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I.A.P.E.A. - London Conference report: 1984

Religious perspectives on the use of animals in science - London, 25-27 July 1984. Organised by the International Association against Painful Experiments on Animals:

'Never before has a conference been held on this subject and I would hazard a guess that never before have people from such widely different backgrounds and disciplines come together to discuss and exchange views. The conference was, therefore unique, and one wonders what impressions were carried away by the participants, who come from many different parts of the world.

The main speakers included professors of Philosophy, Ethics, Anthropology and Religious Studies, as well as two psychologists, a Buddhist monk, an Anglican clergyman and a Muslim preacher. The confrence was chaired by Professor Tom Regan, philosopher and author of the recently published book, 'The Case for Animal Rights'.

If we were to classify the speakers according to their commitment to animal rights we could start at the bottom of the list with a speaker like Rabbi J. David Bleich, Professor of Jewish Law and Ethics in New York, whose main interest is in the interpretation of Judaism, but whose personal interest in animal rights per se could only be described as dilettante.

Judaism apparantly does not recognise Rights for Animals but is concerned above all with preventing the moral degredation of humans, which could occur if they were cruel to animals. Judaism is therefore an anthropocentric religion. Instead of Animal Rights, therefore, the accent is always on Human Duties. All Jewish authorities agree that animals can be used for medical experiments if there is a 'legitimate' need, but the speaker made no attempt to show on what basis decisions would be made to establish which experiments were or were not legitimate. When pressed further by a questioner, he stated that each case would need to be considered on its merits.

Representing speakers from the other end of the spectrum was Rev. Andrew Linzey, an Anglican clergyman, who stated that according to his interpretation of the Christian tradition, there is a moral bond between Man and Beast. 'Animals must therefore never be used as means towards human ends, for their purpose does not exist to serve the human species.' And 'Man must not presume his purposes are God's purposes.'

Recalling the title of the conference he bravely went so far as to ask the question 'Should not there be ills that humans are prepared to bear in order to save animal suffering?' He considered that the law should always defend the weak against the strong, and intimated that theologians need to be constantly working towards a whole range of new insights. Clearly the true and rightful place of animals in the world will require considerable changes in theologians' current attitudes which are so often diametrically opposed to those experienced by this speaker. The audience greeted the end of Rev. Linzey's speech with deafening applause, probably partly out of relief at hearing at last from someone in the Church whose heart was in the subject.

Another interesting speaker, much loved by the audience, was Al-Hafiz B.A. Masri, Ex-oman of Woking Mosque in Surrey. As a Muslm preacher with a formidable knowledge of the Koran he expounded on Islamic teaching with regard to the place of animals in the world. As ex-chairman of the RSPCA in Tanganyka, with many years of experience of living in the African bush in close contact with wild animals, it was obvious that this was a subject which touched him deeply. According to him, Islamic teachings make it clear that the real criterion of man's superiority over the animal kingdom lies in his spiritual power, and he is considered the best of God's creatures only because of this condition. 'Many people have no claim to any superiority over animals because of their actions, which indicate their lack of self discipline. They have freedom of choice but they abuse it, therefore they are the lowest of the low in the eyes of Allah.' A famous Islamic teacher has said 'A savage and ferocious beast is better than a wicked tyrant ruler.'

When one considers the way in which animals are generally treated in Muslim countries it came as a pleasant surprise to learn that the Koran lays such emphasis on respect for animals. How did such an anomaly arise? The speaker considered that the answer may lie in a false interpretation of the doctrine of pre-destination or fate which has held sway in Islam for many centuries. This has given people the excuse to believe that an animal deserves its lesser state and its helplessness, and so can be treated with cruelty and derision.

This speaker concluded by saying that if all Muslims followed the teachings of the Koran then any kind of medical research that was unlawful on humans would be similarly unlawful on animals. The best way to change the current situation is through education.

Between these two extremes came other speakers like Professor Rodney Taylor, from the Department of Religious Studies, University of Colorado. He, as an expert on Far Eastern Religions, spoke about the place of animals in Confucian thought. It appears that Confucius and his followers, in ancient China, looked upon animals as inferior beings and, acording to a recent interview with a leading Confucian thinker in Japan, it seems that they still do today. However, they recognise that there is a continuum between men and animals, and that animals, like man, possess moral nature.

A further speaker, Dr Alan Bowd, educational psychologist from Australia, informed us of the results of some research into the attitudes towards animals of people from various Christian denominations. The aim of the work was to prove that religious belief relates to attitudes towards animals in general. His results were interesting.

The survey was conducted amongst members of five different churches: Anglicans, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists and United Church of Ausralia which includes Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregational. The most humane group in terms of their attitudes towards animals was found to be the Quakers, followed by the Anglicans, Catholics, United Church and Baptists in that order.

The opening speaker was to be Professor Ashley Montague, but unfortunately he was unable to be present because of illness and so his paper was read out by another speaker. As an anthropologist and author of 'The Elephant Man' he compared the arrogance of 'civilised' man with that of the so-called 'savage'. Having studied many primitive tribes throughout the world, Professor Montague has come to the conclusion that unlike Western man, the savage does not feel himself to be the Lord of Creation. His closeness with the natural world leads him to realise that in many ways animals are superior to man. They can outrun him, outwit him and can communicate with each other using powers unknown to man. To quote, 'To the extent that we harm the least of animals we harm ourselves.' Ashley Montague was quite clearly opposed to all experiments on animals and pleaded for more efforts to be put into the development of alternatives.

Other speakers covered Catholic, Buddhist, Jain and Hindu attitudes towards animals, but space will not permit me to report on all the papers in a short article. However, I am glad to say that plans are now being made to have the conference proceedings published in a book. As well as making copies available to the public the organisers intend to distribute them to as many religious centres in the world as possible.

The three day conference was a great success, the speakers addressing capacity audiences on the first two days. Much credit is due to the Chairman, Professor Tom Regan, whose warmth and skilful diplomacy helped to create an open and friendly atmosphere which was conducive to fruitful discussion.

The leaders of the International Association against Painful Experiments on Animals are to be congratulated on their vision and courage in organising this torch-bearing event. I feel sure that the ripples that have been created by the conference will be felt for many years to come and will undoubtedly play their part in helping to clear the way for a more humane world where all living beings will be treated with the love and respect which is their birthright.

Jean Pink

From the September/October 1984 edition of Outrage! with thanks to Animal Aid: www.animalaid.org.uk

(See also: www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/426_reg.html)

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