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The Meaning of Compassion

The following letter is being sent to religious leaders who endorse dominion as a model of compassion, in an effort to question the merit of a belief that allows for the harm/slaughter of animals, allegedly to meet a human need:

THE MEANING OF COMPASSION:

Dear Religious leaders of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic Tradition:

I am writing to you with the hope that you will reconsider the morality of religious views that sanction the harming/killing of animals to benefit man, as such a view is inhumane. While the taking of human life is a sin in these traditions, the harming or killing of an animal is not.

The Judeo/Christian/Islamic traditions value an animal’s life in relation to human need and grant permission, that is to say, sanctify the harming/killing of animals in the name of NECESSITY. This is a self-serving, semantic premise based on archaic perceptions, designed to violate animal lives, while alleging compassion. Such reasoning has been used to exploit, dominate and abuse animals for many millennia.

Fortunately for animals this is not the only religious model for teaching compassion. The following words are from the scriptures of the Jain religion of India.

"For there is nothing inaccessible for death. All beings are fond of life, hate pain, like pleasure, shun destruction, like life, long to live. To all life is dear."
  -- Jain Acharanga Sutra.

These words reflect the belief that the lives of all beings are sacred and that an animal's life has intrinsic worth, measured by its value to the animal.
It is called ahimsa (no-harm) and is the fundamental principle of the Jain religion of India. In this tradition harm to any living being is to be avoided, minimized whenever possible and is viewed as gratuitous, not necessary. Furthermore Jain scriptures specifically state that it is a serious impropriety to harm another living being:

"He who harms animals has not understood or renounced deeds of sin"
  -- Jain Sutra "

For those of us who, after personally observing, as well as studying the evidence in research studies, have concluded that animals are capable of suffering, of experiencing pain the position that animals may be harmed or even killed for human benefit is untenable. Many possess a full array of emotions such as joy, pleasure, fear, anger, jealousy and even greed; they teach, nurture and protect their young; some mate for life and mourn the deaths of relatives, while innumerable others provide service and companionship to mankind.

Many of us have left our birth religions, because we have found the tolerance and teaching of acceptable harm to animals intolerable, We view the preaching of compassion, mercy and forgiveness by our religious leaders as disingenuous, since it does not include the suffering of all sentient creatures. We observe that while they recite lovely words, they also sanctify and endorse violence to animals in the name of ‘Religion’.

Others have arrived at the conclusion that their religion is incompatible with compassion for animals and therefore no longer feel comfortable attending religious events. Still others leave all religion and embrace secular humanism, or seek out religions which offer a more compassionate view of animals, while some attempt to advocate for change from within.

The model of animal compassion, with human need at its core, is based on biblical interpretations of a hierarchical scheme which grants dominion over animals to man and therefore implies that the lives of humans are more valuable. While dominion ought to imply protection and caring, because of the provision that animals may indeed be harmed/killed to benefit man, as they are unable to defend themselves, the result has been untold suffering for untold numbers of living beings, especially those designated as "food" animals.

Compassion should be measured, not by how we treat our equals, but how we treat the vulnerable and weak among us. Despite claims of compassion, allowing only necessary violence to animals has not resulted in less suffering during the 5000 years this model has been used. Instead it has been used to justify every manner of cruelty imaginable, from ghoulish experiments which torment, maim and kill them, to terrifying deaths in slaughter houses to the killing of homeless domestic animals in the name of convenience to humans.

At its very root the argument of allowable harm to animals for human benefit is inconsistent and unjustifiable as it is not possible to assess "necessity" and certainly not in terms arrived at thousands of years ago.

Thus, the question not addressed by this premise is how to determine what is "necessary".

Today, we do accept that it is necessary to slaughter an animal to placate an angry God; this is of little consolation to all the animals murdered in the name of pleasing God, when it was deemed "necessary". Even to this day animal sacrifice continues as custom, in some societies. While it is based on superstition and fear, it is still justified in the name of necessity.

Necessity is relative: a furrier, for example, would argue that the survival of his family depends on selling fur. Innumerable cruel industries are justified by the premise of "necessity". In other words, when you set the bar at permissible killing when "necessary', the bar can be adjusted to suit those seeking to benefit from animal misery.

And while the killing of animals has been justified on the grounds that meat consumption is necessary for survival, we are now learning that it is possible to be healthy and strong while following a meat-free diet. What was once deemed "necessary" is not, and in fact, innumerable recent studies have shown that a meat-based diet is unhealthy as well as one of the primary causes of devastation to our planet.

Thus, if we do not have sufficient understanding to determine what is 'necessary' killing, then how can we justify it? In hindsight animal sacrifice and meat consumption are not necessary yet so much suffering has resulted from these so called 'necessary' practices..

Yet another problem inherent in permission to kill is that taking the life of an animal is such a violent act that it overshadows any concept or words of compassion which are reduced to empty rhetoric in the face of such violence. Permissible harming/ killing of animals cannot be included in a system that claims to be compassionate and just - it is a contradiction so strong that any other measures of compassion are negated and neutralized.

The bottom line is that there is no compassionate way to kill an animal. Animals suffer terribly when they are killed. They are frightened and in pain. No form of slaughter is compassionate: both ritualistic and secular slaughter are carried out with total disregard to the suffering inflicted on the victims.

Finally and most significantly, there are human societies which have remained meat free and do not use leather, fur or silk. The ancient, yet timely Jain religion of India, is such a tradition. It is based on the belief of non-violence to all beings. This is not just a noble sentiment, but a life style that has allowed Jains to live healthy and well-balanced lives for many millennia.
If this society has been able to survive and thrive for so long without consuming animal flesh, how then can the killing of animals to meet human needs ever be considered necessary?

It is time to rethink the archaic concept of 'necessary' killing endorsed by the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition as it represents a concept which promotes and results in much UNnecessary misery and suffering.

When such religious views of animals become part of the mainstream culture, the result is every manner of exploitation and gratuitous violence. An epidemic of such acts indicates that the youth in such cultures are prone to seeking thrills from the gratuitous abuse of animals and random acts of violence to humans. In view of such spiritual poverty one has to wonder what has gone wrong.

"No society that feeds its children on tales of successful violence can expect them not to believe that violence in the end is rewarded"
   -- Margaret Mead.

What then are we teaching our children that allows them to harm and kill animals for sheer pleasure? The answer lies in religious models which sanctify, endorse, and facilitate violence to animals, couched in the language of compassion which does not ring true. What does it say to young people when the number of slaughtered animals escalates during the religious holidays of these faiths? Teaching young people that it is permissible to kill animals to meet a human need, is often mistakenly interpreted as a free license to harm and kill.

The evidence is clear. In the West, the Judeo/Christian/Islamic traditions have failed to instill a message of compassion for living beings, This failure has resulted in enormous and extensive abuse all within the realm of what is considered "necessary" and has led to a proliferation of acts of sadism and gratuitous violence.

As long as religions continue to perpetuate the argument that violence to animals is allowable to meet a human need, there will be no peace, just more of the same.

"Nonviolence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all living beings, we are all savages".
  -- Thomas Edison

If the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition is not able to extend its circle of compassion to include animals, it will continue to become more irrelevant. The conclusion is irrefutable, as compassion for animals begins to take hold in society, religions which endorse abuse will continue the trend of diminishing membership and decline in importance.

It is my deepest hope that you will consider the possibility that animal lives do not have to be sacrificed to improve the lives of humans and that you can begin to embrace and instruct your followers in a broader definition of compassion for all of creation.

Respectfully,
Ruth Eisenbud

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