Ancestral kin

Why is our culture so dismissive of animals?

Some years ago Paul Waldau made a presentation to a room full of scholars at Harvard about animals and religion. Afterward, one of them came up to him and said, “There’s really something to this, Paul. I always thought this was fluffy, but there are enormously significant subjects here. The trick is can you do this in ways that are elegant and academically rigorous?”

Paul Waldau, director of the Center for Animals, says we have a kinship with non-human animals. © Christopher Churchill

Waldau has had no trouble making what some might consider an offbeat topic rigorous, challenging and thought-provoking. The director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the School of Veterinary Medicine, Waldau also teaches a course on animals and religion in the Department of Comparative Religion in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Loss of mystery
“This is a new subject that is also, interestingly, an ancient subject,” he said. “Go back to our ancient roots, and you will see that people were very connected to non-human animals. In our society we reach out to companion animals, and that’s our principal connection to the animal world, but ancient religions were fully engaged in the lives around them. The earliest religions had other animals as gods; they had a sense of mystery. Contemporary religions have lost a sense of the world being divine even though they have a divinity.”

Waldau’s course explores the questions: How have religions been involved in the good and bad images of animals we are surrounded with today? What are the prospects for non-human animals in the religions of today and in the future?

“The courses I teach are one of the few places where students come in and say, ‘I like animals.’ You don’t hear that that in many places in the university. But in my class, I ask people, ‘How is it that you’ve come to your level of confidence about other animals on the Earth?’ Each of us has a unique history with other animals in the sense that we’ve all met different individual animals. Digging down into this personal history is what I call ‘doing a personal archaeology.’ I ask each student, for example, ‘Have you met certain dogs and cats that you see as distinct animals, distinct from one another?’ Examine your own life, and you’ll see that we all have a unique set of non-humans we’ve met. Think of the dogs and cats you’ve loved, and they are different from the ones I’ve loved. So how is it that society, through its laws and other devices, treats them all as uniform?”

Waldau has thought and spoken so much about the topic that a conversation with him is like coming into the middle of a fascinating lecture and hearing new ways of using language and thought. He speaks in an engaging, non-stop style, leaving his listener trying to catch up as new idea is piled upon new idea. He uses the term non-human animals instead of animals and the phrase “animal protection” instead of “animal rights.”

Web of life
“Probably most people haven’t thought about non-human animals and religion,” he said. “The first question students usually ask is ‘Do non-human animals go to heaven?’ That generates an animated discussion. But there are other issues that are much more serious and relevant to our lives.”

Waldau believes we are living in an era that is dismissive of animals. Yet other cultures and societies have been able to fully appreciate that humans are animals, too, and that we all share the Earth.

“So many cultures have seen the animals issue differently than we do. Many have recognized other animals as our cousins or ancestors, and some even tell stories of them as ancestral marriage partners. There are lots of stories in indigenous traditions that say something like, ‘originally there was a fox and a man, and they got married.’ For indigenous people, such stories reflect basic recognition that we’re all in this web of life together, and of course, we’re related. In our culture, though, if I push to our obvious connection to other animals, people start to get uncomfortable, and part of this is religious resistance to the basic idea that we are connected to other living beings.”

But religion is not the only entity creating the current dismissive attitude toward non-human animals, he said.

“When you think of what happens to today’s food animals, it is not based on religion. Those sorts of methods were produced by industrialized capitalism and the relentless drive toward efficiencies,” Waldau said, referring to factory-farming, a means of raising food animals that critics say is inhumane and harmful to the environment.

Waldau tries to impart to his students the realization that they have choices about the future. “Students are inheriting a world that is radically impoverished in terms of non-human animals. Worldwide, we are knocking down hundreds of species each day, and it seems to me that a fundamental challenge is this: Can our children accomplish a re-enchantment of the world through living side by side with other lives? That would be a fuller world.”

The basic question in his course, Waldau said, is one of ethics. “Who are the others? Are they just people in our family or just people in our city or our race? Just people of our own sex? Just our own species? Of course not. If we educate more openly about our history and possibilities with non-human animals, our children and their children will be fabulously more wealthy and imaginative than we can be. The alternative is having an impoverished world view where just humans count.”

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at