Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Thou shall not eat: An overview of the relationships between food and religion

By Gideon Lasco, MD

The anthropology of food and religion can be organized into two major domains: food in religion and religion in food.  In this paper, we focus on the latter: religion in food, or how religions and belief systems have played a role in determining what we eat, who eats what, how we eat.

There are two main approaches in nutritional anthropology, the materialist perspective and the idealist (Harris, 1970). As this paper aims to provide an overview, perspectives from both schools of thought will be included in the discussion.

Considering the divergence of major religions, one way to present “religion in food” would be a comparative survey, that is, to discuss each of the major religions of the world, and discuss the relationship of each to food. However, considering that the orientation of anthropology is to arrive at explanations, I would aver that a more anthropologically-oriented way of presenting this topic is to look into the various relationships of religion in food, looking at religion as causal domain and food as outcome. The different religions can be then be used as illustrations for each of the relationships we identified.

Finally, this paper speculates on the future of food in terms of religion in an increasingly post-religious, secular world.

Given two interacting variables, food and religion, we can construct statements like this to state relationships based on the review of literature:

Religion __________ Food

And come up with some relationships:

1. Religion determines what is food (food preferences) and what isn’t (food taboos)
2. Religion dictates how we should eat and prepare food and where (food practices)
3. Religion sets limits on how much food we should eat in our everyday lives (food rationing)
4. Religion prescribes occasions for eating and avoiding food (feasting and fasting)

These relationships form the outline of our main discussion of religion in food.

Historically, religion has functioned as a definer of what can be eaten, and what cannot, and perhaps this is the major function of religion in food. The English term for the latter is taboo, which itself is derived from the Tahitian language where it means “unclean or cursed”. Other cultures have terms for both what should be eaten, and what should not, and these terms are used in the context of religion; they are essentially religious laws.

In Islam, for instance, the concept of halal and haram is rooted in the Holy Koran (Al-Jallad, 2008), on which the following verse is found:

“Forbidden unto you (for food) are carrion and blood and swine-flesh, and that which hath been dedicated unto any other than Allah, and the strangled, and the dead through beating, and the dead through falling from a height, and that which hath been killed by (the goring of) horns, and the devoured of wild beasts, saving that which ye make lawful (by the death-stroke), and that which hath been immolated unto idols.: (5:2)

This is similar to the kosher rules of Judaism, which likewise forbid the consumption of swine, most insects, and the mixing of milk and meat. These prohibitions can be traced to the commandments of Moses in two of the earliest books of the Bible, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Much of the discussion on Islamic and Jewish rules on food centers on, and is best illustrated the pig taboo, or the ban on what Harris calls ‘the abominable pig’ (Harris, 1970). In the traditional perspective, religion itself is the explanation; there is no need to probe beyond it (i.e. theological explanation) because it is what was ordained from time immemorial.

Mary Douglas, on the other hand, called for a symbolic, interpretive interpretation. She argued that prohibiting certain foods was a way of “carving up the natural world into the pure and the impure”, thereby creating a model for thinking about the purity of the Divine.

Regarding the pig, she said that while most animals are cloven-hoofed and cud-chewing such as the cow, the goat, or the sheep, the pig had cloven hoof but did not chew cud. This classificatory ambiguity is what she calls a "taxonomic anomaly", which she then claims as the basis for the pig taboo based on a symbolic or interpretive perspective (Douglas, 1966).

On the other hand, Marvin Harris argued for a materialist explanation of the pig taboo. He says that the environment of the Middle East makes pig raising highly inefficient. Because pork tastes good to humans, it must be proscribed religiously, otherwise, its husbandry will be maladaptive.

To raise pigs in arid, open environments requires heavy expenditure of water and supplementary food, and are thus expensive to keep and grow.  Moreover, the pigs eat what humans eat. The pig has another disadvantage: unlike sheep, goats, and cattle, it is not a ruminant. These factors make pig growing ecologically unsustainable, which favored the establishment of a religious proscription.

On the other hand, in Christian Europe, there are forests where pigs can thrive; it is a totally different environment. Therefore, you have a different attitude toward them compared with what continues to exist in the Middle East.

Of course, there is a religious explanation to the lifting of the pig taboo in Christianity:  In Peter’s vision in the book of Acts, it was revealed to him that there are no more unclean and clean animals; everything can now be eaten.

Arguments run along the same lines in trying to explain “sacred cow” in India and other Hindu nations like Nepal. At face value, as Heinricher (1981) observes, the situation seems to support an idealist perspective:

The case of India's sacred cattle is often cited by ideationalists as an example of blatant economic wastefulness in the name of spiritual satisfaction. Why else would starving people refuse to eat all of those cattle roaming the cities and clogging the highways, if not because of religious sanctions?5
In the idealist school of thought, it is "ahisma", the doctrine of non-violence towards all life that provides the basis for a religious proscription on cow slaughter and consumption, however contrary it seems against the rational choice. Ahimsa is also essentially the premise of vegetarianism, which is espoused by the two major schools of Buddhist thought. 

On the other hand, Harris and others, once again employing a materialist approach, says that it made ecological sense to have a prohibition of cow slaughter, considering the value of the cow in an agricultural society such as India, considering the amount of dung it produces, which is then used as fertilizer. Moreover, he critiques the acceptance of ‘ahimsa’ as preventing cow slaughter, saying that cow slaughter does happen, either by sins of omission or covert acts.

Moreover, “cow eating” does happen, by untouchables, or even by a growing number of Indians who embrace beef eating . Mencher (1971) writes that many urban middle-classed Hindus would admit to liking beef curry once informed that "upper caste" American like beef.

An interesting conclusion of Harris is found in the last paragraph of his article:

I have yet to encounter a flourishing religion whose food taboos make It more difficult for ordinary people to be well nourished. (79)

In other words, he is saying that at the weakest form of the materialist approach, religion may dictate foodways, but it is constrained by the nutritional needs of the people.

Christianity at large has lifted food taboos, as we explained earlier. However, various Christian sects have food rules and restrictions. The Jehovah’s witnesses, for instance, avoid eating the flesh of animals that have not been properly bled because they believe it is wrong to eat blood. Here, the role of food as “definer of group identity” comes into play. Many studies have demonstrated that food is a particularly potent symbol of personal and group identity, forming one of the foundations of both individuality and a sense of common membership in a larger, bounded group and this can very well apply to religion. (Wilk, 1999, Ohnuki-Tierney, 1993 et al).

As a final illustration of how religion has dictated food, the arrival of Christianity in the Pacific islands is attributed as the reason for the elimination of the practice of cannibalism. With the changing of people’s belief systems, cannibalism, has entered into a taboo (Hadden, 2009).

In sum, we can look at these relationships between religion and food according the materialist explanations about food taboos were enumerated by Meyer Rochow (2009):
-Food taboos for certain members of the society and to highlight special events
-Food taboos to protect human health
-Food taboos during pregnancy and food changes over the course of the menstrual cycle
-Food taboos as an ecological necessity to protect the resource
-Food taboos in order to monopolize a resource
-Food taboos as an expression of empathy
-Food taboos as a factor in group-cohesion and group-identity

On the other hand, we can follow the perspective of Mary Douglas, who called fof a more symbolic / interpretive explanation, looking at food as a function of culture, of which religion comprises a very big part.

Religions provide a “morality of food”, in the sense that it mandates how food is to be eaten and shared. There are religions, for instance, that emphasize sharing of foods, such as Christianity, which has plenty of references and illustrations in the Bible as regards the sharing of food.

Religion likewise provides an explanation of how food comes to us, and provides the means and the object of thanksgiving. Hence, the religious usually say a prayer of thanksgiving before each meal. Jesus Christ, in his famous “The Lord’s Prayer”, says:

Give us this day our daily bread (Matthew 6:-13; Luke 11:2-4 ESV) 

Acknowledging that food is from God makes food a ‘blessing’, a received substance, and thus, thanksgiving must be rendered unto the Giver. Highly symbolic, thus, was the episode in the Book of Exodus, when “manna from heaven” rained down the Israelites, literally food that came from heaven.

Saying ‘grace’ before a meal is not a unique feature of Christianity. In Judaism, the Birkat Hamazon is uttered, a series of blessings that take the form of a prayer after meals. The scriptural source for the requirement to say birkat hamazon is Deuteronomy 8:10 "When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He gave you".

In Islam, the "Bismillah ar-Rahman, ar-Raheem", a common religious expression meaning "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful" is uttered before a meal. There are also counterparts of saying grace in Hinduism

Finally, even in Japan where religion is not organized, and people are non-religious, people say "Itadakimasu" before a meal, which means "I humbly receive"; the status of food as blessing is still implied.

