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Is Nothing Sacred?

Religion and Animal Liberation

By Keith Akers

Today, the world of religion seems to be stacked against the animals. Religious views perpetuate the idea that animals can be eaten, experimented on, and generally used for whatever purposes humans have. In a broader way, religious views perpetuate the same idea about the environment; the environment is ours to use in whatever way we see fit.

Peter Singer summarized this perception of religion at the recent Animal Rights 2002 conference. He said that "mainstream Christianity" is a "problem" for animals: it denies that animals have souls, says that humans are made in the image of God, and says that humans have dominion over animals. It thus provides the ideological support for a view of animals and the environment that allows humans to abuse or exploit animals and the environment as much as we want.

So if weíre for the environment and the animals, we should be against religion, right?

This is the conclusion that many in the vegetarian, animal rights, and environmental movements have already reached. These movements are often very secular and itís easy to see that many people despise religion ó and not without justification. They do not want to give a forum to any religion because they believe that religion has a baleful influence on people. It is a most unfortunate conclusion, as it fails to understand the prevalence of spiritual aspirations; it fails to distinguish between religion and spirituality; and it fails to understand the conflict between spirituality and the commercial realm.

Religious Aspirations are Everywhere

It is estimated that 92% of people in the U. S. identify themselves as part of a religious faith; about two-thirds say that their religion is very important to them. About 8% of the public defines themselves as atheists or agnostics. Figures for other countries show a similar pattern. So it is not true that everyone is religious, or wants to be religious; but it is true that religious aspirations are found everywhere and are very widespread.

The former Soviet Union was an officially atheistic state, but was not able to suppress all forms of religion. Religious aspirations simply went underground, and promptly re-emerged when Soviet communism collapsed. I donít think that anyone in the animal rights movement has a serious plan as to how they are going to abolish religion in order to establish animal rights. Rather, we should start with the fact of religious sentiment and ask how we can deal with this phenomenon.

Religion and spirituality

A spiritual impulse is the desire to reach out to the sacred. If something is sacred to you, then you are to that extent spiritual. If concern about sacred things (however you conceive them) defines a significant area of your life, then you are a spiritual person.

Religion is based on spiritual impulses. It consists of organizing, conceptualizing, and ritualizing spiritual values and impulses. Because it takes an outward organizational form, it does not necessarily reflect spirituality. Sometimes people who are religious are very spiritual, but sometimes they arenít, and history is full of so-called "religious" figures who used religion to their own (non-spiritual) ends. The opposite is also true: sometimes spiritual people are part of religion, and sometimes they arenít. Mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Kabir found themselves outside of their own traditions.

Religion can lose contact with the spiritual impulses that initially motivated the founding of that religion, but it can also be brought back to those impulses. We have only to remember the Catholic middle ages in Europe, under the sway of the anti-animal views of Augustine. This period gave birth not only to Thomas Aquinas, who reinforced Augustineís idea that we had no duties to animals, but also to Francis of Assisi, who said the very opposite ó not only should we avoid hurting animals, but we have an active duty to help them. Today, figures such as Andrew Linzey and Thich Nhat Hanh are playing a role similar to that of Francis of Assisi. Religion is not just a philosophical system: it owes its origins to spiritual impulses, and those impulses can trump any philosophical construct in the end.

Many people today are alienated from religion. In the U. S., Christianity is the main focus of this discontent, although the problem is broader than Christianity. Yet many have a deep concern for animals and the environment. Itís clear that something is sacred to them. Their traditional religion canít explain it to them ó so they leave. Their religion may actually oppose the values they hold as sacred ó so they come to despise religion. Yet most people, even those who accept the idea that God gave humans dominion over the animals, would be repelled if they were acquainted with the full scope of the devastation to the earth and the cruelty of factory farms. But many religious groups do not want to hear this message: the spiritual impulse is dead.

The Role of the Sacred

A phone call comes in at dinner time. Itís a pitch for something someone is selling. We hang up. "Is nothing sacred?" we ask. We regard the dinner hour as sacred, and the unwanted intrusion of a solicitor as a violation of our space.

In itself, this is a small transgression on the "sacred." There are many things which are more sacred than the peace of the dinner hour. But it is a symptom of a broader problem, namely that financial and commercial interests intrude onto something we regard as sacred. Not surprisingly, the financial and commercial interests often have priority. What should you talk about at dinner time? For some, it is the right of telemarketers to call you at dinner time and talk to you about a product or service they want to sell. What will your children deal with in school? They may have to listen to advertisements, walk past vending machines or even a fast-food stand, and be offered state-subsidized meat and cheese at lunch. And how will your town be developed? Probably in accordance with the wishes of whoever has the most money. The world, and everything else, is for sale; nothing is sacred.

Just like the telemarketer who calls during dinner time, the commercial realm has inserted itself into a sacred space, into the religious world. Religion has become subverted to serve secular interests. These secular interests include (among many other things) the financial security of the meat industry, fast-food chains, and the assorted support systems for the agricultural system which brutalizes, tortures, and kills animals for the sake of food.

Sometimes this domination is overt and deliberate, as in the case of the "Heifer Project," where livestock agriculture is promoted by churches under the guise of "benefiting" the poor by teaching them the rudiments of livestock agriculture and soliciting donations to further it. More often, it is unintentional and unconscious, and consists of acts of omission. Churches rely on donations, and any church who tells the truth about the livestock industry ó or about many other areas of modern life ó can probably rely on their donations drying up, even if they manage to remain at their posts. Thus, religious institutions tend to reflect the practices and prejudices of society at large, and those in turn reflect the practices and prejudices of those who have the money.

Today, too much religion unconsciously promotes the secular values of the larger society. Kabir, a Sufi mystic, protested against this tendency when he wrote, "Fast all day, kill cows at night; here prayers, there blood ó does this please God?" In a world dominated by commercial interests, we are more likely to get a hearing on the margins of our culture ó among those people who already feel like they are outsiders. This is as true of the world of religion as it is true of any other sphere. Religion is hardly the only aspect of modern life to come under the influence of commerce. Everything has come under the influence of commerce.

Peter Singer is right: mainstream Christianity, and religion generally, is a problem for animals. But what are we going to do about it? Getting rid of religion is not going to improve the situation for animals; in fact, it will make it worse. You do not change policies by destroying the political system. You do not change peopleís values by attacking all values. You do not enhance their sense of the sacred by telling them that nothing is sacred.

What to Do

If you believe that something is sacred, then you have an interest in spirituality. If you believe that animal life is in some sense sacred, then we have something in common, regardless of what your other beliefs are. We have two things to do: the first is to educate the world of religion about vegetarianism, and the second is to educate the vegetarian world about religion and spirituality.

In the world of religion, our purpose is to spread the message, through the various traditions, that animal life is sacred. We should respond to a distorted concept of the sacred by providing an alternative view of the sacred. Each religion is unique; in fact, sometimes different groups or sects within a religion will require approaches just as different as between different religions. It is doubtful, for example, that an approach towards vegetarianism which suits Christian evangelicals would be effective with anyone else in Christianity.

Religion can be a highly effective means of changing fundamental social and cultural values. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to the churches in the South and built up his movement there. This is not an easy path; even though a majority of Americans supported integration, King encountered resistance along every step of the way, and was eventually killed for his beliefs. Because spiritual aspirations are part of the lives of so many people, and because religion addresses fundamental ethical questions, we should utilize religion to further fundamental cultural and social changes.

There are some religious groups which have a well-established tradition favoring animals or vegetarianism, for example, Hinduism. In many religions throughout the world, however, any tradition favoring animals is weak, not often invoked, or has become controversial. While many religious groups are hostile to animals, within each such group there are also those individuals and sub-groups which exist at the margins of the larger religion. These people are often more liberal, questioning, and open-minded, and think differently from the others. We need to find and make contact with these people; they will doubtless prove to be the most effective target audience.

We also need to go to the vegetarian world and let vegetarians know about religion and spirituality. Vegetarians in North America tend to be eclectic and distrust traditional institutions. They often have negative images of religion based on unpleasant memories from their childhoods. Most people in North America who are now vegetarians were raised as Christians, and many of them have negative memories of Christianity; these memories are a significant reason that so many vegetarians are indifferent to or angry at religion. But the hostile attitude of much modern religion towards animals need not be permanent. We need to encourage vegetarians, wherever and whenever we find them, to explore spiritual traditions if they are so inclined and to try to find a place somewhere within those traditions which are friendly towards animals. Vegetarians can ally themselves with other vegetarians of different faiths in order to promote vegetarianism.

Our society is in crisis, and though full awareness of this crisis may still be a few years off, time is clearly growing short. Much of organized religion is not friendly towards animals or the environment: organized religion, along with many other social institutions, has been subverted to serve secular interests. Whether with regard to the animals, to the environment, to the huge gap between rich and poor, the pervasiveness of political violence, or anything else, society cannot recover its equilibrium until the world of religion recovers its sense of the sacred.

July 19, 2002