Religion and Animals (guest post)

The other day the chief minister of the state of Malacca in Malaysia, responding to protests against the building of an animal-research laboratory, said, "God created animals for the benefits of human beings. That's why he created rats and monkeys. ... This is the way it has to be. God created monkeys, and some have to be tested."

Peter Singer has now slammed the chief minister’s ignorance and deplored the influence of religion on animal issues and ethical issues in general:

The chief minister's comment is yet another illustration of the generally regressive influence that religion has on ethical issues – whether they are concerned with the status of women, with sexuality, with end-of-life decisions in medicine, with the environment, or with animals. Although religions do change, they change slowly, and tend to preserve attitudes that have become obsolete and often are positively harmful.

The assumption among animal advocates has typically been that the past – certainly in Europe and the West and at least until Darwin – was a kind of Dark Ages, in which animals were almost universally regarded as having no significant moral standing. Rod Preece displays a more nuanced understanding. In Brute Souls, Happy Beasts, and Evolution, he aims to show that, generally speaking, scholarship regarding the historical status of animals in Western civilization (that is, over the past 2,500 years or so) is seriously deficient. Specifically, the views he challenges are “(1) that the Christian doctrine, typically presented as an unchanging monolith, has denied immortality to animals, with the corresponding implication that they were thereby denied ethical consideration; (2) that there was a near universal belief animals were intended for human use, with the corresponding implication that they were not ends in themselves and thus not entitled to ethical consideration; (3) that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had a profoundly positive impact on the way in which nonhuman animals were regarded and treated; and (4) that the idea of the ‘happy beast’ was merely a trope to condemn humans for their hubris and was not at all a sincere attempt to raise the status of animals.” Preece believes that our ethical responsibilities to animals are ill served by this simplistic and misleading conception of the historical record.

Preece shows in detail that the reality is far more complex than normally appreciated. To take one example, his close reading of the Victorian debate over vivisection turns the standard notion of Darwinism’s benign influence on attitudes toward animals, if not on its head, at least on its side. Although Darwin wrote that the subject of vivisection made him “sick with horror”, he supported it in the interests of scientific progress. Indeed, those opposed to the practice, who included Queen Victoria, Lord Shaftesbury, and many other prominent Britons, were more likely to be motivated by their Christian beliefs than by a belief in evolution, Darwinian or otherwise. John Ruskin, who passionately opposed harmful experimentation on animals as being in defiance of “the great link which binds together the whole creation from its Maker to the lowest creatures”, resigned his professorship at Oxford in 1885 because the university Senate approved funds for a physiology laboratory that would perform vivisection.


Faust said...

Very interesting.

Ed said...

We do have a tendency to see history in terms of linear progression, which overlooks the messy details of divergent opinions, conflicting trends, diverse social attitudes, and changing economic forces that continually shape society. Both viewpoints have their uses. It's a bit like drawing a graph. We can draw a linear slope averaging the values of the dots on a page, or we can measure the area covered by those dots. Both are useful methods of analysis.

Individual humans are like the dots on the graph - their opinons fall all over the page. If there were prominent Victorians that opposed vivisection for religious reasons, weren't there also plenty more who supported it, also drawing on religious belief? Looking at them individually does not really tell us much about the overall status of animals at the time, or how that status was influenced by institutions such as the church.