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Religion and Animals
Animal Rights and Christianity:
Historical and Theological Discourse
By Toby K
Moo-ving people toward compassionate living
Beneath the exterior of our 'modern and
civilised' western world, can be found a backlog of customs, practices and
thought patterns which are superstitious, backward and irrational, yet these
antiquities form some of our most unquestioned and accepted behaviours and
Our religions, and Christianity in
particular, are often criticised for holding on to such outdated thoughts.
Sometimes the criticisms are unjustified, sometimes not.
One such belief, ridiculous but widely
held, especially among non-indigenous 'westernised' peoples, and unanimously
supported by virtually all of the Christian communities and churches, is the
belief that animals do not have souls and therefore rights as living beings.
Even today, when science confirms that
animals show complex emotions, can think and reason[i],
and are often uniquely individual, they are still denied the status of a fellow
living being and are exploited with callous contempt by the vast majority of
It was not always so. Humankind's
earliest religions often included veneration --sometimes worship --of animals,
and always respect toward them. Far from being 'backward', indigenous humans,
who lived their whole lives among the animals, recognised not only their value
to the planet, but their value as living beings in their own right. Without a
complex scientific background to draw on, such spectacles as the speed of the
running cheetah, the unexplained 'sixth sense' of hunting bats and the
captivating breeding displays of birds-of-paradise, along with such phenomena as
hibernation and the migratory flights of birds, would have seemed miraculous,
even magical. By studying their lore, we learn that most indigenous peoples
realised the complex interactions in any given ecosystem, and knew of the value
of each species within that ecosystem, knowing also that to interfere would
break that balance which would ultimately have detrimental effects on the tribe
So, what occurred to change this? Why
have we, who pride ourselves on being so intelligent, forgotten these truths?
There are many reasons, the most significant of which are growing urbanisation
cutting us off from the natural world, our --let's face it --insatiable greed
for money and material possessions leading to industrialisation and the
degrading of nature and animals to mere resources to be exploited, and preceding
that, the spread of a religion so afraid of idol worship that any symbol which
did not belong to it (and the natural world had many) was deemed evil and, later
in history, persecuted accordingly. At that time, all of the traits which we
humans find so abhorrent in ourselves were projected on to animals. The concept
of the 'evil' wolf, the 'sly' fox, and the 'gluttonous' pig are familiar to us
all, yet all are untrue --there is not scientific justification for any of this. No
wolf is evil --it is an animal living in often harsh conditions and trying to
survive. There has never been a verified attack by a healthy wild wolf on a
Yet we hate and fear the wolf, just as we love and admire the dog. Why? It is my
view that, because the dog is domesticated, it represents a taming of - thus a
symbolic victory over --our lower natures as represented by the wild wolf. Of course,
most people aren't consciously aware of this connotation
This negative type of Christian
symbolism found its spawning ground in the first of two streams of philosophy
which influenced not only Christian thought, but upon which the entire system of
western thought is based - Neo-Platonism and Cartesianism.
Defined simply, Neo-Platonism, the
continuation of the philosophies of Plato (428 --347 B.C.) and a form of
dualism, is the separation of spirit and matter (i.e. mind/ body; later god/
earth etc), with spirit (ie, the soul) representing all that is 'good' in human
beings and (I am tempted to insert 'thus') pointing to the higher power, whereas
'matter' is seen as undesirable, unclean, corrupted, and often 'evil'. Only the
One (the Neo-Platonic term for the higher power and later identified with the
Judeo-Christian God) and human beings have 'spirit', God totally and humans
partially. The rest of creation, including animals - not being human - was
The Christian Church first adopted the
Neo-Platonic philosophy in the first few centuries A.D., in an attempt to give
itself a philosophical basis and to relate itself to the surrounding Greco-Roman
The historian Paul Collins notes that
'The roots of Christian dualism are not found in the Bible but in the post-New
Testament adoption of pagan Greek philosophy. Early Christianity was neither
fundamentalist, not biblically literate in its attempt to evangelise the
Greco-Roman world.'[iii]Neo-Platonic thought underlines most western philosophy and spirituality to this
day. A.N. Whitehead states that, 'All western thought is really just a footnote
to Plato.'[iv] An accurate assessment!
