Saturday, December 9, 2006

Treat all creatures with respect

Andrew Linzey has written for The Times about why Animals must not be scapegoats.

The Anglican divine Humphry Primatt famously described cruelty as “atheism” in his landmark book The Duty of Mercy in 1776, and subsequent luminaries, such as William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury, maintained that cruelty was incompatible with Christian discipleship. The Anglican priest Arthur Broom founded the SPCA (as it then was) as a Christian society in 1824. The contemporary animal rights movement would have been inconceivable without these Christian pioneers.

In fact the “Christian” view of animals is altogether more ambiguous than many suppose. Despite the almost universal view that Christianity teaches that animals are here for our use, the Bible never explicitly endorses that idea — its originator was (most probably) Aristotle.

Many think that the “dominion” over animals granted in Genesis i, 26 means despotism, but since human beings are subsequently prescribed a vegetarian diet (v29-30), it is difficult to see how herb-eating dominion can be a licence for tyranny.

Although most think that human salvation alone is Christian doctrine, many Bible verses make clear that the scope of salvation is cosmic. Untrammelled human supremacy, it is supposed, is part of the core message, whereas the Bible indicates how humans are uniquely wicked, capable of making themselves lower than the beasts — the Book of Job compares us unfavourably with the Leviathan and Behemoth (chaps 40-41).

Last month more than 100 academics (including 40 theologians) helped to launch the new Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, an international academy dedicated to rethinking the ethics of our treatment of animals. Christianity — once judged to be the cornerstone of “speciesist” and “supremacist” attitudes — in fact comprises resources to help us discover more convivial and respectful relations with animals.

Next time we peer into a Christmas crib, with Jesus surrounded by the adoring animals, we should remind ourselves of the survival of an alternative, animal-inclusive tradition at the heart of Christianity.

I have a related post here.

Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics

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