Why You Should Care about the Faith-Based Arguments for (and against) Animal Liberation
by Bruce Friedrich
I've been a vegan for 15 years and a full-time animal advocate for more than 6 years. During this time, I've noticed that many animal activists are not as well-versed as they might be in discussing vegetarianism and animal issues with people of faith. I can understand this. Although a practicing Roman Catholic with a degree in Religion and a continuing interest in Biblical exegesis, I'll admit that even I tire of the common faith-based arguments against animal rights and vegetarianism. You know them: "God put animals here for our use," "What about animal sacrifice in the Bible?," "But Jesus ate meat," and so on.
It's understandable (and easy enough) to simply throw up one's hands and go about the business of talking to all the people who don't subscribe to the monotheistic faiths. But I would like to suggest that the level of animal suffering requires that we make pragmatic decisions, and that a dismissive or disdainful attitude toward religion does our constituents, the animals, a grave disservice.
According to polls, forty percent of Americans believe in strict creationism, the Bible-based view that humans were created in final form by God, and are not the product of evolution. Surely, I figured, this must be the more liberal notion that, although humans evolved over time, God was involved in setting the process in motion. But no; according to polls, forty percent of Americans believe that evolution is wrong. Heck, even my own Catholic Church, no bastion of liberal thought, accepts evolution.
Consider, please, that even a cursory review of history indicates that every social justice movement has required religious support. As just a few from among many examples: the movements for both abolition of slavery and civil rights was led by people of faith, many of them in the black churches, but white support was also, largely, among church leaders; the movement for independence for India was led by Hindu and Moslem clerics, as well as by Gandhi, who argued the case for independence on the basis of Hindu, Moslem, and Christian moral theory--appealing both to Indians to liberate themselves, and the British to adhere to Christian dictates by allowing India to be free; in the 1980's oppressive Latin American regimes were opposed almost exclusively by people of faith including, again, both those in these countries like Archbishop Oscar Romera and the Priests at the University of Central America, and those in the U.S. that led the modern underground railroad--the "Sanctuary Movement" that used churches and synagogues to house political refugees fleeing oppression in El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries; the anti-Apartheid movement was successful as, especially, progressive Jewish and Christian groups led the movement to divest funds from business that operated in South Africa; and even more recently, East Timor was granted independence because of the internal work of faith communities, and the external work of both the progressive and conservative elements of the Catholic Church.
I tried to think of some example to counteract these, and although I thought of others to add to the list of church leaders being essential to reform, I could think of none to counteract these examples. Even the turn of the century reforms that began to protect domesticated animals and to set up SPCAs were spearheaded by church leaders, and the Humane Slaughter Act, whatever its liabilities, was granted organizational support, touted by Senator Hubert Humphrey year after year as he introduced the legislation throughout the mid-1950's, from Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other religious organizations and leaders.
Things haven't changed that much. Our society remains dogmatically religious, as anyone who spends much time leafleting will confirm. When asked in one of the presidential debates what philosopher, current or past, has most influenced his thinking and life, President Bush said Jesus Christ; Al and Tipper Gore, the couple from Tennessee who hit radar screens in a big way by opposing anti-religious content in popular music, also relied heavily on religious themes and religious support. One would be hard pressed to find a political race or cause in the U.S., other than the animal movement, that does not get significant support from, especially, progressive Jewish and Christian organizations and people. Even our number one progressive in Congress, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, is devoutly religious.
Considering the level of religious interest in the United States, it seems unlikely that we'll achieve animal liberation without mobilizing, especially, Jewish and Christian progressives, and perhaps also many of the conservatives. Consider that Sen. Bob Smith, perhaps the most conservative person to serve in the Senate over the past 10 years, was also the best on animal issues and garnered unequivocal support from Humane USA, the PAC set up by Linda Nealon, Wayne Pacelle, and others; that Bob Dole, despite being from Kansas, was much better on animal issues than Bill Clinton, the man from Tyson-town; and consider the case of Matthew Scully, senior speechwriter for President Bush, who left the Bush administration to promote his new book, Dominion, which eloquently argues the case for veganism and animal rights on conservative and even religious grounds.
Most of us want to be as effective as we can possibly be. Many of us agonize over the perfect answers for every situation. Nevertheless, many in the animal and environmental movements seem to have neglected religious outreach, to the detriment of our effectiveness. Think about it: In the United States, approximately 91 percent of people identify themselves as members of some Western, monotheistic, faith'86 percent are Christians, 3 percent are Muslims, and 3 percent are Jewish. Many others identify with some Eastern or other non-Monotheistic faith.
Religion constitutes a crucial aspect (often the most crucial aspect) of many people's lives, and even a basic grasp of a few major points may cause someone to pause and reconsider their diet (which may thereby decrease animal suffering). If well in excess of 90 percent of Americans are motivated by faith and our efforts as advocates for animal rights are purely secular in nature, we're not talking as effectively as we might to more than nine tenths of our audience. The arguments for faith-based vegetarianism are overwhelming; to avoid addressing people of faith is to miss a wonderful and vital opportunity.
With all this in mind, I would like to offer a few helpful hints (and key points) for having discussions with people of faith. In all cases that the arguments are similar to the secular arguments with which we are all familiar, but that they are presented in a religious context.
'Don't argue over side issues. People of faith may want to convert you to their way of thinking, or may be more comfortable discussing abortion, the death penalty, or the nature of evil. All of these can be interesting discussions, but you can and should lead the discussion: Keep it focused on the animals.
'Find Common Ground: Engage people by using statements and concepts with which they already agree (e.g., "animal abuse is wrong," "God created animals," and so on). Try not to rewrite the person's scriptures for them (don't argue that the animal sacrifice passages were inserted by meat-eating scribes or that the Gospels proving Jesus' vegetarianism are in a vault under the Vatican); it's not necessary, and you'll be written off.
'Avoid Bible Thumping: There is such a thing as too much information. As with statistics, you can find Biblical justification for just about anything (Biblical support for slavery, murder, and polygamy are actually much stronger than for meat-eating). No matter how well you know the texts, people can argue from other perspectives. People of faith can be engaged on animal issues by anyone, including those with no knowledge of the texts. General arguments that don't resort to Biblical citation are often more effective and less convoluted, as long as the animal advocate remembers that everyone wants to be viewed as a "good person," as compassionate and thoughtful.
Three tried and true suggestions: Three quick arguments that seem to resonate with people of faith (and you only have to change them a little for them to work with others as well), because they begin with something most people already believe, follow. Please note that there will be many rationalizations that will follow your making these points (like the comments that began this article); none of them even begin to answer these crucial points. Try to keep coming back to them; try to say, "well, that's an interesting point, but I still don't see how you can justify'".
' God created animals with needs, wants, desires, and species-specific behaviors. God designed pigs to root around in the soil for food and play with one another, desires that pigs engage in on farmed animal sanctuaries. God designed chickens to make nests, lay eggs, and raise their children (no less a Christian authority than Jesus compared his love for humanity to a hen's love for her brood) when they hatch. God designed all animals with a desire for sunlight, fresh air, fresh water, and so on, and design all animals to grow at a certain rate that won't tax their appendages and organs. Yet, all of these things are denied the animals who are turned into food by the farmed-animal industries' Scientists play "God" by
manipulating animals to grow so quickly that their hearts, lungs, and limbs can't keep up . Everything natural to them is denied them as they're packed into ammonia-laden sheds. Basically, God's will is denied completely by the industries that have decided that they know better than God how God's creatures should be treated. The Bible's covenant is never just with people--it's with all flesh, humans and other animals.
