Minority Compassion & Mild Admonishment

Except for Muslim extremist enclaves and the like, religions have been forced to yield to the secular world’s advancing moral standards. Rather than lead on ethics, religions have been led, and no less is true with respect to the ethical treatment of animals. Only now that animal welfare issues are becoming more mainstream, Christian organizations are trying to make themselves look good, proudly citing the usual suspects such as St. Basil of Casearea, who is attributed animal prayers he never wrote,[1]Philip Johnson, “St. Basil’s ‘Animal Prayers’ are a ‘Hoax’,” Animals Matter to God, May 1, 2012, http://animalsmattertogod.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/st-basils-animal-prayers-are-a-hoax-part-one/. and St. Francis of Assisi, who is linked to miraculous events that never happened. As Reverend Holmes-Gore (1909-1952) had the honesty to point out,

The saints who loved the creatures were not typical of Christians as a whole, and we have seen that they had no influence on Church teaching or Christian practice.[2]Quoted in Jon Wynne-Tyson Ed.,The Extended Circle: A Commonplace Book of Animal Rights (New York: Paragon House, 1989), 125.

A paltry record. If not saints, then spokespersons dust off and present religious animal advocates of the Victorian Era as exemplary contributors for animal causes. The few that existed were predominantly Protestant. After that short list is exhausted, there are some recent advocates to put forward—such as Norm Phelps, Andrew Linzey, Stephen R. L. Clark, Bruce Friedrich, and Stephen H. Webb—which amount to a tiny minority of religious voices among the tiny minority of society’s animal advocates. And that’s about it after centuries and centuries of Christianity proclaiming itself as a moral guide.

As John Loftus rightly points out, although minority voices for animals in Christian tradition are now being resurrected in the light of today’s moral demands, they hardly “exonerate the Bible from the majority voices that are to be blamed for the horrendous treatment of animals down through the ages.”[3]John Loftus, “God and Animals: The Bible and the Treatment of Animals,” The Christian Delusion, https://sites.google.com/site/thechristiandelusion/Home/the-bible-and-animals. Why must Christians seek out these minority voices, and indeed why are there still only a minority today? It is a matter of being on the wrong side of history, Loftus explains, because you cannot begin with a book

predominately written and compiled by anthropocentric barbaric men of the past who saw their relationship to the universe and their world in a self-centered patriarchal manner

You cannot expect such a book with its antiquated notions to match modern social values. If people live by it, you cannot expect any progress.

The Bible offers nothing important on the reality of nonhuman animals, and any claim it does “is indefensible in light of the new paradigm of Darwinian biology and the new awareness of the need for the rights of animals.”[4]John Loftus, “God and Animals: The Bible and the Treatment of Animals,” The Christian Delusion, https://sites.google.com/site/thechristiandelusion/Home/the-bible-and-animals. Scriptures contrived by ancients for a different age naturally fail to provide clear instructions against animal cruelty and animal suffering. While this is hardly surprising, it is surprising that this omission is not questioned more closely. If the Bible failed miserably at being history-proof on animal treatment, and so failed to reveal some essential truths, does that not imply a fallible god?

Surely believers must question the way their god sat by until the Enlightenment before allowing scriptures to be interpreted in favor of the humane treatment of animals. And why, even then, was there only a smattering of biblical references to go on and a minority of humane voices to quote them?

A Softly Softly Approach to Advocacy

The few modern religious voices for animal welfare stand in contrast with their silent majority peers. That alone is an indictment of all of their respective faiths. But these lone voices are keenly aware of the discrepancy, of the compassion touted by their religions but the lack of it shown toward nonhumans. And they are not shy in pointing this out. “Catholics, and all Christians, have a choice,” says Bruce Friedrich, a campaign director with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and board member of several Christian vegetarian society’s,

When we sit down to eat, we can add to the violence, misery and death in the world, or we can respect God’s creatures with a vegetarian diet. I believe we’re obligated to make choices that are as merciful as possible… it is a sin to eat meat. The church has a way to go before it recognizes this fact explicitly, but there it is, an official part of church doctrine.”[5]Interview with Hank Pellissier, “Is Eating Meat A Catholic Sin?” in San Francisco Chronicle, February 2, 2004, http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Is-Eating-Meat-A-Catholic-Sin-2802645.php.

It is calm and measured and not all that condemnatory, which is a common pattern. Rather than come out swinging, religious advocates express appeals for mercy and proffer biblical arguments that favor preserving life and vegetarianism. You see this typified in books like Stephen Kaufman and Nathan Braun’s Good News for All Creation: Vegetarianism As Christian Stewardship and Andrew Linzey’s Animal Theology.

Animals, through central, are often overshadowed by something bigger. Abstaining from meat, for instance, is seen as not only showing greater love and respect for God and His creation, but as magnifying God’s glory. It is a moral and spiritual duty. For Harold Brown, a farmer featured the documentary Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home, who had long questioned his farming community’s expectations and practices of animal cruelty,

vegetarianism is implicitly a spiritual act. It is not about saying “No” but about saying “Yes”. About enjoying the lives of other creatures on this Earth so much that even the thought of killing them is abhorrent. I think God rejoices in God’s creatures, takes pleasure in their lives, and wants us to do so too.[6]Harold Brown, “A Farmer’s Call to Mercy,” Animal Rights Zone, http://arzone.ning.com/profiles/blogs/a-farmers-call-to-mercy.

Like all Christian animal advocates, blame is placed on human failings as opposed to that one huge failing at the center of everything—an outlandish religion of fables and the delusional thinking based on it.

Brown was “indoctrinated” into what he calls “the modern practice of dominion,” in his case into a certain

mindset with farm animals. The ideas of dominion, stewardship, compassion, mercy and moral responsibility have been, since my childhood, a constant battleground for me, a dilemma that took over 30 years to come to terms with.

That battleground was made so by the prevailing attitudes of a Christian society, by contemporary farming methods that have been incorporated into a spiritual world view just as farming practices in biblical times were.

Defilement of what should have been benevolent stewardship is a constant theme in Christian advocates’ criticisms, one of the most memorable being from Henry Salt’s contemporary, the Dean Inge, who famously noted that “we have enslaved the rest of the animal creation . . . so badly that beyond doubt, if they were to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.”[7]William Ralph Inge, Outspoken Essays. Second Series (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1922), 166-167. Exponentially worse than the age to which he referred, Inge could not have imagined the sadistic industrial practices on a gargantuan scale that a small group of outspoken Christians nowadays mildly criticize as “bad stewardship.”

Robert Wennberg speaks of how stewardship describes Christian life entire, not just in the sense of kindness to animals. This ideal, he proposes as others have before him,[8]Robert N. Wennberg, Gods, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 173. continues to be trashed in the modern world. All the work is ahead of such minority voices to convince Christians to change and do what many of them still see as practically sacrilegious—that is, give up meat.

Apathy and antagonism toward the ethical treatment of animals says a lot about practitioners of major religions, along with everyone else. Integrity of character is the way Matthew Scully puts it:

Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us. Animals are so easily overlooked, their interests so easily brushed aside.[9]Matthew Scully, Dominion: the Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002), xi-xii.

For all the minority Christian voices like Scully’s, for all the soft and polite reproaches, there is an amazing lack of action and compassion from scriptural followers. It is a poor reflection of the religious character, so that is where admonition is generally focused. It comes down to the faithful interpreting their faith one way and others another way. You will not find them blaming their own religion as a root cause for a long history of ethical failure. You will not find them blaming a fictional god.

Religion Hardens the Heart

Christians, Wennberg has to admit, demonstrate a greater disregard for animals and their ethical treatment than the nonreligious, as found in a study on the attitudes and understandings of animals by Americans.[10]Robert N. Wennberg, Gods, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 18; the study in question is Stephen R. Kellert and Joyce K. Berry, Knowledge, Affection and Basic Attitudes toward Animals in American Society. Phase III (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), 102, 107. The study showed that the nonreligious scored highest in terms of knowledge of animals and concern for their ethical treatment, their exploitation, and the damage to their habitats, as opposed to the faithful who registered very low scores.

