Animal Suffering And The God Question

In these difficult times many people are becoming increasingly affected by global problems of cruelty and suffering of humans and non-humans throughout the world. Animals have enough to cope with in the wild in extremes of weather and often starving, afflicted by injuries and disease as do many domestic animals left to fend for themselves; not to forget the whales, tigers, elephants and other endangered species likely to become extinct in the near future. So caring people ask what kind of God could create a world of so much suffering and killing? A God who stands for all that is good? Or did God create the natural world for our own exclusive use no matter the cost to other inferior beings.

As a child I witnessed creatures killing and consuming each other in the ponds and meadows I explored and what I saw I felt was part of Nature’s laws and order and all was created by God. There was neither right nor wrong in that sentient realm that filled my spirit with awe and wonder—the stepping stones of reverence for all life.

Many animal species must kill or parasitize others to survive and continue their species. (Few enslave). If there were no predators would vegan gazelles and deer be swift of foot and sharp of horn, embodying speed and grace and even magnificence to us? Robinson Jeffers, in his poem The Bloody Sire writes: “What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine/The fleet limbs of the antelope?”) Would they not suffer more from devastating cycles of overpopulation and habitat destruction without becoming the food of carnivores? Predation is not the same as humans killing each other even in the name of God but warfare may be our biological response to over-population and dwindling natural resources.

More people are protesting and lament our specie’s violent propensity and cry for the billions of creatures, from fish to fowl and pig to kid and lamb captured and slaughtered daily around the world for human consumption and at ever increasing environmental cost. Over one hundred and fifteen million animals are experimented on world-wide each year to find cures for essentially anthropogenic diseases, cancer in particular.

We dissected frogs in high school biology class: Frogs like those from my childhood’s ponds whom I observed for hours and once when I was nine years old found several along the bank blown to pieces with straws impaling them. The cause of the killing was evidenced by the small boot -prints around the bloodied remains—a gang of my peers.

The normalization of cruelty by common practice becoming acceptance means the end of empathy with erosion of moral sensibility and ethical responsibility in civil, secular and religious communities. Yet still, some religious leaders assert that animals were created for man’s use and that animal experimentation is justified if for human benefit.

If there was not sentience there would not be consciousness to experience physical pain and emotional suffering and associated mechanisms to avoid pain, injury, infection and motivation to protect others. But the suffering of other animals on the scale that we humans impose is unnatural, a biological aberration and, according to many sacred scriptures, sinful and forbidden along with slavery. Few are those who see trees and wolves as sacred but many who dedicate their lives to rescue and protect enjoy a life worth living for others through the power and grace of love.

Those who believe there is a God must help bring good into the world if we equate divinity with goodness in God’s name, for God’s sake. Atheists and agnostics can accept this ethic of the common good which includes the good of the forests, oceans and all of Nature: Earth’s life community that sustains us all.

Surely if God is love then we should treat His/Her creations as we would have Him/Her treat us. We do have a choice, which some say is God-given, to harm or not to harm; to eat animals or change our diets. The problem is in our psychobiology as the most carnivorous of the apes, a super-predator, occasionally cannibalistic and known for pushing other species and entire plant, animal and human communities into extinction. So people ask what kind of God could make a species like us and a world like this where there is predation and so much strife and suffering. Others say if wolves and cougars can slaughter other animals for food then why can’t we? and eliminate them as competitors especially when they kill “our livestock.” These carnivores have no choice. But we do.

The anthropomorphization of God, (making God in our own image and believing only we are made in God’s image) is compounded by the ultimate hubris of fabricating a supreme andromorphized (masculine) God. This has given divine authority to the world’s three monotheistic religions, (still at war with each other) to sanction male dominion, chauvinism, cults of self-worship and now the global tyranny of what Pope Francis calls “unbridled anthropocentrism” which is harming all of “God’s creation” on Earth. Ultimately only that which we hold sacred is secure.

Around the advent of the industrial revolution biological scientists and others had the arrogance to proclaim Homo sapiens as the scientific name for our species: Man the wise. In setting ourselves apart as superior, perhaps to make us feel more comfortable, even good about killing others for whatever reason—for food, sport or revenge, we widen the divide between self and other. We objectify and set in motion the process of disconnecting of what philosopher Martin Buber called the I-Thou relationship, that sense of spiritual communion with another, through what psychiatrist Prof. Robert Jay Lifton described after interviewing Nazi concentration camp doctors as splitting and doubling. Such disconnectedness is at the root of our inhumanity and of racism, sexism and speciesism; genocide and ecocide. In contrast the love that sustains us through hardship and loss, injustice and inhumanity is that illimitable love that some call God; the universal and universalizing affinities—our sacred connections—that make us whole and one and which many peoples celebrate in music, prayer, ritual and dance.

