Fiona is the editor of Plantpuree, a website that celebrates vegan living. With over 20 years in diet & fitness, fashion, and beauty, she brings a wealth of knowledge and a unique perspective to her work and writing on veganism.
Estimated reading time: 14 minutes
For many, veganism is more than just a diet — it’s an entirely new way of life, with its own set of ideals and principles that some follow very strictly. From gathering at events to advocating for animal rights, to actively boycotting animal-based products and services, vegans can be devoted to their beliefs and practices. But what if I told you that veganism is also accused of being a cult?
Cults have long carried a negative stigma. They are often seen as dark, harmful organizations full of hidden agendas and people who are easily manipulated. They bring to mind images of an authoritarian leader, fanaticism, control, and manipulation. Is this a fair picture of veganism?
The answer is no. Veganism is not a cult. It is an ethical philosophy with no leader or organization dictating how vegans should live; insisting on absolute devotion. Nor does it recruit new members via manipulation or promote any kind of higher power or supernatural force like many religious-based cults do. Instead, veganism promotes an ethical, compassionate lifestyle that rejects all forms of animal exploitation.
So why the accusations of cult-like, deviant behavior?
In today’s article, we take an in-depth view at what sets vegans apart from members of “cults,” as well as shine a light on exactly why people have begun labeling vegan lifestyles with such loaded language.
Table of Contents
What Does It Mean To Be Vegan?
There is no one type of vegan or even a single definitive set of rules. This is because as the vegan movement has continued to grow in popularity different sub-categories and identities have developed.
Some of these align with the core philosophy of veganism, which is avoiding all animal-based products and exploitation. Others take the philosophy in a different direction and their behaviors and actions differ. In fact, there are at least 7 categories of vegans documented all with different motivations and behaviors.
The Vegan Society, who coined the term “veganism” back in 1944, created it with the intention of avoiding any and all forms of exploitation against animals:
A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.Vegan Society
However, not everyone who identifies as vegan follows this definition. Some have taken a more reductionist approach and reduced veganism to purely food and their diet while others have expanded the definition to include other types of exploitation such as discrimination, exploitation of the disadvantaged, climate change concerns and exploitation of the planet’s resources.
What all vegans have in common is that they have made a deliberate choice to not consume animal products. In addition, whatever approach they personally choose to follow, none are required to follow a set of rules or practices in order to suppress doubts or questions, and there is no central authority dictating how they should think, act, or feel.
Many vegans are activists who use the power of their own convictions to help avoid animal exploitation through education, legislation, and public demonstrations. They don’t control or manipulate others into adopting their philosophy, they simply try to inspire others to do what they believe is right for animals.
There is no central authority or organization that defines vegan behavior but there are a number of organizations and communities of support, resources, and shared values that people can connect with to help them live a cruelty-free lifestyle according to their own beliefs and choices.
What is a Cult?
Defining what a cult is will help us to understand if veganism can be seen as one. The term “cult” has been used in various ways throughout history, so it’s important to consider how the word is being used now.
The term ‘cult’ was used for many centuries to describe various religious or social groups that had at least one thing in common—a devotion to something other than established religion or societal views. The term was always fairly non-judgemental with membership of these groups considered to be slightly eccentric but not necessarily harmful. (1)
In recent decades, the word “cult” has obtained a more negative reputation. This can be seen where the term ‘cult’ is used in a much more derogatory context to describe dangerous or abusive organizations that manipulate their members and are a threat to society. James Beckford points to the term cult being linked with beliefs and practices considered unhealthy. (2)
And Catherine Wessinger, a sociologist suggests that by applying the term “cult”, followers are seen as deviants, which hints that they are crazy, brainwashed, and duped by their leaders. Worst of all, she says, when you paint a group with the “cult” brush, it scares the general public and makes members seem less than human. Society then approves of taking more drastic measures against them, even if it harms those who are innocent. (3)
This popular negative view of cults as brainwashed deviants by the media and general public stems from an association of the world cult with tragic events where a small group of people was manipulated into violence or abuse by power-hungry dictators posing as gods.
