Animal Rights and Christianity: A Historical and Theological Discourse
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Toby Köberle
June 2005

Beneath the exterior of our ‘modern and civilised’ western world, can be found a backlog of customs, practices and thought patterns which are superstitious, backward and irrational, yet these antiquities form some of our most unquestioned and accepted behaviours and beliefs.

Our religions, and Christianity in particular, are often criticised for holding on to such outdated thoughts. Sometimes the criticisms are unjustified, sometimes not.

One such belief, ridiculous but widely held, especially among non-indigenous ‘westernised’ peoples, and unanimously supported by virtually all of the Christian communities and churches, is the belief that animals do not have souls and therefore rights as living beings.

Even today, when science confirms that animals show complex emotions, can think and reason[i], and are often uniquely individual, they are still denied the status of a fellow living being and are exploited with callous contempt by the vast majority of humans.

It was not always so. Humankind’s earliest religions often included veneration – sometimes worship – of animals, and always respect toward them. Far from being ‘backward’, indigenous humans, who lived their whole lives among the animals, recognised not only their value to the planet, but their value as living beings in their own right. Without a complex scientific background to draw on, such spectacles as the speed of the running cheetah, the unexplained “sixth sense” of hunting bats and the captivating breeding displays of birds-of-paradise, along with such phenomena as hibernation and the migratory flights of birds, would have seemed miraculous, even magical. By studying their lore, we learn that most indigenous peoples realised the complex interactions in any given ecosystem, and knew of the value of each species within that ecosystem, knowing also that to interfere would break that balance which would ultimately have detrimental effects on the tribe itself.

So, what occurred to change this? Why have we, who pride ourselves on being so intelligent, forgotten these truths? There are many reasons, the most significant of which are growing urbanisation cutting us off from the natural world, our – let’s face it – insatiable greed for money and material possessions leading to industrialisation and the degrading of nature and animals to mere resources to be exploited, and preceding that, the spread of a religion so afraid of idol worship that any symbol which did not belong to it (and the natural world had many) was deemed evil and, later in history, persecuted accordingly. At that time, all of the traits which we humans find so abhorrent in ourselves were projected on to animals. The concept of the ‘evil’ wolf, the ‘sly’ fox, and the ‘gluttonous’ pig are familiar to us all, yet all are untrue – there is not scientific justification for any of this. No wolf is evil – it is an animal living in often harsh conditions and trying to survive. There has never been a verified attack by a healthy wild wolf on a human being[ii]. Yet we hate and fear the wolf, just as we love and admire the dog. Why? It is my view that, because the dog is domesticated, it represents a taming of - thus a symbolic victory over – our lower natures as represented by the wild wolf. Of course, most people aren’t consciously aware of this connotation

This negative type of Christian symbolism found its spawning ground in the first of two streams of philosophy which influenced not only Christian thought, but upon which the entire system of western thought is based - Neo-Platonism and Cartesianism.

Defined simply, Neo-Platonism, the continuation of the philosophies of Plato (428 – 347 B.C.) and a form of dualism, is the separation of spirit and matter (i.e. mind/ body; later god/ earth etc), with spirit (ie, the soul) representing all that is ‘good’ in human beings and (I am tempted to insert “thus”) pointing to the higher power, whereas ‘matter’ is seen as undesirable, unclean, corrupted, and often ‘evil’. Only the One (the Neo-Platonic term for the higher power and later identified with the Judeo-Christian God) and human beings have ‘spirit’, God totally and humans partially. The rest of creation, including animals - not being human - was ‘matter’.

The Christian Church first adopted the Neo-Platonic philosophy in the first few centuries A.D., in an attempt to give itself a philosophical basis and to relate itself to the surrounding Greco-Roman world.

