Sometimes it appears that sensitivity to animal suffering is increasing. It is certainly true that there have been significant strides in the past 40 years. Hunting and coursing have been banned; fur-farming prohibited; veal crates, sow stalls, and battery cages are being phased out; and the use of great apes in experiments has been curtailed. The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 introduced a “duty of care” for domestic animals for the first time.
Underpinning these legislative changes has been a dramatic increase in philosophical work on the moral status of animals, almost all of it critical of existing practices. This, in turn, has been buttressed by scientific data which demonstrates that all mammals, at least, experience not just physical pain, but also mental suffering, including fear, foreboding, shock, trauma, stress, distress, anticipation, and terror — all states previously regarded as being exclusive to human beings.
Yet animal abuse is like a multi-headed hydra. As one part is cut off, another springs up. There had been a progressive reduction in the number of animal experiments in the early 1990s, but they are now back to the levels of the 1980s — more than 3.7 million in the UK alone in 2010. Many of these experiments are because of the massive growth of genetic manipulation, of which animals have been the prime victims.
Having dismantled the worst aspects of factory farming, we now face the emergence of “mega-dairies”, in which thousands of cows are to be kept permanently inside factories that are devoid of natural light and pasture.
And the underbelly of cruelty to animals shows no sign of diminishing. Complaints of cruelty investigated by the RSPCA have risen year by year, from 137,245 in 2007 to 159,686 in 2010. Is this because people are more sensitive, or because they have become more callous? Perhaps both, but still the overall trend is disquieting.
Why is it that we cannot as a society see that cruelty to animals, like cruelty to children, should not be tolerated?
Part of the answer is sheer political sluggishness. The Government has done nothing to prevent plans for mega-dairies. Despite overwhelming support for a ban on wild animals
in circuses, DEFRA and the Prime Minister obfuscate. The Government still manoeuvres to bring back hunting with dogs. The previous Government was at least preparing to examine the links between animal abuse and human violence, but the current administration has shelved this.
Despite scientific evidence that killing badgers is ineffective, even counter-productive, in reducing bovine TB, the Government now proposes yet more of the same. I am still waiting for an answer from Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for the Environment, who appears unable to provide answers to my detailed questions about its scientific validity.
The Churches are nowhere in this debate. With a very few honourable exceptions, English archbishops and bishops have not addressed the issue in the past decade or more. Such leaders, who are normally loquacious in lamenting regressive social policies, do not seem able to register animal cruelty as an issue. They talk airily
of environmental responsibility, but when it comes to confronting our specific duties to other sentient creatures, they fall silent.
What is true of the Church’s teaching is even more so of its liturgy. A prayer for the welfare of God’s other creatures is nowhere to be found in Common Worship.
All this represents not just a failure in moral perception, but a fundamental failure in theology, and one much more profound than is commonly appreciated. Ludwig Feuerbach famously argued that Christianity is nothing other than the self-aggrandisement, even deification, of the human species.
Christian theology needs animals to save itself, and ourselves, from idolatry. By “idolatry”, I mean the attempt to deify the human species by regarding the interests of human beings as the sole or exclusive concern of God the creator.
To avoid this charge, theology needs to show that it can provide what it promises — a truly Godward (rather than a simply anthropocen-tric) view of the world. Its obsession with human beings, to the exclusion of all else, betokens a deeply unbalanced doctrine of the creator.
Christians have not got much further than thinking that the whole world was made for us, with the result that animals are seen only in an instrumental way as objects, machines, tools, and commodities, rather than fellow creatures. We have failed to grasp that the God who meets us in Jesus is also the logos through whom — and for whom — all creatures exist.
To think that animals can be defined by what they do for us, or how they meet our needs, is profoundly untheological. The truth is that we are spiritually blind in our relations to other creatures, as blind as men have been to women, whites have been to blacks, and straights have been to gays.
The Anglican priest Arthur Broome, who founded the RSPCA in 1824, set it up as a Christian society based on Christian principles. He saw that Christian charity, if it was to be real, had to extend beyond human beings. Some of us are still living in that hope.
The Revd Professor Andrew Linzey is Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics (www.oxfordanimal-ethics.com) and author of Why Animal Suffering Matters (OUP, 2009).
He will give a longer address on this subject at an RSPCA service in Westminster Abbey to mark Animal Welfare Sunday, 2 October, at 6.30 p.m.
‘Theology needs animals to save itself, and ourselves, from idolatry’