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Atheism/Animal abuse and Christianity


QUESTION: Hi Jeffrey , its Luis again , I have a question

This time regarding animal abuse and Christianity

I´ve always suspected that Christianity has a great deal of blame for the way we treat animals.

Now we now we are mammals and that we share almost the same nervous system in regard to suffering (pain, hunger , fear , too hot , to cold,
etc.) so mammals at least should be granted the same freedom from suffering as we do , but God never said nothing about it.

One of the reasons I never believed in the christian god was that in the bible there is not a single time god showed concern about animal suffering , and I have never heard christians or preachers about animal suffering on the contrary it is an established  fact that all animals and the whole planet is for us to use as we please.
And they have never shown concern on unnecesary animal suffering even when its done just for fun , like bullfights , or sports hunting.

It´s not a bit like the case with slavery ?

I have not found literature on this specific subject , I think Loftus wrote about it , so please can you expand on this ?
or give me some references where I can find more books or articles on the subject ?

I´m also a bit confused because in places like China  they treat animals even worse...
But I still suspect the Theory of Dominion has a lot to do with it.

Thanks a lot Jeffrey


ANSWER: Hello again, Luis.
This was a very interesting question, I'm glad you asked it.

Animals in Christianity:
First of all, I agree with your assessment of the Bible. It never shows concern for animal suffering and this omission actually makes it a barrier to advancing the humane treatment of animals. I'll begin our discussion by touching on the verses that mention animal treatment in the Bible

The closest thing to moral concern for animals is found in the Old Testament, in prescriptions to the Jews about how to tend their animals and cook their meals[1]. Of course, the Old Testament also provide prescriptions about the proper way for Jews to sacrifice animals to God [2][3]. Is there a way to reconcile these two types of Bible verses into a coherent view on animals? I'd argue there is. What both types of verses have in common is a ceremonial practice is service of God, whether or not an animal suffers from the process is entirely incidental. Case in point, those who defend inhumane practices at Hasidic slaughterhouses[4] - this may have been the most humane way of killing cattle at the time the Torah was written but now reflects a preference for religious superstition over more humane agricultural practices.

The New Testament doesn't add anything that helps the moral status of animals. Paul directly says that Gods description of animal care in the Old Testament does not reflect a moral concern for animals [5]. Jesus is willing to drive a herd of swine off a cliff as part of an exorcism of demons [6][7][8]. What is the Bible suggesting by having Jesus kill a herd of swine in this exorcism? It could simply be a necessary magical ingredient – reflecting a kind of superstition that fits with the Old Testament sacrifice. Or Jesus could be deliberately killing the pigs to make the point that animal suffering is not worthy of attention – it's saying that concern for pigs is like concern for demons because it reflects a pagan perspective. Or the Bible could be using it to emphasize Jesus' divine authority – it is morally permissible for Jesus to destroy nature because Jesus is God and God owns nature. This last interpretation brings to mind Jesus' disregard for plant life, in which he curses a fig tree[9] for not bearing fruit. As an aside, I wrote a previous AllExperts post about how ownership cannot grant someone the moral authority to destroy what they own[10].

Actually its worth asking whether the God of the Bible cares about the (earthly) well-being of humans, let alone animals. As you are from South America, perhaps you are already familiar with the debate over liberation theology [11] which can be seen in a microcosm by juxtaposing the views of the current and previous Pope. As we discussed in my last response to you[12], the Bible shows a complete callousness towards human life. The crucifixion of Jesus is perhaps best seen as a fulfillment of the Jewish tradition of sacrifice of animals and humans (Abraham & Isaac) – see here[13] and here[14] for extended discussions. And God's bloodiest moment is the Flood where he kills the vast majority of humans and animals, placing us (literately) in the same boat. Obviously, the Bible doesn't see humans and animals as the same (we're the ones doing the sacrificing) but it does cast doubt on the idea that the Bible cares about (earthly) suffering at all.

The Bible frames the dominion over animals in different ways. God tells Adam & Eve that the animals are theirs to control [15][16]. Similarly in God's covenant with Noah, mankind is given dominion over all animals[17]. But later in the covenant God describes mankind's responsibility to avoid unnecessary harm to animals. And later God expresses this covenant as an agreement he is also making with the animals themselves [18]. Nature is described as belonging to the Lord in Psalms[19] and Colossians[20], Leviticus goes as far as to refer to nature as holy[21]. Historically, this collection of verses is taken to mean that mankind can ethically do whatever it wishes to animals and nature, so long as it is consistent with their worship of God as the Creator of everything. A more recent idea[22] is called Environmental Stewardship, in which these passages charge us with responsibility to care for and actively nurture the animals and plants in the same way servants are to multiply the property of their masters[23].

