Faith’s Weak Advocacy for Nonhuman Animals

Recently, we have seen church leaders calling for compassion for animals, ingratiating themselves like politicians by rallying behind a fashionable concern. While a cardinal, Pope Ratzinger in addressing the subject of foie gras spoke against the “industrial use of creatures,” stating how “hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds,” opining that “degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.” Other leaders, usual suspects like the Dalai Lama, have also issued statements on proper “stewardship,” the oxymoron for dominion.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew goes even further, proclaiming that not protecting the planet is sinful—a position some consider radical. Indeed, it is quite a change, according to Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware, to assert that “what you do to the animals, the air, the water, the land can be sinful, not just folly.”[1]Marlise Simons, “Orthodox Leader Deepens Progressive Stance on Environment,” New York Times, December 3, 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/04/science/bartholomew-i-of-constantinoples-bold-green-stance.html. In other words, ordinarily compassion and concern for the environment is looked upon as folly. The good patriarch is “going against the current,” says Ware, and after he passes on “there may not be the same concern for the environment” anywhere in the church.

These leaders’ calls for compassion for animals are greenwashing platitudes. At the banquettes they attend, do they abstain from the lavish spreads of meat? Do they call on followers to make specific and practical changes to their lives to alleviate suffering?

Here is another example from the President of the Islamic Society of North America: “As Muslims we ought to question these farming practices and do our utmost to ensure that animals raised for food are shown the kind of mercy called for in the Quran and exemplified in the life of the Prophet himself.”[2]HSUS, “President of Islamic Society of North America Joins The HSUS’ Faith Advisory Council,” The Humane Society of the United States, November 16, 2012, http://www.humanesociety.org/news/press_releases/2012/11/islamic-society-faith-council-111612.html. All that “questioning,” doing one’s utmost, and mercy—like this example, the language the religious use when calling for improved animal welfare is broad and cites no change of practical use. The terms are non-confrontational, targeting no one in particular. It is all feel-good fluff.

Such platitudes are complimented by the equally ineffectual sentiments expressed by religious animal welfare campaigners. Humans have “dominion over the animals, just like the good book says,” states Joe Marshall, hog farmer and one of the many vice presidents at the Humane Society of the United States.[3]“Nebraska Farmers Union – HSUS Agreement,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7CRt1zOhZg. He believes he is obliged to show animals respect “because God created them,” then profits by sending them to their deaths through a market created by HSUS, which is a mighty strange way of showing animals respect.

Religious animal campaigners who do not support animal killing with cozy partnerships pull their punches, too. They also issue broad-stroke advisories and wimpish condemnations like everyone else. They too believe in mythological lies as the basis for their perception of nonhuman animals, no matter how differently they might interpret the lie of dominion.

That said, there are some who have hit hard occasionally with incisive indictments, such as Matthew Scully, author of Dominion. But ultimately, he also holds back from being too “radical.” Whenever Scully is introduced in public, it is always accompanied by his affiliations with the Republican party, usually in tones of surprise, with the implication being that he is an oddity—that to put animal concerns as a priority for a conservative Christian is out of whack and an exception to the rule. And it is. This not only says a lot about Republican antipathies toward animal issues, it also exposes existing assumptions of hostility to animal welfare among most Christian conservatives.

Why does Scully choose to work for religious right wingers hostile to animal causes? He penned, for example, the 2008 Republican National Convention speech for Sarah Palin, Alaska Governor at the time, who numbers among her hobbies the gunning down of unarmed animals and is disinterested in environmental conservation. At that time, according to Scully, he was not at first aware that it was Sarah Palin he would be writing for. But that does not explain why he chooses to devote his life to people and processes that are hostile to animal and environmental causes. So much for a call to mercy, when you spend your life in support of the merciless.

Scully has been roundly criticized by animal rights commentators for this, notably philosopher Steve Best and Christian writer Norm Phelps, author of The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible. By placing his speech writing talents to add eloquence to the culturally backward and scientifically illiterate—actually making them seem intelligent—only nudges the risk of a Republican victory that much closer, the prospect of which is bad for humans and animals. That point is not lost on Norm Phelps, who is quoted by Best in his critique:.

the mindset that leads conservatives to pursue policies that are hostile to the well-being of most of humanity … almost invariably leads them to policies that are hostile to the well-being of most animals… Scully obviously considers the lives and suffering of animals less important than politics as usual.

