Anyone who takes up the task of explaining the ethics behind veganism, draws their main arguments from the book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. Time to read this classic from 1975 for myself. Singer is a utilitarian, which means his ultimate goal is to minimize the amount of suffering in the world. Other moral signposts, such as religion and emotional considerations, have no place in his ethics. This can give a detached feeling to his arguments. But for me this does not affect the central idea: Animals can feel pain, and we have to take into account their interests in our decisions. I can easily live without animal products, so why should I make an animal suffer because I feel like eating a hamburger? (Not that I ever feel like that.)
In the book, Singer describes how concepts about animals have developed in the Western world. It is not a history to be proud of. Even after the difference between humans and animals became very small according to the evolution theory, people continued to treat animals as if they were machines. In this post, I want to specifically reflect upon thinking about animals in Christianity.
Christianity in Europe emphasized that humans have an immortal soul. This was an improvement when it comes to the value of a human life, but it also caused a sharp distinction between humans and animals. Thomas Aquinas uncritically took over Aristotle’s idea that the lower beings were created to serve the interests of higher beings. In that world view, animals are no more than objects that may be used by people. Today, the attitude of Christians towards animals is more nuanced and mixed, see this article from Preece and Fraser.
This week, a Dutch newspaper featured a story about people who are Christian and vegan. In it, pastor Hans Bouma shares his thoughts on something that is probably trivial to most people, but a real problem for me: The fact that Jesus ate meat and fish. Bouma recognizes a moral progression in the Bible. Just as Paul does not condemn slavery, but later Christians did, we can now draw the moral circle wider than in the time of Jesus.
Singer ends his chapter about Christianity with St. Francis, in his words “the outstanding exception to the rule that Catholicism discourages concern for the welfare of nonhuman beings.” Still, his love for animals did not stop the saint from enjoying his steak, because he kept to the idea that the purpose of creation is to serve and sustain humans.
Of course, today we have our own Pope Francis. In his encyclical he says that human beings do not have absolute dominion over nature, let alone that they are allowed to abuse it. This is not a new message from the Roman Catholic Church; Pope John Paul II wrote the same in 1987 (Solicitudo Rei Socialis). Francis takes this a step further by saying that “each creature has its own purpose” (paragraph 84). The tone is still paternalistic and miles away from Singer’s position, but it gives me hope that a more holistic Christian view of animals is developing. Today, the Pope gets the last word:
The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things. Here we can add yet another argument for rejecting every tyrannical and irresponsible domination of human beings over other creatures. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things. Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.
- Rod Preece and David Fraser: The Status of Animals in Biblical and Christian Thought: A Study in Colliding Values
- Trouw, 3 November 2015, ‘Jezus at vlees en vis, dat had ik graag anders gezien’
- Laudato Si, Pauselijke Encycliek (Maart 2015)
Picture of Pope: Made by Korea.net / Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)