This is one of the many questions that people in society today ask themselves and have quarreled over. It is becoming more common to ask these questions because the biggest animal right movements are happening today and are increasing in awareness and momentum. This is shown through changes being made in the live export industry, greyhound and horse racing industry, animal testing bans across well-known brands, community protests, education through social media and a significant rise in the Vegan population which is expanding across the world.
But, even though we are seeing a large increase in animal right movements, it is interesting to question why religion has not played a major role in this movement.
Religion, most often, focuses on love, serving others and compassion; but what I always questioned and found hard to understand was whether or not these morals were extended towards animals? As well as, do religious people believe animals have souls? Or, why don’t spiritual teachers talk more about our care of animals?
Buddhism and Animals
I would like to start with Buddhism and their Five Moral Precepts that they live by. They are encouraged to refrain from:
- Harming living beings
- Taking what is not given
- Sexual misconduct
- Lying or gossiping
- Taking alcohol or non-medicinal drugs which weaken mindfulness and moral judgment
We can see that the first precept clearly states to ‘refrain from killing or harming living beings’. The key word here is ‘being’, which includes all living creatures including animals. In Buddhism, they are regarded as sentient beings and believe they possess Buddha nature and therefore can attain enlightenment (Buddhist Society of Western Australia).
Though not all Buddhists are Vegetarian or Vegan and although they would agree with the Buddhists teaching, the teaching does say to refrain or to reduce harm, so commonly that is what they will practice, if not become Vegetarian or Vegan.
Christian Teaching and the Subject of Dominance
The most common argument that Christians and Theologians, such as the famous Aristotle and St Thomas, make from reading Genesis which includes the three words ‘subdue, rule and dominion’ in relation to creation, is the understanding that humans have dominion over animals. With that, they imply that humans should be able to do whatever we like with them, which would include eating them, using their services for work such as on the farm, using their fur or hide for clothing or other materials, or using them for scientific experiments, among other things.
Though the book of Genesis (the first book of the Bible) uses these terms, it does not suggest humans to abuse or mistreat creation. This would be clearly inappropriate in the light of God’s creation which is in the image of God, indeed a God of pure love.
Unfortunately, these terms make it easy for us to justify our continued use of animals and make us feel less uneasy if witnessing animal misfortune at the cost of our own desires. However, with such interpretations of the Bible that can potentially lead to immense suffering to animals, more consideration, prayer, and understanding is recommended to be taken into account before making these life choices.
But what does dominance really mean?
Interestingly, the Hebrew word, ‘rule’ is r-d-h. However, Davis, author of ‘Scripture, Culture and Agriculture’, translates r-d-h and its prepositions to ‘mastery among’ rather than ‘dominion over’ and the Bible even uses the term when referring to a shepherd looking after his flock.
It is easy to assume that the term ‘master’ could also imply dominion and the use of others that are ‘lesser’ than us. On the contrary, Genesis 1:26 reminds us that our mastery among creation is conditional on our creation in the image of God. Which means that this hierarchy that we have over creation is actually subverted by mutuality, because the obedience by which creatures owe to humanity, is actually reciprocated by an obedience of humanity to creatures.
As it is also written in the Bible, ‘…do unto others, as you would have them do to you’ which applies to all human relationships (King 2016).
Animal Suffering Versus Human Suffering
We are continuously made aware that humans are superior to everything and everyone else in this world and this topic is especially brought up when talking about animal suffering. Society makes it seem that animal suffering is not morally significant because human suffering represents the worst type of suffering in the world whereas animal suffering is ‘middle class’. Is this idea rational? (Linzey 2009).
Of course, if we asked anyone, ‘do animals suffer’? The common answer would be that they agree that they do suffer. However, the argument would be that the subject matters less.
In this argument, it is enlightening to compare this statement to other aspects of human life. For example, this way of thinking could be compared to white men (or women) believing they are superior to men of color, as well as the rich believing they are superior to the poor. These teachings, of course, do not align with Christianity or other religious values and so these examples can be used to understand how we perceive our suffering to the suffering of animals. These differences have nothing to do with our moral treatment towards others because we all originated from the same source of life. Therefore, we can see that our defects or perfections do not dictate how we treat each other and thereby the complexity of an animal’s mind has nothing to do with how they should be treated (Linzey 2009).
