Christianity and Animal Rights, Part 5

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Christianity and Animal Rights, Part 5

[Ed. Note: Please visit Animals - Tradition, Philosophy, Religion for many articles about animals and religious beliefs: Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and more.]

By Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10

Previous essays have argued that secular knowledge invariably influences how we interpret the Bible. The notion of rights – which are central to contemporary conversations about justice – is not found in the Bible. Human rights, environmental rights, animal rights, and other rights are secular concepts. I think that rights are crucial for applying the ancient, biblical principles of justice in our contemporary society.

In our pluralist, secular society, justice is meted out by judges, guided by laws rather than by religious authorities guided by their interpretations of religious texts. In secular societies, rights codified by laws are essential for protecting the weak against strong. Without laws to protect rights, basic rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, and protection against the whims of powerful individuals or institutions would be in great peril. For example, without rights, a majority of people of a certain religion could force minorities to abide by their faith. Similarly, those with power could silence those with whom they disagree, sometimes silencing the truth.

One might argue against rights in favor of majority rule. For example, if the majority wishes to criminalize belonging to a certain religion or political party, that is “the will of the people.” I see at least four fundamental problems with majority rule trumping individual rights. First, with majority rule, the whim of the majority could overrule essential needs of a minority. For example, if the majority wished to enslave a minority, the modest benefits to the majority would likely pale compared to the substantial suffering of the minority. Second, it is difficult to enfranchise everyone, such as children, people who are mentally impaired, or nonhuman beings, who have a strong interest in social justice issues but who don’t understand the issues at hand. In majority rule, those without a vote often don’t count, and indeed when it comes to animal issues, a minority of humans has “out-voted” a far greater number of non-humans. Third, in a large society, such as the United States with over 300 million people, it is logistically difficult to make policy decisions democratically. Instead, we have a representative democracy, but elected officials often have their own personal agendas that could easily lead to injustice and abuse.

A fourth reason that rights are essential is that humans are mimetic creatures, as I’ve discussed in past essays. Because people tend to be heavily influenced by the attitudes and convictions of other people, an irrational consensus can readily develop. This makes the general populace prone to error, particularly when emotions are aroused. Rights help protect weak and vulnerable individuals against the passions of the crowd. Further, we need unpopular prophets who speak truth during times of confusion, and without these prophets injustice more readily flourishes. In many respects, those of us who decry animal abuse are prophets speaking truth to power, and without freedom of speech the cause for animals would be nearly hopeless.

Protected animal rights with laws is an effective way to apply the biblical principles in our secular, pluralistic society. Next week, I will elaborate on my claim that animals need rights in order to receive meaningful protection against abuse.