Cultural Christians & Dominion Worship

The Enlightenment, that great age of secularism, rationalism, materialism and empiricism, could not shake the religious foundations that still informed many of its cultural norms.

One might think that such a thoroughly irreligious society would no longer accept the idea that God created all the beasts upon the earth, fowls in the air and fishes of the sea for the pleasure and sustenance of humankind. But ideas so embedded in the human psyche as the relationship between humankind and God expounded in Genesis could not vanish overnight. The Doctor Pangloss vision of the world, soon to be demolished by Voltaire, was alive and well.[1]Colin Spencer, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 225-226.

Despite hundreds of years of secular thought and intermittent writings of philosophers and vegetarian atheists since then, ancient views on nonhumans are still widely accepted and followed in modern culture. That nature exists entirely to serve humans and that it is a God-sanctioned right to exploit nature and animals for human benefit are presumptions still thoroughly ingrained in cultural thinking.

During the centuries of Christian domination of European thought the ethical attitudes based on these doctrines became part of the unquestioned moral orthodoxy of European civilisation. Today the doctrines are no longer generally accepted, but the ethical attitudes to which they gave rise fit in with the deep-seated Western belief in the uniqueness and special privileges of our species, and have survived.. [2]Peter Singer, Practical Ethics. Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 89.

So while we can dismiss the arrogant, obsolete presumptions of religions, we cannot dismiss their terrible legacies. Even more astounding, you will find they have been inherited and are embedded in the minds of even those who proudly calling themselves skeptics. Your garden or common critical thinker, despite claims of mental rigor and skepticism, often falters at questions of immoral animal exploitation and their level of complicity in it. At these moments, the proudest rationalists reveal themselves to be as closed-minded as anyone, with allegiance and a loyalty to their stomachs over reason. It is much as Cato once noted, “it is hard to reason with the stomach, which has no ears”

Where sensual self-indulgence meets the failure of reason, you also find speciesism supported by belief systems ingrained in social consciousness through mythologies of justification that, as Melanie Joy puts it, inculcate how eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary.[3]Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2010), 96-97. You will find progressive skeptics guilty of it as much as anyone, while being the last to admit their attitudes are anything other than what they have arrived at through rational apprehension. It is as Baron d’Holbach once put it in De la cruauté réligieuse, 1769,

A great number of articles of faith are warmly embraced, stubbornly supported, and courageously defended, not because they are found to be reasonable, but because we have been accustomed to respect them from an early age, or because they are in accordance either with our temperament or our interests. We are disposed to think that the opinions we were penetrated with in our childhood and which habit has, in a certain sense, caused to grow along with us are the result of our own reasoning, though we have never examined them. There are some that are so obviously true that it is of little import to know whether we discovered them ourselves, or if they were simply acquired. But as for those about which there can be the least doubt it is essential that we only admit them after careful reflection. This alone gives us the right to look upon them as truly ours.[4]Baron d’Holbach, On Religious Cruelty, trans. Mitchell Abidor (2005), Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/holbach/1769/religious-cruelty.htm.

The cultural conditioning of speciesism is as insidious as religious cultural conditioning used to be and still is in many parts of the world. It becomes embedded in culture and accepted as normal.

Inherited religious-based speciesism is still with us because the roots of modernity are in the secularizing of Judeo-Christian tradition dating back to the Enlightenment. Philosopher Steve Best has studied the thinking from the Enlightenment onward—what he terms Left-humanist thought—and concludes that rather than proudly radical it has been more “a variant, rather than rejection, of Western anthropocentrism, speciesism, and the pathology of humanism.”[5]Steve Best, “Minding the Animals: Ethology and the Obsolescence of Left Humanism,” Inclusive Democracy, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring 2009), http://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/journal/vol5/vol5_no2_best_minding_animals.htm. While it is true that views on the human relationship with animals improved once thinkers turned away from slavishly following biblical doctrine, the gains were gradual and limited. What predominated, Best argues, was a reconstituted, secular version of Christian dominion whose narrative set the world on a destructive path by asserting the same “anthropocentric and speciesist ideology … dominating nature and exploiting animals through more invasive, advanced, and deadly technosciences.”[6]Steve Best, “Total Liberation and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution,” Dr. Steve Best, June, 2011, http://drstevebest.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/ total-liberation-and-moral-progress-the-struggle-for-human-evolution-3/.

The primatologist Frans de Waal is of a similar view, identifying how Western religions spread the “creed of human exceptionalism to all corners of knowledge,” and passed it on from discipline to discipline, infecting philosophy and the sciences, and ensured a continuing sense of discontinuity with other life forms.[7]Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (Three Rivers Press, 2010), 207. Nowadays it might be “pushed to the subconscious” and less prominent in cultural discourse, but human exceptionalism still imbues the thinking of the Left, progressives, and skeptics everywhere.

At worse, their nonchalance is not so removed from theologians of centuries ago, while the more progressive have a mindset stuck somewhere in the 1950s, as if they completely missed the ongoing animal rights revolution. Those at the forefront of cultural debate, rational thought, and social commentary—the academics, skeptics, atheists, and let us not forget feminists—affirm equality, moral progress, justice, human rights; they promote science, evolution and critical thinking; but then they fail to meaningfully include nonhuman animals in their grandiose ruminations because they are too busy participating in time-honored forms of ever-recyclable anthropocentric conceit.