For such as the man is, he is as God made him and the very same is true of the beast’, Humphrey Primatt, 1776
Are Animals Inferior?
Aristotle states, ‘it is not sinful for a man to kill brute animals for by divine providence they are intended for man’s use according to the order or nature…’
What we can say to this statement is that just because animals are naturally inferior does not mean they should be treated morally inferior as well. There seems to be confusion between the moral treatments of others despite them being supposedly ‘inferior’.
If he is right and we do have power or dominance over animals, then it should not be assumed that we give up our morals and intend suffering upon those that are ‘less than’, or that our every use of power towards animals is justifiable, indeed it is about how we use our power morally over others.
C.S. Lewis, beautifully states, ‘It is our business to live by our own law and not by hers (nature)’
Even if these verses did not exist, it makes sense that any power that is exercised by Gods permission must reflect their own attributes which include love, generosity, mercy, and compassion. Indeed, it would be hypocritical if we would assume humans could treat animals with a lack of these attributes and in God’s will (Linzey 2009).
Animals as Non-Rational Beings?
What is also a common topic among theological scholars and Christians is that animals are non-rational beings and therefore their suffering is less than of humans who are rational beings. This logic comes from the understanding that because humans are rational, we can experience being threatened or can be scared and suffer through anticipation of future pain thereby causing suffering. Animals, on the other hand, because they are not rational, do not experience these ‘extra’ sufferings that humans endure.
But is that really the case? If we consider wild animals being taken prisoner, or taken to laboratories to be studied on, they are left in cages on stone floors and unaware of what is going on. As a result, they experience the terror of not knowing, and because they are less rational, they have the disadvantage of not understanding their situation. Human suffering, on the other hand, can soften our pain by understanding the situation and reasoning with it, like if we went to the dentist and strange tools were being used on us, we can conclude this is safe and for our own benefit. Whereas animals, do not have such understanding and get performed on with these scary tools as well, but usually it isn’t for their own good and would be more so traumatic and painful (Linzey 2009).
Are Animals Moral Agents?
Because animals are not supposedly rational, we could say that they have no morals and thereby cannot live by them. However, though they may not be moral agents they remain ‘moral patients’ in that because they cannot choose morally, they can be harmed by the deliberate choices of moral agents. In saying that, we can understand that if animals are not moral agents, then they must be morally innocent (Linzey 2009).
As C.S. Lewis suggests, ‘so far, we know that animals are incapable of sin or virtue, therefore they can neither deserve pain nor be improved by it’.
Do Animals Have Souls?
Of course, no one essentially knows if animals do have souls or not. But this question leads me to think, does it matter? Does an animal not having a soul mean it is accepted by God for us to cause the suffering unto another or the understanding that animals deserve more suffering then humans?
Additionally, if animals do not have souls and therefore are not going to be recompensed in some future life for the suffering they have had to undergo in the present, it makes it even more sense that their suffering acquires even greater significance (Linzey 2009).
Again, C.S. Lewis answers this topic of question beautifully,
‘‘…if it means animals do not have a consciousness, then how is this known? They certainly behave as if they do, or at least the higher animals do. I myself am inclined to think that far fewer animals than is supposed to have what we should recognize as consciousness. But that is only my opinion. Unless we know on other grounds that vivisection is right we must not take the moral risk of tormenting them on a mere opinion. On the other hand, the statement that they ‘have no souls’ may mean that they have no moral sense makes the infliction of pain upon them not easier but harder to justify. For it means that animals cannot deserve pain, nor profit morally by the discipline of pain, nor be recompensed by happiness in another life for suffering in this. Soullessness in so far as it is relevant to the question at all is an argument against vivisection’.
Thank you for reading this blog and I hope you got something out of this topic today! There really is so much more to learn on the subject and I will continue to write more about this subject if you’re interested. If you do want more on this topic, please feel free to leave your ideas or views on the matter in the comment section below! I would love to hear what your thoughts are regarding this topic and if you would want to learn more.
The Earth Co.
King, S.W., 2016. Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith. Zondervan.
Linzey, A., 2013. Why animal suffering matters: Philosophy, theology, and practical ethics. Oxford University Press.