It is clear to me that Stewardship is a slippery concept. How do we know what God views as an appropriate way to treat the world? How subordinate are animals to human wishes and how much responsibility do humans have to animals? The only specific answers the Bible provides on this subjects are cruelty, ignorance, or indifference to animals. The best thing that can be said about Christian Environmentalism is that Christianity can be made to be compatible with an environmentalist movement that finds its impetus elsewhere. This is faint praise for Christianity on the subject.

Animals in Chinese Culture:
First of all, I have no special expertise on Chinese culture, and if you are really interested in understanding Eastern philosophy and its historical development I would refer you to another expert [24]. However, I think I can fill in a coherent picture with broad strokes.

China may not have a Christian culture, but they do have a Confucian culture which partially shapes their moral views on animals. An introduction to Confucianism can be found here[25] and also the Wiki page[26]. A useful lens to understand Confucianisms views on animals may be Chinese Legalism[27] and the idea of a Mandate of Heaven[28]. The people are supposed to put their personal autonomy aside in service of the state under the control of a powerful ruler. The powerful ruler, in turn had a moral responsibility to act justly and to keep the state running smoothly. If a ruler acted unjustly he risks the wrath of Tian[29], which would come in the form of a calamity and would signal to the people that they should no longer service this regime. So the net effect was something in between Divine Right of Kings[30] and “consent of the governed”[31]. And in Confucianism similar relationships are used again and again to describe deference to elders, respect for ancestors, and at multiple levels in the bureaucratic structure of traditional Chinese government. Loyalty, trust, and harmony are perhaps better words to use to describe the system then words like rights, values, and imperatives.

Nevertheless, one can make an analogy between Chinese Legalism and Christian Stewardship. The same relationship that describes humans under the stewardship of each other and humans under the stewardship of God can be used to describe animals under the stewardship of humans. Following this analogy, the same moral forces that mandate a ruler to be benevolent should also govern the moral actions of an individual towards his/her animals. In both cases Confucianism recommends cultivating a compassionate frame of mind which is inclusive of not just mankind but also nature. Here are two articles on the historical progression of Confucian thought on animals [32][33]. They indicate that this emphasis on including nature in moral behavior did not come about until Mencius (~300 BC). Mencius was influenced by Buddhism and Taoism in what might be called Neo-Confucianism. These other philosophies had a greater emphasis on reverence for nature and cultivating a pure mind. This is still not the same thing exactly as assigning animals with intrinsic moral value, but its an important step. After all, it would be another two thousand years for animals to achieve the same moral status within a Christian fundamentalist framework (i.e. Environmental Stewardship theology).

Enlightened views on Animals:
Merely observing the progression of thought on the humane treatment of animals[34] demonstrates there is more going on here than Christianity and Confucianism. And actually its not just ethical treatment of animals that humanity has progressed in, but a gradual reduction of violence of all kinds, an increasing concern for the welfare of children, and an expanding sense of empathy for all living things. The book that has most influenced my thinking on this the most is Stephen Pinker's “Angels of Our Better Nature”[35] which is a description of violent human behavior, documentation of its decrease over time, and an examination of its causes. This can be astonishing thing for people to hear, because mankind is more aware of and sensitive to violence than we have ever been, but Pinker makes his case with frequent reference to the available data.

But I believe a better reference would be Peter Singer's “Expanding Circle”[36], a book that Pinker references frequently. It has roughly the same topic – mankind's expanding sense of inclusion from primates to modern time – but I believe Singer focuses more on animal rights. Singer is perhaps better known as the author of “Animal Liberation”[37], an inspiration for the modern animal rights movement.

Having a safe functional social society allows a kind of trust to develop between people. This causes people to see the benefit of cooperation. Our livelihood is secure enough that they can think more about their own survival and think about other people's feelings. Our literature allows us to understand each others perspective. Our ability to solve or analyze complex moral situations is greatly improved with knowledge. All of these things also contribute towards a safe functional social society, in a virtuous circle. In the long run, compassionate behavior is not just moral behavior its also winning strategy for building a society that lasts and progresses. Not all places have progressed equally in this way, and sometimes places backslide before they move forward again.

This ability to be ethical, willingness to be ethical, and intuitive understanding of ethical behavior is an important part of moral progress. But society must also articulate moral thinking, establish moral rules, and implement complex political policies. This is where religion, philosophy, and politics come into play. Religion of any kind will always be a conservative, impeding force on any progression of moral standards. This is because the ethical inadequacy of ancient religion reflects the times in which they were written. And this is true even when religion is ambiguous or neutral on a subject. Because even there, religion involves a deference to the moral standards of the historical past, where some supreme moral truths are presumed to have been revealed and preserved. By relying on the past, religion causes society to be reluctant to make changes in its moral standards. At best, religion prevents us from making a mistake we would eventually realize anyway. More typically, religion is dead-weight or an active obstacle in a path towards moral progress.

Animal rights are a good example of this. The moral value of animals surely is a function of their neurological features. The extent of their similarity to humans allows us to grant them moral value by using ourselves as a precedent. Similarly, neurological complexity and especially the capacity for social reasoning are good candidates for the neurological origin of consciousness (as I argue here[38]). So the only way to get to the salient moral facts is with an understanding of the science, not religion. Which means that even when religion is asking the right questions - and I've demonstrated for Christianity and Confucianism that it isn't - its not employing the right methods.

EDIT: Added a reference[39] to contemporary negotiations on the environment with the PRC. Also changed the post to public.

[4] (warning graphic descriptions of animal slaughter and suffering)
[5] 1 Corinthians 9:8-11
[7] Matthew 8:28-34
[8] also Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39
[15] Genesis 1:26-28
[16] Genesis 2:15-17
[17] Genesis 9:1-3
[18] Genesis 9:4-5, Genesis 9:9-10, Genesis 9:17
[19] Psalm 24:1-2
[20] Colossians 1:16
[21] Leviticus 27:30
[29] Translated as Heaven, but more accurately corresponds to Fate or the Universal Spirit.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Jeffrey

First of all thanks so much for taking the care in answering my question and for the notes , I can continue

my "search" with those links.

But I have a followup question ,

Many people may not be religious in the christian sense , but they still retain the concept of being a "special creation" , not by the christian god , but that they are "special" or "there is

something more" or some "tracendence" concept , and that the rest of animals and plants are not. So they still think they have dominion over them , so its obvious to them to think like


Is this a remnant of our western - christian culture ?

As you explain there are more causes to the mistreatment of animals than Christianity or and Confucionism , so :

Is there a natural "dominion" concept in us , humans ?
To think we are special ?

And certainly religion doesn´t help in clearing away the room for rational thinking in the advancement for animal rights.

The idea of specially created beings poisons our mind despite science showing us we are anything but special, no more special than any of the other species on earth.

Is it not like a father who tells his child "you´re special" , "you´re special" many many times , he will become an arrogant human being who thinks he deserves all ?

But the Jainists don´t harm even insects and bugs , and the more fanatic they are the more careful they are with animals. So they knew better all along.

In the book "Society without God" P. Zuckerman argues that the Escandinavian countries the most atheist societies on earth are in fact more "moral" than the religious societies.
They are the most healthy societies with the lowest crime rate , the most egalitarian and are the top of the "hapinnes index" so :

Are these societies also the most animal-friendly , does these improvements also reflect in the way they treat animals ? do they have laws to protect animals ?

Thanks again Jeffrey , hope its not to many questions

Take care

Atheists are Freethinkers:
When someone converts to any religion, one can generally expect that person to conform to the moral code of that religion. I don't think we should regard atheism in the same way [40]. I think a better model for atheism might be a freethought [41]. Atheists typically inherit most of their moral ideas from the religion they just left, except of course any moral ideas that they felt they needed to reject in order to leave. But from that point on they are comparably much freer to modify their moral code to match their best understanding of right and wrong. As I'm sure you know, just because atheists don't all share a common unchangeable moral standard doesn't mean they descend into narcissistic hedonism or nihilism. By discussing atheists keep moral ideas demonstrated to have a stronger empirical or logical basis and throw out the moral ideas that conflict or are unfounded. In short, atheists figure out moral ideas by the same process that they figures out political[42] or scientific[43] ideas. And like these other fields, there is a progress at both the societal level (in which the body of human knowledge grows) and the individual level (in which an individual learns from others).

