Religion and Animal Rights

By Evelyn Elkin Giefer

Only changing a person's belief system about animal issues can cause true change.

Legislation helps, but changing laws is difficult and laws are often not enforced, or loopholes are found. Economic pressure helps, but economies are complex and changes in one aspect often have domino effects in seemingly unrelated sectors. Education helps, but only when people come to believe that animal exploitation and neglect are morally wrong and act on those beliefs will permanent change occur.

The beliefs needed to effect change are based on an attitude of reverence for life. If the animal rights community could foster this reverence for life among all persons, humane treatment of animals would follow naturally. Fostering reverence for life is a tall order, and one of the best places to begin is among people who have strong beliefs in love and a purpose for living. Although many such persons exist outside organized religion, it is within the religious organizations that the greatest number of these people can be reached.

Religion is about beliefs -- beliefs about creation, purpose, destiny, life, and love. What people believe or disbelieve about the world and God affects all aspects of their being.

Religious Teachings about Animals

All major religions of the world extol creation and teach compassion and love of all living creatures.

Islam teaches animal equality. The holy prophet Mohammed said, "It behooves you to treat the animals gently" (Hadith Muslim, 4:2593), "And the earth -- He has assigned it to all living creatures" (Qur'n Majeed, 55:10-12), "All creatures are like a family to God" (Hadith Mishkat, 3:1392), and "A good deed done to an animal is as meritorious as a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being" (Hadith Mishkat, Book 6, Ch. 7, 8:178).1

The Hindu religion also denounces violence to animals. The Bhagavad Gita (verse 5.18) proclaims that a self-realized soul is able to understand the equality of all beings. To a Hindu, animal souls are the same as human souls, progressing to higher means of conscious expression in each life. Hinduism teaches that every soul takes on a life for a particular reason and to kill an animal stops the progression of the soul and thus causes great suffering.2

Buddhist faith also teaches that sentient beings are subject to rebirth as other sentient beings, and that consciousness cannot be killed. Thus there is an interconnectedness of all living beings. The first of the Five Precepts, which are the foundation of Buddhist ethical conduct, is not to harm sentient beings.3

Judaism embraces the Hebrew concept of tsa'ar ba'alei hayim -- the mandate to prevent the "sorrow of living creatures." The scriptures teach that God made covenants with animals as well as humans (Gen. 9:9-10; Hosea 2:20). The Hebrew term nefesh chaya ("a living soul") was applied to animals as well as people (Gen. 1:21, 24). Vegetarianism was the first dietary law (Gen. 1:29). After the Flood, permission was given to eat meat, but only with many restrictions (Kosher laws) and with a sense of reverence for life, which, according to Rabbi Abraham Kook, had a goal of eventually returning God's people to vegetarian diets (Isaiah 11:69).4

Dominion Over the Earth

Christian beliefs are based on the ancient Jewish teaching and those of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that humans were given a unique role, being made in the likeness of God, and were given dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:26-28). Humans are to function as God's representatives. Being made in His likeness, Christians are to exercise this dominion with loving compassion as God does. Jesus Christ is the Word, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the means of salvation from the brokenness of sin that alienates creation from God. Love and reconciliation of all creatures are central to the Christian belief. God's will and purpose is the movement of all things toward an ultimate unity in Christ (Ephesians 2). So Christians are called to be faithful stewards of creation.5 Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) are taught that everything existed in a spiritual form before the Earth was created,6 and that the Earth itself will be resurrected, which means that animals are also present in the afterlife.7

Albert Schweitzer, Christian missionary and ethicist, said, "To think out in every implication the ethic of love for all creation -- this is the difficult task which confronts our age."8 He also said, "Compassion ... can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures ..."9

Many Christians cite the practice of animal sacrifice as evidence that God condones animal killing. Andrew Linzey, Anglican theologian and professor at the University of Essex, believes that sacrifice may have been viewed by those who practiced it, not simply as destruction of life, but as return to the Creator that which was a gift from God. In order for God to receive the gift, it must be assumed that the life of the individual animal continued beyond mortal death. Thus, sacrifice affirmed the value of the individual slain.10 Contrarily, theologian R. J. Hyland believes that God never condoned the sacrifice of animals, but that Biblical writers wished to justify this practice by projecting their own violent nature onto God.11

Jay McDaniel, United Methodist theologian, suggests that Christ's redemption extends to animal creation and that fulfillment beyond bodily death may not be limited to humans.12 McDaniel and Linzey are not alone in their ability to envision animals as spiritual beings.13,14

Doctrines Versus Actions

With all these religious teachings of compassion to animals, why don't we see more of it in practice? Why does it seem that so many religious people are uninterested in animal welfare? Why is religion important to so few people involved in animal protection or animal rights?

