The Problem with Atheist Vegans: Or the Problem with Ideology

Well, apparently writing about philosophy has me thinking even more about philosophy. It got me thinking of a problem a friend of mine has with me: why I always seem to be sitting on the fence in terms of issues. In this specific case with this friend, why I can’t seem to come out on a concrete position on atheism and veganism.

When I was younger and much more ignorant and arrogant, I recall a specific instance in high school where I fervently opposed the ideological position of a particular political party in Canada. I said something along the lines of “anyone who supports this party is an idiot and they should die.” Immediately after those words came out of my mouth, I felt instant regret as I didn’t really mean what I said. I still feel terrible to this day of having said that, as it was targeted at a really nice human being who just happened to have a different opinion than mine.

What happened? I let ideology take hold of my thoughts and actions, allowing it to make a visceral, amygdala hijack type of response rather than a logical and rational response.

Charlie Munger talked about the dangers of ideology in the speech above.

If you care to read it rather than listen to it:

Another thing I think should be avoided is extremely intense ideology because it cabbages up one’s mind. You see it a lot with T.V. preachers (many have minds made of cabbage) but it can also happen with political ideology. When you’re young it’s easy to drift into loyalties and when you announce that you’re a loyal member and you start shouting the orthodox ideology out, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in, and you’re gradually ruining your mind. So you want to be very, very careful of this ideology. It’s a big danger. In my mind, I have a little example I use whenever I think about ideology. The example is these Scandinavia canoeists who succeeded in taming all the rapids of Scandinavia and they thought they would tackle the whirlpools of the Aron (sp) Rapids here in the United States. The death rate was 100%. A big whirlpool is not something you want to go into, and I think the same is true about a really deep ideology. I have what I call an iron prescription that helps me keep sane when I naturally drift toward preferring one ideology over another and that is: I say that I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who support it. I think only when I’ve reached that state am I qualified to speak. This business of not drifting into extreme ideology is a very, very important thing in life.

With this in mind, let’s move onto the atheist vegan friend.

This friend is a mildly “activist” vegan. He found veganism a few years ago. Before he was a vegan, he became a mildly “activist” atheist. We would go back and forth on the merits of religion since we both shared common grounds on being non-believers of any particular religion, but I would never cede and claim myself an atheist. That would annoy him.

Now, he’s less interested in talking about atheism and more interested in animal activism. And we talk about veganism, animal rights, etc whenever we get together. Again, while I share a lot of common ground with the whole notion of veganism and animal rights, I won’t cede that I am a vegan or an animal activist. That annoys him.

I find the danger with submitting to a particular ideology dangerous, like Munger stated above. Once you start shouting the orthodoxy amongst other hardcore supporters, you are vulnerable and susceptible to becoming comfortable and less critical. It’s easy to say “I’m an atheist, thus all religions are wrong and I don’t have to think about that anymore” or “I’m a vegan and animal activist, thus all meat eating is wrong.”

I am highly suspicious of any attempts at the monopolization of ideas and morality because when you claim something as the only truth, you are in a way saying you know everything there is to know on that subject, and I find that highly dubious (as I pointed out in the post on philosophy).

A little while ago day, this friend asked me to watch Cowspiracy on Netflix. I did. When I told him about some of my criticisms of the documentary – of which I thought were very valid, but for the sake of brevity won’t go into all the details here – he got really defensive. I was a little surprised as this is someone who is intelligent, very rational and logical, and tends to approach things critically, as evidenced by his atheism and veganism.

I suspected that he was slipping into confirmation bias through his commitment to his self-imposed ideology of veganism and animal activism. If true, it’s a rather strange thing to witness.

And this is the reason I am so uneasy about submitting to a particular position and proclaiming an ideology. Like Munger, I want to know the subject inside and out, front and backwards, before I claim such a strong position. And to be brutally honest, I don’t know enough about most topics to do this. And I’m fine with that, as I’d rather be cautious and continue probing the problem rather than rushing to a potentially flawed position.

I really do genuinely think a lot of the arguments and positions on atheism, veganism, and animal rights that my friend poses are strong and possibly very true. I think my problem lies in submitting to a particular ideology, without fully contemplating and settling the uneasy questions that are difficult to answer. I found this article on an ex-vegan who made parallels to cults very interesting. I found the comment section even more fascinating, as the vegans and non-vegans troll it out against each other, ironically with the vegans confirming the author’s entire thesis.

Perhaps this is just a quirk of our personalities: his more upfront and activist and mine more passive. Perhaps my passiveness biases my outlook on how someone who isn’t passive may approach a particular problem and solution. Or perhaps I just don’t care to the same degree on these topics than he does.

Still, I think we need to be on guard of slipping into ideology as its seduction can lead to the deterioration of critical thinking. You only need to take a quick glance at any page in history to see how destructive blind adherence to ideology can be. And the slippery slope towards blind adherence begins with the slow chanting of the orthodoxy.

If I could summarize it all in a graphically disturbing way: I want to avoid at all costs circle jerking inside an echo chamber.

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16 thoughts on “The Problem with Atheist Vegans: Or the Problem with Ideology

  1. Nice one! Of course, I’m exercising confirmation bias here because I wrote almost the exact same thing in the post I’m publishing tomorrow.

    But let’s forget about my post for a second. Let’s discuss confirmation bias.

    Part of your post is about confirmation bias and avoiding it. My post is about the same thing. So, I enjoyed your post because of my bias about rejecting confirmation bias.

    I’m biased about rejecting confirmation bias. So, I have confirmation bias about information against confirmation bias.

    1. I mean, I suppose I could be confirming my own bias towards being suspicious of any person or group trying to proselytize me, thus rejecting or putting a strong handicap on a logically and rationally sound set of arguments for my conversion to the faith.