One is tempted to say similar things about religion, but I think there are reasons to believe religion does not progress as well as atheism. For one thing religion tries not to change, because as I argued in my last post, they all value “deference to moral standards of the historical past”. For another thing, religions often propagate their ideas by threatening violence (physical, social[44], and supernatural[45]) or faking knowledge[46][47], which makes their content resistance to the kind of scrutiny needed for progress. As Richard Dawkins explains in the God Delusion[48], all ideas are subject to a kind of memetic evolution[49] but successful ideas may be either parasitic or functional. As part of their participation in freethought, the atheist community maintains an environment which facilitates memetic progress[50]: freedom of speech, falsifiability, skepticism, empiricism, honesty and diversity. So I see progress in secular society as a microcosm for the general progress in empathy that I talked about last time - Maybe moral progress happens to atheists first, but not all at once.

If you are interested in influencing moral attitudes of atheists (especially Americans), one key cultural group to understand would be Effective Altruists[51]. The premise behind effective altruism in figuring out how to do the most moral good per donation dollar and also how to live a life that maximizes moral good. Peter Singer, who I mentioned last time as an influential animal rights advocate, is personally heavily involved in effective altruism[52][53]. He talks a lot about the psychological barriers that people have to giving. Some effective altruists might be resistant to the idea of helping animals, if they are concerned it will take away from helping people, but I think they can be persuaded - I'd argue that animals suffering is in the same moral category as human suffering, there are many circumstances in which animals suffer unnecessarily, and its important to at least come to a common agreement on the moral status of animals. GiveWell[54] is the organization used by effective altruists to guide their charitable contributions aimed at combating extreme global poverty; Animal Charity Evaluators is a similar organization set up to evaluate charitable contributions aimed at improving animal welfare[55] (and GiveWell has also started a pilot project on animal welfare[56]). What I'm saying is not only do these organizations focus on maximizing the power of altruism (so you know how to devote your resources) but these are the organizations atheists look to for maximizing the power of their altruism (so if you persuade them of your approach, you persuade many more atheists). A popular atheist forum for discussing effective altruism is LessWrong[57], a website that also discusses mitigating cognitive bias, transhumanism, and predicting the far future [58].

Sentience, Sapience, and Consciousness:
Sentience is defined as the capacity to experience or perceive anything. Sentience is often required as a minimal prerequisite for the capacity to experience pain and the capacity to experience consciousness. Sapience is defined as the capacity to understand and make judgments. Sapience is often required as a more than sufficient criterion for the capacity to experience pain and the capacity to experience consciousness.

Most non-human animals fall into the category of being more than sentient and less than sapient [59]. Animal rights activists make a compelling case that its the sentience that matters - if animals can experience pain than we have a responsibility to minimize their suffering [60]. Similarly, variations in intelligence or perceptual abilities of humans do not change their moral value, so these cannot be used as criteria in excluding the moral value of animals [61]. I think the animal rights activists are generally right here.

But historically people have excluded the rights of others by default and have only extended rights with entities that they could understand, negotiate with, enter contracts with, and be persuaded by. Humans should have been able to understand the personhood of other humans, but look how long it took (is taking) for the humane treatment of humans who speak other languages[62] or are mentally ill [63]. I don't see this as an ego thing, so much as a lack of conscientiousness. So in the behavior of humans, we appear to behave as though sapience and communication were the criteria. If animals were more sapient, they could argue for their own rights and force people to justify themselves to the very entity that they are wronging. But because they can't, this step in moral progress could be harder.

In asking humans to take into consideration the welfare of animals we are not really asking them to take a new intellectual step, but a new social step. In the past, human empathy has expanded as language barriers have fallen and humans were able to understand each other's perspective. But with human-animal interactions, there will always be a certain degree of language barrier and a certain limitation in understanding the other's perspective. Humans must freely give animals the gift of humane treatment, rather than having it asked of them.

But there's hope! We have already seen progress in the humane treatment of animals.

Northern Europe & Animal Welfare Legislation:
There are so many different ways to compare nations on the humane treatment of animals. Should we go by agricultural practices? Public polling on the treatment of animals? Legislation protection animals? The number of animal abuse cases? The percentage of the population that are animal activists? Conservationism and environmentalism? Vegetarianism? Each of these have caveats. For instance, a government make take a very different legislative position than its people or may have difficult effectively governing. Agricultural practices might be where most of the animal abuse actually occurs, but the differences in practices might be just as easily made up by differences in technology, infrastructure, and food-culture. Here is one person's expression of animal welfare priorities[64]. I tried to find an international body that published a world ranking on the humane treatment of animals (using some composite score, for example) but I didn't find any. So depending on your perspective on animal rights priorities and the degree to which people are responsible for how their country is run, you could come up with different assessments of the status of animal rights in different countries.