I have become distrustful of organized religion because of the way Christian church people think about and treat animals. They seem to be seeking ways to legitimize cruelty. The following personal examples of Christian inhumaneness are given to illustrate the frustration I have come to feel with the Christian church and the alienation it has brought.

I was raised in the Methodist church, the daughter of a minister and a teacher trained in religious education and missions. Most of my parents' families were either ministers, missionaries, or leading lay persons in Christian churches. I became an ethical vegetarian in 1988, and left my home church soon afterward because of a feeling of extreme discomfort with the practices of the church regarding animals. Just a short time after giving a program at a women's meeting about why I became a vegetarian, and how much farm animals mean to me, we were planning a family day picnic. The question was raised whether we should have a covered dish or a pig pickin' (a whole pig carcass is barbecued on an open grill; diners file by and whittle away pieces of flesh, literally picking the pig's bones). I expressed my preference for the former, but was told by an outspoken young woman that "my uncle loves to barbecue, and will donate and cook the pig ... and if anyone doesn't like it, they can stay home." No one objected. I honestly believe no one realized how offending that statement was to me. I stayed home.

"Fun" at the Barbecue

At a Palm Sunday in the Methodist church I next joined (ironically named Saint Francis United Methodist Church), a bulletin insert implored me and my family to attend a chicken barbecue. To illustrate the "fun" to be had, an amateur artist had sketched a chicken at the top of the page. As the reader's eye moved down the page, the illustrations got smaller and darker and more contorted, until at the bottom of the page nothing but a charred chicken remained. Accompanying this was a cry of "Help!" from the mouth of the chicken, while the invitation encouraged us to "come out and pick your favorite chicken."

What kind of twisted sense of humor brings a Christian person to devise such a sadistic method of inviting fellow believers to an evening of fellowship? Is it cruelty? Probably not. I think it is apathy, indifference to the feelings of sentient beings who are not human.

Why can't the church (i.e., organized religion) speak to this type of indifference? My attempts to discuss with my pastor my interests in raising awareness of animal concerns within our congregation met with lethargy and indifference. Or was it fear of the "trouble" I'd be causing? This attitude seems typical of so many religious organizations: rigidity, inflexibility, and unwillingness to allow discussions of current issues in an open forum, fearing any disruption of the status quo. Sadly, I soon left that church and have never joined another.

Indifference to Animal Suffering

Recently I visited a new Methodist church at Thanksgiving. The minister told a humorous story from the pulpit of how a poor graduate student had gone to a car dealer at Thanksgiving with no intention of buying a car, but merely because of an advertisement that anyone test-driving a car would be given a Thanksgiving turkey. After the test drive, the student was led out back to a shack where several live turkeys were feeding. "If you can catch one, you can have it!" the car salesman exclaimed. Everyone laughed.

The story is humorous because we have come to expect someone else to do the killing for us. How absurd -- and funny -- that we should be expected to kill our own dinner!

It is not just the Christian church that falls short of its teachings. An Iranian-born Muslim friend once told me, when I was grieving for my dog who had just died, that in her country animals were the lowest of beings, treated as things, that it was not uncommon for one to kick one's dog as a means of self expression, that it would be unthinkable for an Iranian to think of a dog as a pet, or to be concerned with her health or emotional state, or grieve at her death. Yet my friend's faith teaches that "an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being."

These examples of personal indifference to animal suffering are reflected in some official church positions, such as the United Methodist Principles for Christian Stewardship, which has exactly two sentences related to animals: "We believe that the wondrous diversity of nature is a key part of God's plan for creation. Therefore, we oppose measures which would eliminate diversity in plant and animal varieties, eliminate species, or destroy habitats critical to the survival of endangered species or varieties." Not a word about individual animal suffering and human exploitation.