Self-realization and God-realization are claimed by some in incremental steps of personal development and collective cultural evolution. The more conscious and empathetic humans become, the more aware they are of the nature of divinity and the divinity of nature, the two being as inseparable as self-awareness and God-awareness and self-realization and God-realization. German theologian Meister Eckhart asserted “Every creature is a word of God and is a book about God.” St. Francis of Assisi preached that it was through animals and nature that one can have communion with the divine. An indirect affirmation of the benefit of extending the Golden Rule to include other sentient beings is captured in the Qur’anic statement “Whoever is kind to the creatures of God is kind to himself.” The Holy Prophet Mohammed also said “A good deed done to a beast is as good as doing good to a human being; while an act of cruelty to a beast is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being.” Echoing the Hippocratic oath to first do no harm, the principle of ahimsa is the central ethic of Jainism and Hinduism. Buddhism, along with all major religions, advocates the Golden Rule of treating others as we would have them treat us, Buddhism, arguably, having suffered less from anthropocentric restrictions through extending the Rule to embrace all sentient beings.

The notion of a Heaven is different for different religions and was often used as political tool to make people conform to certain values and beliefs otherwise they would go to Hell. The German philosopher Goethe contended that “the mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell a hell of heaven.” Accepting that there are different physical and mental states of being then Goethe is surely right: Heaven is in the embrace of all we love and suffer for. Ignorance, indifference, fear and hatred of each other and other animals, along with outright cruelty, turn Heaven into Hell. We are living spirits experiencing life in human form whose lives are enriched and even healed by other spirits in dog, cat and other sentient forms. As the Australian aborigines say, “Dingo ( feral dog) make us human”. Indeed, other animals can awaken our humanity and touch our spirits and we must protect them from those who are not yet so touched, help them connect—and not treat other beings as objects and have neither compassion nor empathy for their Earthly relations nor respect for their ancestors.

The Christian Church Blessing of the Animals on the Feat Day of St. Francis is a hallowing affirmation of those many people with animals in their lives whom they regard as blessings. The Hindu sacred festival of Divali, celebrates the lights of life which includes decorating their animals, especially milk cows and working bullocks in gratitude. The Tihar festival is the Nepali equivalent of Diwali with one major difference, the Nepalis dedicating the second day to the worship of dogs. As man’s best friend, the dogs are paid respect with garlands and a lot of food. In many countries religious and community leaders have traditional ceremonies blessing natural springs, ancient trees, groves, lakes and other subjects of natural creation that draw and sustain the human spirit. These “pagan” sentiments and praxis are shared by millions of different faith traditions, many ancient indeed and grounded in the primal religious rituals and spirituality of animism (see Leslie E. Sponsel’s Spiritual Ecology, Prager, 2012) such as those of Native American Indians, Australian aborigines and other near-extinct indigenous peoples.

Incorporating such views under the banner of Creation Spirituality, Dominican priest Fr. Matthew Fox, author of several books including Original Blessing was silenced by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1988 for promoting pagan heresies and was excommunicated in 1993 when Ratzinger assumed the papacy as Pope Benedict XV1. Clearly, we are a chimeric species which, through reason, arrogance, belief and ignorance, or openness, humility and compassion can chose to harm or avoid harming others. Our biological past and genetically wired mental capacity to become a territorial predator enabling us to objectify, separate from and kill another, must be recognized and tempered for the common good including that of other animal species as well as of our own kind. This atavistic propensity for killing may lead to the depravities of subjugation, oppression, sadism and torture when there is power and control over others, be they prisoners of war, weaker minorities or captured elephants being broken for a life enslaved: and ultimately to genocide and ecocide.

The degree of self-awareness in the sacred union of the universal in the particular and of the particular in the universal brings humility and compassion since no one is God because all is in God and God is in all. This conceptualization of divinity, termed panentheism, resonates with pan-empathy (feeling and caring for all sentient life) and with the process theology of an emergent universe where human consciousness and conscience, emotional and scientific intelligence and purposive, mindful action are developed and refined as we strive to avoid causing harm and establish mutually enhancing relationships.

Yet some religious traditions perpetuate and condone animal cruelty, as with ritual Islamic and Judaic slaughter practices; animal sacrifices in Hindu temples. Many Hindus and Jains oppose euthanizing terminally ill and suffering animals because killing makes one spiritually impure by violating the principles of ahimsa and of non-interference with another’s karma. They have also imposed their religious vegetarian dictate on captive, obligate carnivores such as hawk eagles and lions resulting in chronic malnutrition, deficiency diseases and death.