Best’s critique of Scully’s book Dominion consists of two main grievances, the first against Scully’s involvement in Bush-era warmongering and services to “right-wing ideologues and corporate fat cats,” and the second against Scully attitude in his book Dominion, couching

the critique of animal cruelty in cosmic laws, rational imperatives… It had a very uncomfortable authoritarian tone to it: here are the moral laws of the universe; here is moral truth. And he urged the same naïve Socratic belief that contaminates the thinking of the pacifists who dominate the animal advocacy movement—the idea that if we can only reason with people, show them this “Truth,” they will no longer abuse animals.[4]Steve Best, “From ‘Dominion’ to domination: the duplicity and complicity of Matthew Scully,” The Free Press, September 7, 2008, http://www.freepress.org/departments/display/1/2008/3198.

Best is right. Scully’s perception of nonhuman animal issues in the context of his brand of universal religious morality, which is a fabricated lie. This, of course, is the flaw in all books promoting religious animal advocacy. Sorry, Norm, but including from you.

Scully’s admonishments in finely coined phrases in Dominion can be distilled to something like, “Please stop being bad Christian hypocrites”; for example,

Kindness to animals is a small yet necessary part of a decent and holy life, essential if only as a check against human arrogance and our tendency to worship ourselves, our own works and appetites and desires instead of our Creator and His works (99).

It is just all so gentlemanly and polite, and as Best points out, even the book’s title with a biblical plea for “mercy” rather than “liberation” signposts its limitations and welfarist leaning. So despite the fine turns of phrase and on-target shaming, especially against hunters, Scully’s religious bent gets in the way of sharper advocacy.

Scully is running with the wrong crowd, those who will never yield their destructive interpretation of dominion because, as Best puts it, they will always put “corporate hegemony of the planet and the advancement of the US Empire” first. If Scully applied the reasoning he showed in his book to his own magical beliefs and those of Republicans, he would quickly see their hindrance to consciousness raising and true advocacy.

A Cure for Self-Worship

One thing that religious animal advocates have in common with the secular community is their disagreements with each other. Ironically, we would have no disagreement if a real god had supplied real scriptural guidance on the treatment of nonhuman animals!

Without any real guidance, the religious typical invent their own standards. Sub-genres of religious media now cater to the animal loving faithful, placating them with the likes of fantasies about seeing their companion animals in the afterlife, in books such as I Will See You in Heaven.

All this cuddly theology conjures up a new kind of heaven. Are we to believe it is now packed with animals, including extinct dinosaurs and the billions upon billions of livestock animals slaughtered every year? There would be a piffling number of human souls in comparison. And what about the status of the killers of animals now? And if the faithful believe their companion animals have souls, they are obliged at the very least to campaign to end the factory farming of pigs, which must assuredly have souls, too. They would need to turn vegan immediately or else admit to being instrumental in the suffering of millions of souls every year. Can we expect to see such a turn around? No, because most believers love their guilt free meat.

Andrew Linzey, who has been writing about Christianity and animal rights since the 1970s and is the director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, summarized how things stand in a Service in Celebration of Animals at Westminster Abbey on October, 2011. Having been involved in the animal cause for over 40 years, Linzey marveled at the remarkable advances, yet, “like a multi-headed hydra,” while one mode of cruelty might be cut off, another grows elsewhere. Compounding the problem is not only the “political sluggishness” of the Government but the Church’s indifference too, the inaction of both adding to the animal cruelty problem.

the churches.. are nowhere in this debate. With a few honourable exceptions – and I mean a very few – English archbishops and bishops haven’t even addressed the issue in the past decade or more. Almost all church leaders, who are normally loquacious in lamenting regressive social policies, can’t even register cruelty as an issue. They talk airily of environmental responsibility, but, when it comes to confronting our specific duties to other sentient creatures, fall silent. What is true about the church’s teaching is even more true of the church’s liturgy. A prayer for the welfare of God’s other creatures is nowhere to be found in its liturgical offerings.[5]Andrew Linzey, “Address at Westminster Abbey,” Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, October 2, 2011, http://www.oxfordanimalethics.com/what-we-do/commentary/address-at-westminster-abbey/.

