Do animals have rights? What about trees? When does life begin? Will the Cubs ever win the World Series? These are all very difficult questions and have no easy answers (well, except for the last one!); and answers will range across a broad spectrum based, indeed, on ones religious and spiritual beliefs.
The question of the moment is about animals, and I will begin with a personal reflection and end with a more general assessment of my own faith tradition’s various perspectives on the topic.
I grew up on a dairy farm in Indiana, and I never considered any alternative understanding of the place of animals in the “great chain of being” other than for human use. We raised chickens, hogs, and beef for consumption and milked cows for our main source of income. I loved those animals and reveled in the beauty of baby chicks, pigs, and calves, yet I never thought of them as having “souls.” They certainly had personality, though, and I had favorite animals. I knew they felt pain, sought comfort, and, especially the cows, responded to human touch and compassion. We tried to make them as comfortable as possible, attending to their “creature comforts” and feeding them well.
But I ate them. My religious upbringing taught me that animals were placed on earth for human use, and I never questioned it. When one of my cousins went off to college and came back a vegetarian, she was spoken of in hushed tones at family gatherings as if she had become a Communist!
Largely through the influence of my own daughters, one who became a vegetarian and the other a vegan, I have learned a great deal about issues related to how we view animals, how they are treated in the food industry, and how “prideful” it is of us humans to claim the “top spot” in the great chain of being and see all other life forms below us as having fewer rights.
But I’m still not a vegetarian. My wife and I have cut back on our consumption of red meat; purchase grass-fed and locally raised beef when we can; grow much of our own food in our garden; try to assuage our consciences. I just haven’t arrived at what I will admit to being the nobler position: recognizing that the “spirit” in animals is connected to our own spirit, and though their consciousness and “soul” is not the same as ours, they have rights as fellow creatures on G-d’s earth.
Okay, so I’m a compromised pacifist! I won’t kill fellow humans, but I will eat meat. I’ll admit to being somewhat hypocritical – in the same way that some “pro-lifers” are in favor of capital punishment and many fellow pacifists are okay with abortion. Heck; I even know fellow Christians, followers of Jesus, who are okay with serving in the military and “wasting” anyone in an “enemy” uniform! Maybe what really does differentiate us from animals is our ability to rationalize!
As for my faith tradition, Quakerism, there is no “doctrine.” Many Friends have extended the traditional peace testimony to include vegetarianism and environmental concern. Most have not. The founders of the Religious Society of Friends seemed to take the basic biblical view that animals were placed on earth (especially after the Flood) for human use, but that we are to be good “stewards” and treat other creatures with care. Only a few early Friends, as far as I can tell, were vegetarians. One well-known early Quaker vegetarian, Anthony Benezet, saw his choice of diet as consistent with his opposition to slavery and his support for Indian rights. Asked in for dinner at a fellow Quaker’s house once, he inquired about the menu; when told it was fried chicken, he politely demurred with the comment, “I make it a policy never to eat my neighbors.”
Another well-known Quaker, John Woolman, though perhaps not a vegetarian, was very concerned about how the “animial creation” was treated. He refused to ride in stage coaches, owing to the abuse of the horses, and often walked long distances rather than riding horseback.
I guess for me it boils down to this: All life is, indeed, interconnected. Basic physics knows that; religion knows that. At the same time, nature is, in fact, “red in tooth and claw.” It is nigh on to impossible, probably even for Jains, to escape the destruction of any life form as we seek to exist ourselves. We should take as much care as possible not to abuse fellow creatures, to minimize their abuse and discomfort, and, as with many in the Native American tradition, use “all” of the animal if we are going to kill it – offering thanks to the Creator for the gift of the creature, and thanks to the spirit of the animal for its sacrifice. If we treated animals more reverently, perhaps we would use them more sparingly.
I will admit to absolute hypocrisy on this subject. I would no more kill and eat our beloved pet dogs than I would another member of my family (although I have been tempted more to “taking out” my children at times than I have been by our dogs!). Proximity probably affects my attitude more than theology. I am growing in this regard. Who knows; perhaps by the time I am more mature, I will be where my daughter was at age 20: identifying all the edible weeds on her college campus and eating those rather than ingesting anything remotely connected to flesh. But I am still weak in my “flesh.”
Pray for me; but don’t eat me!