The historian Paul Collins notes that “The roots of Christian dualism are not found in the Bible but in the post-New Testament adoption of pagan Greek philosophy. Early Christianity was neither fundamentalist, not biblically literate in its attempt to evangelise the Greco-Roman world.”[iii] Neo-Platonic thought underlines most western philosophy and spirituality to this day. A.N. Whitehead states that, “All western thought is really just a footnote to Plato.”[iv] An accurate assessment!

Cartesianism came much later. The French philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), divided the human person into the 'thinking part', res cogitans, and the body, res extensa. He saw the body as a machine, which had to be governed by the self-awareness of human rational thought. He dropped the word for soul 'anima' and replaced it with the word for mind 'mens' What animals lacked, so he said, was the human rational thought, therefore their status was purely that of machines - and machines cannot feel. The screams emitted by tortured animals were no more, he said, than the squeaking of mechanical parts and of no consequence.[v] That attitude still underlines, to some degree, the thinking of virtually all western and westernised people – devout believers and atheists alike – even though scientists are now discovering that even relatively simple life forms are capable of feeling pain and stress. Organisations and governments who are stuffing their pockets by raping the natural world find the Cartesian view particularly useful in justifying their agendas. For Christianity, Cartesianism has served to further uplift the human being and to once and for all degrade all other life to “non-life” status. Although Catholic theology has often been at odds with Cartesianism, it has, paradoxically, “integrated much of the Cartesian view of reality, …easily embracing the ‘mind in the machine’ because for so long the Christian tradition had been subverted by Neo-Platonic dualism”.[vi]

As a result of all of this, human beings are in a collective state of anthropocentrism – human-centeredness, holding that non-human parts of the world as existing solely for the use or benefit of humanity. In fact, right up until very recently it was maintained that humans are the only species that has value and therefore it is morally acceptable for human beings to gain as much benefit as possible by using, even abusing, the environment[vii]. We are blinded by our own light. Or our own darkness.

In religious terms, anthropocentrism is something truly deserving of being called a ‘sin’. In Christian parlance, as sin is a trait which blinds one to the Sacred Virtues, thus separating the individual from God. By our anthropocentrism we are over-inflating our own importance at the expense of Humility (or ‘humbleness’ – seeing ourselves as we are; the realisation that everything comes from God, and submission to God’s will rather than our own[viii]). One would think that Humility could only be encouraged by cultivating a healthy respect and admiration for the natural world and animals in particular, and that the Church would thereby encourage such respect.

Furthermore, we are exploiting, torturing and killing for excessive monetary profit greed for material possessions and even entertainment, thereby cultivating the sins of Greed, Apathy and Cruelty and the taking of life. St Francis of Assisi, a Catholic monk of the thirteenth century, taught that “if you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow man." All of this clearly shows that there are solid theological reasons for Christianity to change its viewpoint toward animals, and still keep all of its significant doctrines and moral teachings intact.

Even science now proves beyond a doubt that animals are no mere ‘objects’, but this Cartesian fable is what most humans still believe, probably because it is comfortable and convenient to do so. After all, if we acknowledged the rights of animals, we would also have to face our cruelty, our exploitation and our rapaciousness. We would have to face the fact that we are all collectively guilty of genocide against our fellow species. This is perhaps a reason why our religions are so against allocating animals their rights – because our misdeeds can never find justification and our view of ourselves as beautiful, benevolent and compassionate beings “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26) would be exploded for the lie that it is. Hitler too, attempted to justify his extermination of the Jewish people by claiming that they are “not human”, therefore objects, and so it is lawful to destroy them. (Contrary to popular belief, Hitler was not an atheist, but a Roman Catholic Christian.) At any rate, one could say that Humility (defined earlier as “seeing ourselves as we are”) is officially refuted by the Church in favour of the sins of Pride and Vanity!

At any rate, that is where we are at.

