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On Atheism, Animal Rights and God

There I was, about half way through Christopher Hitchens’ THE PORTABLE ATHEIST on a rainy Wednesday. I stopped for a break to have some lunch and go to my post office box, wherein I discovered a copy-for-review of EVERY CREATURE A WORD OF GOD, by Annika Spalde and Pelle Strindlund (originally published in Swedish and recently translated into English). The subtitle of the book is "Compassion for Animals as Christian Spirituality," while the subtitle of the Hitchens book is "Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever."

I may not believe in a god but I do find religion fascinating and I realize that far more people than not are members of some religion or other, and I’ve always considered it part of my job to try to understand why they believe what they believe and where it fits into their lives. My dad, for instance, was a seminarian and wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest for many years and in fact trained to be one. He is what most people would call a "progressive Catholic," though when I list his beliefs I wonder if other Catholics consider him to be one of them. For instance, he thinks women should be priests, he has less of a problem with homosexuality in the Church (and elsewhere) than any other 75-year old Catholic man, and he does not believe that all of the Bible should be taken literally. That last one is the cause of many frustrating conversations for me, as if you don’t believe there really was an Adam, an Eve and a Noah, and that all of that is metaphor, why do you then believe that (there was a) Jesus (who) was resurrected?

My dad’s the person I mentioned a while back who’s still waiting by the mailbox for his medal for not eating veal. Kielbasa’s his favorite food (you can take the man out of Eastern Europe, but you can’t take Eastern Europe out of the man, I suppose), and yes, he knows what it is.

I was eager to read my new book because I thought I might pass it on to my dad, with whom I have made no progress regarding animals in two decades. My thinking is that maybe people who share his beliefs will be able to convince him to examine what he chooses to eat a bit more closely. He looks at me as being so different from him and considers my personal ethics so alien–yet my choice. Perhaps an ordained deacon (Spalde) and a person with an MA in Religious Studies (Strindlund), both of whom have been imprisoned for their beliefs and both of whom have extensive knowledge of the lives of the saints as well as the Bible, will be the teachers my father is ready to hear. I have nothing to lose.

The book’s Introduction states that it will "offer tools for reflection on how to follow Jesus today . . . [and it is] also a book about the joy of living a value-driven life (1)." Part of me gets defensive when I read that, as I have a value-driven life that I enjoy already, and it has nothing to do with Jesus, any religion or any god. But then I remind myself that I’m screening the book as a possible resource for my dad.

And it doesn’t disappoint, although there is one major concern. First, the ways it doesn’t disappoint:

  • I like that the authors note that for some Christians,
    spirituality is "seen as an upwards exercise: that is, moving away from
    earthly constraints toward a transcendent experience of God. . . . Our
    journey toward the divine mystery is downward . . . . toward the earth:
    toward ourselves, toward our everyday life, toward creatures of flesh
    and blood (3)."
  • Regarding our abuse of power. "Many people today feel that it is in
    their interests that hot dogs and steak are available in the grocery
    store. As Christians, we should ask ourselves if this is a responsible
    exercise of power (8)."
  • I’ll just give a teaser about this one: "In the beginning, God created the vegetarian (11)."
  • "People often degrade animals in order to justify their exploitation. But animal advocates also run the risk of belittling animals by stressing their powerlessness. We often forget that most wild animals can do perfectly well without out assistance. All they require of us is that we stop oppressing them and destroying their habitat. Animals are not only recipients of our benevolence. They are also agents (26)."
  • "The saints don’t seek conflict, but neither do they withdraw from confrontation with those who wish to harm animals. This is the condition of brother- and sisterhood. If brothers and sisters are threatened, we must intervene (31)."
  • "We wonder if anyone ever asked [Saint-to-be] Gertrude how she could care about hungry animals while people were starving. Perhaps she would have answered that one act of compassion does not preclude another. Truly, no human is better off simply because an animal is abused. Nor are love and mercy in such limited supply in the universe that we must decide who is worthy of it and who is not. Isn’t it possible to advocate for the hungry people of the world and at the same time care for suffering animals (37)?"
  • Regarding vivisection: "To make others pay (with their lives), for the miseries we brought upon ourselves is unfair–even evil. Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90) wrote that ‘there is something so very dreadful, so Satanic in tormenting those who have never harmed us, and who cannot defend themselves, who are utterly in our power’ (49)."
  • "We can’t in any simple way, determine what ‘the Bible says’ about a particular issue (62)," including whether or not Jesus was a vegetarian.
  • There is an entire chapter devoted to Christianity, slavery, animals, and abolition.

And now for the less-good news, which can be described in two words: animal welfare. The authors include diaries from open rescues, where they leave a cake for the owner of the "farm," meet the person often, are always kind, and leave their contact information at the scene. They rehome the animals and get them veterinary care. However, the idea behind the rescues, as well as the idea that informs the entire book, is one of mercy. If you’ve read Matthew Scully’s DOMINION, the theme is similar. Though there is some talk of abolition, the thrust is:

  • "It is one thing to eat comparatively small amounts of meat from animals raised on the land; quite another to gorge on the flesh of animals that have never seen the light of day (79-80)."
  • "Misrepresenting the living conditions of farm animals is a tactic that has been used over and over again to defend otherwise indefensible practices (103)."

But then there is this:

  • "Sometimes people express their pity with vegetarians. ‘You must miss meat,’ someone says, pointing with her fork to a fillet. But there is no reason to pity a vegetarian. One can be proud of choosing a compassionate lifestyle (116)."
  • "It’s difficult to do right when many people are doing wrong. It’s even more difficult when your own role modes are doing wrong (127)."

Is this a book that justifies the killing of animals in a different way, perhaps killing them "compassionately?" Not at all. However, if one really wanted to still have sentient nonhumans killed for their palate, one just might find support for that in the talk of dominion and mercy. For me, there isn’t a clear statement that animals aren’t ours to use.

There is this statement: "The ethical demands of the animal rights movement are not extreme. They can be characterized as a consistent application of the moral framework we have all long embraced (50)." However, the explanation of the ethical demands of the animal rights movement is not included.

Will I give the book to my dad? Yes, because I know that he values the stories of the lives of the saints and the exegesis of the religious texts. And I suppose that what occurs as a result of his reading will be contingent upon how open he is, and just how attached he is to his kielbasa.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Angus #

    Perhaps your father would be interested in the writings of Anglican theologian Andrew Linzey.

    The phrase "animal welfare" comes up again. I question whether we should be conceding this phrase to those who disrespect/exploit animals. "Welfare" means "well-being, happiness; health and prosperity", to quote my Oxford dictionary. Why do we abet the whitewashing of exploitation? Wouldn't it be better to use some phrase or phrases that cut through the propaganda? How about suggestions for replacements? Here are some: "animal illfare", "bigger cages", "cheerful exploitation", "happy slaves" — as in "the happy-slave movement" or "bigger-cage advocates".

    July 19, 2008
  2. Thanks, Angus. Linzey is mentioned, and I will direct him to the site. If you know of any Catholics (and yes, Bruce Friedrich is mentioned) who wouldn't lead my dad to cage-free eggs (which this book probably would, as the rescues mentioned are at facilities with cages) but instead to no eggs, I'd appreciate it. He's really hung up on the Roman Catholic angle on things. I wonder if any of his Catholic periodicals mention animals at all, other than the myriad ways we can "protect" them and be good "stewards," while not mentioning the part about killing them.

    July 19, 2008

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