Many of you already know that I am a vegan and a supporter of rights for all sentient animals (including the human animal). I believe that an animal rights perspective is a natural and logical conclusion of an evolutionary, naturalistic worldview. But, I will reserve explaining my thinking on that for the future.
In this blog entry, I want to comment on an article recently emailed to me by a friend that appeared in the October 3, 2008 issue of the Toronto Star and was entitled, “Linking Faith and Animal Rights.”
The writer, Stuart Laidlaw, begins his article with the statement, “It is impossible to eat meat without violence. An animal, after all, has to be killed before it can be consumed.” He proceeds to attempt to make the case that empathy for animals and a concern for their welfare is a theme that is as old as religion itself. Focusing primarily on the monotheist religions Laidlaw writes:
“The Hebrew Bible, known as the Old Testament to Christians and considered a holy book in Islam, for instance, instructs man to care for creation – including the animals.”
Laidlaw goes on to describe briefly three examples of the blending of religion and animal rights:
• the documentary, Eating Mercifully, which profiles evangelical Christians who have become animal welfare advocates and run sanctuaries for abused animals.
• the jesusveg.com website launched by PETA that argues that Jesus was a vegetarian and that his message of “love and compassion” contradicts the horrific experience of animals who live miserably and die violently in today’s factory farms and slaughterhouses.
• a pamphlet, The Jewish Case for Vegetarianism, which supposedly states that the ethical underpinnings of Jewish dietary laws “point toward the ideal of vegetarianism.”
I grant that anyone can find isolated texts in the Jewish and Christian scriptures which, on face value, seem to promote a concern for non-human animals – or at least can be interpreted that way without too much intellectual gymnastics.
But it seems abundantly clear to me that the overall thrust of the Bible (both the Jewish version and the Christian version) treats animals as disposable commodities, not sentient beings deserving respect, compassion and moral consideration.
The most obvious example is the fact that in the Old Testament a system of animal sacrifice is mandated by God. Who can tell how many goats, sheep, doves, cows and oxen were killed in the name of propitiating God’s wrath against human sin? Repeatedly, the smell of burning animal flesh is said to be a “sweet smelling fragrance to the Lord.”
Or consider the 10 plagues God is said to have brought upon Egypt (Exodus 7-12), because the Pharaoh would not let the Israelites leave. In the first plague, God turns the river Nile to blood, expressly saying to Moses that it will kill all the fish in it. In plague number five, God strikes the livestock of the Egyptians with a deadly pestilence, even telling Moses the specific animals he will kill: horses, donkeys, camels, cows and sheep. Plague number seven is hail that killed all animals that were out in the open. And in the final plague, God kills the firstborn male child of every Egyptian and of all their livestock!
There are numerous other examples from the Hebrew Scriptures of the mistreatment and disregard of animals. God provides Adam and Eve with animal skins for clothing after they had become aware of their nakedness. He provides a ram for Abraham to kill, salvaging Isaac’s life at the last moment, after having commanded Abraham to murder his son. Animals are included in the list of who is to be killed when God commands the Israelites to exterminate various foreign tribes and peoples. Making animals sick or starving them are part of the punishment God sends upon his disobedient people.
Clearly, in the Old Testament, God is an animal abuser par excellence.
The picture is no better in the Christian New Testament. Jesus himself endorses the sacrificial system of the Old Testament (see for example, Matthew 5: 23-24, where “gift” is a synonym for “animal”). On one occasion, he permits a legion of demons to enter a herd of swine after commanding them to leave the man they were possessing. The swine respond by running blindly off a cliff to their death – with Jesus refusing to use his supernatural powers to intervene. On another occasion, Jesus tells Peter the fisherman where to cast his net so he and his colleagues can bring catch a miraculous number of fish – fish that would be killed and eaten, not kept as pets.
The rest of the New Testament portrays a similar indifference to animal rights. God convinces Peter in a vision that the Gentiles are now equal to Jews in God’s favour by having all kinds of “unclean” animals appear and commanding Peter to “arise, kill, and eat.” Peter is horrified, not at the thought of killing animals, but at eating unclean ones. Paul okays the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. The author of the book of Revelation prophecies that the destruction God will bring at the end of times includes the destruction of non-human animals as well as humans.
The clear thrust of the Bible is that animals are sub-human and are objects for human and divine use, not sentient creatures deserving of moral consideration, much less rights to life and liberty.
So, while I applaud wholeheartedly the movement of some religious groups towards an animal rights perspective, I find it disingenuous to use their Scriptures to try to justify this movement.
I would prefer that they admit that their animal ethics are emerging from a cultural evolution and that such an ethic contradicts their own sacred texts.
But of course, such an admission would create a problem for them that they aren’t yet prepared to face.