This is an excerpt from our book GET SERIOUS! part of our conversation with Brian St. Paul, editor of CRISIS magazine.
Peter: That’s the key to the whole dispute. They’re basing their claims on the idea that “we’re all just animals.”
Brian: Of course we are animate beings, but we are not beasts – that’s the key distinction. Generally, non-religious animal rights activists hold the position that we’re just extremely intelligent, hairless monkeys. We evolved to that state through random mutation and natural selection with no recourse to divine guidance… we ‘just happened’ to turn out this way.
Of course, the Christian rejects that entirely because we are the only creatures made “in the image and likeness” of God. There was once a philosophical notion, very popular especially among secularists, that the only thing that separates animals from humans is that we are aware of our own mortality. I think that might have come out of the existentialist movement.
Helen: Now we’re getting into the idea of a soul.
Brian: Yes, that’s part of how He created us. You might say that when He breathed into us, that was the coronation moment when we became different from the animals. It was our ensoulment. The word for soul and breath is the same in several languages. He did not do that with the animals. He blessed them on the fifth day with their own special blessing, but he did not breath into them the way he did with us.
Helen: Earlier, you said you don’t like hunting, but does that also mean you don’t like eating meat?
Brian: I want to talk about that. I do eat meat and there is nothing wrong with eating meat.
Helen: You don’t find that hypocritical?
Brian: No, although I fully grant the apparent contradiction; and I sometimes struggle with it myself because I’m a huge animal lover. But I’m also a huge meat eater and I don’t like vegetables. When facing this question, Christians and, I would say, faithful Christians especially make this error. They believe the question hinges or not on whether we can eat meat. They know they can certainly eat meat, there are so many examples in the Bible: the Paschal lamb, the seafood on the shore, we know that community in that area ate meat. So the faithful Christian says, “there, case closed, done.”
The problem is, that’s not the end of the debate, that’s the beginning of the debate. We’ve established that we can eat meat – but how? Can we slaughter any animal? Can we torture any animal? Can we starve any animal to death? What does it mean to treat an animal humanely? How should we care for an animal during its lifetime so we don’t take from it the happiness that God wants for the animal? He blessed them, so we know they have some measure of happiness. Should we steal that because we want meat at the moment for our convenience? So as Christians we can eat meat and seafood, we can use animals for other things, including experimentation, which is a very important thing as well. The question is how do we do it. I think this is especially pressing right now because we’re heading to a factory farming system, which I think by any Christian standard is a horror. I’m talking about animals that are kept in small cages that never see light, sun, grass and fed by tubes and never touched. They never experience love of any kind and then they are slaughtered in a terrible way. This is a moral outrage for us.
In line with our rights, dominion also gives us responsibilities. A primary responsibility is that, when we use these living beings that God has created with their own unique animal dignity, we have to show them respect and mercy. As God shows mercy to us we have to show mercy to others. There is a magnificent book on this subject by Matthew Scully called “Dominion.” It’s the most brilliant argument I’ve read for animal protection and he wrote it from a conservative viewpoint. The power of his argument – and I’m just going to piggyback on him since he’s done much deeper thinking on the subject than I have – is that we have a moral obligation to care for animals, to protect animals, specifically because they do NOT have rights. They are completely and utterly at our mercy. So we, as beings that have rights and have dignity and experience mercy from a merciful God, we have the absolute moral obligation to show them mercy as God shows us mercy. To not do that is to, be ourselves, not human. It’s to attack our own dignity because that’s part of who we are. With dominion, we have that responsibility as a reflection of God’s responsibility to us. That turns the argument on its head. It rejects the secular animal ‘rights’ movement but, in rejecting that, makes a much more powerful argument. I mean, a conservative argument for animal rights is a very powerful thing indeed. It was even endorsed by the Sierra Club.
Helen: Well, here we’re in a problem of degree again. You talked about farming where animals are caged and untouched and fed by tubes, but we’ve seen the other side of the coin where in England it’s mandated to give farm pigs stuffed toys to keep them company and, supposedly, happy.
Brian: I don’t know if that would help the animals or if it would just scare them. But the point is that the conversation about “what is the appropriate degree of protection” is just beginning. We’re starting the conversation, but it really hasn’t happened yet. Most Christians now, are in violation of the moral obligation to care for animals because we buy meat that is produced by the factory farms. But what’s the alternative? I don’t know. Sure we can go organic or free-range, but those methods need a lot more space than factory farms. Can we go that route and still feed people? So this is still a conversation that needs to happen in the Christian community. It’s not cut and dried. It is a matter of degree.
Helen: We can talk about this from a purely moral point of view, but some are starting to change our idea of what human beings are. Along this line, people are beginning to talk about pets as ‘companions’ of humans.
Brian: That’s another problem. In this subject, because it is so emotional, people tend to veer into one camp or the other. Now that movement which is to animalize humans or humanize animals is very dangerous.
Helen: Why is it dangerous?
Brian: Once you start treating animals like humans, it becomes that much easier to treat humans as animals. We’ve seen it in the euthanasia movement, we’ve seen it various artificial insemination movements. Artificial insemination didn’t arise out of nowhere. It came from veterinary medicine. Animal medicine is often the canary in the cage for human medicine. There are not always negative aspects, but because veterinary medicine can be more progressive and because a number of techniques from animal medicine have been moved into human medicine with great success and a great benefit for us all, we tend to look at those successes and think we can take just about anything we can do to an animal and do it to a human. So we get artificial insemination; we get euthanasia, we get sterilization, we get cloning, and all different kinds of cell research. It’s also come into the public discussion in terms of animal experimentation. We experiment on animals. Why not experiment on humans? Why not use the prison population? These are bad guys, put them to some use.
Peter: China is already doing that.
Brian: They are and have been for quite some time, and they weren’t the first. If we blur those lines, whatever we do to an animal we can do to a human and that’s why it’s so vital to make the distinctions. I think it’s very important that we create a wall of defense around our understanding of what it means to be human. We have to really know what that means, so that we can recognize these distortions and counterfeit ideas when they come to us. And they do. They surround us every day.
To read more of this interview, order GET SERIOUS.