At this Wennberg has a “measure of concern,” which is hardly an appropriate response to the study’s alarming and unreserved indictment of Christian ignorance and negligence. The study sees

participation in formal religious activities as a differentiator of basic attitudes and knowledge of animals. This demographic dimension was significantly related to nearly every scale, with differences tending to consistently increase or decrease across the varying levels of religious participation.
[ .. ]

Major differences among religious participation groups in knowledge, interest and affection for animals were indicated by significant naturalistic, humanistic, negativistic and knowledge scale results. For example, respondents who rarely or never attended religious services had among the highest knowledge scores of any demographic group, in contrast to those who participated once a week or more, who had very low knowledge scores.

Large and significant differences also occurred on the naturalistic and humanistic scales with respondents who rarely or never attended religious services being among the highest scoring demographic groups on these dimensions. Apparently, basic differences in affection and affinity for wildlife, the outdoors and pets distinguished the varying religious participation groups. Respondents minimally involved in religious activities were characterized by considerably greater affective interest and cognitive understanding of animals.

Strong differences also existed in concern for the ethical treatment and exploitation of animals and their natural habitats. Specifically, those rarely or never participating in formal religious activities scored far higher on the moralistic and lower on the utilitarian scales than respondents who attended services at least once a week or more.[11]Stephen R. Kellert and Joyce K. Berry, Knowledge, Affection and Basic Attitudes toward Animals in American Society. Phase III (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), 102, 107

For anyone who missed the beginnings of the last three paragraphs, the differences between the religious and nonreligious were “Major… Large… Strong”—you know, really big.

Wennberg can only lament the high secular scoring for knowledge and concern in contrast to the shamefully poor Christian results, stating that “it will not be the first time that the latter needs to learn from the former.” And nor the first time a religious apologists has had to admit it. It was remarked upon by a contemporary of Dean Inge, the Reverend John Todd Ferrier (1855-1943), another minority voice from the early 1900s:

It ought to make all who profess evangelical Christianity ashamed that the finest and most compassionate souls have not been within their own borders, but rather amongst those whose deepest thoughts have aroused the suspicion of heresy. Evangelical Christianity, as people understand it, has absolutely failed to kindle the Divine Compassion, and to realise itself in a great fire of sacred devotion to all life.[12]Reverend John Todd Ferrier, “A Plea for Humaneness,” in On Behalf of the Creatures; A Plea Historical, Scientific, Economic, Dynamic, Humane and Religious (London: Order of the Cross, 1926), 100.

Not hard to explain, but damn hard to hide the neglect and ignorance toward nonhuman animals by the religious, especially when honest apologists are themselves pointing it out.

Little progress has been made in the 21st century. Even the self-criticism is softer, toned down perhaps for an age when the beliefs of the faithful are under greater threats from science, education, and the Internet.

While authors of the above study rightly blame “anthropocentric Western religious tradition,” Wennberg attempts to address Christian apathy with limp excuses, such that animal ethics has yet to be presented in the right moral framework, has been overlooked, has suffered from an overreaction to pagan animism, and so on.[13]Robert N. Wennberg, Gods, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 19-22. Excuses or Xianspin cannot whitewash the stain of a historical lack of ethical concern for animal treatment among the religious. Shame is what honest believers should be feeling.

Scully writes that “History is full of other ‘hidden foundations’ too long unexamined, old ways that people could not part with, practices about which they were proud and sure and defiant when they should have been ashamed.”[14]Matthew Scully, Dominion: the Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002), 313. But because of his affiliations, he too does not go far enough. Old ways like basing a worldview on religious fantasy and Christianity entire are things to be ashamed of and gotten rid of once and for all.

