Sunday, December 15, 2013

A secular animal liberation movement compelled to respect Christianity? I don’t think so.

Atheists are increasingly coming to respect and recognize the need for religion. For social justice movements, religion is part of the solution.

This is the theme, implicit and often explicit, of so many New York Times articles about interactions between atheists and religious people. It’s interesting because I don’t believe or suspect that it’s at all conscious, but the pattern is so clear that there has to be something behind it. A recent piece, “Scholars Explore Christian Perspectives on Animal Rights” by Mark Oppenheimer, is a case in point. The tagline reads: “As Christians ask how their faith requires them to treat animals, they may force animal rights activists, a mostly secular lot, to reconsider their views on Christians.”

Oppenheimer argues that these days animal welfare is “a lively topic among Christians in the United States and England.” He writes specifically about two religious men, David Clough and Charles Camosy, who’ve both written books about animal rights (more accurately animal welfare) from a Christian perspective. Clough’s argument is basically that humans and other animals are all “created by God, reconciled to God in Jesus Christ and will be redeemed by God in the new creation”: “‘Good theology ought to recognize one fundamental separation…between God and all God has created. We belong with dogs and cats and hedgehogs and trees and rocks.” In his book, Camosy “links his concern for animals to his beliefs on abortion, arguing that the Catholic ethics of respect for life and care for the vulnerable should make us reconsider how we treat animals.”

Oppenheimer argues, without citation, that the animal rights movement has historically been secular. As is standard for this type of article, he offers one sole reason for the rejection of religious perspectives: “some secular animal-rights activists were suspicious of Christianity, concurring with Peter Singer’s claim, in his 1975 classic, ‘Animal Liberation’, that Christian teaching about man’s dominion had been an impediment to animal rights.”

He acknowledges the truth of this assessment, and the negative response to Camosy’s and Clough’s arguments in other Christian circles. But he contends that the history of some religious involvement in animal welfare campaigns and these more recent theological initiatives should lead, and in fact are leading, secular activists to a reevaluation of religion. Of course, Oppenheimer focuses on Singer. And of course Singer obliges with exactly the sort of accommodationist pap the Times loves.
For several years, Professor Singer and Dr. Camosy have been in frequent communication, and last year Dr. Camosy wrote a book about his fellow ethicist, ‘Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization’. Last month, the two men spoke together in Maryland, at the national headquarters of the Humane Society of the United States. As a result of their conversations, Professor Singer says he has become somewhat more charitable toward Christianity.

‘I think Charlie’s helped me to see that that’s overly negative’, Professor Singer said, referring to his depiction of Christianity in ‘Animal Liberation’. ‘It’s not that the negative statements’ — giving humans permission to use and abuse animals — ‘aren’t there, because they are, and were made by major figures from Augustine to Aquinas and so on. But there is another side to it, and other Christians have different interpretations of man’s dominion’.
It’s settled, then. Professor Singer has spoken.* And since the only secular justification for rejecting Christian arguments is the negative content of some (in this case, the majority) of those beliefs, the existence of some positive beliefs should lead the movement to a greater opening to faith. (These articles like to conflate atheists’ ideas about faith-religion with our attitudes toward people. So, Oppenheimer can write that their books and arguments “may force animal rights activists, a mostly secular lot, to reconsider their views on Christians,” as though this were about dislike of Christians rather than an evaluation of religious ideas about ethical relationships with other animals.)

This is nonsense. I’m going to summarize the good reasons atheist animal liberation activists should continue to reject religion and any role for it in the movement. I’ve discussed several of these in more detail in the past and will talk more about others in the future, but here’s a sketch.

First, and most generally, faith as a basis for ethics is fundamentally a problem. As I’ve argued, whatever the content of any specific faith beliefs, faith as an epistemic approach is inherently authoritarian and conservative.

Second, respecting or accepting as valid ethical justifications those religious beliefs we find relatively palatable means respecting and accepting as valid any or all religious beliefs. As I suggested in the past with regard specifically to this movement,
Respecting any faith-belief as a foundation for ethics, and celebrating faith as a motivation for ethics generally, of course bolsters the power of any faith-based ethics, including those we wouldn’t find even superficially ‘defensible’. And in this case the people who hold similar faith-beliefs which they see as justifying their cruel exploitation of nonhuman animals are far more numerous and far more powerful. If atheists/epists avoid aggressively criticizing the faith basis of ethical positions that are closer to ours in practice, we have no foundation for challenging the people who understand ‘dominion’ to mean cruel exploitation. We also have no foundation for challenging faith-beliefs that aren’t religious. Respecting any faith beliefs disarms you against all of them.
Third, suggesting that the animal rights movement embrace religion is politically regressive. It happens that I was reading Bob Torres’ Making a Killing when I saw Oppenheimer’s piece. Torres describes how after 9-11 “Many activists argued that we as a movement, needed to reach outward and rightward to draw in Christian conservatives, neoconservatives, and others from the Right who would be receptive to our message.” He was even warned about his open atheism being off-putting to these potential recruits. “The hope,” he suggests, “was that the ‘new blood’ would invigorate the movement and help to make it mainstream, yet no one seemed to consider the fact that this new blood was often happy to uphold exploitative and oppressive ideological positions on a variety of other issues.”

