Cruelty should not be tolerated

28 September 2011

Christians are spiritually blind in their relations with other creatures, says Andrew Linzey.

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 ( 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’

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)