Because of their faith-based beliefs, religious apologists do not go far enough in condemning their own anthropocentric religious traditions, which have been a nightmare for nonhuman animals. Apologists pull back, make excuses, mollify. In the following Reverend Andrew Linzey describes Christianity’s terrible and enduring influence before suggesting it can play a role in challenging its own traditions—he’s actually being serious:

Western culture is inextricably bound up with man’s exploitation of millions of animals as food, as research tools, for entertainment, and for clothing, and for enjoyment and company. The sheer scope and complexity of our exploitation is, I contend, an indication of how far we have accepted the dictum that animals exist for man’s use and pleasure. It is sheer folly to suppose that we can completely extricate ourselves from this complexity of exploitation with minimal disturbance to Western society, as we now know it. Nevertheless, having begun the slow and often tedious task of challenging traditional assumptions, new fields of sensitivity have already begun to emerge, and it is this task of hastening the moral evolution of the consciousness of our fellow humans that we must undertake. The Christian tradition with its vast influence on Western culture has a unique role to play in showing its ability to change perspectives and challenge even its most cherished assumptions.[15]Andrew Linzey, “Animals and Moral Theology,” in Animals’ Rights, a Symposium, ed. Paterson, D., R. D. Ryder, and Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (Centaur Press, 1979), 41-42.

Would that include challenging the assumption of a god that made humans in his image? Me thinks not. Keith Barth, whom some have dubbed the 20th century’s greatest theologian, childishly asserted that since God chose to make humans in his image it proves human beings are more important than animals. Talk about an airy fiction based upon an airy fiction.

When it comes to the ethical treatment of nonhuman animals, little has changed for the last 20 centuries among the faithful. If any concession to animals is given, it is not given without a secular-based cultural change leading the way. If animals issues are debated, human weakness is blamed, an invisible god is pushed front and center, the words mercy and stewardship are bandied about, or the faith-stricken repeat the same old admonishments in that soft minority voice of theirs.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Philip Johnson, “St. Basil’s ‘Animal Prayers’ are a ‘Hoax’,” Animals Matter to God, May 1, 2012, http://animalsmattertogod.wordpress.com/2012/05/01/st-basils-animal-prayers-are-a-hoax-part-one/.
2. Quoted in Jon Wynne-Tyson Ed.,The Extended Circle: A Commonplace Book of Animal Rights (New York: Paragon House, 1989), 125.
3. John Loftus, “God and Animals: The Bible and the Treatment of Animals,” The Christian Delusion, https://sites.google.com/site/thechristiandelusion/Home/the-bible-and-animals.
4. John Loftus, “God and Animals: The Bible and the Treatment of Animals,” The Christian Delusion, https://sites.google.com/site/thechristiandelusion/Home/the-bible-and-animals.
5. Interview with Hank Pellissier, “Is Eating Meat A Catholic Sin?” in San Francisco Chronicle, February 2, 2004, http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Is-Eating-Meat-A-Catholic-Sin-2802645.php.
6. Harold Brown, “A Farmer’s Call to Mercy,” Animal Rights Zone, http://arzone.ning.com/profiles/blogs/a-farmers-call-to-mercy.
7. William Ralph Inge, Outspoken Essays. Second Series (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1922), 166-167.
8. Robert N. Wennberg, Gods, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 173.
9. Matthew Scully, Dominion: the Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002), xi-xii.
10. Robert N. Wennberg, Gods, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 18; the study in question is Stephen R. Kellert and Joyce K. Berry, Knowledge, Affection and Basic Attitudes toward Animals in American Society. Phase III (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), 102, 107.
11. Stephen R. Kellert and Joyce K. Berry, Knowledge, Affection and Basic Attitudes toward Animals in American Society. Phase III (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), 102, 107
12. Reverend John Todd Ferrier, “A Plea for Humaneness,” in On Behalf of the Creatures; A Plea Historical, Scientific, Economic, Dynamic, Humane and Religious (London: Order of the Cross, 1926), 100.
13. Robert N. Wennberg, Gods, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 19-22.
14. Matthew Scully, Dominion: the Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002), 313.
15. Andrew Linzey, “Animals and Moral Theology,” in Animals’ Rights, a Symposium, ed. Paterson, D., R. D. Ryder, and Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (Centaur Press, 1979), 41-42.

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