Torres particularly condemns the embrace of rightwing figures like Matthew Scully and Pat Buchanan by the large organizations in the animal rights movement. PETA gave a “Progress Award” to Buchanan, for agreeing with Matthew Scully about “compassionate conservatism” also applying to nonhuman animals. He makes clear that those who stand against oppression do the cause of liberation no favors by allying with “conservatives who have promoted policies that marginalize, exploit, and denigrate humans”: “Together, Buchanan and Scully promote a disastrous agenda for equality, regardless of what they think about animals.”

And in the case of one of the religious positions described in Oppenheimer’s article, oppressive beliefs about humans are linked to beliefs about animal welfare. David Clough, explicitly connects his animal welfare position to his views on women’s reproductive rights.** I’m annoyed that accommodationists expect animal rights activists to welcome these religious perspectives, especially as the movement is predominantly made up of women, many of them feminists. How condescending of Oppenheimer to suggest that some Christians’ “different interpretations of man’s dominion” should lead us to set aside our struggles against human oppression and ally with them.

In light of this, I’m more than a little disturbed that the person responsible for religious outreach at HSUS (Christine Gutleben) would declare that “Absolutely, Christianity is part of the solution,” and unhappy that HSUS even has such a position. As Torres points out, pandering to these people and beliefs unavoidably moves these organizations in a conservative direction, and away from an awareness of how different systems of oppression work together.

Fourth, religious justifications for animal rights or welfare don’t connect reasonably or consistently to a course of action – they’re compatible with many different personal or social actions. The people Oppenheimer describes as bringing an important new voice to the movement appear to hold similar and relatively conservative ideas about human-animal relations, but even they don’t seem to agree on the most ethical path. Clough doesn’t believe that humans should eat meat (the article doesn’t describe him as a vegan). But how this position is derived from the beliefs that animals are “created by God, reconciled to God in Jesus Christ and will be redeemed by God in the new creation” and that “We belong with dogs and cats and hedgehogs and trees and rocks” is unclear. In what practical ethical sense do animals belong with trees and rocks, and by what path does this lead to his decision not to kill and consume them? How does this categorization contribute anything to a theory of animal liberation?

Camosy, who bases his views on “the Catholic ethics of respect for life and care for the vulnerable,” argues that meat eating is OK (because permitted in Catholicism) but factory farming is unacceptable since animals should be treated “kindly” and not “suffer needlessly.” He isn’t a vegetarian: he “has given up meat — though he still eats fish, ‘half because Jesus Christ ate fish, and half because I am too weak to give up my grandmother’s tuna spaghetti sauce’.” As these examples show, even when Christians share similar welfarist interpretations, the connection between abstract belief and action is tenuous and unreliable.

Fifth, as I’ve described in the past, religious beliefs are alienating, which is of special concern when we’re discussing questions like animal rights or ecology.

Sixth, religious justifications for ethics are gratuitous and self-serving. They’re also divisive.

Seventh, most significantly, and at the root of many of the previous issues, religious arguments are false. You would think that being false would so obviously and immediately disqualify an argument from consideration as a basis for ethics or activism that it wouldn’t even require discussion. But it’s a sign of the deleterious effects of religious privilege in our culture that if you slap the faith label on any argument people think it has to be taken seriously. Their relation to reality pushed aside, religious beliefs are debated in terms of their so-called usefulness and their superficial desirability.

How authoritarian and condescending this idea is. It amounts to an acceptance of faith as a cultural practice. Even worse, it means taking advantage of that authoritarian cultural practice to promote the movement.*** Generally, it’s madness. Never in human history have false beliefs been a sound or positive basis for activism and social change relative to beliefs based in reality, and they never will be. Falsehoods have no place in a movement that seeks to overturn false supremacist beliefs and find ways to treat others ethically in reality. The duty to believe according to the evidence which we have to answer to in all aspects of our lives calls especially urgently when we’re seeking to overcome oppression and killing and develop ethical relationships with others: the tendency to cling to bogus claims from traditional or New Age religion or secular philosophy to justify oppression is very strong and every effort needs to be made to fight it.

Finally, the argument that religious arguments have something valuable to contribute that commands the respect of atheist-secular activists assumes compelling secular arguments are inexistent or insufficient. As I’ve argued previously, respect for faith-based arguments “carries the implicit suggestion that powerful and convincing ethical arguments for ethical relationships with our fellow animals can’t be found outside of faith. It’s a backhanded rejection of the…humanist tradition of ethics and social justice activism….”

