Interview with Veg Fest Speaker Mark A. Berkson

This week we interviewed Mark A. Berkson, professor of religion at Hamline University and advisor to the Hamline Animal Rights Coalition. Mark is a longtime friend of CAA and has spoken at some of our past events, and we are thrilled to have him as a speaker at this year’s upcoming Veg Fest. He was kind enough to take the time to tell us a bit his work and interest in the animal rights movement. When you come to Veg Fest, make sure to catch his talk if you can—it promises to be a very interesting conversation.

CAA:  What will you be speaking about?

Mark:  The tentative title of the talk is “Faith and Food: Comparative Religious Perspectives on Animals, Compassion, and the Meal on our Plate.”  I’m going to talk about the ways that different religious traditions give us a framework to see non-human animals as something other than resources to be used, but rather as kin, as beings with whom we share a great deal and to whom we must extend compassion and concern. The perspectives of the different religious traditions vary, but all of them provide valuable resources that can be used to create a strong ethic of animal welfare. The record of the world’s religions on animals is mixed, but I want to focus on those aspects of the traditions that are most useful to those of us who care about animals. Most people in the world are profoundly influenced by their religious traditions, so if we want to create a better world for animals, we need to understand these traditions and how they can shape values and inspire people to action. Think of the way that religious language played a central role in the Civil Rights movement, for example. It can work the same way in the animal welfare movement.

CAA:  How did you get involved in animal advocacy?

Mark:  It was a gradual process that began with changing my own eating habits. I realized that there was a fundamental tension between how I felt about animals (particularly those I loved) and the fact that I unreflectively wore and ate them. I couldn’t live with this cognitive and emotional dissonance, so I began to cut meat and leather out of my life (the process began nearly twenty years ago). I was surprised by how easy it was. (I love to eat, and I can honestly say that I have never missed meat. The increasing number of vegetarian products out there has certainly helped.)  As I started to teach, I began to integrate sections on religion and animals into my courses, as I came to see that one can learn a lot about a religion by examining its views on animals. Ultimately, I developed an entire course on religion, ethics and non-human animals. I began lecturing about these topics at conferences (including a number of the TLOV conferences sponsored by CAA) and become increasingly active in the movement. I believe that the treatment of animals is one of the great moral issues of our time, and I simply cannot stay silent. It has an impact on our health, the environment, and most of all, the lives of billions of sentient, feeling beings. Ethics can be very complicated, but it seems to me that there is a simple guideline that is worth trying to live by – Live in such a way so as to minimize the unnecessary suffering and death of other sentient beings. Since most of do not have to eat animals to live happy, healthy lives, we should not. And the factory farm system is, of course, an indefensible moral atrocity. We must do everything we can to end it.

CAA:  What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Mark:  I enjoy spending time with my family, and every weekend my two sons (both vegetarian!) and I go out together for lunch and activities, ranging from concerts and movies to walks around Lake Como. We also attend weekly meditation at a wonderful place called Common Ground in Minneapolis, which teaches a mindfulness practice. I also love going out with my wife and our friends for meals and good conversation. Music plays a profoundly important part in my life, and I enjoy both listening to it (classic and new rock, jazz, blues, classical) and playing it (I’m in a band called Ibaba, where I play guitar). Yoga is an essential practice for me, and I think I’d fall apart if I didn’t do it regularly. I also love reading, and while most of the books I read are related to what I teach and write about, I treasure the opportunity to indulge in a good novel when I have time.

CAA:  What are you most excited about at the Veg Fest?

Mark:  I’m looking forward to connecting with others who are part of the animal welfare community. In so many contexts, vegetarians and animal welfare activists are a minority, and it often feels like we need to explain ourselves. It’s nice to have a sense of shared commitment and solidarity with others. I also look forward to hearing the other speakers (there are some dynamic, inspiring speakers on your schedule), who always teach me a lot. And, of course, I can’t wait to sample the food. I can rationalize a lot of eating if I convince myself I’m doing research.

CAA:  What’s your best tip for someone who wants to go vegetarian or vegan?

Mark:  If someone is thinking of going vegetarian for the first time, I’d tell them that it need not be all or nothing, and it doesn’t have to be sudden. Some people think that, since they really love some particular kind of meat, that they could never be vegetarian, and so they continue with their same diet. They can just begin by gradually integrating vegetarian meals into their diet a few times a week, trying veggie “meat” products, etc. Once people see how easy it is (and, in many cases, how much better they feel), momentum builds and it becomes easier. For me, the strongest motivator was an ethical one, but different people are motivated by different things. Over time, they’ll discover the multiple reasons why a largely or entirely vegetarian diet makes sense, but it can’t be forced. The motivation must come from within, although others can support it. I used to think that I could argue people into changing their views and diets. Now, I understand that the best strategy is to gently “plant some seeds” with occasional words and reading material (informative but not combative), support and encourage someone who is making positive changes in their lives, and share really good vegetarian food so people know what’s out there.

CAA:  Who/what species is your favorite animal?

Mark:  Well, this is almost impossible to answer. At the moment, we have three cats, and I have a great love for that species (including big cats, which are remarkable beings). I’m also a big fan of dogs. Dog energy can just make a person happy. I have always been fascinated by primates, and I can spend large amounts of time just watching bonobos, chimps, gorillas, etc. I’m a sucker for primate documentaries. I’m also very interested in wolves (my eldest son’s favorite animal), and I had a great time at the wolf museum in Alaska. Even very small social animals, such as ants and bees, have societies that are intriguing. I recently had some amazing close encounters with dolphins, and that was exhilarating. And the more I learn about elephants, the more I respect and admire them. I could keep on going – after all, what animal isn’t fascinating? – but that will have to suffice.