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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 26 November 2003 Issue

The new animal spirituality: Do all dogs go to heaven?

Religion Link

Churches of almost every denomination, as well as many Jewish groups, are bringing animals to the front of religious consciousness - and in some cases, right up to the altar. Clergy are performing animal blessings, funerals and even weddings. While animal spirituality has long been debated, interest is turning into actions designed to recognize animals' spiritual roles.

The attention shouldn't come as a surprise: Almost six in 10 American households include a pet, compared with one in three that includes a child. And animals have long been revered in religion. Buddhism regards animals as beings in different stages of reincarnation. Hinduism and Jainism embrace vegetarianism out of respect for all life. Islam teaches respect for animals as part of God's creation.

The shifts in thinking are happening among Christians and Jews, who have long debated the spiritual role of animals. The Greeks believed that animals had souls, but Thomas Aquinas did not - at least not souls that survived death. So when God gave man "dominion" over the earth and its creatures, did that entitle humans to treat animals as they wished? Or did that give them the responsibility to care for animals as they would each other? In the eyes of God, are animals of equal or lesser worth than human beings? And if they have souls, is it acceptable to eat them?

Some credit the animal rights and environmental movements for renewed religious interest in animals. Others say it is a result of a return to the roots of religious traditions, where animals have always had a revered, if forgotten, place.

A few of the recent developments:

The Blessing of the Animals, a celebration once marked by Roman Catholics on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4), is now celebrated by many Lutherans, Episcopalians, Anglicans, Methodists and the United Church of Christ.
This year, for the first time, the American Academy of Religion has organized a group of scholars who will discuss the roles of animals in religion at its annual convention Nov. 22-25, 2003.
Ministers of many denominations now offer their services for pet funerals, weddings and blessings. Some churches have established pet cemeteries in sanctified ground.
Animal rights activists are reaching out to religious groups as allies.
People are becoming vegetarians and vegans because of their religious convictions.
Books by Christian and Jewish theologians, scholars and other thinkers have branched out from religion publishing houses to the mainstream publishers. Chief among these has been Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully (St. Martin's Press, 2002) and On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals by Stephen H. Webb (Oxford University Press, 2002).
Animals and the spiritual have made it into mainstream culture with the popularity of movies such as Seabiscuit, My Dog Skip and All Dogs Go to Heaven. Hallmark now carries pet sympathy cards, some with religious themes.

Questions for reporters
Which local congregations will observe the Blessing of the Animals on Oct. 4, and why? Have any begun observing it recently? What do clergy and participants say is gained from these ceremonies?
How does recognizing the spirituality of animals contribute to humans' understanding of their own spirituality? How do pet owners' views differ from those who don't own pets?
Has there been a shift in attitudes in the last few years? If so, what do people attribute that to?
Do any clergy or worshippers think that religious organizations carry concern for animals too far?
There are endless arrays of pet products and services on the market now. How do pet owners say that acknowledging their pets' spirituality is different from pampering them?
Do houses of worship see acknowledging animals' spirituality as a way of reaching out beyond their congregation?
What do non-Christian religious groups say about their beliefs about animals?
In what other ways do religious groups in your area show concern for animals?
Follow a pet owner through the process of nursing a pet through illness, planning the funeral and grieving for the animal. How does the owner talk about the pet's soul and spirituality?

Why it matters
Some theologians say that a common respect for animals as spiritual beings could serve as a bridge between religions because it rises above doctrine, rituals, and practices. They point to the fact that every major world religion - Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam - recognizes animals and man as of divine origin.

National sources

Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster is an assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas She teaches courses on religion and animals and is co-chairwoman of the new American Academy of Religion animals and religion group. She says many theologians are thinking deeply about whether only humans have souls and go to heaven. She also notes that the current interest in the spirituality of animals is making a leap from a religious setting to the secular setting as more animal shelters and pet hospitals bring in clergy to perform blessings. Contact 512-863-1669, [email protected].
Dr. Paul Waldau is a clinical assistant professor at the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass., and author of The Specter of Speciesism: Buddhist and Christian Views of Animals (Oxford University Press, 2001). He is also co-chairman of the new American Academy of Religion group on animals and religion. He says organized religion's recent appreciation of animals is a response to several things going on in the broader culture - scientific evidence of the intelligence of many animals, the environmental movement, a growing recognition of the unnecessary harshness and cruelty toward animals raised for food, and a rise in the number of people who keep pets. Contact 508-887-4671, [email protected].
Jay McDaniel, professor of religion at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., is a mentor for a new two-year doctor of ministry program at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, on spirituality, sustainability and interreligious dialogue, a portion of which will focus on bonds between humans and animals. He wrote the book Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence for Life (Westminster John Knox Press, 1989). He says the recent move toward recognizing animals as "spiritual friends" extends from a growing global realization of the interconnectedness of all life. He says concern for animals can be a common bond among people because no matter what their religious beliefs, if people see an animal being abused, they are concerned. Contact 501-450-1366, [email protected].
Stephen Webb is a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind., and a member of the American Academy of Religion's new group on animals and religion. He is author of On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals (Oxford University Press, 2002) and Good Eating: The Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Brazos Press, 2001), which includes a chapter on animals in heaven. He says Christians need to rethink Jesus' death as a kind of ritual slaughter. In his death, Jesus took on not only human suffering, but all suffering, including animals', he says. That, he argues, places animals in heaven. Contact 765-361-6264, [email protected], [email protected].
Carol J. Adams is a writer, lecturer and author of several books on religion and vegtarianism, including The Inner Art of Vegetarianism (Lantern Books, 2000). She says every religion opposes meat-eating at its roots - the secular idea that "it's a dog-eat-dog world" - but that this has been lost over generations. She can discuss the varying interpretations of "dominion" in Genesis and says a re-examination of this passage could open up conversations about religion's responsibility to animals. She says she thinks people have resisted a broad concern for all animals out of fear that caring and grieving on such a large scale could overwhelm them. Contact 972-680-3042, [email protected].
Laurelee Blanchard is the campaign consultant for Farm Sanctuary's "Sentient Beings Campaign," which seeks basic rights for animals. The group plans to do outreach to religious groups and people because, she says, people who practice religion are likely to be more open to extending compassion beyond humans. Contact 808-575-7694, [email protected].
Kim Sheridan is the author of the Animals and the Afterlife: True Stories of Our Best Friends' Journey Beyond Death (EnLighthouse Publishing, 2003). She says that as more people have brought animals into their homes, they have increasingly come to see them as spiritual teachers and guides. Pets become "centers of peace" and the bearers of unconditional love - a quality many associate with God. Because of that, she says, animals can teach humans to have unconditional love for others. Contact 760-740-8787, [email protected]


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