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The inescapable religious dimension

by Aaron Gross

Animal advocacy is inextricably entangled with religion in ways that require us to question other forms of oppression.

Having taught introductory courses on religion to college students for more than a decade, I have come to realise that virtually everyone has a story about animals and religion. Sometimes, the story is that religion is a source of cruelty, a part of the problem. Sometimes, the story is about how religion is, or might become, part of the solution. Whatever shape the tale takes, most of us have some story about why religion is or is not good for animals. Over the years, I've learned that these stories - which are really ways of understanding the world - matter. They matter because they shape the kinds of human-animal relationships we imagine possible and they shape the strategies for change that individuals and organisations use to create a better future.

What story of animals and religion might best advance our hope to create a less violent, more compassionate future for all beings that suffer? The stories of religion, both as problem or solution, are important stories. They can help us understand what has gone wrong in our relationship with animals and provide both inspiration and instruction for change. But there is another story of animals and religion: the story of the religious dimension of the human-animal relationship.

This is the story I explore here.

It is a story of how the very origin of religion may be bound up with how early humans imagined and engaged with animals - a story in which animals helped create religion. And it is a story about how the modern western understanding of what religion is has been influenced and distorted by dominant social attitudes towards animals. It reveals that there is a kind of inescapable religious dimension to the human relationship with other sentient forms of life, with animals, even when no organised religion is involved. And, as a kind of corollary, this tale suggests that the change for animals that so many of us seek also has a religious dimension.

I do not mean to predict that change for animals will necessarily be led by formal religious institutions - though that is a future possibility - but instead to describe the depth dimension of changing social attitudes and practices regarding animals. What the story of the religious dimension of the human-animal relationship reveals is that our relationship with animals has a direct line to our most deeply held ideas about spirituality, nation, race, gender and the very meaning of being human. Animals matter - and they matter to us humans in profound ways, even if we choose to deny or obfuscate this significance.

Did animals help create religion?

The argument that the human-animal relationship is in fact a generator of religion is not my, ahem, pet theory. Since about 200 years ago, when western scholars first began speculating about the possible origins of religion, many of the most highly regarded among them have reached the conclusion that human-animal relations played a decisive role in the origins of religious thought and practice. The basic insight is that throughout history our engagements with the animate world have provoked questions and answers of a deep kind, a religious kind. Animals are the only part of our environment who are not human and who yet still do so many of the things that humans do: eat, run, shelter, relax, fight, protect, love, hurt, die and so on. Animals are thus the perfect foil to our self-understanding. 'Animals!' declares Bruno Schulz. 'The object of insatiable interest, examples of the riddle of life, created, as it were, to reveal the human being to man himself, displaying his richness and complexity in a thousand kaleidoscopic possibilities, each of them brought to some curious end'.

Animals thus play a decisive role in human self-conception. Whether we understand animals as subjects of human dominion, as fellow sojourners in a larger communion of life, as different nations, as ancestors, as a combination of these views, or something else entirely, when we imagine who animals are, we are always also imagining who we are. This universal process of human self-understanding through the detour of non-human species is one reason why so many scholars credit animals with a central role in the evolution of religious life. If animals didn't exist, we would need to invent them.

In these and other ways, influential contemporary scholars of religions, like classicist Walter Burkert, historian of religions Mircea Eliade, Biblicist Jacob Milgrom and numerous others, saw the human-animal relationship driving central features of religious life. The truth is that we have no real way of knowing what made humans create religions, and these days most scholars of religion are sceptical of our ability to identify a grand narrative of its origins. Yet it remains revealing that so many great minds who devoted themselves to understanding the formation of religion have been frequently struck by the fundamental role animals have played. Scholars with no apparent affinity with animals have consistently felt driven by the nature of the historical sources to comment on the power animals wield.

