Journal Archive > 2001 > November

Religion and animals in a human-centered society

Even though concern for animals is an ancient theme in religious traditions, it has not been a prominent part of ethical discussion in modern religious institutions or in academic circles where religion is studied.

This may be changing.

Today, the subject is drawing the attention of religious leaders, church boards and committees, theologians, scholars of religion, philosophers and many others concerned with ethical issues. On October 7, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., hosted a program titled "Animal Blessings/Animal Ethics: Science Challenges Religion on the Animal-Human Hierarchy by Cracking the Human Genome Code." The program was the 15th in a series organized by the cathedral's Joint Faith Meeting on the Environment. I was asked to be a keynote speaker because of my recent work in the emerging field of religion and animals.

3 complex factors
The study of religion and animals is complicated by three very complex factors. First, the existing literature, though scholarly in some sense, is surprisingly one-dimensional. Typically it is focused heavily, often exclusively, on religion rather than on animals. For example, entire books on a religious tradition's views of non-human animals never refer in any way to the realities of the animals that are allegedly being discussed. The irony in this is that much more accurate information has been developed in the last four decades regarding the daily lives of some other animals, such as large-brained social mammals.

A second complicating factor is the long tradition of ethical anthropocentrism that dominates our culture. Such human-centeredness is found throughout the best known institutions of the religious traditions that dominate this culture. It also is a defining feature of our legal systems, business values and economic theory, government policy decisions and education philosophies and curricula.

A third complicating factor is that the field "religion and animals" is really many different inquiries. In fact, upon examination, religion and animals swells into radically different concerns that reflect diverse agendas. For example, while a few scholars have confronted the issue of how animals were treated by believers, many more have focused exclusively on religions' use of animal images as if that is the definitive issue.


Terri Dixion/PhotoDisc

A disconnect
Religious images of non-human animals are often, however, demonstrably unrelated to the realities of the animals themselves. Such an approach fails to identify the disconnect between the use of images (say, in worship) and harsh treatment of animals whose images are found in religious materials. In such cases, does the religion involved have a positive or negative view of these animals?

Simply put, many scholars who set out to talk about religion and animals know very little about non-human animals.

Problems such as these have led me to frame my work as a series of questions rather than a definitive account of the boundaries of the study of "religion and animals." Some of the more interesting questions ask in what ways have religions been a factor in our engagement with life outside our species, and what should their role be in our current and future approaches.

The wide-ranging subordination in some religious traditions of all non-human lives to the good of the human species can be used to examine the important claim that humans are a moral species. If you attend a church or a synagogue or a mosque, ask if the wild animals, companion animals, food animals or zoo animals nearby are talked about as being within your religious community's moral circle.

The basic facts of humans' treatment of other species worldwide are, frankly, startling. According to the World Conservation Union, even though a quarter of the globe's 608 primate species are teetering on the brink of oblivion, and one in four species of mammal and one in eight species of bird are similarly at risk, habitat destruction continues unabated.

The role of religions
Because religions are integrally involved with ethics, especially day-to-day actions involving our "neighbors," religions have an obvious role to play in any answer to whether we are, or can be, a moral species.

In providing moral guidance, do religions help us see other animals, or do they obscure and caricature them? What place should any religion give to discoveries that some non-human animals are far more complex than ever envisioned by the western intellectual tradition? Many religions have at least one sub-tradition that asserts, as do so many indigenous traditions, that some other living beings should be within our moral community. What might a religion that was fully informed about other animals' realities and humans' current treatment and uses of other animals say about the ethics of these practices?

One vehicle now increasing the relevance of such questions is the religion and ecology movement. Recently given a solid academic basis by, among other studies, the 10-volume series now being published by Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions, detailed work in this area is only just developing. This fall, Oxford University Press will publish my The Specter of Speciesism: Buddhist and Christian Views of Animals, which invites religious ethicists to address scientifically developed evidence of complexities in certain non-human animals' lives.

Religions have an important leadership role to play in our relation to the world around us, including the non-human beings that are part of our ecological communities. Whether believers, churches and religious institutions will respond to this challenge is perhaps the most important of the unanswered questions.

Paul Waldau is clinical assistant professor at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine's Center for Animals and Public Policy and Department of Environmental and Population Health.