Photo by Alejandro Groenewold/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
When one introduces the topic of the ethics of meat eating, a debate about religion will often follow. Scriptural texts will be invoked either for or against the practice. In short order, the diets of the Buddha, Muhammad, or Jesus will be considered. Recently, the invocation of beloved environmental writers such as Aldo Leopold has joined references to the traditional sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Leopold — famous for proposing the concept of “thinking like a mountain” — introduced the eco-centric view of a “land ethic.”
The first-ever panel on Animals and Religion at the American Academy of Religion was held in 1994, consisting of Andrew Linzey, Catherine Keller, Paul Waldau, Jay McDaniels, and myself. While the points made by the panelists were theological, the discussions that followed ranged from the purpose of “canine” teeth in humans to the defense that eating meat is enjoyable.
An audience member suggested to the panel that “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” Christian theologian Andrew Linzey responded, “Isn’t that what Jesus came to change?” Paul Waldau pointed out that, in fact, it is not a dog-eat-dog world. Dogs rarely eat dogs.
The digressions that occur in such discussions — then and now — suggest that approaching the issue from the lens of religion or ethics can often become muddled and unfocused. But at least five approaches for addressing the issue of the consumption of animals arise when one studies religion:
1) Most religious traditions postulate a vegan beginning. In the religions that hold the Book of Genesis as a part of their scriptures, a vegan diet is pronounced as the appropriate food for human beings (Genesis 1:29); the much-contested “dominion” granted in Genesis 1:26 is dominion within a vegan world. Christopher Chapple suggests the possibility that one can trace religious ideas of the practice of nonviolence to an ancient renouncer tradition that later gave birth to Jainism and Buddhism and influenced aspects of Hinduism, including the classical yoga school. This is one of the reasons Rynn Berry calls Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism the “four ahimsa-based ‘vegetarian’ religions.” What do those beginnings suggest about our relationships with other created beings?
2) As mentioned above, some find it helpful to invoke what Jesus, the Buddha, or Muhammad ate. Recently, the question has shifted to “if they were alive in our time, what would they eat now? If they learned about the way animals live and die within factory farms, what would they do?” Would they agree with the winner of the recent New York Times competition that “most present-day meat production is an ecologically foolish and ethically wrong endeavor”?
3) What is the nature of creation and what is our place in it? Some religious traditions are seen as reinforcing human-centeredness because they appear to suggest that humans are the teleological fulfillment of creation. Are we removed from creation or embedded within it? If our relationship with creation is a religious issue, and since animals are a part of creation, is not our relationship with animals also a religious issue? Karen Davis suggests in response to Aldo Leopold that before she could think like a mountain, she wanted to know if that would include thinking like a chicken. In other words, we should not lose sight of the individuals within creation.
4) What are the effects of anthropormorphizing God? Does an anthropormophic God cause us to see animals as excluded from God’s love or concern? Moreover, what is the effect of seeing humans as in God’s image? Why is being in God’s image often interpreted in view of power and manipulation and hegemony instead of compassion and mercy and emptying unconditional love? Do we anthropomorphize God out of properties that we are most likely to be using against others? We are most likely to assert the image of God when we are lording over others, and using our power. Acts of unconditional love, suspensions of judgment, mercy for the weak, kindness to animals, get associated with a picture of wishy washy ineffectualness and weakness — qualities often seen as undesirable.
5) How do we show compassion and who are our neighbors? Do animals fall within a religious call to be compassionate? Are animals our neighbors? While most religions might have what some call a “miminal treatment” ethics regarding how animals should be treated, recent writings argue for expanding that. In their Religious Vegetarianism, Kerry Walter and Lisa Portmess suggest, “Whatever the sacred and the holy are thought to be, the human slaughter of animals questions it, renders it paradoxical, demands reflection.” In my own work, I have found the writings of Simone Weil illuminating. Weil writes that all our neighbor requires of us is to ask “What are you going through?” and to be willing to listen to the answer.
What are you going through chicken, cow, pig, lamb, fish? This may be a more profound and urgent question in the twenty-first century than ever before.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.