Cartesianism came much later. The French
philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), divided the human person into the
'thinking part', res cogitans,and the body, res extensa. He saw
the body as a machine, which had to be governed by the self-awareness of human
rational thought. He dropped the word for soul 'anima' and replaced it with the
word for mind 'mens'What animals lacked, so he said, was the human
rational thought, therefore their status was purely that of machines - and
machines cannot feel. The screams emitted by tortured animals were no more, he
said, than the squeaking of mechanical parts and of no consequence.[v]That attitude still underlines, to some degree, the thinking of virtually all
western and westernised people --devout believers and atheists alike --even
though scientists are now discovering that even relatively simple life forms are
capable of feeling pain and stress. Organisations and governments who are
stuffing their pockets by raping the natural world find the Cartesian view
particularly useful in justifying their agendas. For Christianity, Cartesianism
has served to further uplift the human being and to once and for all degrade all
other life to 'non-life'status. Although Catholic theology has often been at
odds with Cartesianism, it has, paradoxically, 'integrated much of the Cartesian
view of reality, 'easily embracing the 'mind in the machine' because for so long
the Christian tradition had been subverted by Neo-Platonic dualism'.[vi]
As a result of all of this, human beings
are in a collective state of anthropocentrism --human-centeredness, holding that
non-human parts of the world as existing solely for the use or benefit of
humanity. In fact, right up until very recently it was maintained that humans
are the only species that has value and therefore it is morally acceptable for
human beings to gain as much benefit as possible by using, even abusing, the
We are blinded by our own light. Or our own darkness.
In religious terms, anthropocentrism is
something truly deserving of being called a 'sin'. In Christian parlance, as sin
is a trait which blinds one to the Sacred Virtues, thus separating the
individual from God. By our anthropocentrism we are over-inflating our own
importance at the expense of Humility (or 'humbleness'--seeing ourselves as we
are; the realisation that everything comes from God, and submission to God's
will rather than our own[viii]).
One would think that Humility could only be encouraged by cultivating a healthy
respect and admiration for the natural world and animals in particular, and that
the Church would thereby encourage such respect.
Furthermore, we are exploiting,
torturing and killing for excessive monetary profit greed for material
possessions and even entertainment, thereby cultivating the sins of Greed,
Apathy and Cruelty and the taking of life. St Francis of Assisi, a Catholic monk
of the thirteenth century, taught that 'if you have men
who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity,
you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow man."All of this clearly shows that there are solid theological reasons for
Christianity to change its viewpoint toward animals, and still keep all of its
significant doctrines and moral teachings intact.
Even science now proves beyond a doubt
that animals are no mere 'objects', but this Cartesian fable is what most humans
still believe, probably because it is comfortable and convenient to do so. After
all, if we acknowledged the rights of animals, we would also have to face our
cruelty, our exploitation and our rapaciousness. We would have to face the fact
that we are all collectively guilty of genocide against our fellow species. This
is perhaps a reason why our religions are so against allocating animals their
rights --because our misdeeds can never find justification and our view of
ourselves as beautiful, benevolent and compassionate beings 'made in the image
of God'(Genesis 1:26) would be exploded for the lie that it is. Hitler too,
attempted to justify his extermination of the Jewish people by claiming that
they are 'not human', therefore objects, and so it is lawful to destroy them.
(Contrary to popular belief, Hitler was not an atheist, but a Roman Catholic
Christian.) At any rate, one could say that Humility (defined earlier as 'seeing
ourselves as we are') is officially refuted by the Church in favour of the sins
of Pride and Vanity!
At any rate, that is where we are at.
Denial of guilt aside, one would think
that, with the widespread destruction of our planet and the millions of species
staring down the barrel, our religious institutions would speak out vehemently.
