Christianity’s changing attitude toward animals
Nadyat El Gawley
The image is unforgettable, seared into my memory: pigs in utter anguish being gassed to death. You can turn away, but you can’t unsee the suffering on their faces. A suffering that punches you in the heart. A suffering you can’t deal with and imagine for just a second that it can’t be true. It just can’t be.
It’s a tiny snippet of a video on the website of the advocacy group, Animals Australia. There are others of course across the Internet—baby male calves being taken away (to the slaughterhouse) from mother cows, ducks and geese being violently fed in appalling conditions to produce foie gras, and shocking abuse of animals in some Australian abattoirs.
The cruelty of factory farming say animal advocates is on a colossal and indefensible scale; and it begs the question: Where did humanity get the idea that it could do what it liked to fellow creatures?
For some, the answer may be found in chapter one of the Biblical story of Genesis where God gives Adam and Eve a mandate to: “Subdue the earth and have dominion over the fish of the sea …the fowl of the air and every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
This has been a long-held and traditional Christian view, but leading Christian thinkers are now challenging it, and urging a new re-reading of Biblical teaching on animals. They’re also uncovering a forgotten history of passionate campaigns for animal rights by many Christians.
A legacy of Christian animal activism
Rewind to the beginning of the 19th century, and to what surprised Professor David Clough about Christianity and anti-vivisection campaigning.
Professor Clough teaches theological ethics at the University of Chester in the UK and says what’s been most striking about Christian activism for animals is how they engaged with the issue almost 200 years ago.
“ It was a real surprise to me when I started researching this area [to find] that it was Christians at the beginning of the 19th century who had become really concerned at the amount of animal cruelty going on, “ he told ABC Radio National’s The Religion and Ethics Report. “ They were among leading campaigners for changing the law to make animal cruelty illegal in Britain for the first time.”
It was leading evangelists such as William Wilberforce who campaigned for those laws, later joining with others to form the RSPCA. Together with a group of Christians and a prominent Jew, Wilberforce, who had been a high profile campaigner for the abolition of slavery, founded the RSPCA in 1824, writes professor Clough in The Ark the newsletter of UK based Catholic Concern for Animals.
However , he says that by the beginning of the last century with the rise of secularism in Western Europe and falling church attendance, groups such as the RSPCA wanted a broader reach and downplayed the Christian aspect of the organisation. There was also, WW1 and the devastating human tragedy of the Great War to which Christians turned their attention.
The winds of change
There’s a scene in the 2016 Italian TV mini-series–Call Me Francis –where in the 60s, a young Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) intervenes to save a pig from the torments of a group of male students. This may have been a portend for the future where as Pope Francis, he releases his second encyclical Ludato Si, Praise be to you, in 2015. It’s one of the most far-reaching statements to come out of the Vatican on the place of animals in Christian teaching. Significantly, it tackles traditional thinking about humanity being at the centre of creation with unchecked power over it.
“This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church, “ says the encyclical.
“ Nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” (LS 67).
Ludato Si was not the only important statement on animals to come out of Christianity that year. In September, American evangelicals released their own statement on animal protection–Every Living Thing. It calls on Christians to avoid treating animals cruelly and was the result of a unique four-year collaboration between the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the evangelical community. Over 1000 evangelical leaders and scholars signed the document.
Yet the statement is prefaced by a declaration that it’s not doctrinal in nature, it doesn’t address particular issues, and says that humans have greater worth than animals. So how significant is it in getting Christians to focus on animal rights?
Professor Clough’s research indicates that Christians don’t see the link between their faith and the treatment of non-human animals. But he told Radio National that the US statement is of considerable importance.
“Often, evangelicals in the US have been thought as most resistant to issues like concern for animals or wider environmental concerns,” he told the ABC. “But, avoiding treating animals cruelly in the current context of what we’re doing to animals in intensive farming systems is a really radical statement.
If we were to seriously investigate the implications of not visiting unnecessary cruelty on animals through our farming practices, perhaps 98 percent of the current products available would be off the table for Christians.”
How much does the public know?
“ One of the things I talk about is that commercial egg production ( including free range and organic egg ) relies on the killing of male chics because they are of no economic value,” he told The Religion and Ethics Report. “And so what happens to them, is that they are dropped live into a grinding machine called a macerator which thought to be the most humane way of dispatching them.”
How little the public know about factory farms is a widespread concern. In talking to many groups in the UK, Professor David Clough notes audience reaction when he explains what happens in the egg industry.
These chics are usually a day old, and billions are killed in this manner each year across the world. In Australia, about 12 million perish this way.
“That’s a shock to the audiences that I speak to. You can almost hear an audible gasp in the room when I mention that kind of example.”
Cracks in the veneer
There ’s good news among all this in Australia. While the most recent statistics on worldwide meat eating trends, put Australia at the top in 2015; a year later , Roy Morgan Research found that just over two million of us (11.2 percent) are either vegetarian or vegan—up from 1.7 million in 2012. Many are switching for health reasons, but some are making the change for ethical reasons, and for the animals. And Roy Morgan Research predicts the trend is set to continue.
Thousands of Australians sign up for Veganuary, 31 days of vegan eating in January and the Daily Telegraph reports that according to data from Google Trends, Aussies are more interested in learning about vegan principles than they are about the much-hyped keto and Paleo diets.
“ What really strikes me in relation to farmed animals is that this is an issue which is a big problem, but one which we can have an immediate impact on,” professor Clough told RN’s Religion and Ethics Report. “ If we stop consuming the products of factory farming, the animals will not be enlisted into these systems. And so through a daily practice of what we choose to eat, we can make a difference to the numbers of animals that are being forced into these cruel systems.”