Christianity's teachings about animal rights, animal suffering and humanity's role in the world.
Last updated 2009-08-03
Christianity's teachings about animal rights, animal suffering and humanity's role in the world.
For most of history Christians largely ignored animal suffering.
Christian thinkers believed that human beings were greatly superior to animals. They taught that human beings could treat animals as badly as they wanted to because people had few (if any) moral obligations towards animals.
Modern Christians generally take a much more pro-animal line. They think that any unnecessary mistreatment of animals is both sinful and morally wrong.
When early theologians looked at "nature red in tooth and claw" they concluded that it was a natural law of the universe that animals should be preyed on and eaten by others. This was reflected in their theology.
Christian thinking downgraded animals for three main reasons:
Not all leading Christians disparaged animals. Some of the saints demonstrated that virtuous Christians treated animals respectfully and kindly:
Modern Christian thinking is largely sympathetic to animals and less willing to accept that there is an unbridgeable gap between animals and human beings.
Although most theologians don't accept that animals have rights, they do acknowledge that some animals display sufficient consciousness and self-awareness to deserve moral consideration.
The growth of the environmental movement has also radically changed Christian ideas about the role human beings play in relation to nature.
Few Christians nowadays think that nature exists to serve humanity, and there is a general acceptance that human dominion over nature should be seen as stewardship and partnership rather than domination and exploitation.
This has significantly softened Christian attitudes to animals.
Here are some of the animal-friendly ideas that modern Christians use when thinking about animals:
Since an animal's natural life is a gift from God, it follows that God's right is violated when the natural life of his creatures is perverted.
Andrew Linzey, Christianity and the Rights of Animals
The leading modern Christian writer on animal rights is Andrew Linzey.
Linzey believes God's love is intended "not just for human beings but for all creatures."
Linzey teaches that Christians should treat every sentient animal according to its intrinsic God-given worth, and not according to its usefulness to human beings.
Christians who do this will achieve a far greater spiritual appreciation of the worth of creation.
Andrew Linzey derives his theology of animal rights in several ways, but the one most often quoted involves looking at creation from God's point of view rather than humanity's:
This resolution from the 1998 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church is typical of contemporary Christian thinking about animals:
(a) reaffirms the biblical vision of creation according to which: Creation is a web of inter-dependent relationships bound together in the covenant which God the Holy Trinity has established with the whole earth and every living being.
(i) the divine Spirit is sacramentally present in creation, which is therefore to be treated with reverence, respect and gratitude
(ii) human beings are both co-partners with the rest of creation and living bridges between heaven and earth, with responsibility to make personal and corporate sacrifices for the common good of all creation
(iii) the redemptive purpose of God in Jesus Christ extends to the whole of creation.
Lambeth Conference, 1998
The Papal Encyclical Evangelium Vitae recognises that animals have both an intrinsic value and a place in God's kingdom.
The Roman Catholic Ethic of Life, if fully accepted, would lead Christians to avoid anything that brings unnecessary suffering or death to animals.
The official position of the Church is contained in a number of sections of the Church's official Catechism (the paragraphing within each section is ours):
In God's plan man and woman have the vocation of "subduing" the earth as stewards of God.
This sovereignty is not to be an arbitrary and destructive domination. God calls man and woman, made in the image of the Creator "who loves everything that exists", to share in his providence toward other creatures; hence their responsibility for the world God has entrusted to them.
The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation.
Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.
Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives.
Man's dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbour, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.
Animals are God's creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory.
Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.
God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure.
Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.
It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.
It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery.
One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.
Some writers have criticised the statements above for being so firmly centred on human beings. Causing animals to suffer needlessly, for example, is described in 2418 as being "contrary to human dignity", rather than as being a wrong towards animals.
Animal suffering seems at odds with the Christian idea of a loving and powerful God.
After all, if God was all-powerful he could prevent suffering, and if God was perfectly good he would want to prevent suffering.
But animals do suffer on a colossal scale, and as there doesn't seem to be any logical necessity for them to do so Christians have some explaining to do.
This problem of animal suffering is part of the general problem that Christians face in explaining the existence of evil and suffering in God's world.
Theologians and philosophers have tried to deal with animal suffering - here are some of their attempts.
This argument hasn't found much support, because of the cumulative effect of points like these:
This argument has not found much support either, because:
But the main objection to the argument is that it flies in the face of common-sense, as anyone who has seen the distress of an animal that has lost one of its young will tell you.
Some Christians believe this is untrue.
Some theologians have related animal pain to the fall of the angels before the fall of man.
One ancient theologian regarded animals as beings whose behaviour brought their suffering upon themselves.
Animal pain helps human beings understand the bad consequences of certain actions.
Christian theologians have traditionally taught that animals don't have an afterlife, and so will receive no compensation for suffering during their earthly lives.
But modern writers are more compassionate. Keith Ward has written:
If there is any sentient being which suffers pain, that being -- whatever it is and however it is manifested -- must find that pain transfigured by a greater joy
Some writers believe that the compensation of a glorious afterlife is the only thing that can reconcile animal (and human) suffering with the idea of a loving and omnipotent God.
This isn't entirely satisfactory, and it doesn't work for those animals that lack self-awareness and have no memory of what has happened in their lives.
John Hick put it like this:
It is extremely doubtful whether even a zoological paradise, filled with pleasure and devoid of pain, could have any compensatory value in relation to the momentary pangs of creatures who cannot carry their past experience with them in conscious memory
And C.S. Lewis like this:
If the life of a newt is merely a succession of sensations, what should we mean by saying that God may recall to life the newt that died to-day? It would not recognise itself as the same newt.
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
For most of its history Christianity regarded animals without much compassion.
Early Christians regarded human beings as greatly superior to all other animals. After all, human beings were made in the image of God, and God chose human form for his earthly life. Furthermore, God clearly decreed that human beings should have power over non-human animals.
Leading thinkers such as Augustine reinforced ideas of animal inferiority, concluding that animals existed entirely for the benefit of humanity.
Thomas Aquinas was equally unconcerned with the welfare of animals.
Aquinas made the following points:
He taught that the universe was a hierarchy with God at the top. Each layer in the hierarchy existed to serve the layers above it. Humanity came above the animals, so animals existed to serve humankind.
Aquinas also reinforced the view that animals didn't have immortal souls.
In modern times, Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, taught that God's choice of human form for his incarnation showed that human beings are more important than non-human animals.