Christian anthropocentricism is still with us today in laws, politics, business practices, and in the minds of the unthinking. It is no coincidence that the “willingness to demean nonhuman animals” in religious traditions so smoothly meshes with the “totality of modern secular societies’ subordination of nonhuman animals’ lives to human profits, leisure, and ‘progress’.”[8]Paul Waldau, “Religion and Animals,” In Defense of Animals?: the Second Wave (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006), 70. The anthropocentric thinking deep in cultural attitudes perpetuate a dualism against nature, a sense of entitlement exacts moral blindness, a belief in unending progress bolsters denial, and driving it all forward are corporate engines cultivating desires that ultimately feed their profits.

Internalize conditioning, sympathetic to the exploitation of nonhuman animals, assures a minimum of ethical conflict and cognitive dissonance. It’s good for business. People are kept in what David Orr describes as “a perpetual state of infantile self-gratification as dependable and dependent consumers rather than as informed, active, engaged, and thoughtful citizens.”[9]David Orr, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 50. Today well-domesticated citizens excuse the abuses of corporations, governments kowtow to corporate needs and overlook animal welfare, and businesses place profit over accountability or compassion.

Among these dutiful citizens are the skeptics and progressives going about business, seemingly oblivious to any of this. It would be news, if not rejected, if you pointed out that

moral attitudes of the past are too deeply embedded in our thought and our practices to be upset by a mere change in our knowledge of ourselves and of other animals.”[10]Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Ecco, 2002), 212.

Sure, skeptics will reject the imaginary immortal soul altogether, along with the arrogant idea that only humans have one. But other theological doctrines, equally culpable in artificially justifying human beings a special status, are actively supported.

One of these doctrines uses the analogy that just as humans are the property of God, nonhumans are the property of humans, under God’s blessing. This preposterous idea, though exceedingly practical for profiteers, has been supported by both theologians and philosophers through the ages—it is there in Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government:

… for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker … are His property (Chapter 2, Section 6) … The earth and all that is therein is given to men for the support and comfort of their being (Chapter 5, Section 26) … mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property (Chapter 5, Section 27) … The measure of property Nature well set, by the extent of men’s labour and the conveniency of life (Chapter 5, Section 36)

And yet this magic thinking has become biblical-based law in the world’s most civilized countries. As Peter Singer puts it, the “doctrines are no longer generally accepted, but the ethical attitudes” remain. More than just “ethical attitudes,” religious doctrines are accepted through their threads in the laws of the land in most countries, maintained for economic convenience and ensuring everyone abides by the slave and property status forced upon nonhumans whether they like it or not.

How such arrogant beliefs, that everything in creation exists for humankind, made their way into Western law is summarized by Steven Wise, a pioneer in the field of animal rights law. To begin with, the anthropocentric conceit found in ancient scriptures such as the Old Testament was adapted as a central belief of the Stoics, whose influence spread from Greece to ancient Rome.

In the fifth century, St. Augustine, who thought Christ a Stoic in the way he viewed nonhuman animals, fused the animal-related teachings of the Hebrews and the Stoics and folded them into Christianity. A century later, Byzantine emperor Justinian injected these teachings into his immensely influential legal codes. From there it was absorbed into the legal writings of continental Europe, taken up by the great lawyers, judges, and commentators of English common law, and received nearly whole in America. That is why this idea remains at the root of what the law says we in the West can do to nonhuman animals today.[11]Steven Wise, Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 2002), 20.

A truly damning record. If the average atheist and progressive sees animal welfare as nothing of their concern, they should at least be aware they are participating in and unwittingly influenced by an abiding, flawed religious heritage. If supporting the property status of animals in thought and deed, they are not fully rejecting religion and its legacy. What they are doing more often than not is unquestioningly and tacitly condoning the deeply embedded authority of religious thinking.

What can be said about the doctrine of animals as property is the same thing that applies to other religious claims, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “it is a false claim of power in the secular world based on a false claim of knowledge about the ethereal world beyond—no one who is subject to this thinking is, in my opinion, intellectually or mentally free.”[12]Christopher Hitchens, “The Moral Necessity of Atheism” (presentation, Convocation Hall, Sewanee University, February 23, 2004) Progressives who whole-heartedly endorse religious based, speciesist laws cannot call themselves entirely intellectually free, either.

They are “cultural Christians” because even if they might object to speciesist laws, often their apathy or inaction exposes subservience. They tacitly condone a de facto dominion. Many progressives are more willful, rejecting speciesism altogether as a non-issue, expressing an aversion to animal and environmental advocacy with uncommon suspicion and acrimony. These kinds of skeptics, as law abiding cultural Christians, are far from being intellectually free and in their willful ignorance are perhaps the least free of all. But don’t cry, baby Jesus still loves you even if I don’t.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Colin Spencer, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 225-226.
2. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics. Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 89.
3. Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2010), 96-97.
4. Baron d’Holbach, On Religious Cruelty, trans. Mitchell Abidor (2005), Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/holbach/1769/religious-cruelty.htm.
5. Steve Best, “Minding the Animals: Ethology and the Obsolescence of Left Humanism,” Inclusive Democracy, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring 2009), http://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/journal/vol5/vol5_no2_best_minding_animals.htm.
6. Steve Best, “Total Liberation and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution,” Dr. Steve Best, June, 2011, http://drstevebest.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/ total-liberation-and-moral-progress-the-struggle-for-human-evolution-3/.
7. Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (Three Rivers Press, 2010), 207.
8. Paul Waldau, “Religion and Animals,” In Defense of Animals?: the Second Wave (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006), 70.
9. David Orr, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 50.
10. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Ecco, 2002), 212.
11. Steven Wise, Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 2002), 20.
12. Christopher Hitchens, “The Moral Necessity of Atheism” (presentation, Convocation Hall, Sewanee University, February 23, 2004)

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