Animals shape how we think about religion today

We can also see in innumerable historical cases that attitudes towards animals have shaped the reception of different streams of religious life. Broad social attitudes towards animal life have shaped how contemporary westerners distinguish between 'religion' and 'superstition', and between 'religion' and 'science'. Entire streams of religious teaching have been suppressed if they contradicted dominant social attitudes towards animal life. Thus, attitudes towards animals have shaped what we now think of as religion in the first place; that is, animals have not only shaped the phenomenon of religion but how we conceptualise, categorise, remember and forget it.

Take the case of St Francis of Assisi, well known around the world for his historic affinity with animals. Here we have a religious figure whom everyone agrees had some special relationship with animals, but what should Christians make of the saint's intimacy with animals? Summarising a lot of historical scholarship, it seems clear that Francis himself really did have a radical and distinct attitude towards creaturely life, one that led him to engage both with non-human animals and with marginalised peoples in ways that emphasised interconnection and compassion. However, a long tradition of Church interpretation has worked to obscure the full force of Francis's teaching on the non-human world, re-interpreting Francis in such a way that makes his radical stance towards animal lives invisible. The stories about Francis and animals are preserved, but their historical meaning is hiding in plain sight. For example, consider the famous story of Francis preaching to the birds, which countless Christians have read as a story of the saint's friendship with and love for non-human creation. Many traditional sources will tell us that, despite appearances, this story was not about birds at all, but an allegory concerned solely with human life. Such interpretations refocus teachings that historically appear to have been about non-human life in such a way that they appear to be strictly about the human drama. In such ways, animals as animals are rendered absent, even as they are referenced.

A similar story can be told about many less-famous religious leaders and folk practices throughout Christendom that championed animals. Historians have demonstrated that much of what was taken for granted as a legitimate part of Christian teaching a century or a millennium ago was later suppressed if it challenged other streams of Christianity that taught a more dominating version of our destiny in relation to the natural world. The picture that scholars have now painted for us reveals that the tree of Christian tradition we see today has been pruned in such a way that the more animal-friendly layers of the tradition have often been distorted, suppressed, or forgotten. This, of course, also means that these teachings of compassion can be re-engaged, revived and remembered. This appears to be part of what Pope Francis is presently doing in the Catholic context when he gently emphasises, as he did for example in his encyclical Laudato Si' that 'It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential 'resources' to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves'.

Christianity was and is in no way unique in this regard. Studies have now well documented what we might call 'animal-friendly' streams of all of the great world traditions. So, while scholarship cannot declare that all religions teach what readers of this book are likely to think is compassion to animals, scholars have demonstrated that, whether you are a Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox Christian, or whether you are a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Daoist, or belong to any longstanding religious tradition, there are almost certainly authoritative teachings inside it that champion the immense and intrinsic value of animal life (amid teachings that point in other directions). Unsurprisingly, just as animals now elicit diverse and strong reactions from people, so has been the case inside every religious tradition that has been studied by scholarship.

Animals and the denigration of Indigenous religions

Even the fact that most of us conceptualise religion as being made up of the so-called world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., and the fact that we tend to forget that the religions of traditional peoples are equally religions - both facts have to do with modern attitudes towards animals. When I ask the - mostly American - students in the introduction to religious studies courses I teach at the University of San Diego, 'What religions have you heard of?,' none even think to mention the religions of the Apache, Cherokee, Chippewa, Choctaw, Lumbee, Navajo, or Sioux, despite living among them. The tree of the western imagination of religion has been pruned so severely that most of the distinct cultures in our lands appear devoid of religious life. What do animals have to do with this impoverished western imagination of religious life?

Arguably, the most systematically deployed and influential reason given for excluding traditional peoples' religions from the category of world religions had to do with their alleged proximity to animals and the fact that many of these peoples do not draw a binary line separating humanity and animality. Perceptions of animals as being closer to humans among diverse Indigenous nations were seen as evidence of their lack of civility - of their being mired in something closer to superstition than proper religion. Their animal state, so the logic went, was in part a result of their failure to understand that man is different from nature. When diverse Indigenous peoples explained in myriad ways that they did not consider it their goal to rise above an animal state, because at least some animals knew more than us, were ancestors, or were otherwise held in high esteem, this was taken not as a different worldview but as proof of their womanish and childish lack of reason.