One would think that Christianity in particular, which preaches love,
compassion, justice and mercy, would speak with a very loud voice indeed. But
Christian institutions have been extremely quiet when it comes to issues like
animal rights, which in effect, condones the abuse. It appears that love,
compassion, justice and mercy are reserved for humans alone --a stance which
many Christians are happy to confirm.
Such is the case with the Roman Catholic
Church. This gigantic institution, which has the potential to do so much good in
the world, officially teaches (as outlined in The Catholic Encyclopaedia - see
endnote vii) that, whilst wanton cruelty to animals is not to be encouraged
because it harms the perpetrator (that much is true), animals are nevertheless
classed as 'things'(objects) and therefore have no rights.
The full text can be found at:
This transcript is both derogatory and
contradictory, and its 'facts' have no basis in scientific and little in
biblical terms, as we shall see.
First of all, there is an
acknowledgement that the first religions 'taught that animals share in human
that it is a crime to kill them'.
Second, there is an admission that 'The
Old Testament inculcates kindness towards animals ', giving numerous examples, although this
'seems to have a religious rather than a humanitarian significance.' Taking into
account the tenets of Judaism, I would agree that this is indeed the case.
Nevertheless, it points to a clear and active moral obligation. There is nothing
active about Catholicism's claimed anti-cruelty stance. There seems to be a
total absence of word and action in even denouncing cruelty to animals to save
the soul of the perpetrators, let alone a more realistic and compassionate
Next we have the statement, 'The
New Testament is almost silent on this subject' This is unfortunately true, however the author
then goes on to extract the following: "The just regardeth the lives of his
beasts: but the bowels of the wicked are cruel" (Proverbs 12:10). This is a
clear call to have regard for the lives of animals. It must also be said that
nowhere does the New Testament condone the abuse and exploitation of animals.
Its message is one of love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness and it was only in
the following centuries that Christian lawmakers took the liberty of excluding
animals from God's compassion.
Next it is stated, 'The
hagiological literature of
which so largely formed and guided the moral sentiment of the
as Lecky sets forth with ample evidence, represents one of the most striking
efforts made in
inculcate a feeling of kindness and pity towards the brute creation" (History
of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, II, 161 sqq.). This
considerate feeling was a characteristic of many holy personages, even before
St. Francis of Assisi and some of his followers carried it to a degree that seems almost incredible. 'Apart from demonstrating the author demonstrating his sickening bias in the last
line, there seems to be a clear precedent for a moral duty toward animals in the
Roman Catholic tradition, a duty which appears to extend beyond a mere
abstinence from wanton cruelty.
Despite all of these admissions, the
official 'Catholic Doctrine'is stated as follows:
ethics has been criticized by some zoophiles because it refuses to
admit that animals have
rights. But it
is indisputable that, when properly understood and fairly judged,
Catholic doctrine-- though it does not concede
rights to the
brute creation -- denounces cruelty to animals as vigorously and as logically as
do those moralists who make our
duty in this
respect the correlative of a
right in the
animals. In order to establish a binding
avoid the wanton infliction of pain on the brutes, it is not necessary to
in them. Our
duty in this
respect is part of our
God. From the
juristic standpoint the visible world with which man comes in contact is divided
non-persons. For the latter term the word "things" is usually employed. Only a
is, a being possessed of
can be the subject of
duties; or, to
express the same idea in terms more familiar to adherents of other schools of
thought, only beings who are ends in themselves, and may not be treated as mere
means to the perfection of other beings, can possess
duties are moral ties which can exist only in a moral being, or person. Beings
that may be treated simply as means to the perfection of persons can have no
rights, and to this category the brute creation belongs. In the Divine plan of
lower creatures are subordinated to the welfare of
'While Catholic ethical doctrine insists
upon the merciful treatment of animals, it does not place kindness towards them
on the same plane of duty as benevolence towards our fellow-men. Nor does it
approve of unduly magnifying, to the neglect of higher duties, our obligations
concerning animals. Excessive fondness for them is no sure index of moral worth;
it may be carried to un-Christian excess; and it can coexist with grave laxity
in far more important matters.'
