Myths about the Bible and animal rights

Glancing through news articles related to animal rights on Sunday, I ran across an article by Kathy Schiffer in the National Catholic Register . It is entitled “Animals Don’t Have Rights, But We Owe Them Kindness.” In the piece, the author contends that the Bible gives humans 1) the right to objectify animals, but 2) we should treat them nicely because God gave them to us.

lamb in field

I should preface this I’m not religious. But like many, I grew up in a religious home, and spent a fair amount of time memorizing bible verses.

So, since Schiffer uses the bible as the basis for her argument, I’d like to refute it using the same source.

The Bible makes a poor witness against animal rights

The author’s basic argument is that because they aren’t people (humans), animals don’t have rights. But she bases her argument on an incredibly weak premise. She acknowledges one verse from [the first chapter of] Genesis regarding the relationship humans should have with animals – ignoring all other references contained in the first five books of the Bible (not to mention the rest of it, but I will be limiting my argument to the Torah, or first five books, since that what she does in her article).

The reason I think Schiffer’s argument is worth addressing is that she’s not alone in her decision to refute animal rights “on biblical grounds” using only a few words from the first book of the Bible. This decision has major consequences, and I think if observant Christians and Jews are honest with themselves, they can’t ignore the fact that the first five books of the Bible make it abundantly clear that the biblical god 1)was rather pre-occupied with animal welfare, and 2)felt it was necessary to spell out exact rights animals, just in case people thought they were in the position to abuse these rights.

Do animals have rights, or is abuse wrong for another reason?

Schiffer begins her article by stating that animals do not have rights, but admits that animal abuse makes her cringe. Still,

having just finished enjoying two eggs, over-medium, I’d be hard pressed to say that those mama chickens had “rights” which superseded my right to a delicious home-cooked breakfast.

As justification for this viewpoint, Schiffer cites Genesis 1:28 as evidence for why her taste buds matter more than the lives of poultry:

fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth

What does the Bible mean by dominion? “Subduing” the earth is interpreted by many as a god-given license for extracting natural resources and treating all life on earth as our personal toy box.

But is that correct? One of the tools biblical scholars use in order to interpret scripture is comparing different verses in the bible to help better understand others. So let’s do a bit of biblical criticism.

The bible has more to say about animals welfare

Schiffer’s use of scripture involves a great deal of cherry-picking.

Animal welfare is directly addressed in the first five books of the Old Testament. For example, cutting a limb from a live animal and eating it is forbidden (Genesis 9:4).

If observant Christians took this verse seriously, it would pretty much force a complete of most slaughterhouse procedures, since the animals are frequently still living when they’re dismembered.

The Old Testament is unsettling if interpreted as an argument against animal rights

According to Exodus (Exodus 20:10; 23:12) cattle are supposed to be allowed rest on the Sabbath. This would throw a wrench in pretty much all modern animal agriculture. And it also seems to suggest that the biblical god says animals have as much a right to a day off as people do.

The New International Version actually translates Exodus 23:12 as “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.”

Of course, this verse raises several problems, not the least of which is the fact that this verse lumps slaves and animals together. But if you believe that the bible is the inerrant word of god, than it means the biblical god puts human beings (slaves and foreigners) on the same footing as animals.

If this leads you to the conclude that god is saying animals have no rights, I’m a little concerned about your ethics, since it implies that your ultimate moral authority doesn’t believe in the rights of foreigners, slaves or animals (ok, some people do believe that, but they’re technically known as bigots).

I see two ways for Christians can interpret this verse: (a)the god of the Old Testament was a bigot and I should be too, or (b) the god of the Old Testament is trying to encourage a bunch of bigoted ancient people to respect animals, slaves and foreigners. I find (b) more flattering, personally.

You should feed animals before yourself (according to the bible)

In Deuteronomy 11:15, God actually instructs his people to feed their animals before they eat themselves.

But the Bible doesn’t actually stop at animals who happen to belong to you. Concern for animals even extends beyond ones personal property.   For example, if you see your enemy’s oxen struggling with a heavy load, you’re supposed to help the animal. Exodus 23:5 states: 

If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him.

Basically,  even if you can’t stand someone, their animals have rights that actually go above and beyond your personal dislike for that individual. They cannot be ignored, even if you happen to dislike their owner.

The Bible’s statements on eggs would decimate the egg industry if they were actually implemented

Finally, in a direct contradiction of the author’s statement about having a “right” to eat factory farmed eggs, God instructs Moses that mother birds not to be disturbed while sitting on eggs (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). This would pretty much destroy the entire egg industry if Christians actually thought it was important.

And of course, Genesis also bans humans from eating meat entirely, and God doesn’t officially sanction meat-eating until after the flood. And even then there are a lot of limits that most Catholics don’t respect, such as the prohibition against eating pork.

The first five books of the Old Testament make numerous mention of what  humans can and cannot do with animals, and I’d argue that if Catholics and other christians want consistency, these should be considered as basic animal rights.

Or they can scrap the “dominion” argument and acknowledge that they pretty much use the parts of the Bible they like and throw out the rest.

Ok, the Bible tells us to be nice to animals. But it doesn’t mean they have rights.

Schiffer, the author of the article I mentioned before, doesn’t think animals have rights. But don’t worry, she still thinks we need to show animals compassion. Why?

animals deserve care, not because they are the same as we are, but because all of Creation has been entrusted to us

So we basically should treat animals nicely because they belong to us and they were a gift from god.

Thomas Aquinas, a rather famous Catholic theologian, would likely agree with Ms. Schiffer.

Now, Aquinas didn’t believe animals had rights, but he did believe in animal welfare. According to Aquinas we should treat animals nicely, because it’s a reflection of our own humanity and mistreating them robs us of our dignity.  This position is generally known as “welfarism” and focuses on treating animals with kindness, because it’s the nice thing to do.

I find this position problematic, and I think it has deep and disturbing implications, no matter your religious convictions. It basically boils down to: don’t break your toys.

Welfarism is wrong. And the Bible doesn’t justify it.

Welfarism is the perfect argument for all sorts of injustice. It is commonly used as an excuse for failing to recognize marginalized groups, such as children, women, the disabled, and of course, animals.

It goes something like this: children don’t need to have rights! Their parents will look after their wellbeing. And if they don’t, we will interfere on behalf of their welfare (this is pretty much the exact argument we use regarding pets, and we once used it to argue against the rights of women, and minorities).

Welfare might seem like a nice, less complicated approach to a better world. But in reality, it’s kind of the ultimate cop-out.

So… sorry, Ms. Schiffer, but your views on animal rights aren’t God’s. They’re yours.

What do you think? Join the conversation!

%d bloggers like this: