Friday, May 01, 2009

Environmentalism and Religion: "the child is father of the man"

a contrapuntal essay

"It is understandable that Luther could have found this preoccupation [with personal self-acceptance] in the apostolic message since it was his own question. [...] It was also perfectly natural for a John Wesley, a Kierkegaard, or today for an existentialist or a conservative evangelical reader to make the same assumption and find the same message--for all of these are in their variegated ways children of Luther, still asking the same question of personal guilt and righteousness."
--John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

In some strains of Christianity, you may find a human-centered chauvinist attitude toward the natural world.  The thinking seems to go that since humans are the pinnacle of creation, the rest of the created world exists for whatever humans wish to use it for.  There is, then, a divinely sanctioned human "dominion" over the rest of creation (this way of thinking may be opposed by the concept of "stewardship"--essentially the idea that God made all of creation for himself, and humans are caretakers.  In this way of thinking, nature has transcendent purpose, and humans have a moral obligation to care for creation.  I commend the concept of "stewardship" for finding in nature if not "inherent" value, then a value wholly separate from humankind's utilitarian use of it).

This religious human-centered attitude toward the environment actually eases into secular human-centered attitudes toward the environment (or do these secular views emerge from the religious thought?).  In one business-friendly strain, what matters is human benefit, and if the environment is damaged for the economic interests of humans (or corporations, or governments), so be it--what matters is human use.  Another strain can suggest that humans, as the most advanced species, have an inherent right to use the lower species for whatever purposes humans want.  As Harold Herzog writes in "Human Morality and Animal Research: Confessions and Quandaries," "Research with animals is based on the premise that a 'superior' species has the right to breed, kidnap, or kill members of 'lesser' species for the advancement of knowledge."

I think it possible that these secular arguments about human use of nature (including animals) may develop from the same historical strain as Christianity's arguments about human use of nature (including animals).  The child may be father to the man.

One might think that "Environmentalism" is an alternative, or a corrective, or in opposition to, a religious-based human-centered attitude toward the environment.  But this is not always the case.  It seems to me that some (I won't say many) environmentalists maintain human-centered chauvinist attitudes toward the natural world.  Some environmentalists view the natural world as worth protecting and preserving--so that humans can continue to use it.  What environmentalists? Environmentalists that eat meat.

If you claim to be an environmentalist but still think animals can be killed for your pleasure, then whom are you really trying to save the environment for?  You're not trying to save the environment for the animals (you probably don't see inherent value in the animal, if you are willing to eat it for your pleasure).  And you probably don't see inherent value in the natural world outside of human use.  Environmentalism can maintain this chauvinism, can still see humankind in a power-relationship over the natural world.  Secular environmentalists can still believe in human "dominion" over the rest of the natural world, can still see humans in a position of control, capable of using any part of the natural world (including animals) for our own purposes.  It is worth preserving the environment, not for its inherent value, but for its value to humans.

The child is father of the man.


  1. I was thinking about a sort of reversal of this situation this morning. Why is it that it's not only acceptable but often required to euthanize suffering animals, but we don't dare do that to humans? We even go to great lengths to prevent people from freely and consciously ending their own suffering. On the surface it looks like animal suffering ranks higher than human suffering. But I think it is a combination of a sense of stewardship and the belief that either we can override an animal's will to live or that animals have no such will. Stewardship and dominion hand in hand. It's an odd thing.

  2. I think that given people are allowed to kill animals for other purposes (food, research) lends itself to the belief that animals can be euthanized to end suffering. Humans, however, are not supposed to kill others or themselves (except for war, of course, or executions), thus euthanasia for humans is viewed as a different matter entirely.

    I think you have a great insight: in the case of euthanizing animals, both "stewardship and dominion" are not only in play, but "hand in hand" justifications.

    What I continue to find fascinating is that there is an interplay between the religious and secular view of, well, just about everything. More specifically, that particular secular attitudes didn't develop in a vacuum of pure reason, but grew out of a social and intellectual history that includes religion. Specifically, I think the scientific, "rational" belief that a superior species can exploit an "inferior" species for the sake of scientific knowledge (to the benefit of the superior species) NEVER WOULD HAVE DEVELOPED if not for the previous Christian belief of humankind's dominion over the "lower" species. The distinction between the rational and irrational isn't clean; all our ideas evolved historically.

  3. Just a note, again from Harold Herzog: "The Cartesian argument that humans and animals are fundamentally different was persuasive in the seventeenth century. To Descartes, animals were biological machines."

    It's not to Herzog's purposes, but I think one could go further back to find "the Cartesian argument" was largely a rational justification for what people already believed as an article of faith.

  4. Anonymous3:28 PM

    I wouldn't blame Christianity since just about every culture and nation on earth kills animals for food and for ceremonial or other uses. It's how we evolved. Even Native Americans, with their sense of close kinship with animals, have no problem killing and eating them. And of course many other species also kill for food and sometimes for other reasons as well. Believing that we may exercise the power of life or death over other animals is hardly a product of culture. In fact it's a wonder that we have any scruple about killing animals at all. Looking at it another way, the Old Testament notion of God-given dominion/stewardship may well have been an attempt to deal with discomfort around "playing god" with nature in the context of the ancient Hebrews' expanding ethical and moral awareness.

    I would also add that Christianity broke with the Jewish tradition of animal sacrifice (most famously the economic aspects of it), discouraged the eating of meat obtained through pagan sacrifice, and uses only plant products in its rituals. There's also the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meats other than fish on certain days, and general prohibitions on greed and gluttony. Compared to the other monotheistic faiths and many other religious traditions, the actual practice of Christianity is pretty kind to animals.

  5. By the way, that was me, I just used a different profile. So many options!

  6. Oh, yes, I shouldn't come off as if I'm "blaming" Christianity. I'm only trying to suggest that many "rational" secular ideas didn't develop out of nothing, but emerged from history, a history of ideas that was often very wrapped up in religion (that goes for many ideas I consider good, too).

    I would say, though, that treatment of animals is a "product of culture." That cultures allow the use of animals may be universal, but culture determines which animals are used (or forbidden), how the animals are used, etc. There are many examples I could cite that make it appear that the particular way particular animals are used is rather arbitrary.

    A side note on the topic at hand, I've read a few articles on Jewish ethics on animals (specifically Lisa Kemmerer's "Jewish Ethics and Nonhuman Animals" and Rabbi Dr. J. David Bleich's "Judaism and Animal Experimentation") that suggest Jewish tradition and law entails an ethical approach to animals.

  7. Oh yes, I would be the first to suggest that Western secular humanism grew out of the Judeo-Christian traditions (though I don't have much to support that assertion at this point). And I would agree that culture can certainly regulate our use of animals and gives us ideas about what animals are. But we are animals ourselves and have not lost the instinct to put whatever we think might enhance our survival, including social and even metaphysical survival, first. I think that is our baseline, and we probably stray from it less often than we would like to admit. If there is something that sets us apart from other animals it is our (occasional!) questioning of that ethic.

    Thanks for those article suggestions, they look very interesting. I'll look them up.

  8. Re-reading my post, it strikes me the tone does imply Christianity is responsible for environmental devastation. That seems distorted, as the real (as opposed to ideological) negative impact on the environment is a result of scientific and technological "progress." Environmental damage is one of the side effects of this progress (which is beneficial in thousands of ways).

    I'm reminded of a passage from Terry Eagleton "On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity:" "the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare."