Religion, Science, and Animal Rights: the Future of Man and Earth

After my wife Deanna Krantz read out loud to me, excerpts from C. S. Lewis’ book The Problem of Pain, in which this renowned Christian philosopher explored the capacity of animals to experience pain, my sense of moral indignation was quickly ignited. He toyed with the notion that if, as sentient beings, animals possess a sense of selfhood, then they must have souls. But from his anthropocentric theology, with its anthropomorphic vision of divinity, he tilted against anthropomorphizing animals and denied them having souls. He then reconstructed the ladder of that long-held world- view of a divine hierarchy with man below god, animals below man, and man above woman.

Such a cosmic-comic view and interpretation of reality, backed by creationists and many evolutionists, has become the dominant world view of this modern Anthropocene Epoch and Anthropozoic Era. This contemporary Epoch evolved from the Pleistocene Epoch, with the ‘Stone’ age of human emergence. The dominant world- view is a belief system that has become part of the very fabric of society, from its institutions of learning, inculcated from infancy on, to its economic, legal and political arenas, and its practices and professions, like chemical and genetic engineering, and human and veterinary medicine. It gives divinely ordained, and legally condoned, sanction to biocide, ecocide, the rape of Nature, and the enslavement and mistreatment of animals.

Aside from the fact that neither of these two medical professions are advanced in dealing effectively with patients’ pain and sufferings, about which more will be said shortly, an objective and impartial evaluation of C.S.Lewis’ attitude toward non-human life would lead to the inevitable conclusion that it is part of the reason why we are destroying the natural world as the Anthropocene Epoch advances, and causing so much suffering to each other and to other sentient beings. Greed, ignorance, poverty, material and spiritual, coupled with human overpopulation and over-consumption, are additional reasons and causes.

The obscene and the Anthropocene converge and the Earth darkens when the dominant culture lays waste to weaker cultures, tribes, traditions and indigenous knowledge, and to forests, tribal lands, and elephant and tiger kingdoms. Climate change, increasing economic chaos, and loss of cultural and biological diversity, as well as common sense and sensibility, are all self-evident. As the Paleolithic or Stone age evolved during the late Pleistocene Epoch, the copper, bronze, and iron ages of pyrotechnology emerged during the so called post-glacial Holocene Epoch. Then a new geological epoch began with the evolution of the Anthropocene Epoch and the emergence of climate and Earth-changing agriculture and other world-changing human activities including the petrochemical, atomic, and genetic and information ages.

While humans were first like other animals, having to adapt to the world in order to survive, we must now learn to adapt to world-changes that we have brought upon ourselves. In other words, man has to adapt to man, establishing a new world order, not as a global predator, parasite, or infestation, but as a symbiote with the living Earth whose life -community needs CPR—conservation, preservation, and restoration. Otherwise, our humanity—all that makes us human in terms of our capacity to care, and to put compassion and respect for all life into meaningful action— will become extinct.

This chaotic reality that the Anthropozoic Era has created resonates with the illusory belief in human superiority over all other life on Earth that was thought to be divinely decreed, and therefore good. The attitude of human superiority, like the illusion of the evolutionary ladder from lowly beast, to man, to god, is in large measure responsible for the tragedy of reality that we experience every day.

To become insensible may be sensible, considering the extent of our collective specie’s desecration of this living Earth, ravaging of natural resources and ecosystems, and exploitation and suffering of animals. The wanton destruction of the planet’s, and therefore our own, life support systems, especially the climate/atmosphere, and the once regenerative ecology of the biosphere, mean that clean air (and oxygen content), pure water, wholesome food, and sufficient and sustainable fuel/energy supplies to meet our basic needs, must become the top priorities of every nation. Along with family planning to curtail overpopulation, we must also curtail our appetites for more, be it meat or money, petroleum or plutonium, if we are to survive the consequences of this Anthropozoic era. We must all acknowledge that consumerism is one of the cancers of this Era in human evolution, along with non-sustainable industrial growth, as we face a failing world market economies, and a significant decline in public health, mental as well as physical.

In his Washington Post article, reprinted in the Star Tribune Opinion page (June 25, 2009) Michael Gerson asserts that only humans are a special creation made in the image of God, and that this “special status is displayed in our moral nature—. No lion or fox is held responsible for murder.” Clearly Mr. Gerson has never hunted, nor is he familiar with animal studies that demonstrate animals’ capacities for reason, insight, empathy, and ability to make moral choices, as by choosing not to harm their own kind especially during play, and to care for injured pack- or herd-mates.

He joins others in castigating the equalitarian philosophy of giving all living beings equal consideration by contending that in so doing, we undermine the special status of the human and “remove the moral basis for all rights, including human rights.” I fail to see how elevating the moral and legal standing of other animals in our life-community cannot also elevate our own humanity.

I also fail to see the connection feared by Mr. Gerson that “elevating animal rights—-would allow for the killing of ‘imperfect’ children and the elimination of the disabled…” To link animal rights with fascism and eugenics is a patently absurd inference that has deep cultural roots that feed on the myth of human superiority over other living beings so that we may exploit them as we wish.

