The Hidden Values of Religion: health and diet

Before I begin, I ought to note that it’s not my goal to trivialize or dissect anyone’s religious believes in this post. Rather, I’m examining an idea proposed by a writer, N. N. Taleb, that I find interesting. His idea gets me thinking about religions in a new and useful way. I’m hoping to open doors and foster discussion with this post, rather than belittle or antagonize anyone’s beliefs.

N.N. Taleb writes about the value of religion for regulating one’s diet in a section of Antifragile called, “If it’s Wednesday, I must be vegan.” He describes using the Greek Orthodox Church’s calendar of fasts and feasts as a heuristic to regulate one’s diet, ensuring that he eats a variety of foods. His thinking behind this idea is that Greek Orthodox Christianity has been around for about 1700 years or more, and since there are millions of followers in the world, there must be something that is successful about their way of life, in terms of evolutionary biology. Therefore, if I follow their calendar of fasts and feasts, I can be confident that I am eating in a manner that is healthy for people over the long-run because the people who have been following this religious system have reproduced and continued to follow the religion. I believe there is a familial tie to this religion for Taleb, but if one substitutes any belief system that has survived as long, or longer than, Greek Orthodox Christianity, a similar heuristic obtains.

Taleb is looking for ways to make decisions in a world that we cannot completely understand, and I find his use of religious systems as stores of practical knowledge, separated from the ideological tenets of the associated religions, fascinating. Religion and food have always had close ties. Whether we’re talking about Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, food metaphors abound in their scriptures, as do dietary prescriptions. Generally, I think Taleb’s idea is useful, but there are some problems with his approach: how does one choose a religious system to use for dietary guidance? What is the definition of fitness that one is working under: fitness for an individual, fitness for a population, or another definition? Taleb has these questions answered by his family history, but if one is not raised in a particular religious tradition, then these decisions need answers for this religious dietary heuristic to be useful.

First, what is a heuristic? This term has confused people with whom I’ve discussed it, so it needs an introduction. A heuristic is a solution to a problem that has loosely defined rules and is often arrived at by trial and error. For example, “Don’t get into a stranger’s car”, or “Don’t eat meat from animals with cloven hooves”. Heuristics are the kinds of solutions that we often call ‘common sense’, or we don’t even have names for them because they’re so engrained in society: for example, beds in Industrialized Western countries are typically raised off the floor there are a number of useful reasons for this that wouldn’t obtain in other climates, where sleeping on the floor or outside is sufficient.

The variety of dietary prescriptions found in various religions is an interesting problem for Taleb’s heuristic. Religious dieting ranges from strict Jaina diets of fruit and other foods that naturally require no harvesting and don’t harm the organism that produces them, to more mainstream Buddhist and Hindu ovo-lacto vegetarianism, to Jewish and Muslim restricted omnivorous diets, and reformed Christian unrestricted omnivorous diets. Moreover, each of these religions has been around for at least 1500 years, many of them much longer. Without considering additional reasons to adopt a religious diet, such as other aspects of the religion, what one currently eats, or how one wants to eat in the future, it is difficult to choose simply based on the prospective menu.

Another difficulty in choosing a religion as a dietary heuristic is what one wants to achieve: long life? As many descendants as possible? A maximum of longevity and descendants? Often, the religions that attend these dietary heuristics provide guidance on the kind of life and children one ought to expect. However, this post is talking about choosing a religion based on its dietary heuristics, rather than following the dietary guidelines of one’s chosen religion. This is important because it changes how one looks at a religion’s relationship with food: how long do followers of a particular religion live? How many kids to they have? What kinds of food do these believers eat? Do I like that diet? How do I want to live? Do my expectations match with the diet of a particular religion? These questions don’t matter to a believer because they’re already answered, but to a person who is looking for the best heuristics to guide their life, these questions matter quite a bit.

With these difficulties, is it possible for someone to eat the diet of a particular religion without accepting some of the other tenets that follow that menu? I think in some cases, it is possible, but I think most agnostics or atheists would lack the reasons to continue eating like a Christian, Jew for more than a few months. Those reasons can come from medicine journals, health magazines, or any useful source, but it’s not sufficient to eat in a manner that has worked for millennia without having further justification for doing so — just ask anyone who was a meat eater and failed to become a long-term ovo-lacto vegetarian. What do you think of Taleb’s idea? Have you ever tried to “convert” your diet? If so, how did it work for you?


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