The 1995 Catholic Catechism promoting animal use seems to be a step backward for the church. It states that "animals were created for human use" and "Animals, like plants, and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present and future humanity," and "They may be used to serve the just satisfaction of man's needs."15 So offended was she by this document that Virginia Bourquardez, the founder of International Network for Religion and Animals, after devoting a lifetime to bringing these two entities together, left the Catholic church at the age of 83 because she could no longer support its teachings about animals.

Animal rights philosophy says animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, etc. A common misinterpretation of Judeo-Christian theology says animals are ours to "dominate" (some adding that we should do it "humanely"). But what is humane slaughter? Humane rodeo? Humane circus? Humane trapping? Humane hunting? Humane research? Humane carnivorism? The Biblical term "dominion" implies stewardship in God's image, not domination, as many Christians want to interpret it. We delude ourselves if we think that the subjugation of animals of the present world is just and that we are faithful stewards of creation acting in God's image.

Positive Steps

But religions are not totally insensitive. Religious people are not cruel, just mostly apathetic. People want to do good, but all have different priorities for doing good. Most people can understand the bond of love that develops between a pet and person, and the deep grief felt when a pet passes. If we can get people to understand that every animal is like our pet, and deserves the same respect and love, change will occur.

Progress has been made in recent years. Positive steps are even now being taken toward uniting organized religion and concern for animal welfare (see Protecting the Modern 'Noah's Ark' below -- Editor).

In 1988, a theological consultation sponsored by the World Council of Churches adopted recommendations concerning the failure of Christian churches to teach respect for animals. The report addressed the suffering inherent in product testing, fashion, food, entertainment, and education. The report concluded, "This freedom [from oppression and for life with God] should not be so limited [to humans] because other creatures, both species and individuals, deserve to live in and for themselves and for God. Therefore, we call on Christians as well as other people of good will to work toward the liberation of life, all life."16

In 1990, the Connecticut conference of the United Church of Christ's Christian Concern for Animals committee hosted a conference, "Shining the Light on Animal Creation." From this conference a committee was formed to draft a resolution to be presented to the general synod of that denomination outlining steps to be taken to support humane treatment of all animals. It addressed specific practices concerning diverse issues such as pet care and overpopulation, farm animals, hunting, zoos, research, and animals used in entertainment and education. The resolution was accepted by the Connecticut conference, but unfortunately was rejected by the general synod.

Good News for Animals?

In 1990, Duke University hosted a conference called "Good News for Animals?" (sponsored by the Culture and Animals Foundation and International Network for Religion and Animals), in which major theologians of Christian churches convened to discuss contemporary approaches to animal well-being and the theology of our stewardship of animals.

The International Network for Religion and Animals continues to sponsor education and training for interested networkers who speak about animal issues to individual congregations of all major religions of the world. The organization sponsors the annual World Week of Prayer for Animals in the fall.

Every October an ecumenical Blessing for the Animals is conducted at Duke University Chapel. Speakers from diverse religions give testimony to their beliefs and love of animals. Animals in attendance, including reptiles, birds, and farm animals, are blessed individually by participating religious leaders. Similar blessing services are becoming more frequent throughout the country and the world.

Within the Unitarian Church, individuals concerned about animal rights issues have formed an activist group, Unitarian Universalists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (UFETA). This boldness and willingness to confront difficult social issues is characteristic of the openness and freedom of expression allowed in this liberal denomination.

Religious groups are banding with animal rights advocates to protest the cruelty inherent in genetic engineering, such as the patent of the "onco-mouse," bred specifically to develop cancer for research purposes.

Religious speakers are being included in animal rights conferences and programs across the country, as more and more animal groups recognize our common goals and the power of coalition.

On Christmas Eve Sunday, I attended a Methodist service in which the minister sang to the children a song about the animals that attended Jesus's birth,17 and the gifts each gave to the Christ Child. The sermon emphasized the value of simplicity and genuineness in gift-giving, as opposed to monetary value. This ability to give from the heart was attributed to animals, and the children were encouraged to give with the same spirit as the animals give.

Religious people who are animal protectionists struggle to effect change. Some struggle to change things within their local or national organizations; some abandon the institution and work on the outside. But we who call ourselves religious have an obligation to help our fellow believers to follow in the footsteps of courageous leaders such as Linzey, who emphasized that "the world as we know it is not the only possible world."18

Religion is important to the animals rights movement. We cannot afford to ignore it. It is an avenue for change, and change is happening.