Times’ writers like to imply, for some reason, that secular arguments about ethics and animal liberation, like secular and atheist positions in general, have been widely covered and discussed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though attention is occasionally paid to specific issues and the coverage is sometimes fair (for example, Jedediah Purdy’s “Open the Slaughterhouses,”**** (April 9, 2013) and the positive review of The Ghosts in Our Machine), the arguments and theory of animal liberation aren’t featured.

In fact, the Times magazine last year hosted a contest called “Defending Your Dinner,” calling on people to make their best arguments for carnism. It wasn’t structured as a debate, because, as organizer Ariel Kaminer claimed, “In recent years, vegetarians — and to an even greater degree vegans, their hard-core inner circle — have dominated the discussion about the ethics of eating.” It seems impossible that anyone could take such a claim seriously, especially in a magazine full of recipes for animals and their secretions, spreads of clothing made from their bodies, and advertisements for animal consumption. Kaminer offered that “those who forswear meat have made the case that what we eat is a crucial ethical decision.” Indeed they have, but not generally in the Times. If you look at the links provided to show how vegetarians and vegans have “dominated the discussion,” you’ll see that they haven’t. In fact, among the recent articles under the “veganism” link is “Why I’m Not a Vegan” (May 21, 2013) by Mark Bittman, one of the judges on the all-male contest panel. (See also this and this and this.)

The claim that vegetarians and “to an even greater degree” vegans have dominated the discussion about the ethics of eating – in the Times, the media, or the broader culture – is about as congruent with reality as the claim that atheists have dominated the discussion about religion and belief. The secular arguments for veganism and ending the oppression of other animals have long been marginalized and the movement caricatured, while carnism has been presented as the normal way of things. Contests promoting carnism contribute to this marginalization.

But the secular justifications for veganism and the abolition of animal exploitation are absolutely sufficient to make the case. That you don’t see them in the Times doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’ve listed some books about animal rights and social justice here (to which I’ll have to add Animals & Women and Making a Killing), and posted about several of these individual themes, so I won’t elaborate on the arguments in detail. In short, though,…

Science (biology, ethology, ecology, neuroscience) has demolished the false beliefs, both religious and secular, that form the basis of speciesism, and thus removed the justification for denying other animals equal moral consideration. We’re an animal species, and all of our capacities are evolved animal capacities. Neither our species itself nor any particular characteristic makes of us a distinct category apart from other animals, allowing us to deny them equal moral consideration and giving us license to use or kill them at our wish. There’s no reasoned basis for denying beings equal moral treatment solely on the basis of their species, any more than there’s a reasoned basis for denying humans equal moral treatment solely on the basis of their gender or “race” or religion.

The evidence of animal suffering and the denial of their interests in human systems of exploitation is overwhelming. The oppression of nonhuman animals is deeply connected – in practice and ideas – to the oppression of humans. From a solely human-oriented perspective, participating in this system is harmful to us – forcing us to extremes of psychological denial, contortions, and bad faith; interfering with our compassionate and caring impulses; alienating us from other animals, from the rest of nature, and from ourselves; leading us to harm our environment; holding back science and existential understanding;…

Supremacist arguments are unfounded. No individual, group, or society has the right to oppress or exploit others for their own (perceived) ends. We don’t have the right to treat other beings capable of suffering and pleasure as things or property. We don’t have the right to enslave or kill others. These are all widely accepted positions concerning humans, and the need for solidarity amongst movements fighting human oppression is increasingly understood. The extension of these basic insights to our relationships with the other animals with whom we share so much is only logical and just.

All of these arguments have been developed in numerous books and articles by scholars and activists, and can be appreciated by anyone who fairly and reasonably considers the evidence. The New York Times would do well to present them fairly – and in much more detail, of course – to their readers. Only then can a real public conversation begin. And only after engaging in this conversation could anyone rationally attempt to declare the validity of or need for openness to religious arguments.

* I assume an invitation from the Harvard Humanists will soon be forthcoming. :)

** The argument is stupid in any case. The analogue to a human fetus isn’t an animal but an animal fetus; the analogue to a pregnant human is a pregnant animal.

*** This is especially grotesque when it comes to science advocacy movements.

**** Of course, given that ag gag laws affect not just animal rights or welfare activists and corporate whistleblowers but also journalists, you could suggest that the Times’ coverage is relatively muted.


  1. This is the kind of bigotry we've come to expect from secularist fundamentalism. It it hardly unexpected, but it is nevertheless noteworthy as such bigotry against certain traditions of ethics fades away in favor of the post-modern view that faith- and/or narrative-based first principles under-gird all ethical claims, including the ones made in this post.

    1. Huh?

      You'll have to write more clearly and concretely if you expect me to understand what you're talking about.