Maybe it's because food choices have been on my mind again lately, but I've found myself thinking about religious dietary laws.
It's fashionable among the set known as the "New Atheists" these days to denigrate all forms of all religion as not only incorrect, but dangerous, something that ought to be purged from mankind. My view is that we don't need to argue from any sort of religious principle to refute this notion; no appeals to apparent design or to authority are necessary. Just look: humans everywhere have always had an impulse to religion and spirituality. It's clearly something that is an innate part of the human animal, wired into our sociobiology, as natural to us as mother's milk (another thing once viewed by the experts as suspiciously backward, distasteful and unscientific). Getting rid of it entirely, for our own good, would be likely to backfire --- if it's even possible.
Dietary laws -- ritual avoidance of certain foods and ritual consumption of others -- are an example. Aren't they pretty much found everywhere in every culture?
This goes beyond kosher and halal, all the way to people who don't think of themselves as religious at all. For example, avoiding factory-farmed meat because of concerns about cruelty is a self-imposed religious dietary law. So is carefully selecting your groceries for their carbon footprint. You might prefer the connotations of "philosophical" or "ethical" versus religious, but there's not much practical difference.
Since people can and do thrive on traditional diets that are heavy in meat and other animal products -- the Masai come to mind, as do Native Americans of the far north reaches of Canada -- it's pretty obvious that even healthism-based vegetarianism is a sort of religious dietary law.
Mainstream america has ritual dietary laws too. When was the last time you saw tenderloin of dog or horse in your local supermarket? And why, pray tell, not?
It seems to be part of human nature to attach an importance to food that goes beyond physical sustenance. So even if we can't understand it, or see a practical reason for it, I would hope we can see it as, well, not utterly crazy when some culture or another follows a certain set of dietary restrictions -- just because.
Which takes me to the Garden of Eden. How many times have you read or heard a non-Christian, non-Jewish person complaining of the arbitrariness of that whole "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" nonsense? Why would God care if they ate this one fruit? There's no good reason for it -- whoever wrote it down even made a point of mentioning that the stuff was good to eat, so what's the big deal? Alternatively, you'll occasionally see a well-meaning believer defending the don't-eat-that rule on some practical ground of healthfulness or learning obedience or some such thing.
I think it's easier to understand the story -- and this works both if you take the story as something that really happened, or if you take it as a useful teaching story passed down by one of the world's most influential cultures -- as the story of the first dietary law. The first "We eat this, not that. Just because."
Pointing at the fruit of the tree while uttering "In the day you eat of it you shall surely die" is not, inherently, any nuttier than pointing at your tablemate's cheeseburger while muttering, "That shit'll kill you." It doesn't matter that the modern health nut thinks that science is on his side -- it's still a prediction of religious significance -- because in reality the connection between any given cheeseburger and the untimely death of the cheeseburger-eater is practically zero, unless the eater chokes on it, I suppose. And even if a lifetime diet of cheeseburgers will shorten your life, who's to say that's not a reasonable choice for someone who likes cheeseburgers?
But let's go back to dietary laws for a minute. It's significant that the breaking of a dietary law should play such a crucial role in the stories I'm speaking of. And it's not something that's alien to human nature either. There are many layers to the story, but I can't help but think that it's in part a lesson that there are limits to our natural inclinations. The tree's fruit was "good to eat," and there is no reason to assume the senses of the man and woman couldn't be trusted. Yet, as the story goes, it was better, in that place and in that time, to choose not to eat it. Resisting, if only on occasion, what we naturally want and can see is a good thing, must itself be something good. And doesn't that fit with our ordinary experience?