The most famous examples of ‘cult-leader’ manipulation include Heaven’s Gate, Solar Temple, and Branch Davidian. So much so that according to Dillon and Richardson 1991, the use of the term cult is now commonly thrown at a group that is unfamiliar, disliked or feared regardless of whether or not the label is fair or accurate. (4, 5)
Perhaps a more reasoned definition and analysis of the term cult comes from experts who study cults and abusive groups such as the British Cult Information Centre and The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) (6, 7). This definition and set of criteria would allow us to contrast veganism and determine if it fits the criteria for a cult or not:
1) Absolute acceptance of the ideology or belief system as defined by the founders or leaders of the group;
2) An elitists totalitarian social system which the members feel is superior to the outside world, meaning that it has exclusive access to “truth” and everyone else is wrong;
3) A hierarchical system exerting extreme control over members by using mind-control tactics such as isolation, fear, indoctrination, and/or guilt/shame;
4) Excessive devotion to an authoritarian leader and/or dominating ideology with total reliance on said belief system;
5) Extreme behavioral control over members through a multitude of rules, regulations, rituals, or practices that are enforced using punishment and/or rewards.
6) A belief that the end justifies the means in order to solicit funds and recruit people – regardless of how this affects their members or society at large.
Is Veganism A Cult?
Based on the characteristics defined in the preceding paragraph, does veganism fit the criteria for being considered a cult?
Well, it seems that in order to determine whether veganism is a cult, we need to consider whether it exhibits this dogged type of devotion and dedication to the idea or practice of veganism as well as employing manipulative techniques in order to control its adherents. We also need to consider core principles of veganism and how these are connected to fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and thought.
The comparison between veganism and cults is interesting because they do share some similar qualities—namely their intense dedication to certain beliefs.
Vegans choose to follow certain dietary restrictions (avoiding animal products) because they believe that it is ethical and compassionate. They also tend to have strong opinions about the consumption of animal products and will often speak out against them in public forums.
Additionally, vegans may associate themselves with other vegans more than average people would associate themselves with like-minded individuals who share their same beliefs or lifestyles.
However, there are significant differences between veganism and cults as well.
When we examine the criteria for a cult suggested by the Cult Information Centre and The International Cultic Studies Association, it’s clear that veganism does not fit the criteria and is not a cult. Veganism is not a belief system with a leader or ideology that is considered the absolute truth. It doesn’t contain a central hierarchical system which is used to control and manipulate it’s members and it doesn’t employ mind-control tactics such as isolation and indoctrination.
Additionally, the idea that vegans are blindly following a set of rules without critical thought is simply not true. In fact, many vegans carefully consider the ethical implications of their food choices and make informed decisions based on their beliefs. Veganism is not about blindly following rules, but rather making conscious and ethical choices.
There is certainly a strong community element to the vegan movement, with various bloggers and influencers promoting a lifestyle that many find appealing. This does not make it a cult, however; vegans simply share common interests and goals, such as kindness to all living beings, living healthier or reducing their environmental impact.
Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that, unlike a cult, not all vegans behave in the same way. Just like in any group of people, there are varying levels of commitment and belief within the vegan community. There is a diverse range of approaches to veganism in the community. Some approach veganism from a purely ethical perspective and for others it’s about environmental concerns or their health.
The wide range of perspectives within the vegan community show that it does not have a one-size-fits all set of rules, which is a common criticisms against cults. This diversity is one of the hallmarks of veganism, and a big reason why it is not accurately characterized as a cult or a harmful organization.
Finally, veganism is not exclusive in that anyone can choose to become vegan if they want; it doesn’t require joining any membership or subscribing to any specific ideology – just eating plants instead of animals!
Why Is Veganism Accused of Being a Cult?
Even though veganism does not qualify as a “cult” under any of the earlier mentioned criteria, there are people who will always insist it is one. This accusation primarily arises from the fact that vegans often promote their lifestyle very passionately and intensely – something which can give off the impression that they are trying to coerce others into joining them (which as mentioned before is not actually true).
Additionally, vegans sometimes engage in furious debates on social media platforms which can appear confrontational to outsiders – further adding fuel to the fire when it comes to accusations about “vegan culture” being a form of “cult-like behavior”.
However, there’s more to the application of cult labels than just the passion and intensity of the some of the vegan community.
The word “cult” has become a way to demonize new and different religious groups, and promote the agenda of those deliberately using the term as a social weapon against different experiences. (8)
People often malign groups they don’t understand by using the word “cult.” When an organization looks radical or different, society will question it and use strong language like “cult” to degrade it. The media have contributed to this trend by using the word cult in stories about groups. (9,10) And there are several studies that show the media spreading negative messages about veganism, which doesn’t reflect how vegans actually experience their lifestyle. (11)
A 2011 study conducted in Britain found that the media’s overall bias against veganism served to marginalize vegans and entrench public ignorance of the ethics of animal food production and consumption.
