Analysis of the Christian (or another religion) teachings to the ethical debate about animal rights

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Analysis of the Christian (or another religion) teachings to the ethical debate about animal rights

"Animals are God's creatures, not human property, nor utilities, nor resources, nor commodities, but precious beings in God's sight. ... Christians whose eyes are fixed on the awfulness of crucifixion are in a special position to understand the awfulness of innocent suffering. The Cross of Christ is God's absolute identification with the weak, the powerless, and the vulnerable, but most of all with unprotected, undefended, innocent suffering." --Rev. Andrew Linzey1

The main purpose of this essay is to identify those religious points which could support arguments for animal rights in general, and vegetarianism in particular. I will point out a variety of areas within each faith that activists will find most useful in making a case for vegetarianism (and by extension, other animal rights issues). The traditions of each religion will find some arguments more compelling than others. Identifying the points which each particular faith will or will not be likely to support will prevent activists from wasting time on some approaches and allow them to focus on those with the most promise. Once these areas are identified, the possibility arises of establishing an ecumenical front of religious protest and boycott.

While the support of one group or denomination would be a boost to vegetarianism/animal rights, the combined influence of a broad coalition of believers working to promote vegetarianism and factory farm reform would be tremendously powerful. Additionally, identifying religious issues amenable to vegetarian concerns will also uncover methods and teachings that may be extrapolated to other animal rights issues. For example, a teaching of kindness that requires animals not to suffer or be mutilated may also be applicable to cosmetics testing or vivisection.

Those concerned with ending the suffering and exploitation of animals employ a variety of tools and methods in their quest. Philosophers and professors rationally and laboriously work through ethical proofs, highlighting humanity's inconsistent and arbitrary use of non-human animals. Doctors, both traditional and alternative, nurses, athletes, and nutritionists expound the profound health benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets. Scientists and anti-vivisectionists attack not only the frivolous testing of toiletries and household products on animals, but also medical experiments claimed to save human life. Environmentalists and biologists condemn animal agriculture as a major contributor to the destruction, degradation, and pollution of the earth's soil, air, and water. It seems the struggle for animal rights is moving forward on all fronts, challenging many people to rethink their relationship to non-human animals.

But even though the scope of our concerns for animals continues to grow, one vital component in a holistic approach to animal rights has been quietly overlooked: religion. There are probably any number of reasons why religion, an area which constitutes such an important, if not the supreme aspect of many people's lives, has been neglected among the majority in the animal rights movement. This neglect by religion comes in spite of a variety of important links between the animal rights movement and the various religious faiths.

Perhaps the cause lies in the predominantly secular tone of today's movement. Most ethical challenges to animal use are made by philosophers, not theologians. The majority of animal rights books, articles, and actions are devoid of any religious influence. With no mention of religion in the major organs of the movement, activists may simply assume religion to be irrelevant to the issue, or may not even notice its absence.

But activists would do well to remember the influence of religion upon early legal considerations for animal welfare, as well as the first humane societies. These roots run deep. Today's animal rights movement has grown in part from Puritan legal codes of animal protection2. Vegetarianism was first borne to America courtesy of British churchgoers3. What would become the RSPCA, the world's first animal welfare society, was founded on Christian principles and designed upon Christian lines. Additionally, the RSPCA/SPCA received some of its initial impetus from the first Jewish animal rights activist, Lewis Gompertz. It is to these pioneering believers that today's primarily secular animal rights movement owes at least some small debt4.

Those activists who are aware of the separation of the Church and the movement may very well want it that way. Often the only time an activist may see the two meet is when they are on the receiving end of a religiously-based justification for the abuse of animals. I would wager there are few activists who, when debating animal rights issues, have not come up against the stone wall of "Well, I just think God put animals here for us." And it is not just the individual believers who cloak their animal abuse in divine decree. Their religious leaders supply them with such justifications and encourage their use. In the face of these sorts of challenges it is no small wonder that animal liberationists like Peter Singer have devoted a fair amount of effort to proving religion's animosity towards animal rights and subsequently rejecting religious values5.

While understandable, such criticism of religion is often off-base. Many, if not all religious faiths, have traditions of kindness to animals. Though they may have been overlooked historically by both believers and sceptics, these traditions are still present, waiting to be reclaimed. Activists should not dismiss religion simply because the current establishment has subverted earlier pro-animal strands within the faith. Rather, it is the establishment that must be challenged and brought to rediscover these teachings. Even those faiths without an explicit foundation of animal concern cannot be overlooked. Teachings of kindness towards, the poor, orphaned, and otherwise disadvantaged can certainly be argued to include animals. Finally, as animal rights theologian Andrew Linzey has pointed out, secular concern for animals was also lacking until modern times6. Philosophy is no less culpable than religion for the long-standing lack of concern for animals, nor is religion any less useful than philosophy to affect a change in people's attitudes towards animals. Activists should not allow their personal biases against religion to prevent them from recognising its promise as well.

Activists may also simply be at a loss for words when confronted with religiously-based arguments for animal use or exploitation. Whether because an individual activist is of a different faith than the person to whom they are talking, or if that activist does not subscribe to any religion at all, they may find themselves unable to effectively comprehend and argue points which originate in religious belief. But one need not be of a particular religion, nor of any religion at all in order to employ and address religious arguments. Even a rudimentary knowledge of only a few major points may well cause a believers to pause and reconsider their animal use.

But why should activists even be concerned with reaching out to religious believers in the first place? We have already seen some examples of the possible benefits religion might bring to animal rights, most importantly, the ability of activists to appeal to religionists in religious terms. This is vital, because as mentioned earlier, for many people world-wide religion is an immensely important aspect of daily life.

Religious beliefs designate spheres of moral concern, delineate boundaries of acceptable behaviour, provide justification for behaviour, and in general inform believer's lives. For some traditions, such as Islam, religious arguments are everything. Secular reasoning is usually accorded a minor position, if any at all, in Islamic consideration of such moral affairs. If activists hope to change the habits of Muslims and others who defer ethical questions to religious authority, they must make a religious case for concern, as secular ideas are always bound to fail.

Though Singer and others may rightly question, criticize, and reject religion, most people on the planet subscribe to it in some form or another. That they will suddenly leave their religious traditions behind for secular philosophy is a most unlikely proposition. Secular philosophy must continue to hold a strong place in the animal rights movement, especially in America and Europe, but the reality of religion for much of the world's inhabitants cannot be ignored. Recognising that religion will continue to play a crucial role in the oppression or liberation of animals, activists need to accept this fact and move to address religionists on their own ground, in their own terms. Many believers will probably never be swayed solely by secular arguments for animal rights, especially if they sense a conflict with the teachings of their faith. However, they may well be inspired by pro-animal concerns that originate within their religion. So whether an animal rights activist personally accepts or rejects religion, they should still recognise its importance to others and thus, to animal liberation. Addressing religious concerns in animal rights dialogue is important not only to understand and convince individual religionists, but also to engage religious communities as a whole.
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While many in the animal liberation movement view animal abusers as demonic enemies, the general tone of activists seems to be less damning. This is especially true in the case of the average meat-eating, leather-wearing, animal tested-products using individual. Though it is easy to picture the slaughterhouse owner or vivisectionist as cruel and uncaring, the typical person can usually be seen as the unwitting victim of the deeply entrenched animal industries. Assuming the main thrust of activists will continue to be for the hearts and minds of such individuals, it is of great importance to recognize how religion ...

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