Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Religions and Animal Welfare Project

There's a new research project at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics which is multi-faith and multi-disciplinary. It asks the question whether a religion held by a human in beneficial to the animals.
Charles Spurgeon, the Baptist Preacher, once claimed that a person cannot be a true Christian if his dog or cat is not the better off for it, so that's the basis of the question behind the project. It is not about dogs having holy communion, or whether animals have sin or not. Potentially religion can be both beneficial and detrimental for animals (similar if more directly regarding a religion's effect on human rights).

The first stage of the project will culminate in a Summer School on Religion and Animal Protection at the Anglican theological college St Stephen’s House, Oxford, from 21-23rd July 2014. Potential contributors to the project should contact the Centre’s Deputy Director, Clair Linzey, in the first instance. 

Thinking about this myself, one can immediately think of Hinduism's positive attitude towards say cattle and monkeys, but then debate whether the results are positive towards cattle and monkeys. Jainism is an obvious candidate for compassion towards the smallest creatures: Gandhi learnt this compassion from Jainism. Buddhism also has a compasionate approach, with its general vegetarianism, but as much on the basis that it is good for the individual as for the recepient. Neo-Paganism is earth-centred and tends to have a positive view of anything that lives.

I also tend to be critical of the monotheistic faiths, particularly around animal slaughter. I'm not convinced about the immediate and direct slaughter of an animal. In the religion I know best, Christianity, one first realises that as an observant Jew Jesus will have visited and participated in temple rituals of animal slaughter. He also had a view that demons could leave humans (to make the human ready for the coming Kingdom) and such could jump into pigs and send them over the cliff to death. The dogs of the Gentile woman asking for long-distance healing for her daughter weren't exactly raised up in status (her daughter was being lowered). He did make more positive and comparative statements regarding birdlife and things that grew, and of course he'd have believed that there was an active God-energy making them grow in a way we'd view as 'interventionist' (for those that believe in that sort of potential). During my MA in Contemporary Theology I wrote in this fashion about Jesus and animal ethics and rather pissed off the Anglican tutor there who regarded it as a given that Jesus was a perfect character, but then he was pissed off by my all-round scepticism. There have been Christian 'saints' regarding animals, of course, and in the Unitarians we have radicals Frances Cobbe and then Francis William Newman, a pioneer vegetarian.

My view is that evolution is local and specific, and is amoral and thus (small) animals that, for example, capture other animals and keep them alive and fresh while they eat them are very successful but such is not exactly positive for the 'losers' or prey. In other words a chaotic and local cause with comparative advantage based on death produces a pretty cruel competitive system. Some husbandry indeed, as also indeed pet-keeping, can free some animals of a lifetime of looking over their shoulders at those who would take them as their dinners. A farm then is a bit like building a council estate with a health service clinic nearby except that when the tenant reaches 25 they get stunned and killed for a new tenancy to take place. So a general humanistic outlook is itself mixed by observation and intention: one can improve attitudes and behaviours but the actual animal universe in the wild is not pleasant for many.


Jim stearn said...

Why is evolution "amoral"? The morality may be alien and cosmic, but I know of no proof of its non-existence.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I simply think evolution is neither positively moral or negatively moral, it just is local and specific. The environment shifts, and some advantages win through. It's not alien nor is it cosmic - it only becomes systemic when one product of evolution interacts with another, and acts in ways of comparative advantage, prey by predators.

Jim Stearn said...

Evolution interacts within itself all the time- in the interdependent ecosystems it forms and reforms. Victorians thought that predators "controlled" the prey species, but we now realise that if anything the converse is true.
Jim Stearn