Is Religion Bad for Animals?

Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once recounted the view of Rowland Hill that a person "was not a true Christian if his dog or cat were not the better off for it." And commented: "That witness is true."

But is it true that Christianity -- and religion in general -- benefits animals? Are religious people and religious institutions more or less likely to be respectful to animals -- either those kept as companions or those used for other human purposes?

Religious traditions are complex, diverse and often difficult to interpret.

Nowhere is this truer than in the case of Christianity itself. Its historic teaching is so negative that it makes many animal-friendly people wince. According to St Thomas Aquinas animals are intended for human use, so "it is not wrong for man to make use of them, either by killing or in any other way whatever" (my emphases). The only qualification St Thomas would allow is if such cruelty dehumanized the perpetrator.

Even in the Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1994 similar instrumentalist tendencies are discernible. Food, clothing, work and scientific research are all "legitimate" uses. Animal lovers are told that they should not "direct to them the affection due only to persons."

Yet with Pope Francis some new emphases appear to emerge. We are now to be "protectors" not only of creation but also other "creatures." Such a turnaround is remarkable bearing in mind that Vatican II said nothing about care for creation.

But historic teaching is one thing; practice may be another. Religious people have also been the leaders in the field of animal protection. An Anglican priest, Arthur Broome, founded the RSPCA in 1824 as a Christian society based on Christian principles.

The antivivisection movement in nineteenth century Britain was patronised by such luminaries as Lord Shaftesbury and the Archbishop of York. Even the modern vegetarian movement was heralded by the Bible Christian Church which made vegetarianism (based on Genesis 1.29-30) compulsory among its members.

Even within largely anthropocentric religious traditions, there are sub-traditions of thought and practice that have been animal-friendly.

Such tensions and paradoxes can also be found in other world religions. Many people suppose that Eastern religions provide animals with a higher status. Hinduism is famous for its doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence or non-injury) which has sustained vegetarianism in India for centuries. Yet, people frequently overlook the explicitly hierarchical nature of samsara (the transmigration of souls
both human and animal) since those who do not fulfil their karma are relegated downwards to the status of animals.

Although contested, it seems clear that Buddha espoused and practised vegetarianism, whereas many Buddhists today are not. Jainism is sometimes claimed to be the gold standard for the protection of animals, yet its extreme emphasis on not killing means that in practice even terminally suffering animals are not allowed to be euthanized.

The Prophet Muhammad said that "kindness to any living creature will be rewarded," yet Islam apparently requires the sacrifice of thousands of animals, often in practice performed in inexpert and cruel ways. This is all the more ironic since Muhammad also said, "sharpen your blade and spare the suffering of the animal you slaughter."

Judaism has promulgated tsar baalei hayyim, the biblically based prohibition against animal cruelty, yet Jewish authorities are oddly silent about most cruelty practised today.

Obviously religious traditions are living, dynamic entities ("seedbeds of creativity" as one theologian put it); they change, evolve, move on. They are characterised as much by forgetting as well as remembering. But, despite all the qualifiers, it is impossible not to conclude that religion has been complicit in animal cruelty and abuse.

Can religions become unambiguously animal-friendly? That is the question being addressed by a new Religion and Animals Research Project of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. The Centre aims to pioneer ethical perspectives on animals through academic research, teaching and publication.

Since faith is a multifaceted phenomenon, our approach is necessarily international, mutifaith and multidisciplinary. We need theologians and religious thinkers to address the positive and negative resources within their own traditions. But we also need other academics, for example, social scientists, psychologists, historians, even criminologists to explore how religious attitudes affect animals for good or ill.

We invite scholars who would like to publish in this field, as well as those already doing so, to contribute. The first stage of our research will culminate in a Summer School on Religion and Animal Protection at Stephen's House, Oxford, from 21-23 July 2014.