Another food practice of everyday life, upon which materialist explanations can readily be advanced, is the ritual washing of hands. This is practiced by Judaism, Islam, and many other religions.
Likewise, religions emphasize virtues that favor sharing of food, i.e. compassion, charity, kindness, and goodness. It is considered impious to throw away food; parents tell their children not to waste food, coming as it is from God. Materialists, again, would look at the sharing of food (i.e. compassion, charity kindness) as a very rational function of religion, which is to distribute resources from the rich to the poor, and to provide a social safety net by which starvation can be prevented.

Religion does not merely regulate the quality of food (i.e. what is eaten); it also has something to say about the quantity of food (i.e. how much is eaten).
In Christianity, over-indulgence in food is known as gluttony, and many writers have commented about it. St. Gregory the Great, a doctor of the Church, described five ways by which one can commit sin of gluttony, and corresponding biblical examples for each of them (Orby, 1875):

1. Eating before the time of meals in order to satisfy the palate. Biblical example: Jonathan eating a little honey, when his father Saul commanded no food to be taken before the evening. [1Sa 14:29]

2. Seeking delicacies and better quality of food to gratify the "vile sense of taste." Biblical example: When Israelites escaping from Egypt complained, "Who shall give us flesh to eat ? We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely ; the cucumbers and the melons, and the leeks and the onions and the garlic," God rained fowls for them to eat but punished them 500 years later.[Num 11:4]

3. Seeking after sauces and seasonings for the enjoyment of the palate. Biblical example: Two sons of Eli the high priest made the sacrificial meat to be cooked in one manner rather than another. They were met with death.[1Sa 4:11]

4. Exceeding the necessary amount of food. Biblical example: One of the sins of Sodom was "fullness of bread."[Eze 16:49]

5. Taking food with too much eagerness, even when eating the proper amount, and even if the food is not luxurious.Biblical example: Esau selling his birthright for ordinary food of bread and pottage of lentils. His punishment was that the "profane person . . . who, for a morsel of meat sold his birthright," we learn that " he found no place for repentance, though he sought it

To recapitulate, St Gregory the Great said that one may succumb to the sin of gluttony by: 1. Time (when); 2. Quality; 3. Stimulants; 4. Quantity; 5. Eagerness

Most other religions frown on over-indulgence; there are many verses in the Koran condemning gluttony, and eastern religions that emphasize penance and asceticism are doubtless disapproving of behaviors.

In sum, religions set a limit of what is the acceptable amount of eating. Juxtaposing this limit with the virtues of generosity, giving, and kindness, it is easy to see how materialists can explain gluttony as sin: such an injunction favors the distribution of excess food among the people who do not have access to it.

On the other hand, there is also much symbolism in religious passages that make for plausible parallels with food, to the extent that it will also be easy to offer an idealist explanation on how food is regulated in terms of its quantity. As nourisher of our physical bodies, food is metaphor for material pleasures, and the ability to control our diets is seen as a sign of religious discipline.

In the first three arguments, we have discussed how religion affects the food of everyday life (what, how, and how much). On the other hand, religion has produced special occasions, and food is essentially the medium by which these occasions are celebrated or performed (i.e. when to eat a lot). These occasions are called feasts. It can be averred that most, if not all religions have feasts. On the other hand, the withholding of food is likewise a religious act, often commendable, and it is called fast (i.e. when not to eat). As regards feasts, Twiss (2008) introduces her subject:

Feasting is a universal human phenomenon. It is powerful and often transformative; through feasting, social identities are both enacted and altered, political competitions are undertaken, and ideologies are inculcated. Feasting can play a key role in constructing and validating social norms by valorizing innovative materials, concepts, and practices.

We see these food practices prominently in Christianity, where, as Bynum (1985) avers, “feasting and fasting are at the heart of the Christian tradition.” In Christianity, the major feast of Christmas is a time of celebration in many countries, accompanied with an abundance of food. In the Philippines, for instance, the Christmas season is at least a weeks-long festivity, heralded with numerous “Christmas parties”, a noche buena on Christmas eve and a media noche on New Year’s Eve.

In Islam, the Ramadan is a whole month of fasting, followed by a day of feasting, the Eid al Fitr.
Materialist explanations of feasts include the creation of opportunities to distribute proteins and other essential foods. For instance, Diskin (1978) and Greenberg (1981) have suggested that high-quality protein and vitamin-rich foods distributed during the cycles of festivals in the rural Mexican villages they studied may make substantial contributions to the diets of poor participants. Furthermore, the timing of the festivals seems to have been such that food distribution took place during periods when the population was most in need of protein and nutrients.

