A Facebook Exchange About Religion and Animals

This is from an an exchange that occurred in a thread on the Abolitionist Approach Facebook page:

Someone asked:

Doesn’t the bible inform us that animals are provided by its god for the use of man, and the koran & jewish scriptures ordain how (and which) animals must be slaughtered for human consumption? Skirting past the acts of wanton cruelty and disregard of the rights of animals, it appears to me that the christian bible in part advocates animal welfare, but certainly not an abolitionist approach – how could this not promote speciesism?

I responded:

I have several replies:

First, unless you believe that the holy books of a religion are the literal received word of God, religious texts should be viewed as spiritual tracts in their historical contexts. What is valued as a central tenet of a religion may (and usually does) develop through changing historical contexts. In any event, one can be a theist, and, indeed, a Christian, without regarding the Bible as anything but a document that developed historically and addressed various concerns many of which had nothing to do with theology and had everything to do with power and control that are part of *all* institutions, whether churches or corporations or governments.

Second, go and read Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. In the original creation story, everyone, including animals, was vegan. It’s completely clear that humans did not eat animals and animals did not eat each other. It was only after the covenant between humans and God was ruptured that eating animals began. As far as I read it, veganism was the ideal position and it is the position toward which humans should work (a situation where there will be peace, no killing, and where even the lion will lie down with the lamb and the lion will eat straw, etc.).

Third, speciesism, whether in the form of a religious doctrine or a secular doctrine, promotes speciesism. The notion that religion has a corner on the speciesism market is just plain wrong. Have religions been used to support speciesism? Yes. Have secular institutions, such as the humanist paradigm of the Enlightenment been used to support speciesism? Yes. Is mainstream science speciesist? Of course it is. None of these institutions are inherently speciesist (or racist or sexist or homophobic). But these institutions are all dominated and shaped by people who are speciesist (and sexist, racist, and homophobic).

Fourth, what I find troubling is that so much of the discussion on this issue takes the form of people declaring that they are “atheists” because they don’t like the Pope, or because the Catholic Church facilitated and covered up pedophilia, or because some fundamentalist (of any religion) are obnoxious, hateful people, etc. All of those things may be true but they have nothing to do with the issue of whether God exists or whether there is a spiritual dimension to the universe.

Many animal advocates self-identify as “atheist” but many of those same people also embrace some spiritual belief and some even have theistic beliefs. What they mean by “atheist” is that they reject traditional organized religions.

Fifth, the New Atheism that is popular among many people, particularly young people, is being peddled by a group of political reactionaries, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Chris Hitchens. Noam Chomsky refers to these people as “fanatics.” Why? Because they promote the idea that the problems of the world are caused by religion rather than the geopolitical and economic factors that are really at work. In other words, they want you to think that the problems of the Middle East, for example, are related to Islam rather than to oil and western imperialism. These New Atheists seek to provide a “scientific” basis for the New World Order. If you are regard yourself as a politically progressive person, think twice about whether you want to identify yourself with these reactionary thinkers.

Please note: I am not saying that atheism is wrong because Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are political reactionaries. I am saying only that people who are interested in critical, rational, and progressive thought should take care before jumping on the New Atheist bandwagon.

Sixth, I reiterate: the arguments for animal rights that I have developed over the past 30 years, which are very different from the positions developed by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, rest on logic and rationality. Period. Anyone who claims differently either does not know my work or is deliberately misrepresenting it. My work speaks for itself: logic and rationality are absolutely essential.

But logic and rationality cannot provide the entire picture.

In order for people to translate the logic and rationality of the abolitionist position into meaningful change in their own lives (going vegan) and advocating for others to effect changes in their lives, it is necessary that people must regard animals as having moral value. They must have a moral impulse concerning animals. They must “see” animals, or at least some animals, as members of the moral community. This is not necessarily a matter of “liking” or “loving” animals; it is a matter of regarding them as members of the moral community. It is a matter of having the motivation to act rightly where it comes to animals. If people have this moral concern or moral impulse concerning at least some animals (and the good news is that many people do), I believe the logical approach that I have developed can lead them to see that all sentient beings are members of the moral community and that we should abolish, and not regulate, animal exploitation.

If people reject the notion that animals are members of the moral community, then logic and rationality are not going to get very far. Let me put it this way: if you think that what Michael Vick’s brutal dog fighting was a bad thing, I can, through logical, rational argument, get you to see that any non-vegan is similarly situated to Michael Vick. If you think that Vick’s dog fighting was a terrific and wonderful thing, I won’t get very far with you.

That moral impulse that must be present to work with logic and rational argument can come from any source–it can come from theistic sources (e.g., one’s belief in an all-encompassing Christan love), spiritual sources (e.g., one’s belief in a Buddhist view about the interconnectedness of all life), or wholly atheistic and non-spiritual sources (e.g., a belief that the proposition expressed by “it is wrong to inflict suffering on a sentient being without a sufficient justification” is an objectively true statement as a matter of moral intuition).

It does not matter what the source of the moral concern or moral impulse is. It just matters that you have it.

The idea that an abolitionist must be an atheist is as absurd as the position that an atheist cannot be an abolitionist. Abolitionists can be atheists, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, secular moral realists, or whatever. (As an historical matter, most of the abolitionists with respect to human slavery were religious people.)

We should always be critical of speciesism in whatever form it appears and in whatever doctrine it surfaces. But that does not mean that we should make fun of or attack religious or spiritual beliefs per se. Recently, one of these misguided and reactionary New Atheist animal groups posted an offensive graphic comparing Jesus, Buddha, and Krishna to Charles Manson and Jim Jones. Does anyone really think that such a comparison, apart from being inherently wrong, is going to do anything to help animals? Surely, it would be irrational to think so.

*****

If you are not vegan, go vegan. It’s easy, better for you physically, and, most important, it’s the morally right thing to do. If you are already vegan, then educate others about why their concern for animals means that they, too, should be vegan.

And if you have the ability to do so, please adopt or foster a homeless animal. The shelters are overflowing with all sorts of animals who need you: dogs, cats, birds, rodents, fish. There is someone for everyone! If you have land and can take a large animal (or a lot of smaller ones), do so!

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

©2012 Gary L. Francione