Consider this disturbing, although representative, entry on 'animals' in the 1908 Encyclopaedia of religion and ethics:

'Civilization, or perhaps education, has brought with it a sense of the great gulf
that exists between man and the lower animals... In the Lower stages of culture,
whether they be found in races which are, as a whole, below the European level,
or in the uncultured portion of civilized communities, the distinction between men and animals is not adequately, if at all, recognized...The savage...attributes to the animal a vastly more complex set of thoughts and feelings and a much greater range of knowledge and power, than it actually possesses...It is therefore small wonder that his attitude towards the animal creation is one of reverence rather than superiority.'

Of course, these racist and sexist notions had nothing to do with actual proximity of certain human communities to a real 'animal state'. There is no such thing as an 'animal state' in the abstract. There are only individual animals. Calling a person or entire people 'closer to animals' really just functioned in texts like the Encyclopaedia of religion and ethics as code for not behaving the way white people did. Black theologian and animal advocate Rev Dr Christopher Carter in his book The spirit of soul food, describes this as 'a racist hierarchal anthropocentrism, where one's moral worth is tied to their humanness and one's humanness is determined primarily by one's whiteness or their ability to master white performativity'.

We tend to try to correct this racism simply by declaring that Indigenous people or people of colour aren't animals, but humans like us. Yet overcoming historic racism will require more than this; we need to interrogate the complex of ideas that weave together notions about humans and animals, us and them and true religion and superstition. When we do, we will see how intertwined our western ideas about animality, race and gender are. We will see how historic western ideas about the exploitability of animal bodies have been intertwined with ideas about the exploitability of Black and female bodies. As independent scholar and animal advocate Syl Ko argues in her co-edited collection of essays, Aphro-ism, the human-animal binary forms 'the ideological bedrock underlying the framework of white supremacy. The negative notion of 'the animal' is the anchor of this system'. Instead of simply saying 'they or we aren't animals,' we need to question the negative status of the animal in the first place. Why were the robust relationships with non-human animals that many Indigenous religions spoke of viewed as foolish? Why was civility and intelligence associated with distance from being animal? Why should being treated like an animal be synonymous with being treated with contempt?

Animals and the binary logic of oppression

The modern use of the word 'animal' was invented alongside other ideas - among them, ideas about religion, nation, race and gender. These ideas were not only used to argue for the right of humans to oppress animals and the right of western civilisation to oppress Indigenous peoples, but also to make an argument about what should count as the proper form of Christianity.

The idea that Indigenous peoples were closer to animals and thus not truly in possession of religion was related to Protestant critiques of Catholicism, viewing Catholic traditions as overly focused on the bodily, material and animal aspects of life and insufficiently spiritual. The logic of both critiques is that being more spiritual and more religious has to do with distancing oneself from animality and distancing oneself from regard for the animal and material world. Historically, anti-Semitic thought also participated in this logic, viewing Jews and Muslims like Protestants viewed Catholics and savages, as being closer to animals, less spiritual and therefore also cruel to animals. A complex of ideas was articulated along the following binaries:

  • religion-superstition
  • world religion-primitive religion
  • Christian-heathen
  • civilised-savage
  • European-non-European
  • white-Black
  • mind-matter
  • spirit-body
  • male-female
  • human-animal.

Ultimately, a hierarchy of religion was imagined where one end contained animalistic religions said to be preoccupied with the body, the material world and law, and the other end contained the properly spiritual traditions. The properly spiritual traditions were also imagined as virile and manly, correctly establishing that humans should have dominion over animals in the same way that men should have dominion over women and Europeans dominion over savage nations. These interrelated ideas of course reveal more about the folks doing the categorisation than about actual on-the-ground religion.

Thus, we see that animals and religion are intermixed in myriad ways. Religions don't just help or harm animals; the human-animal relationship perhaps helped create religions, and ideas about animals and animality have profoundly influenced - often in racist and sexist ways - how religions and even the category of religion are understood. In the end, what this intertwinement of animals and religion shows us is that animals matter to human beings in profound and often unconscious ways.

