Infantile Divine Image: A God in the Mirror & the Natural World

The divine entitlement and egotistic conceit behind most religions was identified long ago by the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes (c. 570-475 BCE):

Ethiopians imagine their gods as black and snub-nosed; Thracians blue-eyed and red-haired. But if horses or lions had hands, or could draw and fashion works as men do, horses would draw the gods shaped like horses and lions like lions, making the gods resemble themselves.

Something so obvious in the behavior of all human tribes should convince anyone with a rational mind to laugh off the self-centered silliness of a belief that “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). Gods reflect their creators—it is that simple, and as bad as someone looking in a mirror and proclaiming that a mighty god is there looking back at them.

But such ancient and egoistic claims are immensely satisfying and popular. Wonderful benefits have flowed from them, though naturally with the help of force. Through a manufactured relationship with a manufactured divinity, Christianity authorized the following preposterous contract:

What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, a
And hast crowned him with glory and honour.
Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;
Thou hast put all things under his feet:
All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;
The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea,
And whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

Just a little lower than the angels! That was lucky. Then, twice blessed is man, who, with a divine mandate, is free to self-congratulate with pride, vanity, and arrogance, while simultaneously justifying the worst fascistic excesses imaginable against a vulnerable natural world. “The only thing that ever consoles man for the stupid things he does,” Oscar Wilde rightly noted, “is the praise he always gives himself for doing them.” No praise like being in the image of a god.

All human interactions with the natural world and its nonhumans in the past were informed by crackpot assertions about how reality works. Not only did ignorant people make gods in their own image, they manufactured entire religions and scriptures based on a primitive view of reality, which was then recycled in later generations.

But when you live by delusions built upon ancient fictions, the phantoms of some ancient fool’s imagination, you exist in a Disney-like reality separated from the real world. It is like approaching the world with the mentality of a child. Even worse, being divinely anointed as at the top of a spiritual hierarchy nurtures infantile egotism, narcissism and other delusions that breed tyrannical behavior and irresponsibility.

While Eastern religions traditionally stress an interconnection between humans and nonhumans, where all exist on a continuum of life in a moral, karmic universe, their universe is nonetheless one where the status of humans is always higher than that of nonhumans. Of all Eastern religions Jainism expresses most concern for other living things, adhering strictly to the spirit of ahimsa, or non-violence, while others vary from bad to worse. Until around the 6th century BCE, animal sacrifice was central to Hinduism and is still practiced in some Hindu regions today. India is known for the reverence given to cows, yet the country has one of the world’s largest leather industries, involving the brutal treatment of cattle. Its street cows dies from eating a diet of plastic bags from rubbish dumps.

Buddhism is well known for its compassion toward animals, but they are still considered lower than humans, and “one finds in Buddhism a pervasive dismissal of other animals that is related to the tradition’s heavy investment in hierarchical thinking.”[1]Paul Waldau, “Religion and Animals,” In Defense of Animals: the Second Wave, ed. Peter Singer (New York: Basil Blackwell, 2006), 73. When we look at countries with a Buddhist heritage today, they either among the world’s worst in terms of animal abuse and cruelty—for example, China—or treat animals no better than Western countries.

Of all religions, however, none can match the Abrahamic trio in propping up humans at the pinnacle of creation and demarcating nonhumans arbitrarily outside the bounds moral concern. If Judaism, Islam and Christianity have scriptures recognizing certain obligations toward the welfare of animals, they are trumped by the idea of the world as a giant pantry stocked with nonhumans exclusively for human use.

Of this monotheistic trio, Jewish tradition can boast ancient Hebrew concerns for the welfare of animals, primarily domestic animals; Islam has strong sayings that urge followers to be “kind to the creatures of Allah,” as Mohammad is reputed to have said, as “There is not an animal on earth, nor a bird that flies on its wings, but they are communities like you” (Qur’an 6:38); Christianity has a smattering of sayings on attending to animal welfare, but its Hebraic heritage was tempered by borrowings from Greek tradition, effectively creating a greater distance from the animal world through equating spiritual value with rational capability. All of the monotheistic religions are anthropocentric to the core, with Christianity being most responsible for the distorted perception of animals throughout Western civilization.

For this reason, some describe it as the worst of the worst. “Especially in its Western form,” Lynn White writes, “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”[2]Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967), 1203-1207, doi: 10.1126/science.155.3767.1203. One early step in reaching this ignoble distinction was the Hebraic dismissal of multiple pagan divinities for one super god. The animal deities were dead, and with them departed the companionable, pagan idea of humans and animals being knit together by the their natures and the cycling of souls from one to the other.

Equipped with the one-god concept, the Semitic peoples dealt at arm’s length with the zoological world, affirming the absolute uniqueness of humans, made in God’s own image.[3]Gerald Carson, Men, Beasts, and Gods: A History of Cruelty and Kindness to Animals (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 13. This was a step in denying kinship with the natural world, and with it came an infantile irresponsibility toward nature. “By destroying pagan animism,” White observes, “Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”[4]Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967), 1203-1207, doi: 10.1126/science.155.3767.1203.

An exacerbating factor was that the super god, God, apparently had no idea about the existence of baboons and the like, so followers had no opportunity to realize how close they were to them. As Frans de Waal points out in The Age of Empathy, the monotheistic religions developed in lands without apes other than the human one, which naturally instilled a stronger sense of human exceptionalism and superiority. Rainforest and Eastern cultures, in lands where apes and monkeys abound, did not demarcate the line between animals and humans so severely. “Only the Judeo-Christian religions place humans on a pedestal, making them the only species with a soul.”[5]Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (Three Rivers Press, 2010), 206. Provincial ignorance thus contributed to exceptionalism and a belief that tyranny over nonhumans was an inalienable right and that .

You cannot overturn the effects of centuries of this kind of thinking and arrogance toward nature. Look at the current thinking of climate change deniers, for whom admitting ecological turmoil would be tantamount to conceding an incompetent god. But it is not just the lunatic fringe that still largely ignore ecological distress, exploitative injustices, and the suffering of nonhuman animals because of a belief they are irreproachably made in a god’s image. The Catholic line, for example, will always be that “God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image” (no. 2417). Nothing good can come from an ape species, with a population growth spiraling out of control, that believes it is in the image of god and therefore comes first over a ravaged earth.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Paul Waldau, “Religion and Animals,” In Defense of Animals: the Second Wave, ed. Peter Singer (New York: Basil Blackwell, 2006), 73.
2. Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967), 1203-1207, doi: 10.1126/science.155.3767.1203.
3. Gerald Carson, Men, Beasts, and Gods: A History of Cruelty and Kindness to Animals (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 13.
4. Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967), 1203-1207, doi: 10.1126/science.155.3767.1203.
5. Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (Three Rivers Press, 2010), 206.

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