Should Christians Embrace the Animal Rights Movement?

A number of Christians concerned about our faith’s call to protect the most vulnerable members of society have seen parallels in the plight of animals. Should our efforts to promote social justice in other walks of life be extended to animals? The animal rights movement is large and multi-faceted with varying levels of opposition to traditional human practices towards animals. It contains folks opposed to experimentation or testing on animals for scientific or consumer product purposes, the cruelties of modern industrial farming techniques, on to those who practice vegetarian diets or even eschew the usage of any animal products.
Animal-rights activists also vary in terms of the ultimate goals of their advocacy on behalf of animals. Some simply want more humane treatment of animals used in experiments, raised for food, or that appear in entertainment. Others make the case that, post-Darwin, animals (at least higher-functioning ones) deserve similar opportunities as humans to live out their lives unencumbered by the designs of mankind. There is a stream of thought among activists that concern over the treatment of animals is a natural extension of the drumbeat down the centuries of humans over time becoming more enlightened in their care of the fellow members of their species. 

What do other faiths teach about people’s relationship to animals? In the Koran, the prophet Muhammad makes a number of statements in favor of humane treatment of animals. However animal rights activists also point to the prophet’s promotion of the ritual Halal slaughter of animals for food involving slow blood-letting as a cruel means to achieve its end. Eastern religions by contrast have a very different focus. Buddhists believe that animals have the same opportunity as humans to attain enlightenment. Hindus profess the unity of all of creation. Jews’ views about man’s regard for animals helped set the tone for Christianity. God entrusted dominion over animals to Adam and Eve and their descendants. 

Due to the scriptural tradition setting the tone to “subdue” creation, animal sacrifice to glorify God, and the fruits of God’s bounty at our disposal for food, Christianity didn’t develop a founding ethic that animals were equal in consideration to humans.  However, Christians weren’t alone in relegating animals to a secondary role. Aristotle spoke of animals’ primary purpose as being created for the sake of man. Even by the mid-17th century the “Father of Modern Philosophy” Rene Descartes described animals as simple biological “machines” without any sort of conscious state. Early Christians as well as the earliest observers from antiquity could detect the obvious evidence that there was a cycle of life in which there was a hierarchy of larger animals preying on others without any noticeable intent or concern about the actions they were taking. Man had reason—animals did not. 

The creation narrative in the Judeo-Christian worldview made it plain that people had souls but that this was not the case with animals. This gave humans an added dignity lacking in their animal counterparts. Initially this was interpreted to mean that due to this superiority people could use animals in any way they saw fit. But as mankind began to domesticate more animals and keep them as loving companions developed to where the sense of “dominion” over animals was not to be a wanton exploitation but an obligation to care for our fellow inhabitants in God’s creation. 

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve lived in harmony and peace with animals. Scripture makes it clear that the Garden presents God’s ideal state of affairs that we should work towards. The lifestyle of saints like St. Francis of Assisi who lived in harmony with animals and nature while caring for the spiritual needs of humans is instructive. Fish came close to the banks to hear the preaching of St. Anthony of Padua. Although St. Patrick is well-known for clearing out the snakes from Ireland, his compatriot St. Brendan relied on the help of a great whale from protection from a sea monster on one of his voyages. Slowly, it came to be seen that if all that God created was “good,” and we were assigned to be his “stewards,” then our interactions with animals should be characterized by humane treatment lest we offend our Creator. 

If we are complacent or indecent in our ethical obligations to animals—as well as, of course, to vulnerable members of our human population—we give a bad account of ourselves to God. The call to love others unconditionally can especially be seen in the proper treatment of animals despite the fact that animals lack the moral or mental capacity to return that sentiment in the same manner. As Christ said “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:46). Along with the rise in the environmental movement, more Christians now see the stewardship of God’s animal bounty as part of our sacramental duty to live in faith with nature. Ultimately service and conservation should be our guiding principles over domination and exploitation. 

To be sure though, scripture informs us that while God delights in all his Creation he does not intend an equal station for animals since only humans were made in His image. When God cast out Adam and Eve he personally fashioned animal skins to cover their nakedness. He provided a ram for Abraham’s sacrifice as a replacement for Isaac. Christ cast out the demons of the afflicted man into a herd of pigs. Christ also speaks tellingly about the order of Creation: Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:25). Seeking to place animals as our equals would undermine God’s plan and would harm the dignity and special place He conceived for His most important part of creation and the form He took when he began His plan of Redemption of mankind.

Christians would likely then join secular critics with concerns about the ultimate aims of the animal rights movement. Including some or all animals in the moral community inhabited by humans is loaded with both practical and ethical difficulties. If animals were to receive the same consideration as humans there might be an end to any usage of animals in clothing, entertainment, food, or testing. That is a bridge too far for many people—Christians or otherwise.

This writer feels that there are intentional ways of living for Christians to support more humane treatment of animals without seeking to elevate animals to an equal legal or moral level. We can support laws against animal cruelty and report abuses. If the consciences of individual Christians see the practices of modern factory farming to be cruel and unhealthy they have a number of options. They can work individually or in their communities to raise more food sources themselves while aiding their neighbors. Concerned parties can also use the power of consumer action to remove support for industries by refusing to buy items or foodstuffs that are produced or tested in ways that violate their ethics. 

There is every reason to believe that even if a majority of businesses may not be on the leading edge of social movements the public supports, they do pay attention where there is the potential for falling revenues. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other research institutions have been making concerted efforts to review their policies and procedures about conditions of care for the animals involved in their experimentation. Many chimpanzees from the NIH have been retired to sanctuaries like Chimp Haven. 

According to the ASPCA approximately 90% or more of the animals used in experiments to test medical and scientific discoveries are mice and rats—which rightly or wrongly aren’t afforded the same level of sympathy and concern in the public mind as household pets like cats, dogs, or rabbits. Hollywood has long sought certification from animal welfare agencies that animals used in films and television aren’t harmed in the production. After many protests, circuses also appear to be making proper care of their animal performers to be a key element. Ringling Brothers, for instance, has extensive information about the care of its animals on its website. Religious communities have also long been an example to other Christians of living a simpler, intentional life, focused on service and worship of God by eschewing such earthly pleasures as meat and other rich foods. These and other initiatives suggest that Christians can answer the biblical call to be good stewards of creation by treating animals humanely without elevating them to a position beyond their moral or mental capacity.    
Kirk G. Morrison

Kirk Morrison is currently involved with organizing the American Solidarity Party. 

Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.