Denial of guilt aside, one would think that, with the widespread destruction of our planet and the millions of species staring down the barrel, our religious institutions would speak out vehemently. One would think that Christianity in particular, which preaches love, compassion, justice and mercy, would speak with a very loud voice indeed. But Christian institutions have been extremely quiet when it comes to issues like animal rights, which in effect, condones the abuse. It appears that love, compassion, justice and mercy are reserved for humans alone – a stance which many Christians are happy to confirm.

Such is the case with the Roman Catholic Church. This gigantic institution, which has the potential to do so much good in the world, officially teaches (as outlined in The Catholic Encyclopaedia - see endnote vii) that, whilst wanton cruelty to animals is not to be encouraged because it harms the perpetrator (that much is true), animals are nevertheless classed as “things”(objects) and therefore have no rights. The full text can be found at New Advent.

This transcript is both derogatory and contradictory, and its ‘facts’ have no basis in scientific and little in biblical terms, as we shall see.

First of all, there is an acknowledgement that the first religions “taught that animals share in human rights, and that it is a crime to kill them”.

Second, there is an admission that “The Old Testament inculcates kindness towards animals “, giving numerous examples, although this “seems to have a religious rather than a humanitarian significance.” Taking into account the tenets of Judaism, I would agree that this is indeed the case. Nevertheless, it points to a clear and active moral obligation. There is nothing active about Catholicism’s claimed anti-cruelty stance. There seems to be a total absence of word and action in even denouncing cruelty to animals to save the soul of the perpetrators, let alone a more realistic and compassionate stance.

Next we have the statement, “The New Testament is almost silent on this subject” This is unfortunately true, however the author then goes on to extract the following:  "The just regardeth the lives of his beasts: but the bowels of the wicked are cruel" (Proverbs 12:10).  This is a clear call to have regard for the lives of animals. It must also be said that nowhere does the New Testament condone the abuse and exploitation of animals.  Its message is one of love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness and it was only in the following centuries that Christian lawmakers took the liberty of excluding animals from God’s compassion.

Next it is stated, “The hagiological literature of monastic life in the Middle Ages, which so largely formed and guided the moral sentiment of the Christian world, as Lecky sets forth with ample evidence, represents one of the most striking efforts made in Christendom to inculcate a feeling of kindness and pity towards the brute creation" (History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, II, 161 sqq.). This considerate feeling was a characteristic of many holy personages, even before St. Francis of Assisi and some of his followers carried it to a degree that seems almost incredible. “ Apart from demonstrating the author demonstrating his sickening bias in the last line, there seems to be a clear precedent for a moral duty toward animals in the Roman Catholic tradition, a duty which appears to extend beyond a mere abstinence from wanton cruelty.

Despite all of these admissions, the official “Catholic Doctrine” is stated as follows:

Catholic ethics has been criticized by some zoophiles because it refuses to admit that animals have rights. But it is indisputable that, when properly understood and fairly judged, Catholic doctrine -- though it does not concede rights to the brute creation -- denounces cruelty to animals as vigorously and as logically as do those moralists who make our duty in this respect the correlative of a right in the animals.  In order to establish a binding obligation to avoid the wanton infliction of pain on the brutes, it is not necessary to acknowledge any right inherent in them. Our duty in this respect is part of our duty towards God. From the juristic standpoint the visible world with which man comes in contact is divided into persons and non-persons. For the latter term the word "things" is usually employed. Only a person, that is, a being possessed of reason and self-control, can be the subject of rights and duties; or, to express the same idea in terms more familiar to adherents of other schools of thought, only beings who are ends in themselves, and may not be treated as mere means to the perfection of other beings, can possess rights. Rights and duties are moral ties which can exist only in a moral being, or person. Beings that may be treated simply as means to the perfection of persons can have no rights, and to this category the brute creation belongs. In the Divine plan of the universe the lower creatures are subordinated to the welfare of man.”


“While Catholic ethical doctrine insists upon the merciful treatment of animals, it does not place kindness towards them on the same plane of duty as benevolence towards our fellow-men. Nor does it approve of unduly magnifying, to the neglect of higher duties, our obligations concerning animals. Excessive fondness for them is no sure index of moral worth; it may be carried to un-Christian excess; and it can coexist with grave laxity in far more important matters.”

There is no biblical justification for any of these statements, nor for the total lack of action by the Roman Catholic Church in actively opposing cruelty to animals.  Indeed, I have yet to find any evidence that “Catholic doctrine denounces cruelty to animals as vigorously and as logically as do … moralists”. Nowhere in the Catholic world do we find a “binding obligation”, rights inherent or not. Instead, we find such obviously degrading language as “zoophiles” and the Catholic word for animals seems to be “brutes”, which are classed as objects (“things”), all in full accordance with long-outdated and many times disproved Cartesian drivel.

With regard to environmental issues in general, the Anglican Communion (known as the Episcopal Church in the USA) is slightly better. There exists an active organisation called the Anglican Community Environmental Network (ACEN) which recognises and even seeks solutions for the world’s environmental crisis. On top of that, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has made a speech to similar effect. There are even small Anglican grassroots groups working on environmental projects at local levels. Yet on the particular issue of animal rights, the Anglican position is not markedly different from the Roman Catholic one. Upon my prompting, the director of ACEN, Rev. Canon Eric B. Beresford, was unable to comment on any differences in the respective viewpoints. 

The collective Eastern Orthodox Churches seem to be ignoring the issue entirely and do not seem to have an official viewpoint on either environmental or animal rights issues, although it can safely be assumed that if such a viewpoint did exist, it would not differ markedly from the Roman Catholic one.

Other major protestant churches are either in accordance with the Catholic stand (such as, ironically, the Lutherans), or somewhere between the Orthodox and Anglican positions, meaning that they are either ignoring the issues or, at best, cautiously putting their feelers out and perhaps making some half-hearted attempts at window-dressing. Their collective lack of action however, speaks louder than any words and in any case it seems bizarre to discuss whether animals even have rights when long ago we should have reached out to help them.

There are two further barriers in getting any Christian denomination to recognise the rights of animals.

Both of these are biblical passages, both from the books of Genesis in the Old Testament. They are the claim that ‘man is made in God’s image’ and that ‘God gave man dominion over all creation’, both used as justification for Christianity’s rampant anthropocentrism. But is the case so clear cut?

To answer that, we must examine these biblical passages in their cultural, historical and linguistic contexts.

Genesis 1:26-30 states: “26 Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ 29 Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so.”[ix]

What an ego boost for humankind to justify our every action as righteous because we believe ourselves to be made in the image of the supreme God! It is not unexpected that believers and non-believers alike have adopted that line of thought with gusto.

However some of the greatest thinkers in both Christianity and Judaism have struggled with this concept.

The great reformer Martin Luther believed that man cannot comprehend the meaning of imago Dei (“image of God”). He wrote:

“When we speak about that image, we are speaking about something unknown. Not only have we had no experience of it, but we continually experience the opposite; and so we hear nothing but bare words.… Through sin this image was so obscured and corrupted that we cannot grasp it even with our intellect.”[x]

Judaism has this to say: “One way of understanding it is that being created in the image of God, we have choices and can exercise freedom. We are partners with God in shaping life and preserving the world. Jewish tradition teaches that recognizing that we are created "B'tzelem Elohim", in the image of God, can shape the way we see ourselves. It instructs us that all of our actions have the potential to connect us with God if we act in God-like ways. For example, 'just as God is kind and merciful, you should be kind and merciful also.'[xi]

In the linguistic context of Genesis’ original Hebrew text, ‘dominance over all life’ is better interpreted as ‘stewardship of all life’. William Greenway, in his excellent essay “Animals and the Love of God”, writes:

“In the Bible, by contrast (to Cartesian thought), value and redemption extend not only to humans but to all animals.” Greenway also points to the fact that, in Genesis, God repeatedly declares that creation is good. He continues, “We often overlook what God then says to the man and woman: ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." The passage concludes, “and indeed, it was very good.’

The message is startlingly clear: we were given plants and fruits for food, and so were all the other animals who have "the breath of life" in them. Not only are all the creatures of the earth proclaimed to be pleasing to God, but (we are not) given other animals to eat.”

Furthermore, Greenway correctly points out that “The commentaries on these texts (Genesis) almost exclusively emphasize how glorious it is to be human. They stress the hierarchy within creation. Repeatedly they remind humans that only they are created in God’s image, that only they have been given dominion and told to subdue the earth, that only they are directly addressed by God, and that only they have speech and the right to name all other creatures. But amidst all the exegetical energy bent on glorifying humanity, a pivotal theological teaching is neglected: that all life is sacred, and that we are to love all creatures.”[xii]

Commenting on the view that “humans are elevated over the rest of creation by being formed in the image of God”, Greenway points out, “The primary hierarchical division in Genesis is not between us and the rest of creation; it is between God and creation. True dominion lies not in us, but in God. If we are rightly to understand how to exercise our dominion, we must strive to imitate and understand God’s dominion.” [xiii]

A quick mention should also be made of the Noah’s Ark story. No matter whether we view it as historical fact or myth, the writer makes clear that the god of Judaism and Christianity cares deeply about animals. Any Christian who dismisses the Noah’s Ark account as insignificant and meaningless (and many do) must ask themselves honestly why they are not equally dismissive of the two above-mentioned passages of Genesis. Food for thought. 

All of this shows that there is no justification, either biblical nor in early Christian tradition, for humankind’s continued exploitation and extermination of animals. If there is no justification, and our treatment of animals is clearly an ethical wrong, then the Christian churches and communities have a moral duty to speak out against such abuse, both in word and deed. Those churches and communities are, in the end, nothing more – and nothing less – than groups of individuals, each with the power to make life better for our fellow animals.

There are several things that you, the reader, can do:

1) Write to the highest authorities of your denomination, demanding a revised, more compassionate and more active position regarding animal welfare and acknowledging their rights.

2) If you are active within your congregation, you could form a grassroots group for tackling animal rights abuses and/ or environmental problems. This website provides further resources and links toward that end.

3) If you are very deeply concerned about animals and you are a person who cannot justify cruelty, exploitation and apathy toward them, you can exit your church or religious community in protest. Of course, many of you will have already done so but your actions will be much more potent if you make it official. Cancel your membership and write to your church/ community at both the local and the highest level, stating your reasons for leaving. That way you are hitting them where it hurts most – in the hip pocket. If enough people do this, Christian churches and communities will very quickly outgrow their antiquated Cartesian concepts about animals!

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”


[i] Current Biology magazine, March 2005
[ii] Information provided by TheWild Canid Survival and Research Centre, Canada, 2005.
[iii] “God’s Earth: Religion as if Matter Really Mattered”, p. 98 – Paul Collins, 1995.
[iv] Quoted in “The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea” – Arthur Lovejoy, 1970.
[v] “Do Animals Have Souls?”– Deborah Jones. This article was published in The Ark, No 186 Winter 2000
[vi] “God’s Earth: Religion as if Matter Really Mattered”, p. 121.
[vii] Notes from the Conference of Religion and Globalisation, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 30 July 2003.
[viii] Definition of Humility is from The Catholic Encyclopaedia – which defines the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, 2005.
[ix] The Bible – New International Version.
[x]  “Martin Luther and the Mission of the Church,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 13:18. Charles Chaney, 1970.
[xi] “A Torah Commentary For Our Times”, p. 22 – Harvey J. Fields, 1993.
[xii] “Animals and the Love of God” – William Greenway, assistant professor of Christian studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. This article was published in The Christian Century, June 21-28, 2000
[xiii] ditto

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