Creation Care Part 1: Animal Rights and World Religions

23 June 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

The recent oil disaster has prompted a great deal of discussion over what it means to care for the environment, most certainly including the animal species contained therein.

The Washington Post recently published a panel discussion aimed at answering the question: “Do animals have rights?” (thanks to my friend Leah for sending the link) Panel participants responded to the following question:

Expensive and time-consuming efforts are being made to rescue and rehabilitate animals threatened by the Gulf oil spill. Do animals have rights? Do animals have souls? What does your faith say about animal consciousness, suffering, sacrifice and stewardship? Dr. Paul Waldau, a lecturer in animal law at Harvard Law School , says, “Religion is a major player in the way humans think about other living beings.” What does that mean to you?

A QUESTION OF WORLDVIEW

The responses were numerous, and reflect the diverse philosophical/religious climate in the Unite States. Ultimately, the question comes down to one of worldview. A “worldview” is simply that: a way of seeing the world.

Worldviews are numerous, but may most broadly be categorized based on belief in god: (1) atheism, (2) pantheism and (3) theism (thanks to Dr. J. Scott Horrell of Dallas Seminary, whose theology classes are often begun with these definitions).

I realize, of course, that I’m throwing out categories, and some may object to being put “in a box.” I know. Think of these categories as the walls of your office cubicle: just because you can’t lean on them too hard doesn’t mean they can’t provide a useful boundary. And, for the sake of honesty, I myself am writing from a reformed Christian perspective, for those who’d like to see a box around me as well.

The purpose of this post is to outline the various ways that these three systems identify human and animal rights (you can’t discuss the former without the latter).

ATHEISM

Atheism is, by definition, a lack of belief in (a) god(s). This means that the universe is, in the words of Carl Sagan, “all there is, ever was, or ever will be.”

In the absence of a creator, life can ultimately be reduced to matter. Complexity is the by-product of an evolutionary process – Monod’s definition of “chance and necessity.” Which is why Richard Dawkins suggests that “everything about the human mind, all our emotions and spiritual pretensions, all arts and mathematics, philosophy and music, all feats of intellect and of spirit, are themselves productions of the same process that delivered the higher animals.” (Quoted from the article ironically titled “There is Grandeur in this View of Life”)

Hence, it’s historically been very difficult to find a firm basis for human dignity or uniqueness as compared to other animals. Herb Silverman, a Jewish atheist interviewed in the aforementioned article, simply states that “Knowing we human animals are lucky enough to have evolved from single-celled organisms makes me feel sufficiently humble.”

The struggle, of course comes down to this point: if humanity and animals are both the products of heredity and environment, then humans and animals are all equally valuable or – stated negatively – equally worthless.

Which is why Dawkins, despite language of the “grandeur” of his worldview, equally admits that “The universe is howling, uncaring chaos and we’re fungus with pretensions.”

Of course, the other end of the spectrum is to see such equal value that humans and animals are granted entirely equal dignity. Silverman references Peter Singer, the noted ethicist from Princeton University, who suggests dignity is measured by cognitive ability, which means that potentially a fully-developed animal is superior to a newborn child. This point is pressed farther still as he suggests that animals should be our equal companions – both in and out of the bedroom (and yes, dear readers, that’s exactly what you think that means).

To be fair, Silverman distances himself from Singer’s obscure views, but never comes clear on the question of why animals (or humans) have rights other than our share in the evolutionary process. Hence, morality is reduced to matters of ecology. I love my atheistic friends. But on this issue we could not be at farther ends of the table on the question of human dignity and morality.

PANTHEISM

Pantheism is considerably different. Pantheism acknowledges the existence of (a) creator god(s), but links the two such that “creator” and “creation” are one and the same. This view colors many “eastern” religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and certain forms of Taoism, though there’s recently been an increased interest here in America through the influence of both New Age spirituality and Neo-Paganism.

Starhawk, a Wiccan interviewed in the article, claims that “Pagans see all the world as animate, imbued with life and spirit.”

If nature and god are – in some way – united, then it follows that animals do have “souls” (though not all would use the term) and therefore dignity. Ramdas Lamb, an ex-Hindu monk and professor, says that India’s religions “promote a kinship with all life forms that is unique among the world’s major religions. Although not all their adherents follow it, these traditions as a whole take non-violence seriously, and one of the central reasons that most do is the belief that animals have souls….Clearly, when it comes to the treatment of animals, these religions stand out and lead the way.” ( as an FYI, notice that the claim of “lead[ing] the way” can be taken as a claim of religious superiority – a claim that every religion makes on one level or another)

While I differ markedly from the claims of pantheist religions, I must admit that they make the question simpler: if all created things are endowed with some sense of soul or divinity, then care for the created world is of great importance.

THEISM

Theism is the belief in a creator god, and usually this is meant to include the so-called “Abrahamic” religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity), though the conceptions of God in each faith differ quite markedly.

Theism affirms the existence of a creator but makes a firm division between creator and creation. God, in this sense, is much like an artist: reflected by the work yet never united to it.

The principle difference between these faiths is the question of authority: Where do our ideas about God come from? Despite numerous additions and modifications, all three of these religions affirm at least some portion of the Bible (or at least the Hebrew scriptures), meaning conceptions about nature derive from the Book of Genesis, where man is spoken of in terms of uniquely bearing God’s “image” and having “dominion” over nature (issues we’ll get to eventually). Such language has often been taken to mean that man is unique, and animals do not possess this same “soul.”

Drawing from this material is the journalist Cal Thomas, who adds his voice to the panel: “Animals do not have souls because they are not created in the image of God. But they were created for our enjoyment and Genesis says we humans have ‘dominion’ over them. Like other creations of God they are deserving of our love and respect, which is what my cat demands of me!”

Still others, drawing from personal experience rather than the pages of scripture suggest otherwise, such as one panelist whose experience with her beloved pet led her to conclude that animals do, in fact, have souls, and therefore are worthy of protection and care.

CONCLUSION (SORT OF)

The one common thread is that all panelists seemed to indicate (in varying degrees) that animals and creation are worthy of respect and care, though having widely differing reasons as to why.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the uniqueness of the Christian view of nature and the world, and eventually push toward some thoughts on what it means to care for the environment.

23 June 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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