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Catholic-Animals
THE ARK

A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals

 

Selections From The Ark Number 211 - Spring 2009

ANIMALS, SCIENCE AND THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
BY MARTIN HENIG

Until last October, Professor Henig, a Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford and an Honorary Professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London, was Visiting Lecturer in Roman Art at the University of Oxford. Now he is training for the Anglican priesthood at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. This is an abbreviated version of a talk he gave to the Three Counties Ecumenical Prayer Group for Animals, Gloucester Cathedral, last April.

A year or so ago, I saw a piece in the Oxford Magazine about the new Animal House which was to be built for breeding animals for vivisection in the Physiology Laboratory. I was outraged, joined others, and founded an organisation which eventually became the Voice for Ethical Research in Oxford (VERO).

My stand on animal experiments, as on factory farming and, indeed, killing animals for any reason, springs directly from my Christian faith, enriched though I have been by what I have taken from other religions. [Martin was received into the Church of England from Liberal Judaism, in 2002].

There are, of course, utilitarian arguments against vivisection, based on the premise that such research can mislead: other species frequently react to drugs differently from humans – the recent disaster at Northwick Park Hospital highlighted that risk. Another highly plausible reason for opposing the use of animals in research is that a pre-occupation with such methods has meant that other types of enquiry have been under-funded or ignored. As a non-scientist I cannot comment on these grounds for abandoning tests on animals, save to say that they are supported in whole or part by very serious-minded members of the science establishment, such as the Dr Hadwen Trust.

This Trust opposes animal experiments for moral reasons as well and, as a Christian, I base my total opposition to animal tests here, very much aware that I share my concerns with members of other faiths – some of which have historically done better than we have. Many Hindus, Jains and Buddhists adopt a vegetarian life-style and avoid the harming of all living things. And closer to home, and easy to meld into a Christian form, there is a rich tradition of Jewish writing, essentially exegesis on Scripture, which is very concerned with the humane treatment of animals.

We must see creation as a whole. All beings are created by God and that gives them an essential equality. In Genesis, it is true, Man is given stewardship over them, though this is a statement of self-evident fact, because the writers, even of such early texts, lived in a world where animals were domesticated, though – through imagination and intuition – it was possible to look back to a golden age in which such stewardship was beneficent and man lived entirely on fruit and herbs. In Patriarchal times and later animals are killed for food – food for man, but also food for God. Like other peoples at the time relationship with the Divine was mediated through sacrifice.

Christian God of compassion

But the God I worship rather proclaims some 500 years later, ‘I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings’ (Hosea 6:6). In the Gospels we find the famous episode of Jesus cleansing the Temple. The point is often made that this uncharacteristic bout of ‘direct action’ was aimed at those for whom religion had become a business, but in the light of prophetic insights about God desiring compassion and not sacrifice, and of Our Lord’s overflowing compassion, I tend to think (with Richard Ryder) there was also fellow feeling for the sacrificial animals here, from One who was himself to be a sacrifice for us all.

The Scriptures are, of course, a story of progressive revelation. Our Lord was a child of his time and so he certainly ate fish; but we famously hear of his compassion towards the little birds sold in the market as tidbits: ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.’ (Luke 12:6). The implication of Jesus’ message of love extends to the entire creation. As the aim of his Ministry was ‘Paradise Regained’, then the new Revelation has to be pre-Lapsarian [before the Fall], of Isaiah 11:6 and 9. As the ideal is to avoid harming animals by sacrificing or eating them, can any different principle apply to using them in experiments? If one believes that it does, one is actually on a very slippery moral slope indeed. Means never justify ends. Causing pain to any of God’s creatures can never be ethical. Logically, if one hurts an animal in the cause of scientific discovery – without that animal’s consent – what is to prevent one arguing that a severely brain damaged human being or a criminal might be substituted?

No blanket licence

Some people might try to argue that our moral code does not allow experimentation on humans, but moral codes once weakened (in Nazi Germany and modern China) have certainly done so. In addition, the current furor over the use of human embryos is a symptom of real unease, and demonstrates that a considerable number of people reject a blanket licence to manipulate nature in the cause of ‘science’, even if scientists claim it will lead to some ‘greater good’.

Animals feel fear and pain just as much as do humans, without the means of knowing the reason for their suffering. This is especially apparent with primates with their enormously complex social structures. On a recent holiday to Rajasthan I watched a tribe of macaques nurturing their babies, young monkeys showing off, older monkeys skillfully snatching fruit from our breakfast. Not surprisingly these engaging creatures are sometimes given quasi-divine status in their native land and associated with the god Hanuman, but in Oxford they would risk having electrodes inserted into their brains. In my opinion, vivisection is an outrage against the Christian values enshrined in Oxford University and such was the view of Lewis Carroll, Cardinal Newman and C.S. Lewis, among others.

Are there, then, limits which can and should be applied to science? Here the first thought that comes to me is from Pericles’ great Funeral Oration over the Athenian dead after the first year of the Peloponnesian War: ‘Though free, they [the Athenians] are not completely free because they have a master – the Law’.

The scientists’ Faustian pact

In 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, Christopher Marlowe wrote Dr Faustus, the eponymous hero of which is the type of our scientist. Restless for knowledge, he tries everything, having made a compact with the Devil. The play shows his mental deterioration and ultimate despair when he eventually realises that his arrogance has only led to his damnation. The Chorus admonishes us to regard his ‘hellish fall’:

Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,
Onely to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepenesse doth intise such forward wits,
To practise more than heavenly power permits.

My conclusion agrees with Andrew Linzey’s masterful University Sermon on 17 February this year. ‘Our power or lordship over animals needs to be related to that exercise of lordship seen in the life of Jesus Christ.’ That ‘heavenly power’ consists of self-sacrificing love; the power, that is, of the servant, binding wounds and washing feet, not that of the manipulator. The loving sacrifice of Jesus leads to life; a callous disregard of the life of living creatures, human or animal – in war, in the factory farm or abattoir, in the laboratory – leads to degeneration of moral sensitivity, a deadening of conscience and ultimately to spiritual death. The fate of Faustus was not simply the invention of an Elizabethan playwright, but remains a terrible risk to the scientist of the 21st century.

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