      I guess I just take the whole notion of “question everything” to extremes whenever it feels like someone is trying to convert me. It’s weird. I don’t believe in a deity. I think the vegans have the best argument. But I can’t get myself to calling myself an atheist or a vegan. Maybe I’m TOO libertarian when it comes to this?

  2. Confirmation bias is everywhere. Index fund investors frequent sites written by index fund investors. Dividend investors read sites written by dividend investors. Perma-bears read other perma-bears. Perma-bulls read other perma-bulls. Gold bugs read other gold bugs.

    If you want to be a successful blogger, you have to create a following, and feed their confirmation bias. You have to sound like your way is the only way, your method is the best, and anyone else is wrong. You can write books, do speeches, sell subscription services. I don’t trust “investors” who claim to be rich and successful, yet they have to write educational columns or sell books.

    If you want to be a successful investor, you have to be able to change your mind when the story changes. You have to work really hard – not just reading annual reports, but reading sentiment for misplaced bets. But you will not gain a wide following because most people view changing your mind as if it is a bad thing. There is risk in that approach, because you have both your money, and reputation at stake.

    My personal goal is to be a good investor – there is more freedom in that, and suits my approach where I can simply sign off one day. I have a lot to learn, but once my capital reaches a certain size in a few years I will be closer to my goal.

    1. Science is all about changing your mind when the evidence changes. It is actually really surprising how much resistance there can be to change sometimes in science. Einstein and quantum mechanics comes to mind. If Einstein is fallible, us mere mortals need to be even more diligent of being ready to change as the information/evidence changes.

      Any thoughts on atheism or veganism (I know, loaded topics)?

      1. Evidence can be “manufactured” to prove anything you want to prove.

        I do not know anything about science. I do know that investing is not science. I also know that super smart individuals are usually terrible investors.

        Best Regards,


        1. I would argue that investing/finance is an intersection between science and art. It is not fully science nor is it fully an art. It’s an uncomfortable and contradicting mix of both. It *could* be a science if one had all the data points (which obviously is outside the realm of possibility at this time).

          Still, it’s superior to bring the scientific method into the game than going purely on gut feeling. The takeaway is that, just like science, you need to know when to change your opinion/strategy as the data changes. Sure some data can be manufactured to prove anything, but then the skill becomes being able to sift between varying degrees of accurate “evidence” and coming to the best conclusion you possibly can make.

          1. I agree that investing is part art, and part science. I also agree about being inquisitive, though not too much due to the art aspect of it. Sometimes being too inquisitive and scientific could lead you to miss the forest for the trees. For example, Graham Newman almost didn’t buy GEICO. The profits from buying and holding GEICO were almost as much as the profits they generated from all the hard work with finding undervalued securities, buying them and selling them for 2 decades.

  3. I am a notorious fence sitter! I’ve never really thought of this as a positive or useful trait until fairly recently.

    There are some big negatives such as analysis paralysis but I think the positives overall outweigh the negatives.

    I wanted to write a few posts about environmental concerns and climate change last year but beforehand wanted to really back up my opinions on it. That is a whole can of worms to open for fence sitters like us let me tell you! After about 6 months of relentless reading my initial opinions haven’t changed much but I still feel no more able to write a post about it, there is just too much to cover to be able to put in a good argument either way (and debunk all the crap out there) in one or two blog posts. I think people will just have to make up there own minds and me adding to the echo chamber is not going to help.


    1. In terms of climate change, I think any reasonable person can agree that:

      a) humans spew a lot of carbon into the atmosphere
      b) this is causing an effect.

      After that though… it gets so complicated. Debates back and forth on the merit of complex models that “project/predict” climate patterns over time. What exactly the effects of all this extra carbon in the atmosphere is going to be. What exactly the temperature change will be due to the carbon in the atmosphere. And etc, etc.

      It’s so damn complex that I don’t think anyone actually knows what the hell is going to happen to any degree of certainty. You can probably categorize hypothesized outcomes based on probability, but that doesn’t give you certainty. I was briefly a little more evangelical about climate change in my early 20s, but then dropped it once I realized I didn’t even have a clue what I was really talking about (and I suspect very few do either).

      The topic still interests me and I try my best (in my own way) on being more friendly to the environment – whatever that means – but I’ve dropped out of trying to proselytize or claim to know what exactly the outcomes of human inputs into the environment are going to be. And honestly, I’m fine with that.

      1. Hiya,

        Thanks for going back and looking for my comments by the way (and sorry for the delay in replying!)

        Yea pretty much like we both came to the same conclusion. I asked a friend who is a Geologist and works for an oil company (booo, hissss….!!!) for what his thoughts were on it and he made a few obvious points such as the climate is always changing (the counter is that it’s “never” changed this fast before, however in the 70’s scientists were saying human activities were sending us into a new ice age!) and that the Earth is so massive and it’s systems so complicated we have really no idea how things are going to pan out.

        However saying all of that, we just had the warmest November and December on record here in the UK… and I do see the benefits of improving our efficiency and developing renewable energy regardless of climate change, so overall I would still massively advocate that stance over business as usual (who ever really wants business as usual, apart from vested interests, as that’s not progress, right?!)


        1. I think for me, it’s just so clearly obvious that petroleum still has an important role to play in the 21st century. Oil is going to be drilled, fracked, baked, whatever for the next many decades. Then it is going to be refined into all the petro-products the world runs on. To me, that is what the data suggests.

          Do I like it personally? No, of course not. I would rather we ran on 100% renewables and curbed C02 emissions, as we have no idea what the outcome of the cause and effect is going to be.

          But there is a difference between what I fantasize about and reality. Seeing the world clearly entails that we take the data and make our judgement from it, not purely from what we wish.

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