What Linzey sees as the reason for this failure of religious leaders and their followers is “a fundamental failure in theology, much deeper and much more profound than is commonly appreciated.” He refers to the “self-aggrandisement, even deification, of the human species” that has turned Christianity into a religion of idolatry. Its worshiping of the interests of humans at its center has created an “unbalanced doctrine of the Creator.” But Linzey is describing no more here than what Christianity has always done. In fact, he is accusing Christianity of the anthropocentric arrogance at the heart of it and all religions. His religion only manifests it more viciously than most.

“Christians,” Linzey has to admit,

haven’t got much further than thinking that the whole world was made for us, with the result that animals are only seen in an instrumental way as objects, machines, tools, and commodities, rather than fellow creatures.

And there we have it. It is well and good for Linzey to say that “To think that animals can be defined by what they do for us, or how they meet our needs, is profoundly un-theological,” but for Christian leaders and the average Christian that is precisely how they believe the world is supposed to be. The gold standard remains anthropocentric pride and vanity and the belief that God is only interested in humans. There is silence, Dr. Linzey, because no one is listening.

Linzey is frank about the implications of this erroneous, self-worshiping anthropocentric “fault line that runs through almost all historical and contemporary theology.” So long as it prevails, animal cruelty will not end by doubling RSPCA inspectors, running more campaigns, and introducing more education. No, “We have to change our mental furniture, our whole mental outlook,” away “from the idea that animals are just things, tools, commodities, resources here for us to the idea that all sentient creatures have intrinsic value, dignity, and rights.” Exactly so, but what is the cure? “We need a new theology freed from naïve anthropocentrism and able to confront the selfishness of our own species.” Then, look no further! It already exists and the name for it is atheism.

Atheists have been criticizing anthropocentrism for centuries. Linzey, who was once an atheist, is almost there, on the cusp of what is really needed—an end to faith and magic thinking. The efforts of religious animal advocates to get through to the faithful on the subject of animal suffering have largely failed because they have failed to cut out the root of the evil, which is religion itself.

If Linzey abandoned the theoscatology of “the most unlovely species in the world,” he would arrive at what he has been looking for all along. Non belief and skepticism is the cure for the rot of religious anthropocentrism and its resulting tyranny upon animals. Fight the delusions of faith, throw out scripture, cease the phantom chasing of religion, then you have one less major hindrance to animal advocacy.

But there is more to do after that. Ridiculing religious nonsense and promoting reason is necessary to dismantle the self-aggrandizement used to justify tyranny. At the very least, as Peter Singer argues, constant campaigning in this way might protect hard won improvements in the treatment of nonhumans from erosion through prevailing religious and other speciesist ideologies.[6]Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Ecco, 2002), 213. As times goes on, slowly but surely, the nonsense of religious anthropocentricism will fade away as the faithful depart “funeral by funeral.”

Until that day, vegan skepticism is critical for preventing that erosion Singer warns about. It is fundamentally in conflict with religious ideologies. It stands as a potent skeptical position against the irrationalities of traditional faith because at its center is a rejection of anthropocentric concepts regarding nonhuman animals. Its core principles in mind and deed work towards undermining the false perceptions of bygone ages, which are still perpetuated by the ignorant and unread in our own age.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Marlise Simons, “Orthodox Leader Deepens Progressive Stance on Environment,” New York Times, December 3, 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/04/science/bartholomew-i-of-constantinoples-bold-green-stance.html.
2. HSUS, “President of Islamic Society of North America Joins The HSUS’ Faith Advisory Council,” The Humane Society of the United States, November 16, 2012, http://www.humanesociety.org/news/press_releases/2012/11/islamic-society-faith-council-111612.html.
3. “Nebraska Farmers Union – HSUS Agreement,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7CRt1zOhZg.
4. Steve Best, “From ‘Dominion’ to domination: the duplicity and complicity of Matthew Scully,” The Free Press, September 7, 2008, http://www.freepress.org/departments/display/1/2008/3198.
5. Andrew Linzey, “Address at Westminster Abbey,” Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, October 2, 2011, http://www.oxfordanimalethics.com/what-we-do/commentary/address-at-westminster-abbey/.
6. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Ecco, 2002), 213.

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