One of the major issues that I see as a bad thing about religion – at least within the three main Abrahamic traditions, is the speciesism that is integral to the belief systems. Whilst it is true that there are some ‘laws’ laid down for the treatment and slaughter of animals in these belief systems, they are in many cases treated with appalling cruelty, from Josua’s crippling of horses, to horrific ritual sacrifices designed to satisfy the whims of a god who enjoys the smell of burning flesh.
Humans are seen as the top species on the planet with the right to do whatever we like to lesser animals. This ethos has so embedded itself in our society that many people, even scientists, deny that other species have consciousness, feel emotion, or can love and feel pain in the same way that we do.
Thus, as a species, we use animals in any way we like. There are tortuous experiments worldwide designed to inflict pain to test animal resilience, and these experiments are widely reported in respectable journals which seem to have the attitude that anything done in the name of science, no matter how cruel, is for the general good. So rats are bred to have terrible genetic diseases that give the poor creatures a lifetime of suffering. Chemicals are dropped into the eyes of rabbits to test how much damage they do to the rabbits’ eyesight, and LD 50 experiments are still carried out dispassionately to test how much of a particular toxic chemical, pesticide, or drug it takes to poison half of a group of animals to death. (The other half are killed anyway, so as to make a fresh start for the next experiment). The suffering that the animals undergo is not even a consideration. No ethical committee considers the nausea, the stomach cramps, the fear, the hopelessness, the agony, blisters, abandonment, desire for freedom, terror of the unknown, headaches, joint pains, organ failure or whatever else is experienced by the animals that we use so unthinkingly.
So much for human superiority… It only takes a little observation to realise that all animals are as capable as we are of suffering, and although all animals do not have the same level of consciousness that we do, they are undoubtedly conscious. They may not be able to think in words, but they can and do anticipate, and they show empathy for each other. Their stress hormone levels rise, like ours, when they are subjected to stressful conditions. They will move away from something that inflicts pain on them. They mourn, sometimes to death, over the loss of a companion. They enjoy play, much as we do. They clearly care for their young. I have seen blackbird parents frantically searching night and day for their lost young, taken by a cat. Dolphins and whales will strand themselves to stay with a sick friend or relative. And most animals will fight to protect their young.
So the question comes to consciousness… And it’s something about which we don’t really have a good enough definition. But common sense can tell us a lot. If an animal can make a decision, it is necessarily conscious, because consciousness is required to make decisions. So a hedgehog that decides to go to sleep rather than forage for more food is conscious. A goldfish that makes a decision to chase another rather than come up for food is conscious. Creatures of all kinds, including ourselves, consciously choose a mate from what they see as the fittest of the contenders. A lot of instinct, and perhaps pheromones are involved, but there always comes a time to make a decision.
Man’s dominion over other animals is not therefore because we have a god-given right, or because we have consciousness and they do not. Rather it is because our evolution has given us a peculiar form of intelligence combined with a dexterity that allows us to dominate other species. It could so easily been different.
In this vast universe though, where there are as many galaxies as there are grains of sand on the earth, there must be intelligences that are as far above humans as we are above fruit flies. Where then the superiority of humans? We think of ourselves as conscious, but there could easily be conscious beings in this universe who restrict their views of consciousnes, as we restrict our views in homocentric ways, to beings who can create matter at will, who have the mental power to be what we think of as gods. Only gods can thus be conscious. Ironically, such gods would likely be atheists.
The superiority of humans is therefore a very blinkered view, perpetuated by religions founded thousands of years ago, when we did not realise there were other worlds, and our imaginations were limited by daily survival as desert nomads. That this blinkered viewpoint still limits the consciousness of people, causing endless suffering to species that we think are by right, under our dominion, to kill at will, to bleed to death and eat, to torture in the name of science, is without doubt a bad thing about religion and a disgrace to any conscious human, religious or not.