Animal advocacy as religious work

When animal advocates argue that society owes animals greater protections than it now affords them, this is not a nicety unrelated to other justice issues - it is a matter of what theologian Paul Tillich called ultimate concern. Such concerns cut to the core of our cultural bedrock. Seriously confronting the wrongs we do to animals in systems like industrial farming is impossible to do with sophistication while ignoring how these same systems have oppressed people. This is not so because all issues of justice are automatically connected, but because, as the historic intertwinement of religion and animals discussed above suggests, in the western context views about animals were connected to colonialism, patriarchy and white supremacy.

Like it or not, western thought has packaged thinking about animality and humanity together for centuries - and recent agricultural policies in governments around the world have continued to hold the plight of non-human animals and marginalised humans together in ways that are bad for both. When the US government put its weight behind the development of factory farming in the first half of the 20th century, it had to wrestle control of agriculture away from independent farmers - a significant minority of whom were people of colour or women - and ensure that a small coterie of corporations that were virtually exclusively led by white men could control the entire enterprise. When, in 1973, US President Richard Nixon's secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, famously told American farmers to 'get big or get out,' this not only solidified the US government's commitment to a cruel and ecologically unsustainable way of raising animals, it also ensured that farming would never again be a path of upward mobility as it had been for generations of (mostly white) Americans. This proved especially devastating to America's Black farmers and, in part as a result of the policies this 'get big' orientation mandated, Black ownership of farmlands in the US has been diminishing for decades and continues to diminish to this day. The non-governmental organisation Family Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) estimates that 30,000 acres of Black-owned land is lost in America each month; by contrast, factory farms owned (or once owned) by US-based companies continue to expand globally. The details differ in important ways, but similar stories can be told about the rise of industrial farming in virtually every nation on the planet. In the case of factory farming, it's not so much that the plight of animals, the environment and vulnerable humans is connected as that it is the same. When we consider how centuries of western thought - only now being challenged - have linked together the plight of all beings seen as lower than the ideal of the white European male, it is obvious these links between violence to human and non-human animals are not accidental.

Yet, to date, much of the animal protection movement has somehow managed to see itself as a tidy package in which we can advocate for animals without getting deeply into issues like race and gender. I think this is in part possible because we imagine animal protection as something quite distant from how human beings make meaning in the world, that is, as quite distant from religion. We perhaps imagine change for animals as less complicated than addressing systemic issues of human injustice, when, in fact, modern forms of violence to animals, such as industrial farming, can only be fully understood by grasping the underlying logics that lead to their simultaneous disregard for workers, farmlands, communities and, of course, the animals.

How we think about animals has always been bound up with how we think about religion, nation, gender and race. Our only real question is whether we attend to this fact of interconnection or ignore it.

Unaware of the history of how race and animals are intertwined, some of the largest advocacy groups in the US animal protection movement (of which I consider myself a part) consistently alienate people of colour even as their mostly white leaders sincerely wish to see their movements diversify. At the same time, I've watched animal advocates of colour pioneer entirely new forms of animal and vegan advocacy, reaching tens of thousands of individuals and yet attracting no or only very modest support from the big national groups that claim to be leading the nation (and that have most of the resources). Because of a lack of awareness of the history of how religion and animals are intertwined, I've continued to see anti-Semitism mar efforts to promote higher-welfare slaughter in the European context by muddling genuine concern to reduce suffering with historic hostility to Muslims and Jews. Examples could be multiplied.

My point is simply this: failure to attend to how animal issues are connected with the deepest streams of our cultures - with the interconnected questions of religion, nation, race and gender - will make it more difficult to create the change we want to see. Recognising the religious dimension of the human-animal relationship, by contrast, may help us see our task with the clarity needed to truly transform culture.

So what if animal advocacy is inherently religious?

For some, recognising the religious dimension of animal advocacy will ramify in explicitly religious advocacy for animals: Christians advocating for animals as Christians, Jews as Jews, Muslims as Muslims, Buddhists as Buddhists, Hindus as Hindus, Jains as Jains and so forth.