Our moral progress and improvement in the human condition, as Albert Schweitzer advised, will come through reverence for all life. This is the antithesis of regarding animals as inferiors unless those who believe so, and who contend that only humans are made in God’s image, come to treat animals as they would have their God treat them.

My Imam friend, the late Al Hafiz B.A.Masri, who dedicated much of his life to animal protection, confided to me that all creatures are true Muslims because through their natures they are obedient to their Creator. In this sense animals are our superiors, and from a Christian perspective they can never be immoral, and lions and foxes never found guilty of murder from having to kill to live. Their nature is one of innocence from a moralistic perspective.

While the freedom to choose not to harm others is not exclusive to the human species, the human is collectively the most harmful and destructive of all Earth species. This makes us inferior to other creatures when we bring more harm than good into this emergent cosmos and do not exercise our powers of moral discernment and ethical choice that enable us to overcome our dualistic, schizoid natures. By not exercising responsibly our freedom of moral choice, we are inferior to other sentient beings who by virtue of their intrinsic natures facilitate the co-evolutionary and mutually enhancing symbioses of the Earth community.

What really makes us human is not simply our intellectual powers of reason and ethical sensibility, but the integration of these attributes with the virtues of humility, empathy and compassion that come from our emotional sensitivity and not from indoctrinated morality which is only too often self-serving, with pernicious consequences. Ignorance and insensitivity are coins of the same currency of cruelty and indifference toward the rights, interests, and inherent value of other living beings.

The converging beliefs and actions of secular materialists and religious fundamentalists, like those who respectively advocate continued industrial ‘growth’, and who oppose any regulation of population growth, are leading to what some see as the end of days, or end time. The consequences of such beliefs are indeed as lamentable as the conflicts between followers of different religious traditions and political ideologies that have now put us on the threshold of World War 111. But the day is dawning, as we evolve ethically and morally, when we all see the rape of Nature, the annihilation of forests, and the wholesale abuse, suffering and slaughter of animals for human consumption as psychotic behaviors no different from rape, incest, and ethnic cleansing. Genocide, speciesicide, and ecocide are coins of the same currency. But as the saying goes, when there is no such vision, ‘the people shall perish’.

When religious beliefs blind adherents to the nature of reality, and to the reality of nature in which being human finds its true ethos and telos, then their own inner nature can never blossom, and instead may become corrupted and poisoned. Then their spiritual and biological development and evolution are arrested. If they were not blind, then how, in the name of religion, or their god’s will, can they continue to do to others of non-human form that which they would not have these other sentient earth subjects ever do unto them? The Golden Rule has been inverted to mean those with the gold, rule.

Religions should not become the prison of the spirit. Where religions promote the Golden rule and become the wings of compassion, courageous action, and loving kindness toward all sentient beings, a life of spiritual awakening and joyous service, the birthright of all human offspring, could become a reality. ‘To thine own self be true’ is an ancient aphorism that acknowledges the element that we call truth as being of central significance to human existence, and to the human experience.

But in this mid-Anthropocene Epoch, science vies with religion for monopoly on truth, making reason a prisoner of objectivity. In banishing superstitious and magical beliefs, science can make all mystery profane. Then unreasonable men rule the world. Psychologist E. T. Hall observed that “The dazzling success of our technology, as well as our understanding of the physical world, has blinded Europeans and Americans alike to the complexities of their own lives and given them a false sense of superiority over those who have not evolved their mechanical extensions to the same degree. Science is our new religion, and in many ways, like old religions, it has served man well up to a point. But it has been put on a pedestal, and its pronouncements and rituals are commonly taken as dogma.” ( from Beyond Culture, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1976)

When science puts the service of truth before the vested, material, financial and political interests of man, then there is hope in such renunciation. When religion puts the service of truth before all gods fabricated in man’s image and self-interests, then there is joy in such redemptive liberation.

Science and religion working together, weaving the secular and spiritual realms of the collective reality of human experience and existence into a cohesive matrix of bioethical principles and moral codes for a sustainable Earth community for generations to come, is the critical evolutionary challenge of these times. This Anthropocentric Age, with its technocratic materialism, industrialism, militarism, and global imperialism, will become history, extinct, because the Earth cannot sustain our living presence and harmful impacts.

What form the surviving offspring of humankind will take one millennium from now as the Anthopocene Epoch unfolds, will be shaped by human will, as well as by circumstance—the consequences of our own actions, and those of our ancestors. Will we be well? — Beautiful, with an inner grace and dignity, like the wolf and lion? Or will we become what we make of many animals today; like the writhing, suicidal panther, incessantly pacing and self-mutilating against the bars and walls of her small zoo cage: the Asian elephant, made a circus slave, rocking in her chains to find some altered state more free; the experimental Rhesus monkey, alone in a cold laboratory cage, tearing out her fur and biting off her fingers for want of contact with reality—the great jungle, and her family troop; the billions of overcrowded, stressed-out chickens and pigs being fattened for slaughter, and becoming the incubators of human disease epidemics and pandemics.

