As we become more secular, certain religious behaviours are transferring to food
OTTAWA, May 29, 2015 — Some food movements, like vegetarianism, veganism or the anti-gluten movement, are taking on aspects that are not unlike fanatical religious movements, says an Ontario religious studies researcher.
Gillian McCann, an associate professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures at North Bay’s Nipissing University, is the author of a paper being presented at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. The paper examines the ways in which food plays a role today in determining who is pure and who is impure, in creating communities, and in producing fanaticism.
McCann says that as our society becomes more secular, behaviours formerly associated with religion are being transferred to other areas—notably food.
“This is the way our psyche works,” she says. “The body is now carrying all the ‘freight’ religion used to carry. We see a lot of obsession or focusing on the body in things like food or fitness.”
She argues that sometimes people talk about having gone to the gym in a way that suggests they did it to purify themselves.
Food, she says, is even more ‘charged’ than fitness – all the more so because there is a traditional link between religious affiliation and food, whether it’s not eating pork or fasting for Lent.
“With any religion,” she says, “food is a way of creating community and boundaries and a way of saying ‘We’re pure’. Because you are virtuous, you can construct people who don’t participate in your movement as unclean.”
She says those behaviours are now transferring to the secular views we have on food. She says we are coming to see the foods that we eat – or don’t eat – as important elements of what makes us ‘pure’ or gives us membership in a particular community.
McCann points out that she is not a sociologist but a religious scholar, and she is therefore taking a philosophical look at what she sees as a cultural phenomenon. She is interested, for example, in how gluten—something that millions of people have eaten daily for centuries—has become suddenly demonized.
She says gluten has been held up to cause everything from arthritis to cancer, without much scientific basis. Yet she says people arguing in favour of (or against) specific foods can become fanatical in their approach, and take to proselytizing—trying to convert people to their point of view about food, much in the same way a person might try to convert others to his or her religion.
McCann proposes that our over-concern about food is an expression of anxiety. It is also, she says, an expression of the loss of rituals around, and gratitude for, the food we eat.
McCann adds that she finds it ironic that many of the people who are fanatical about food are actually contemptuous of religion.
Gillian McCann will be presenting this research on Sunday, May 31 at the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. This presentation is called “The Dangerous and the Delicious: Food Regimens as Secular Asceticism” and will take place at 10:45 am on the University of Ottawa campus in the STE building, room G0103.
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