There is no biblical justification for
any of these statements, nor for the total lack of action by the Roman Catholic
Church in actively opposing cruelty to animals. Indeed, I have yet to find any
evidence that 'Catholic doctrine denounces cruelty to animals as vigorously and
as logically as do 'moralists'. Nowhere in the Catholic world do we find a
'binding obligation', rights inherent or not. Instead, we find such obviously
degrading language as 'zoophiles' and the Catholic word for animals seems to be
'brutes', which are classed as objects ('things'), all in full accordance with
long-outdated and many times disproved Cartesian drivel.
With regard to environmental issues in
general, the Anglican Communion (known as the Episcopal Church in the USA) is
slightly better. There exists an active organisation called the Anglican
Community Environmental Network (ACEN) which recognises and even seeks solutions
for the world's environmental crisis. On top of that, the Archbishop of
Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has made a speech to similar effect. There are
even small Anglican grassroots groups working on environmental projects at local
levels. Yet on the particular issue of animal rights, the Anglican position is
not markedly different from the Roman Catholic one. Upon my prompting, the
director of ACEN, Rev. Canon Eric B. Beresford, was unable to comment on any
differences in the respective viewpoints.
The collective Eastern Orthodox Churches
seem to be ignoring the issue entirely and do not seem to have an official
viewpoint on either environmental or animal rights issues, although it can
safely be assumed that if such a viewpoint did exist, it would not differ
markedly from the Roman Catholic one.
Other major protestant churches are
either in accordance with the Catholic stand (such as, ironically, the
Lutherans), or somewhere between the Orthodox and Anglican positions, meaning
that they are either ignoring the issues or, at best, cautiously putting their
feelers out and perhaps making some half-hearted attempts at window-dressing.
Their collective lack of action however, speaks louder than any words and in any
case it seems bizarre to discuss whether animals even have rights when long ago
we should have reached out to help them.
There are two further barriers in
getting any Christian denomination to recognise the rights of animals.
Both of these are biblical passages,
both from the books of Genesis in the Old Testament. They are the claim that
'man is made in God's image' and that 'God gave man dominion over all creation',
both used as justification for Christianity's rampant anthropocentrism. But is
the case so clear cut?
To answer that, we must examine these
biblical passages in their cultural, historical and linguistic contexts.
Genesis 1:26-30 states: '26Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our
likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air,
over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move
along the ground.'27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male
and female he created them.
28God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the
earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and
over every living creature that moves on the ground.'29Then God said, 'I give you every
seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit
with seed in it. They will be yours for food.
30And to all the beasts of the earth and
all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground --everything that has the breath of life in it --I give every green plant for food.' And it was so.'
What an ego boost for humankind to
justify our every action as righteous because we believe ourselves to be made in
the image of the supreme God! It is not unexpected that believers and
non-believers alike have adopted that line of thought with gusto.
However some of the greatest thinkers in
both Christianity and Judaism have struggled with this concept.
The great reformer Martin Luther
believed that man cannot comprehend the meaning of imago Dei ('image of God').
'When we speak about that image, we are
speaking about something unknown. Not only have we had no experience of it, but
we continually experience the opposite; and so we hear nothing but bare words.'Through sin this image was so obscured and corrupted that we cannot grasp it
even with our intellect.' [x]
Judaism has this to say: 'One way of
understanding it is that being created in the image of God, we have choices and
can exercise freedom. We are partners with God in shaping life and preserving
the world. Jewish tradition teaches that recognizing that we are created "B'tzelem
Elohim", in the image of God, can shape the way we see ourselves. It instructs
us that all of our actions have the potential to connect us with God if we act
in God-like ways. For example, 'just as God is kind and merciful, you should be
kind and merciful also.'[xi]
In the linguistic context of Genesis'original Hebrew text, 'dominance over all life'is better interpreted as
'stewardship of all life'. William Greenway, in his excellent essay 'Animals and
the Love of God', writes:
'In the Bible, by contrast (to Cartesian
thought), value and redemption extend not only to humans but to all animals.'Greenway also points to the fact that, in Genesis, God repeatedly declares that
creation is good. He continues, 'We often overlook what God then says to the man
and woman: 'See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the
face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have
them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air,
and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of
life, I have given every green plant for food." The passage concludes, 'and
indeed, it was very good.'