Will the generations to come have no tribes, and yet be of one heart and mind, like the Blue whale and the albatross, at one in their realms of being? Or will the last of the wild and the fully compassionate, pan-empathic human be extinct, along with the jungle, the ‘fearful symmetry’ of the tiger being a forgotten symbol of spiritual and poetic significance, and of once incalculable ecological value and biological significance? Henry David Thoreau opined in his book Walking, that ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

When natural forces, entities and processes are anthropomorphically personified and deified by human imagination and emotional projection, the religions of narcissism are born and we worship gods and fear demons of our own making. But our recognition and understanding of the inherent laws of the natural world’s creative processes can provide a sound spiritual and ethical basis for society and for the healthy maturation of its children. Liberated from the narcissistic pathologies of egotism and anthropocentrism, the sanctified union of Nature and humanity is one of sacred affirmation and co-creative participation. Then the First Creation—the natural world—is hallowed and neither desecrated nor defiled by the Second Creation of industrious man whose being and becoming depend upon the integrity of the First Creation, in the absence of which the sub-human insanities of our inhumanity become the norm.

In an essay Science and the Sense of the Holy, anthropologist and paleontologist Loren Eiseley gives a statement that the great biologist Charles Darwin wrote during the beginning of his illustrious career: “If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, disease, suffering and famine—our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements—they may partake of our origin in one common ancestor—we may all be netted together.” (p 187 in The Star Thrower. New York, Times Books, 1978). Biologically we and all living beings on Earth are interrelated and interdependent. With advances in our biological understanding, as of forests and wolves, oceans and whales, we reach the metaphysical threshold of bio-spiritual Self-realization of the All in One and the One in All; the noumenon, eternally transforming, illimitably embracing.

Religion can give us the will to live for others’ better future, and science can help us find the way, under the guidance of bioethics. The basic principles of global bioethics, that provide the foundation for world healing, and world peace, are in the core teachings of all the world’s religions are egalitarianism; equalitarianism; compassion in action; ahimsa (not harming), reverential respect for all life, and living in accord with the Golden rule.

As I and others have reasoned, such basic principles need to be integrated into all segments of secular society, from the educational and legal systems, to those of justice, and the economy. It is a challenge to the professions, like the legal and the medical, to incorporate bioethics into their practice. I see it as their professional duty; a moral obligation, as it is for every member of the clergy, the synagogue, church, temple, and imperial, corporate technocracies of Babylon. So it is for every citizen and home-maker, parent and teacher, tax payer and consumer. Without bioethical sensibility, we cannot hope for a sane and sustainable society.

Coupled with bioethics, human and veterinary medicine can become one medicine that addresses fundamental environmental factors contributing to animal and human disease and suffering, and their economic and political ramifications. A primarily ‘science based’ human and veterinary medicine will fail, as it does now, to more effectively prevent disease and suffering until such science is balanced by bioethics, to better serve the greater good.

This healing integration of science and ethics,—that calls for the incorporation of empathy and compassion into praxis,—will herald the emergence of the Ethicozoic era, or what Thomas Berry calls the Ecozoic Age, both terms implying the awakening of ethical, ecological, ‘holistic’ sensibility. The ethics are no longer anthropocentric, but rather are eco-centric, embracing the biospheric ecology, and all biological forms of existence; the life community. Hence we identify such ethics as bioethics, as did the late Van Rensellaer Potter, MD, who first coined this term in the currency of what he contended to be much needed in human progress—evolution if you wish: And particularly, if there were to be any significant medical progress in the prevention and treatment of disease, and the alleviation of human suffering. The same can be said for the praxis of veterinary medicine, agriculture, and all forms of human industry and commerce.

As a number of faith communities, spurred by the looming crisis of climate change, are now focusing on environmental stewardship and ‘Eco-justice,’ the Vatican made a proclamation in March, 2008 that included environmental pollution—and social and economic injustice—in a list of sinful behavior for today’s believers. The pessimist might say ‘Too little too late’. But the realist says—‘Evolve or perish!’ And we should all consider the profound significance of the cure for many of the world’s ills as prescribed by Albert Schweitzer, MD,—reverence for all life. In practical terms this means not putting people before other animals, and is a call to equalitarianism and respect for the Golden Rule. If we are ever to save us from ourselves—from the harms of our collective narcissism and anthropocentrism—we must first consider others before ourselves and in the process become panempathetic.* This would be revolutionary for the betterment of society, and evolutionary for the advancement of our species, whose extinction in these times might be inevitable, if such a metanioa is not accomplished soon.

In his 2016 encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis has incorporated much of the philosophy and terms of the animal liberation and “deep” ecology movements to which I contributed in some of my writings. He asserts:

For further reading see M.W.Fox, The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures and Creation. Wheaton, IL, Quest Books.

* For some theists, panempathy resonates with panentheism, a view distinct from pantheism per se, that sees all in God and God in all. I wonder, metaphysically, that if all living bodies are in the Spirit rather than the spirit being in the body, and if the formula for soul-making is Body + Spirit, then all living beings have souls. The ‘intelligent designs’ of living beings in the patterns of DNA/RNA blueprints are simply manifestations of lower energy frequencies beneath but arising from and embedded within the higher vibrations of Light and Consciousness.