Atheists and agnostics can accept the bioethical principle of treating others as we would have them treat us (the Golden Rule) as the path of empathy, loving kindness and altruism’s enlightened self-interest. Similarly, atheists, theists and agnostics alike must sense the joy of animals at play and tending and defending their young and wonder at the numinous quality of Nature’s beauty and diversity. All of this which touches the rational soul and renews the spirit with or without belief in God, impels us to respect life and strive to live in accord the Golden Rule as we step out from egocentrism and techno-centrism to a more encompassing, body, mind and soul-sustaining and affirming eco-centrism.

If we agree with avowed atheist the late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who uses the word God figuratively, on why the universe exists that “If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God” then similarly biology reveals the living expression of divinity and DNA the words.

May we all find the way of peaceful co-existence with better, less harmful ways to control pests, parasites and diseases increasingly of our own making as well as our own proliferating numbers and celebrate and protect the life and beauty on planet Earth. Surely it is our duty to take action against inhumanity; seek justice in the name of loving concern and give equal consideration to all beings, especially those whom we may fear or have no feeling for.


The fifth Pillar Edict of early Buddhist King Ashoka of India ( 304-BC-232 BC) proclaimed:

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: Twenty-six years after my coronation various animals were declared to be protected – parrots, mainas, //aruna//, ruddy geese, wild ducks, //nandimukhas, gelatas//, bats, queen ants, terrapins, boneless fish, //vedareyaka//, //gangapuputaka//, //sankiya// fish, tortoises, porcupines, squirrels, deer, bulls, //okapinda//, wild asses, wild pigeons, domestic pigeons and all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible.[42] Those nanny goats, ewes and sows which are with young or giving milk to their young are protected, and so are young ones less than six months old. Cocks are not to be caponized, husks hiding living beings are not to be burnt and forests are not to be burnt either without reason or to kill creatures. One animal is not to be fed to another. On the three Caturmasis, the three days of Tisa and during the fourteenth and fifteenth of the Uposatha, fish are protected and not to be sold. During these days animals are not to be killed in the elephant reserves or the fish reserves either. On the eighth of every fortnight, on the fourteenth and fifteenth, on Tisa, Punarvasu, the three Caturmasis and other auspicious days, bulls are not to be castrated, billy goats, rams, boars and other animals that are usually castrated are not to be. On Tisa, Punarvasu, Caturmasis and the fortnight of Caturmasis, horses and bullocks are not be branded. ( From

As various sacred scriptures intimate, we are living spirits consciously experiencing life, transiently if not gratefully, in human form. When we have close, respectful and caring engagements with other animals and their environments we ennoble ourselves. The less we engage the more we dispirit ourselves and the living world in our ignorance, limiting the possibilities of personal “growth” and our specie’s evolution. The Kurumba tribal elders of the Nilgiris recall a time when they had no word for “weed” and could walk among the wild elephants without fear, intimating that colonialism created weeds, killer elephants and their mutual suffering and near-extinction.

The adversarial state of mind of the human primate species forever at war with itself and against other species and their communities from wolves and lions consuming invasive livestock to crop consuming insects and birds is the way to mutual extinction. Globally, humanity is moving inexorably and quickly toward the horizon of nihilism without better controls on population and consumption growth rates. The “anthro-apologists” (Mother frackers) cannot continue to justify the mining, sucking and burning of ever more fossil fuels that turn into toxic waste and contribute to climate change. Ever increasing production and consumption is the goal of extractive, non-sustainable and ultimately pathogenic economies and government-industrial-military complexes. The more affluent now demand more meat and wine, increasingly at the expense of biodiversity and planetary health.

A less destructive and harmful state of mind and civilization, more befitting of Homo sapiens, cries for the life and beauty of the Earth’s creation and all who dwell therein, seeing how different animal, plant and microscopic species help maintain the health and integrity of the natural world/environment. It is ours only to share “in sacred trust” according to the teachings of many indigenous people’ spiritual and once highly sustainable socio-economic traditions like the practices and teachings of the Toda mamas of Colombia, Hopis of North America, Kurumbas of the Nilgiris and the Gaguji Australian aboriginals. We must care and share with all life and have the wisdom to respect the bacteria in the soil and in our guts and break our anti-bios habits, from antibiotics to pesticides as well as from narrow science-based “solutions” such as genetically modified insect resistant crops and vaccines that are pathogenic responses to pathological conditions. Only with a clearer perspective (and conscience) devoid of self-interest and irrational fears and ultimately enlightened, will we know when we must strike back and kill or contain with humility and loving kindness and cope with remorse and regret assuaged by the knowledge of serving the common good.

For more discussion and documentation visit and the author’s book The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures and Creation.