Other anthropologists trace feasts as occasions of thanking the gods and divine forces for harvest, with the hope of an abundant year to come. Also, the many social functions of a feast are well described in anthropological literature; they are “central arenas of social action that have had a profound impact on the course of historical transformations...they articulate and inculcate existing social categories, such as status, power, gender, and age.” (Dietler and Hayden, 2001). Still, some archaeologists suggest that feasting, with its emphasis on the consumption of large animals, may have actually contributed to the domestication of animals (Twiss, 2008).

Fasting, on the other hand, is invested with much symbolic meaning, but rational explanations have included the health benefits of caloric restriction. Moreover, some studies have looked into the health benefits of specific religious practices. For instamce, Sarri (2001) found that adherence to Greek Orthodox fasting periods contributes to an improvement in the blood lipid profile, including a decrease in total and LDL cholesterol, and a decrease in the LDL to HDL cholesterol ratio.

Even with the apparent decline of religion as the dominant force in society, its roles on food has, in some ways persisted. “Food is the last bastion of culture” and perhaps this can be said too of religion. On the other hand, religion has been supplanted in some ways by other forces, such as medicine and the government.

 For instance, it can be seen that biomedicine has taken over religion as the prescriber of which foods to eat and which to avoid. Gluttony may have been dangerous to your soul, but today, obesity is dangerous to your health. The Bible cautions against drinking too much alcohol, but today it is the government that requires the placement of “drink moderately” on advertisements. Vegetarianism, once a religious decision, is now motivated by numerous health reasons.

Some aspects of religion in food, however, have been strengthened by other institutions. For instance, by explaining the health reasons for some religious proscriptions, they can be reinforced, such as the washing of hands. Also, governments with a sizeable Muslim population have actually standardized and regulated halal foods by establishing regulatory bodies. In the Philippines, the Islamic Da’wah Council of the Philippines, Inc., (IDCP) is the duly recognized Halal Certification and Accreditation Authority under G.R. No. 153888 dated July 09, 2003.

On the other hand, what began as religious institutions have become secularized, or are now used in non-religious contexts. Hunger strikes, for instance, are political acts that remain a potent weapon used by activists, most famously Mahatma Gandhi, and its power can be traced to its spiritual significance. Likewise, religious feasts are now celebrated as purely secular events. In the Philippines, this is seen in the Christmas holiday season, which is arguably the season during which the most amount (and variety) of food is consumed in the Philippines. A critical approach to Christmas would look at how politico-economic structures, such as commercial institutions, have helped perpetuate this tradition.

On a final note, the technological advances of the modern age is creating “new foods”, and it is interesting how the acceptance of these foods can still be seen in terms of religious proscriptions. It can be said that there is a “taboo on genetically modified foods”, and in spite of the advantages, the popular opposition against them remains strong and can we not harken back to Mary Douglas’ words and call these foods “taxonomic anomalies”? Indeed, nutritional anthropology is needed, more than ever, in light of these emerging issues.

In this paper, we have discussed how religion has shaped what we eat, how we eat, how much we eat, and when we eat more (and when we do not eat). Understanding food practices, that is, nutritional anthropology, must always involve an understanding of the various religions of a certain society. For as long as humans eat, food will be inextricably linked with religion, mediator and mediated by it, and even where the influence of religion has waned, we will always be told that we ought to eat, and for whenever and whatever we ought not to eat, and the voice will not be too far that says: “Thou shall not eat.”

Bynum C (1985). Fast, Feast, and Flesh: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women Representations No. 11 (Summer, 1985), pp. 1-25 University of California Press

Dietler and Hayden (2001). Digesting the feast—good to eat, good to drink, good to think: an introduction ,in: M. Dietler, B. Hayden (Eds.), Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and PowerSmithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C (2001), pp. 1–22

Diskin, M. (1978). Discussion. Symposium on Mexican Food Systems. 77th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Los Angeles, Calif.

Douglas M (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge and Keegan Paul pp. 50-61

Greenberg, J.( 1981). Santiago's Sword. University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif.

Hadden, R. (2009) Food culture in the Pacific Islands.  Greenwood Publishing House, USA. pp. 25-35

Harris M (1988). Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture

Mencher, Joan (1971) Comments on Alan Heston's 'An Approach to the Sacred Cow of India.' Current Anthropology 12:202-204.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko (1993). Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Sarri et al (2003). Effects of Greek Orthodox Christian church fasting on serum lipids and obesity. BMC Public Health 2003, 3:16

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