Oftentimes, newspapers will attempt to make veganism seem unappealing by making fun of it or portraying it as being impractical. Because of this, vegans were portrayed as people who deprive themselves of things, are always trying out new fads, or are too sentimental. In some cases, they were even considered cult-like hostile extremists. (12)
Here’s a range of examples from the UK and Australian media which echo and perpetuate the idea of veganism as a cult and of vegans as outside the norm:
The West Australian: ‘The Cult of Veganism is Riddled With Inconsistencies’
The Telegraph: Why Would Anyone in Their Right Mind Want To Join The Vegan Cult?
The Sun: Good Morning Britain Viewers Blast ‘Cruel’ Mum Who is Raising Her Baby VEGAN
Express: Militant Vegans and Animal Right Groups ‘Spreading Terror’
In addition to traditional news media, Twitter is also becoming a popular space for anti-vegans to share their views and voice their disapproval of veganism and accusations of cult-like behaviour.
In fact, since early 2000, anti-vegan communities have begun to spring up across the internet, from Reddit’s r/AntiVegan to Facebook’s Anti-Vegan League and Instagram’s Anti-Vegan. Social media has provided a platform for those who stand against veganism to connect and identify with others who share in their opposition. (13,14)
According to these groups, vegans are guilty of projecting an air of superiority or moral righteousness that comes across as cult-like. Others see vegans as a threat to the status quo, or as attempting to indoctrinate others with their beliefs and practices.
A study conducted analyzing the anti-vegan subreddit found that users listed “spreading false information about the health benefits of a vegan diet” as one of their primary reasons for calling veganism a cult. They see vegans as preying on vulnerable or impressionable individuals and children, whom they can indoctrinate.
In addition, vegans are seen as misanthropists; prioritizing animal life over that of humans and wishing death or injury upon those individuals who do not follow a vegan lifestyle. For these reasons, anti-vegans argue that veganism is not a valid or functional way of living and that it should be relegated to the realm of extremist groups like ISIS. (15)
Despite this opposition within mainstream media, veganism continues to gain traction as a genuine and valid lifestyle choice in the Western world. With so many new high-profile vegans like Billie Eilish, Greta Thunberg, and Joaquin Phoenix promoting the health benefits and ethical merits of veganism through their social media platforms, it is clear that this movement is gaining momentum in popular culture.
Ultimately, the battle to shape public perception of veganism may be fought in mainstream media, but it will ultimately be won on social media.
In conclusion, while veganism may at times seem like a cult or fringe movement, it is actually grounded in compassion and a desire for justice for animals everywhere.
The debate around veganism as a cult is an interesting issue to explore, and it raises several important points about veganism and how it is perceived by others including the tabloid media.
First, it is important to note that veganism is not a cult in the popular sense; rather, it is an ethical philosophy based on kindness and compassion for animals. While some vegans may exhibit extreme dedication to this cause, they are simply motivated by their beliefs and are not looking to control or manipulate others.
Second, there is logic behind the vegan philosophy and many vegans have thoroughly researched the issues before adopting this lifestyle. They are not simply guided by emotion or reckless impulse, but rather by a desire to protect animals from suffering and cruelty at the hands of humans.
Finally, it is important to recognize that vegans are often vocal advocates for animal rights and welfare, using their knowledge and passion to promote change through education, legislation, and public demonstrations. They are not trying to control others, but rather trying to inspire others through their strong beliefs.
Clearly, labeling veganism as a “cult” is unfair and does nothing but perpetuate damaging stereotypes about those who follow this ethical lifestyle choice. It is important for us all to recognize the difference between legitimate belief systems such as veganism and true cults so we can better understand each other’s points of view without resorting to name-calling or stereotyping those who think differently than us.
As more people become aware of the benefits of cruelty-free living, we should work together as members of the global community in order create an environment where open dialogue and understanding prevail over fear-mongering and prejudice when it comes to discussing alternative lifestyles like veganism. At the end of the day, respect for all individuals—regardless of ethical or dietary choices—should always take precedence over judgment and animosity towards any particular group or belief system.
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Sources: ‘Is Veganism A Cult’
(1) Lorne. L. Dawson. Cults in Context. p3
(2) Ryan, N. J. (2016). Book Reviews : CULT CONTROVERSIES: THE SOCIETAL RESPONSE TO THE NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS. James A. Beckford. London and New York, Tavistock, 1985. . The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology. https://doi.org/10.1177/144078338602200319
(4) Dillon. J and J. Richardson 1991. A Politics of Representation Analysis of Social Construction of the Term ‘cult’.