by Kim Socha
Any secularist worth her salt has foregone the fictions of religion that many still cling to. Thus, I pose Farm to Fable as a challenge to freethinkers to question yet another set of entrenched fictions: the value and purpose of non-human animal species.
Chapter 1 takes on the complex nature of human belief systems, a project aptly followed by the next chapter which explores truths about others species, most of which make our treatment of them suspect at best and abhorrent at worst. The third and fourth chapters pair well. In the former, Grillo explores what he terms the “foundational fictions” about animals, many of which arise from world religions, though such narratives permeate the secular world too. As the author notes, “The ubiquity of the naturalistic fictions used to defend or promote eating animals, used by religious and secular leaders of all faiths and cultures, is dizzying.” In the latter chapter, Grillo explains the ways in which these fallacies are cemented by corporations whose financial bottom lines are premised upon consumers’ continual acceptance of animal myths.
Chapter 5 delves deeper into those mythologies through analysis of the ways in which the lives of animals as individual persons are erased by a virulent propaganda machine; herein, chickens receive special attention, as they, combined with turkeys, comprise about 99 percent of animals slaughtered for American consumption. (Grillo, President and Director of Free from Harm, runs a sanctuary for domesticated fowl, so he has regular interaction with this fascinating, misunderstood species.) The next chapter takes readers through the many rituals of animal slaughter and consumption, identifying the logical fallacies needed to maintain our continued acceptance of supposed facts such as a hierarchical food chain and the “meat eating = big brain” theory.
The good news is that if you read Grillo’s book and decide to go vegan, the final chapter—indeed, the book as a whole—provides an arsenal of responses for the questions others will pose to you, from earnest inquiries (Won’t chickens’ eggs be wasted if humans don’t eat them?), to debatable assumptions taken as truth (Don’t you know humans have canine teeth expressly made for eating meat?), to inane questions meant to undermine vegan ethics (Isn’t eating a plant the same as eating a cow?). The author addresses such fictions, and then some, with a range of resources pulled from popular culture and leading-edge scientific research. Thus, this book should be of interest to vegan readers as well, for Grillo concludes with analysis of best (and worst) practices for vegan outreach. The short conclusion: tell the truth. Read the book for more on the potency of truth telling.
While there are many audiences for Farm to Fable, the freethought community is an ideal reader base. For some, becoming atheist, humanist, or agnostic requires giving up the narrative of human exceptionalism, a fiction underpinned by the Judeo-Christian presumption that humans alone are made in God’s divine image. In a broader sense, that is similar to Grillo’s purpose, to help readers “dispense with the grand delusion—the myth of human supremacy and how we abuse our power over other powerless beings just because we can.” With this goal in mind, the author introduces the idea of psychological hoarding: holding on to beliefs that make one feel protected by a cloak of “normalcy.” By way of concluding, he collectivizes animal fictions by noting how “they all appeal to our deeply held beliefs and values about farmed animals, our role as humans in the world, and eating as a daily social and cultural ritual.”
There’s another reason secularists should read Farm to Fable: they are already overwhelmingly overrepresented in animal rights and liberation communities. Studies arising from the social sciences support this contention, as do formal and informal surveys. As such, the secular community is well primed to question oppressive and violent fables that perpetuate needless suffering.
This brings me to a final fiction that Grillo lays to rest: the myth of vegan purity. He asserts, “One of the most damaging misconceptions of veganism” is its characterization “as a state of moral perfection.” Veganism is about avoiding engagement in animal exploitation and harm as much as is practically possible, not ceasing to be a cog in the cycle of life and death on planet Earth. While I’m certainly not posing vegans as a minority on par with historically oppressed populations, vegans face a lot of hostility (perform a Google search of “why do people hate vegans” for a panoply or reasons why, one of which is, as Grillo points out, misconceptions about their self-conceptions). Atheists are in a similar cultural position.
Michael Lipka’s “10 Facts about Atheists,” published by the Pew Research Center, reports the following: “Americans like atheists less than they like members of most major religious groups” and “[a]bout half of Americans (51%) say they would be less likely to support an atheist candidate for president, more than say the same about a candidate with any other trait mentioned in a Pew Research Center survey—including being Muslim.” If nothing else, my hope is that this shared ideological marginalization will make secularists, most of whom still accept human supremacy as fact, open to the message of Farm to Fable.
It isn’t always easy to take a stance that makes one unpopular; in fact, it can lead to ridicule and out-of-hand dismissal. There are billions of dollars riding on the promise that human beings will continue to ignore the lived realities of the animals they consume. At the same time, there are literally, when bringing aquatic animals into the equation, trillions of more-than-human species dying every year for human pleasure, not necessity. Consequently, we have a planet suffering immense destruction from the animal agricultural industry. We also have chickens, cows, pigs and other species being fed vast amounts of food to get fattened for slaughter while our fellow humans suffer malnutrition and starvation. This state of affairs leads to a conclusion that many have come to when confronted with religious myths: none of it makes sense. Robert Grillo’s Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal-Consuming Culture will help you make sense of why you and/or others view animals as consumable goods, as opposed to sentient beings with distinct identities. With evidence in hand, here’s hoping his non-vegan readers give up their position on the paradoxically secular Great Chain of Being.
*Full disclosure: The author provided me with an advanced copy for review.
Kim Socha, Ph.D., is author of Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed, and a contributor to Atheist Voices of Minnesota; she’s also an English instructor, animal advocate, and intersectional social justice activist. She publishes and speaks on topics such as animal liberation, ageism, atheism, feminism, radical pedagogy, and youth justice.