More and more of this community-specific advocacy for animals appears to be happening in diverse religious contexts. In the UK, one notable landmark is the publication of The Christian ethics of farmed animal welfare: A policy framework for churches and Christian organisations at the end of 2020. This remarkable document not only engages Christian theologians and ethicists, but wisdom from farmers and veterinary science, to provide pragmatic guidance to Christian institutions. In this and similar ways, religious communities are increasingly finding their own reasons to respond to factory farming and other new forms of animal abuse and they are bringing their powerful resources to bear on the future of human-animal relations.

However, for the bulk of animal protection organisations - which consider themselves secular - recognising the religious dimension of our relationship with animals means recognising that creating a better world for animals will require challenging strongly held assumptions and developing new cultural understandings. It will require commitment to change how we farm, how we pursue knowledge, how we engage with the natural environment and how we understand differences inside the human community. To fully appreciate the scope of our task, animal advocates would do well to recognise, as Syl Ko has emphasised, that the word 'animal' is not the biological term it masquerades as. The idea of the animal is deeply enmeshed in thinking about religion and nation; it is racialised and gendered and thus is the task of animal protection. The word 'animal' at first might appear as if it were a kind of arrow pointing towards the actual biological beings themselves, but in reality it functions more like a lens that distorts how we view our fellow living beings, other human communities and even parts of our own selves. It is this distorting power of the idea of 'the animal' that can make the statement 'they are animals' a violent accusation rather than a mere description. Animal advocacy not only has the task of helping actual animals, but that of repairing this distorted way of seeing the world, which simultaneously distorts our view of animals, ourselves and our fellow humans.

Recognising this complexity - recognising what I have called the religious dimension of animal advocacy - opens the possibility of seeing animal protection as not only a fight against non-human animal abuse, but also a fight against the entire history of using the category of animal as an excuse for oppression - whether 'animal' is applied to a member of the kingdom animalia, a human community, a religious tradition, or a part of ourselves. We could say that animal protection began as a political movement in the western world by arguing that non-human animals should not be treated 'like animals,' but I would argue that its ultimate ethical basis is the insight that no being should be treated 'like an animal' - not the beings we call animals and not anyone else.

Animal advocacy is always a religious issue in this sense because it involves us asking about the nature of suffering and, even more, whose suffering will be acknowledged as suffering. To be an advocate for animals is to ask what deaths are mournable, what tears are worth shedding and what redemption is worth imagining. Animal advocacy is inevitably an inquiry into the nature of suffering. 'What is suffering?' asks Jonathan Safran Foer in his book Eating animals. 'I'm not sure what it is,' he answers. 'But I know that suffering is the name we give to the origin of all the sighs, screams and groans, small and large, crude and multifaceted, that concern us. The word defines our gaze even more than what we are looking at'.

To decide what a just society owes animals is nothing less than to decide what a just society is. Deciding what we owe animals entails deciding what it means to be humane, to be human; and thus to ask about sex and gender, race and ethnicity and other important aspects of human identity. Whether we prefer the historical norm of imagining animal ethics as a tidy plot with clear boundaries in the larger territory of ethics or we prefer to see animal protection connected to questions of racial and gender justice is not the issue. Whatever our preference - and whether all of society is ready to acknowledge it or not - the interconnections are real. The story of religion and animals we most need to tell today is not the story of how religion has harmed animals in the past, or even the inspiring story about how the sleeping giant of religion may finally be roused to benefit animals. The story most valuable today is the story of the depth dimension of the human-animal relationship, a story that reveals the intimate ways in which the pursuit of justice for animals is integral to the pursuit of justice for all.

Aaron Gross

Aaron Saul Gross PhD is a professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego, the founder and CEO of Farm Forward, and the board chair of the Better Food Foundation. He is a past president of the Society for Jewish Ethics and the author of numerous texts on religion and animals, including The question of the animal and religion: Theoretical stakes and practical implications (Columbia University Press 2015) and Feasting and fasting: The history and ethics of Jewish food (New York University Press 2019).