The message is startlingly clear: we
were given plants and fruits for food, and so were all the other animals who
have "the breath of life" in them. Not only are all the creatures of the earth
proclaimed to be pleasing to God, but (we are not) given other animals to eat.'
Furthermore, Greenway correctly points
out that 'The commentaries on these texts (Genesis) almost exclusively emphasize
how glorious it is to be human. They stress the hierarchy within creation.
Repeatedly they remind humans that only they are created in God's image, that
only they have been given dominion and told to subdue the earth, that only they
are directly addressed by God, and that only they have speech and the right to
name all other creatures. But amidst all the exegetical energy bent on
glorifying humanity, a pivotal theological teaching is neglected: that all life
is sacred, and that we are to love all creatures.'[xii]
Commenting on the view that 'humans are
elevated over the rest of creation by being formed in the image of God',
Greenway points out, 'The primary hierarchical division in Genesis is not
between us and the rest of creation; it is between God and creation. True
dominion lies not in us, but in God. If we are rightly to understand how to
exercise our dominion, we must strive to imitate and understand God's dominion.'
A quick mention should also be made of
the Noah's Ark story. No matter whether we view it as historical fact or myth,
the writer makes clear that the god of Judaism and Christianity cares deeply
about animals. Any Christian who dismisses the Noah's Ark account as
insignificant and meaningless (and many do) must ask themselves honestly why
they are not equally dismissive of the two above-mentioned passages of Genesis.
Food for thought.
All of this shows that there is no
justification, either biblical nor in early Christian tradition, for humankind's
continued exploitation and extermination of animals. If there is no
justification, and our treatment of animals is clearly an ethical wrong, then
the Christian churches and communities have a moral duty to speak out against
such abuse, both in word and deed. Those churches and communities are, in the
end, nothing more --and nothing less --than groups of individuals, each with the power to make life
better for our fellow animals.
There are several things that you,
the reader, can do:
1) Write to the highest authorities of
your denomination, demanding a revised, more compassionate and more active
position regarding animal welfare and acknowledging their rights.
2) If you are active within your
congregation, you could form a grassroots group for tackling animal rights
abuses and/ or environmental problems. This website provides further resources
and links toward that end.
3) If you are very deeply concerned
about animals and you are a person who cannot justify cruelty, exploitation and
apathy toward them, you can exit your church or religious community in protest.
Of course, many of you will have already done so but your actions will be much
more potent if you make it official. Cancel your membership and write to your
church/ community at both the local and the highest level, stating your reasons
for leaving. That way you are hitting them where it hurts most --in the hip
pocket. If enough people do this, Christian churches and communities will very
quickly outgrow their antiquated Cartesian concepts about animals!
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, 'Be the
change you want to see in the world.'
By Toby K?/span>berle
Melbourne, June 2005
[i]Current Biology magazine, March 2005
[ii]Information provided by
TheWild Canid Survival and Research Centre, Canada, 2005.
[iii]'God's Earth: Religion
as if Matter Really Mattered', p. 98 --Paul Collins, 1995.
[iv]Quoted in 'The Great
Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea'--Arthur Lovejoy, 1970.
[v]'Do Animals Have Souls?'--Deborah Jones. This article was published in The Ark, No 186 Winter 2000
[vi]'God's Earth: Religion
as if Matter Really Mattered', p. 121.
[vii]Notes from the
Conference of Religion and Globalisation, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 30 July
[viii]Definition of Humility
is from The Catholic Encyclopaedia --which defines the official doctrine of
the Roman Catholic Church, 2005.
[ix]The Bible --New
[x] 'Martin Luther and the
Mission of the Church,'Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society,
13:18. Charles Chaney, 1970.
[xi]'A Torah Commentary For
Our Times', p. 22 --Harvey J. Fields, 1993.
[xii]'Animals and the Love
of God'--William Greenway, assistant professor of Christian studies at
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. This article was
published in The Christian Century, June 21-28, 2000