In the Beginning
It has been a number of years since I identified as a Christian. I would lie in bed as a child with theological questions that my parents could not adequately answer for me, and I think I must have been seven or eight when I revealed myself as a nonbeliever to my mother. My family is very much Christian in the tradition of the Black church, and despite my unbelief I spent most of my childhood in churches, generally twice a week. When I left for school in 2006 my mother gave me her bible in the hopes that I would read it.
It took until the last year for my teenage rebelliousness to decay enough for me to actually begin thinking about Christianity without a feeling of resentment for the hundreds of hours of forced worship I endured. I have become a secular reader of theology (of many religious traditions) in my attempts to find knowledge, wisdom, and ethics that arose from modes of thinking besides secular reason. So irony of ironies I found myself today (my mother’s prodigal son) flipping through my mother’s old leather-bound bible to see what I could find that could apply to animal liberation.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” Proverbs 1:7
It is no secret that Western knowledge traces its roots to monotheistic theologies, perhaps even more than it traces itself to Hellenistic thought. Secular thinking has a very brief history on the timeline of humanity, and it is clear that it has drawn heavily from the thinking of religious scholars. Taking that in mind, it is apparent that Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholarship (in that order) shaped the ways we view the world, even if we are not aware of where the basis comes from.
So it seems if one wants to find the genesis of Western views of animals, one need not look beyond the first book of the bible.
For anyone who has ever tried to talk animal rights with Christian omnivores, certain passages from Genesis are familiar. Many think that it is okay to eat animals, because “Man” was given dominion over animals. The secular version of that being the objectification of animals because we are better in some way, i.e., might makes right. I’m more interested in what leads to man’s dominion over animals, and how that affects secular arguments for the liberation of animals.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
And so a groundwork for anthropocentrism was laid down, but that’s obvious, and not hugely surprising. What seems infinitely more interesting is the way this also paved the way for human exceptionalism that manifests itself within animal rights struggles.
Let us ignore the aspect of dominion, because most people within animal rights movements reject the idea that humans should have any sort of dominion over animals. What is not always rejected, or even challenged, is the notion that humans are inherently special (image of God, sentience, language, advanced cognitive ability, tool making, etc), and that specialness sets us apart.
For the secular thinker, who has no God above themselves, there is an urge (theological urge) to place themselves at the top of a hierarchy of being. The image in finding the creator does not exist still sees itself as a reflection of holiness, rationalized through a deification of some attribute that the image posses that others (presumably) do not.
And from that point many people, understandably and logically, seek to liberate certain animals by showing how much they are like us. We need look only at the ways there are circles of personhood extended depending on how like us other species are: dolphins are the second-most intelligent animals, apes can use sign language, elephants can paint and get ptsd, dogs love and care.
We advocate for some animals by making them in our image.
Which means the animals we don’t consider like us get left in the dust, to varying degrees. Some animals are portrayed as genuine subjects with internal processes, and others remain instinctual automatons.
To Each According to Kind
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creeps on the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
We often engage in an animal rights discourse that is exclusive––some criteria is set, and any that do not achieve it are excluded. We may still care about them, but we in campaigns, in discussions, we use certain animals as examples. Strategically it may be easier now to advocate for a gorilla and not a rat, but once the gorilla is liberated what basis is there for freeing the rat? (Strategy has often been used to leave people in precarious situations. Case in point: women of color often excluded from both sufferage and civil rights struggles).
An inclusive view seems more worthwhile for all animals. Humans are no different than the beast of the earth, cattle, or the creeping things. A recognition that all living things are equally deserving of consideration and not because they are like humans. They are each made in their own kind by God, gods, evolution, or flying spaghetti monsters. Should the strategies and focus really be based on some similarity to us?