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June 2, 2012: The major religions and animal rights

Originally posted on May 31, 2012 on this blog.

Many people around the world feel that our superior intelligence in relation to other animals gives us the right to dominate them. Basically, they argue, these "lesser beings" should serve us - to be our food, our clothing, our entertainment, and more. Some people justify this by claiming that these "beasts" either don't feel pain, or don't feel as much pain, or it is somehow not important that they feel pain, that they were "meant" to suffer. (I realize that there are a lot of quotation marks here, but that's only to underline how ridiculous their way of thinking is.) Too many people in this world believe that not only is the life of an animal not as important as the life of human being, it is really not that important at all. All of these concepts are related to each other, and all betray our arrogance and lack of respect for the life of other sentient beings. While there is no single cause behind this way of thinking, I would like to briefly examine the role the major religions have played (and continue to play) in formulating this viewpoint.

Religion plays an important role in the way we interact with each other as well as with other animals. Even in modern times, with their position in many parts of the world fading, the main religions continue to influence the minds and morals of a large percentage of the planet's inhabitants. The animal rights problem begins with the approbation of eating meat. Most religions either overtly state that it is acceptable to eat the meat of some or all animals, or simply say nothing on the subject, which many believers interpret as an unspoken approval. This approval, either overt or unspoken, sets a precedent of violence, regardless of whether this contradicts the other beliefs of the religion. "Thou shall not kill" exists in many belief systems, but very few apply it to all sentient beings. Furthermore, many of the world's main religions still sacrifice animals, or turn a blind eye to people sacrificing animals in their name. For Effaists like myself, any belief system that doesn't overtly state that it is, in fact, not all right to make other sentient beings suffer and die, is an incomplete one.

Some major religions (especially Jainism, but also some schools of Hinduism and Buddhism) do encourage vegetarianism. Still, many animals are mistreated in the areas where these religions predominate. This failure to adhere to these particular teachings, the reason why one still sees animal abuse in these areas, can be due to either a lack of familiarity with these teachings or or a lack of a true understanding thereof. Sometimes, however, it is because the teachers fail to reiterate certain important points regarding our interaction with the animal world, opting, instead, to focus on other topics.

The above-mentioned lack of interest in vegetarianism is part of a lack of interest in animal rights in general. Many of the major religions' holy books and teachings are silent when it comes to general animal rights issues and the way we treat other animals. If mentioned, it is usually treated as something rather insignificant, almost an afterthought. This is largely due to the fact that many major religions have the wrong idea about why we are different from other animals, and what it ultimately means to be "intellectually superior". The difference between Effaist philosophy and that of some major religions, is that we adopt a "Let's use our intelligence to help other sentient beings" approach, while they prefer the "Let's use our intelligence to dominate other sentient beings" approach. Even when a religion doesn't explicitly state the latter, it often encourages it by placing other animals on a lower pedestal than humans. The Catholic Church, for example, has historically claimed that animals do not have souls, at least not the same kind that humans have. Many life-long Catholics become depressed to no end when they find out that their religion, in fact, says that their beloved dog or cat will not be in Heaven with them. Whether or not Heaven exists is not the issue here; The issue is the duality created by the Church, one which sets animals on a lower scale than humans, as mere "beasts" unable to perceive God, - which, while not condoning violence per se, still opens up a whole world of opportunity for abuse, mistreatment, abandonment, and killing. The Catholic Church is not alone. Many other belief systems, either through their holy books or through verbal teachings, send a similar message: that we should simply not worry about the fate of animals as much as we worry about the fate of other human beings. Since the major religions have been instilling this belief in people's heads for millennia, this is the way most people function.

Another important issue related to the above topic is the major religions' lack of condemnation of injustices against other animals. Even with the lack of explicit passages in their holy books, one would hope that they would improvise just a bit, that they'd speak out against obvious injustices. Belgrade, Serbia and Bucharest, Romania, for example, both have an alarming number of abandoned dogs. Abandoning a pet is obviously a very cruel thing to do, and as a supposed moral force, the Orthodox Church should regularly remind its flock to refrain from doing it. So how many sermons has this problem been mentioned in? From what my sources tell me, hardly any, if any at all. As I have said above, the suffering of these animals is simply seen as not being as important as other issues. Once again, I'm not trying to single anyone out, but rather to give an example. This lack of involvement in animal rights issues is evident in many different religions, and in most geographic regions, including many regions where Hinduism and Buddhism dominate. Anyone who dismisses this as insignificant is missing the point. The way we treat (and mistreat) other animals is paramount to the kind of world we have (and will have in the future). Every action that leads to the suffering of sentient beings, be they human or otherwise, will have a negative effect. Every action that helps other sentient beings will have a positive effect. Animals are sentient beings, and nothing good will come from either encouraging actions that cause their suffering, or being silent when these actions take place.

Religion, of course, is not the only thing responsible for shaping the way people think. The way to encourage a better interaction with the animal world is by educating people from an early age to respect all sentient beings. A good way to do this is by adding programs in kindergartens and grade-schools that teach children the importance of empathy and respect towards other animals. Still, even though the influence of religion is fading in some parts of the world, many people still listen closely to what their religion tells them. As an Effaist, I'd like to close by reminding all the religious leaders out there of the importance of encouraging a positive interaction with the animal world. Speak out against the mistreatment and abuse of animals. Find empathy for the suffering of all sentient beings and try to use your influence to improve our interaction with other animals. The current way we interact with other animals is partly the cause of the violence and negativity of the world, and the more we do to improve that interaction, the better we'll all be for it.

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