As the Day of Atonement - Yom Kippur, approaches and as this is a time to ask for forgiveness for harm done to others, as well as a time for reflection, it is reasonable to ask whether the harm done to non-human beings in the name of religious doctrine is nothing more than cruelty disguised as tradition.
"I Forgive All the Living Beings
I Seek Pardon from All the Living Beings
I’m Friendly toward All the Living Beings
And Seek Enmity with None"
~Jain prayer of Atonement
This message is from a religious tradition which honors the lives of all beings: human and animal, while the Abrahamic religions grant permission to humans to harm and even kill animals for their own benefit, often euphemistically attributed to necessity.
In the name of human superiority over animals, the harm done to living beings, by what is essentially sanctified animal abuse, is boundless both in the shear number of victims and the extreme violence inflicted. Many animals commonly slaughtered as food, possess a full range of emotions comparable to that of humans. The terror and pain they experience during slaughter results in great suffering. However the issue of animal abuse facilitated by religion is not limited to their slaughter for food, rather it is the view that man is above the animals and is therefore entitled to harm, exploit or even kill them for his benefit. It is this view which condones and justifies their suffering in laboratories, blood sports, hunting and culls as it is profitable to mankind.
Isaac Bashevis Singer aptly stated that: "For animals everyday is a holocaust." Imbedded in this statement is the understanding that sadistic abuse is tragic when inflicted on animals or humans. The failure to acknowledge this profound observation, will insure that violence both to both humans and animals will escalate, as it has done throughout human history, with a few notable exceptions.
When a Rabbi visits a slaughter house to insure that the slaughter is carried out in accord with tradition, he/she must ignore the terrible screams of the animals as they die in pain and terror. The need to view such carnage as a technical exercise destroys empathy for the very real suffering of the victims. Without empathy there is no compassion.
The decision of religion to justify this cruelty as insignificant has resulted in moral and spiritual poverty for the religious traditions that so devalue the lives of creatures other than man. Compassion exists when it is encouraged to grow and flourish. Suppression results in a stifling of the human spirit, that can so easily lead to gratuitous acts of violence against those deemed to be lesser: either human or animal. There have been no inquisitions, crusades, jihads or holocausts carried out by those who respect the lives of ALL beings, as expressed by the Jain religious tradition of India.
The harm done to one's spirit when particpating in violence to animals. either as doer or a witness is as tragic as the harm done to the victims. The premise that there is a link between the ease with which man harms animals and human on human violence has been expressed by a number of great secular thinkers in Western society:
"The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men." Leonardo da Vinci, artist and scientist
"For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love." Pythagoras, mathematician
"How can we speak of right and justice if we take an innocent creature and shed its blood?" Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Laureate in Literature
Is it time to atone for all the suffering humanity has inflicted on the creatures with whom we share the earth?
'He who harms the creatures, has not renounced deeds of sin', Jain Sutra
Religion should lead humanity to a higher level of existence. Perhaps it is time for the Abrahamic religious tradition to grant full compassion to ALL living beings, or it risks alienation from a growing number of followers who can no longer identify with values that so disrespect their deeply held beliefs of compassion.
At this sacred time, as you ponder on the meaning of Atonement and Forgiveness, also consider whether the animal abuse sanctioned by a religious model which trivializes their abuse and exploitation can ever lead to the enlightened existence humans are so desperately seeking.