But animal welfare legislation has to be one of the clearest and most important items to compare. Wikipedia gives agricultural animal welfare legislation in US and Europe [65]. And here[66] is an article that discusses in depth several different animal welfare laws and the status of these law in the nations with the strongest animal welfare protection. That last article (by Djurens Ratt) identifies Switzerland, Norway, Austria, and Sweden as leading the world in animal welfare legislation. These countries are in the top 25 for atheism[67] but they are in the top 15 for GDP per capita[68] and I would argue that its the latter category that really makes these countries stand out in Europe [69][70]. As I have explained in previous AllExperts posts[71][72], atheism and wealth are correlated.
So these Scandinavian and Alpine countries are free-thinking but I said it could be their wealth that matters. Why? For one reason it means everyone is better educated, which could be important for understanding animal rights. Also, if taking care of animals humanely is expensive than everyone can still afford it, whereas in countries with less wealth and/or greater inequality any increase in the price of food could mean that people will starve. I would argue that another factor in the effectiveness of their legislation in addressing animal rights is the time their political bodies have to address it. For instance in the US the top two political issues for the last five decades have been foreign policy (especially terrorism and detente with Russia and China) and economic inequality (especially tax policy, healthcare, education, and racism). In contrast, these four Scandinavian and Alpine counties have barely had to discuss foreign policy or economic inequality in the last five decades - they've been neutral nations whose security is provided by NATO and their public has strong political support for a comprehensive social welfare program. Instead of arguing back and forth about these issues, they are tackling animal welfare, environmentalism, infrastructure investment, scientific research, and other prudent political issues that are often marginalized.

As you say, Scandinavian countries are often held up as atheist utopias. I'm really skeptical of the idea that turning a nation atheist will automatically fix all of its problems. I can imagine a culture of free-thinking and empiricism (and incidentally atheism) could help a nation come up with realistic and effective solutions to its problems, but there are too many other factors for me to draw that conclusion from the data. As I've explained before, I expect the causal error largely goes the other way[71]. I will say, however, that Scandinavian countries are strong evidence that atheism does not cause moral failure on an individual or societal scale. This is a surprisingly important point because as Daniel Dennet argues[73] this fear (belief in belief) may even be more common than genuine belief in God.

[41] see also
[43] see also
[50] (see cultural values)
[58] I do find many of their views a little nutty. However people willing to be embrace and stand up for uncommon ideas may be exactly the kind of allies you want to find.
[59] There may be non-human animals that are sapient, depending on what the precise definition is. I'll give an example. Dolphins are considered to be one of the most intelligent non-human animals, and consequently some researchers have called for an end of keeping them confined in pools for the purpose of research and entertainment. Because even if the dolphins are cared for well, they argue, the confinement in the pool may be too harmful. I think they should settle the question with an experiment I call The Dolphin Consent Form. One would set up an experiment in which dolphins have free access to the ocean but also to a pool - where they interact with humans and receive food. Then gradually (or with greater frequency) raise a barrier making it more difficult to travel between the pool and the ocean. If the dolphin is intelligent, it should be able to understand that it eventually has to make a choice. It would be a procedure that not only ensure humane care of dolphins, but would treat them as an entity with agency, sapience, and person-hood.


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Jeffrey Ellsworth


I am well versed on the arguments for both sides about the existence of God and am especially aware of the philosophical ramifications and psychological reactions to atheism. Also, if you have a question about atheism as that pertains to Science or Skepticism, I may be an especially good pick. However my knowledge of non-Judeo-Christian religions and Biblical archaeology is generally limited to knowledge about directions to more informative resources.


I've been an atheist for 14 years now, open about it for 9 years after being raised in a Roman Catholic family. In that time I have held many different philosophical perspective on the subject and had different emotional and psychological reactions to atheism. I have absorbed many internet articles, video debates, atheist publications, and secular podcasts in my process of understanding and supporting the atheist movement. I routinely hold conversations on the subject.

One article in If Journal, an interfaith publication.

I have a BS in Physics and Mathematics from the College of William & Mary I am pursuing my Ph.D in Physics at Indiana University at Bloomington. I have very little formal training in philosophy or sociology.

Awards and Honors
I was president of the William & Mary Students for Science & Secularism before graduating.

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