' Everyone agrees that dogs and cats should be protected, legally, from some of the worst abuses, and that animal cruelty is not just unethical, but unchristian. To their great credit, people of faith fill the boxes of the judges in cruelty to animals cases--when the animals are dogs or cats. But animals who are raised for food have no protection at all; anything goes. So the disconnect must be pointed out: If castrating a dog without painkillers is not okay, then it's not suddenly okay because we like the taste of pig or cow flesh. If drugging a cat so that she grows so fast she can't walk is not okay, if chopping of the toes of a dog or a cat is not okay, if slitting a dog or cats throat open and hacking of their limbs
while they're still conscious--if any of this is not okay when done to dogs or cats, it is equally repugnant before God to do these things to any animal. God even cares for sparrows, according to Jesus. These cruelties are not acceptable.
' People of faith are trying to lead moral lives. They can be challenged on the issue of paying others to do things they couldn't even watch. All the Biblical justifications for animal slaughter or eating meat fall to the side when the challenge is issued: "Would you want to work on a factory farm, searing the beaks off of chickens or castrating pigs and cows without painkillers," and so on? "Well, are other areas of your life where you participate in practices that not only can you not do them, but it would repulse you if you had to watch them happening." You know, most of us could watch grains being tilled or even spend an afternoon shucking corn or picking beans, fruits, or vegetables. Seriously though, how many of us would want to spend an afternoon slitting open animals' throats?
Additional questions and answers are available on the www.JesusVeg.com (FAQ section), www.JewishVeg.com, and www.ChristianVeg.com Web sites.
What you can do:
' The most important thing to do, I think, is to have a basic conversational understanding of the faith-based arguments. This will not take much time; it will just require a willingness to accept that people of faith are basically like you, and to talk to them on their level. The three key points, above, work particularly well with people of faith, but I use them in my discussions with everyone, to very good effect.
' If you have a faith background, contact your local clergy about animal issues. Give them literature. Write letters to faith-based periodicals. Consider joining a group such as the Christian Vegetarian Association (www.christianveg.com), the Society of Religious and Ethical Vegetarians (www.serv-online.org ), or the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (www.JewishVeg.com). These groups need our support.
' Even if you don't have a faith background, one simple action you can take is placing vegan literature in the literature section of churches, synagogues, and other places of worship. I have been placing our new "Christianity and Vegetarianism" pamphlet, by Fr. John Dear, S.J. (www.JesusVeg.com), and the Christian Vegetarian Association's "What would Jesus eat" pamphlet in the literature area of Catholic churches, and they are being picked up and read. When I do this just before Mass, I set them beside the programs, and people pick them up and read them (sometimes during the Homily, I've noticed!)
PETA can send you as many of this pamphlet as you can use this way (order them by sending an email to VegInfo@peta.org). We're in the process of producing one for Judaism and vegetarianism, which will be ready in a few months.
People of faith, even in the mainstream religions, are looking for something beyond themselves. They are looking for meaning in life, and they want to be good people; they want to be kind. I have not yet heard a homily that focused on making more money, watching more television, or eating more food. I have heard more than my fair share of homilies about kindness, compassion, and justice. I know that similar sermons are delivered in Mosques, Temples, and Protestant Churches as well.
I have personally stood outside multiple Christian conventions (including fundamentalist ones like the Southern Baptist Convention) for entire weekends talking with attendees about vegetarianism, and I can assure you that this is a valuable expenditure of time. I've shown PETA's vegetarian video, "Meet Your Meat" (available at www.GoVeg.com), and passed out literature and even brought along a PETA intern, dressed as Jesus, holding a sign, "For Christ's Sake: Go Vegetarian." Even at these conventions, by focusing on a few things about which we agree (see above), I was able reach attendees, and often at a deep and very effective level.
The level of animal abuse in society is beyond anything we can imagine. We must maintain a clear-headed focus on how we can change the world. This must include engaging people of faith, and engaging them effectively.
Bruce Friedrich is director of vegan outreach for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.