Lamb chops of God

Why are religions so fussy about food?

28th May 2018

If we ate a little better our lives would be a little better. Less fast food means a longer and potentially slimmer life. No meat or meaty by-products means an ethically clean conscience and the ability to lord it over your disgusting, base carnivore companions. If you’re of a religious bent, eating properly could mean saving your soul from eternal damnation.

If God isn’t your cup of tea, religious food laws can either be baffling, stupid or morally repugnant but there are rational explanations as to why the faithful follow them beyond “God told me”.

Judaism kicked off the trend of A) monotheism and B) being funny about some foods. Jewish dietary laws or the kashrut, are passed down in the Torah, specifically Leviticus and Deuteronomy (wait until you see what the Christians do to them later) and in the oral traditions, eventually recorded in the Talmud.

Aside from acceptable technique for ritual slaughter, it lists exactly what is and isn’t kosher. It’s a pretty exhaustive list with a few unexpected highlights. For those of you interested in Judaism, there is some bad news about eating bats. Biological taxonomy being what it was at the time, the bat was considered a bird, and a dirty bird not fit for eating at that.

That isn’t to say that Judaism doesn’t have any system at all. Of creatures of the water, animals are only kosher if they have both scales and fins, while beasts of the land have to undergo a similar two check system. They must have both cloven hooves and they must “chew their cud” which is a nice way of saying “sick up into their own mouth to have another go on some partially digested veg”.

A pig’s bottomless gluttony, combined with their need for an abundance of shade and water, makes them difficult and borderline dangerous to keep as livestock in climates found in the Middle East

Animals that don’t meet the criteria have a certain ambiguous quality about them and, when encountering something you’re not entirely sure about, it’s not a bad idea to avoid putting it in your mouth.  

For nomadic people, this helped to identify food that won’t kill you or piss off Yahweh — he was a lot angrier back then — as they moved from location to location. Thankfully, in their search for a promised land, the tribes of Israel didn’t get as far as Australia, which until Europeans showed up, had no kosher land animals whatsoever. Marsupials are weird.

The pig is not popular in Judaism or Islam; not only are they “ambiguous” — cloven hoof but no cud chewing? Get out of here, pal — they also hit the blacklist because they’re impractical. Pigs, you’ll be surprised to learn, are exceptionally greedy and will eat almost anything including other animals considered unclean in the eyes of God. This also explains why so many religions avoid eating carnivores.

Pigs are off limits for Muslims and Jews

American anthropologist Marvin Harris argues that a pig’s bottomless gluttony, combined with their need for an abundance of shade and water, makes them difficult and borderline dangerous to keep as livestock in climates found in the Middle East. Chickens, however, are much easier to shift about and lay eggs, making them a more useful food source. Plus, chickens aren’t famous for wallowing in their own droppings.

Religion is petty in its certainty. For one religion to be right, the others must be wrong. In Islam, food dedicated to another god is strictly forbidden and Talmudic scholars have stated that non-kosher animals are, coincidentally, also those which are sacrificed in other religions. Food laws, in this sense, not only promote a sense of correctness but a sense of community. It becomes a part of a community’s identity and instils a tradition that good members of the faith adhere to, expect of others and pass on to their children. “Hey! In this house we don’t drink pig blood; I didn’t raise you to be some Baal worshipper!” That sort of thing.

To make Christianity stick, in addition to adopting the pagan holidays found throughout the Empire, the fledgling faith allowed the masses to keep on eating what they were already eating

But, of course, it’s cool to rebel against your parents and rules are for squares. Christianity came along after Judaism and Yahweh became more laid back, probably learned guitar and said, “Hey, this is my son, be nice to him. Also, you can eat what you like.” Though this is a bit of chicken and egg situation.

Christianity spread to the Roman Empire. Rome had encountered, employed and enslaved countless religions and environments better suited to livestock management. This made their palette a lot broader by necessity and gave us the phrase, “When in Rome eat what the Romans do, which is whatever the fuck you want.”

For a while, Christians were mostly on the menu, but eventually, the Emperor got on board and wanted to promote his new hobby. To make Christianity stick, in addition to adopting the pagan holidays found throughout the Empire, the fledgling faith allowed the masses to keep on eating what they were already eating, which no doubt helped promote the hip new religion.

Eventually, the early Church had to decide on a final draft of the Bible and which books they wanted to include to have it make sense and climb the New York Times best-seller list. The Bible’s success at least can’t be denied and there is a bunch of scripture that justifies a liberal approach to tea time. That may be down to a dutiful interpretation of God’s word, or a keen editorial decision or both.

Most religions are down with chicken

So, what is the deal with Catholics and eating fish instead of meat on Friday? Why do a group of people who literally — as in actually, not figuratively — believe wafers and wine transform into the flesh and blood of Jesus as they eat them, confuse fish and meat? It’s a tradition that was once so broadly practised across the United States and Europe that it damaged McDonald’s profits, causing them to invent the Filet-o-Fish.

Rather than a practical reasoning for it, it’s more of a linguistic loophole. The idea behind the practice is that giving up meat demonstrates a sacrifice before God. Meat is celebration food associated with festivals and indulgence. Now, you might like fish but theologian Thomas Aquinas didn’t think much of it and wrote as much in his Summa Theologica, and as far as Catholicism goes he probably has more say than you, unless you’re the Pope, and even then it’s debatable.

If you’re a good Catholic you should do what the Vatican asks and you’d do well to ask fewer questions!

This gave the practice an uncertainty, as you may not have to make a sacrifice and it didn’t stand up to much theological scrutiny. Pope Paul IV spotted this, though, and clarified that Catholics shouldn’t eat “carne”; a word that in Latin refers only to meat from mammals and birds but not fish.

That clears up the original confusion. And why should you eat fish instead of meat even if you don’t feel like it’s a personal sacrifice? Well, if you’re a good Catholic you should do what the Vatican asks and you’d do well to ask fewer questions!

How the religious prepare their food is as important as what they’re eating. Kosher meats have to undergo shechita and halal meats, dhabihah, though only the latter tends to come under scrutiny, despite being incredibly similar.

Aside from sanctifying the meat — Chirstians don’t need to ritually slaughter animals as they sanctify them by saying grace — this process is to make sure there was no pesky blood left in it to poison the eater, and was originally intended to be a moral duty; to give the food-to-be a quick and dignified death. During the dhabihah, there is particular attention given to the beasts avoiding any unnecessary pain. But, the industry has outpaced tradition and this subject has become a moral minefield for Muslims, as society has developed techniques for the mass production and mechanised slaughter and butchering of livestock.

Both halal and kosher meats are becoming more commercially successful as our society better understand others and their faiths. Either that or people are sick to death of pigs. All religion is an attempt to explain the world around us and without science or medicine, it also helped to keep people, as well as societies, alive. Common sense and good hygiene approved by God is a recipe for success, and while what’s on the menu and why isn’t going to convert a committed atheist, it might seem a little less arbitrary.

28th May 2018