibility is often put into question. Not even the “old school” vegans that have been vegan for many decades seem to be more influential than the new vegans that happen to be very social media savvy. I don’t think that even the powerful donors that can decide which vegan organisations will have more cash this year will be able to steer the movement towards the direction they would prefer (the vegan revolution we are experiencing does not seem to be driven by the work of the big vegan advocacy organisations, but it feels more “organic” and diffused than that).
We also need to keep an eye on anyone who self-appoint as leader of the movement, or who claims to be any sort of prophet, messiah, or “guru”, especially if they have any charisma. I don’t’ think there is much danger of that happening at a global level, as anyone who may get closer to this paradigm will most likely be promptly exposed — Wizard of Oz style. Any popular activist with many social media “worshipers” can attest how much scrutiny and criticism they get if they stand out slightly from the crowd, so imagine the furore they would cause if they ever genuinely tried to become “the leaders”. But this could happen at a local level in a group created by a “founder” who keeps a despotic tight control of everything in a secretive manner, so we need to keep an eye on those (if we find any) and ensure they don’t’ corrupt the movement.
If veganism begins to lose its moral fibre and abandons the principles of the philosophy for the sake of growing in numbers, this is also something we should pay attention to. Any vegan group that believes the end justifies the means in order to solicit funds or recruit people for them is entering the danger zone.
And finally, the money. We need to be able to follow the money that enters the movement and prevent that everyone’s wealth ends up in the pockets of a few opaque members or groups. If we see any activist, vegan group or organisation massively fundraising without specific campaign goals and projects (just to get cash in for “the cause”), or with obscure ambiguous promises of hidden benefits, we need to be alert — and yes, enticing lollipops made of shining cryptocurrency spring to mind.
These are all the things we should be paying attention to, and, only when appropriate and there is verifiable evidence, raise the alarm at the right time and place, so “cultish” tendencies do not blossom into fully formed cults, and unwilling victims end up falling into them. Especially considering that vulnerable people are more at risk to be indoctrinated and suffering the consequences of joining a cult.
Veganism is not a cult, but cults can appear at any time from anywhere in any place or society —including in the most veganphobic carnist land, by the way. There are always corrupt power-hungry people eager to manipulate others for their benefit. We should be on guard and, if they come, protect the vegan movement from them.
There are plenty of warning signs, so we should be alright.
A growing diverse decentralised movement will be our best antidote.