Killing Animals for Entertainment: Why People Hunt
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion

FROM The Peaceable Table
August 2019

There are at least three important issues which call any religion, especially Christian, justification for sport hunting into question: The Challenge of Nutrition, The Challenge of the Empathic Life Review and The Challenge of Spiritual Evolution.

hunting Animals

The number of people (mostly men) in our culture who engage in hunting for “sport” is diminishing. But for those who still hunt and actively champion it, it continues to have great appeal. The reasons for this appeal are likely to be opaque to animal activists and supporters because of our abhorrence of the violent act against an innocent animal at its center. But it is important for us to understand hunters as best we can, if we are ever to speak on the subject.

Why People Hunt

Several of these reasons are illustrated in the series of short essays by hunters embedded in the anthology God, Nimrod, and the World: Exploring Christian Perspectives on Sport Hunting, edited by Bracy V. Hill II and John B. White (reviewed below). One of the advantages of hunting that many mention is enjoyment of the natural world; several of the writers, emphasizing their Christian commitment, delight in the beauty of the world, woods and meadows and streams and the refreshment that world provides them.

Animal activists would protest that one could still enjoy nature without killing, which is certainly true; but hunters might say that the keen edge of their enjoyment would be much dulled without the lying in wait and the successful kill. There is probably truth to this claim. Hunting and war have in common that, in the suspense of a life-and-death issue, most people feel more intensely alive than in an ordinary lifetime of easy circumstances. (Nature mystics may feel this intense aliveness even in peaceful natural scenes; and hunt saboteurs may, like hunters, feel intensely alive during the hunt: they are as deeply eager to save the animals as hunters are to kill. As a kind of “war saboteur” with Witness for Peace in Nicaragua in the 1980s, I experienced this high myself.)

Some essay writers see their hunting as following naturally from their love of God’s creation, the natural world just as it is. They claim that nature is marked everywhere by predation; every being lives at the expense of others. We humans and other natural predators kill to eat; all beings cause the death of others, whether violently or through taking scarce resources such as land space to grow our plant food. One hunter gives the example that after her death her body will be eaten by worms; thus she is both predator and prey. In sum, since her hunting is only doing as she will be done by, it is all fair. If predation is curbed or stops, the prey animals will multiply and slowly starve; the quick violent death the hunter administers is actually more merciful (birth control is not considered). Loving nature means loving the predation system and willingly participating in it. Hunters seldom emphasize the cooperation and bonding in nature; they see it essentially in light of Tennyson’s “red in tooth and claw.”

Another reason hunters cherish their “sport” is that they experience it as promoting human bonding and emotional discipline. They describe fond memories of being taken on hunts at an early age by their fathers, or taking their own young sons, and/or of the camaraderie they enjoyed with other relatives and friends. One writer said that it was in the context of the hunt that his father was able, for the first time, to tell his son he loved him. One of the rules they learn is that hunters must put up with cold and other discomfort without serious complaint. Another is that they must play fair and look after each other. If one of their company has been first to spot a particular animal, such as a deer with a magnificent rack of horns, and has been lying in wait for him, another hunter who gets a chance to kill him must pass it by. Thus hunting promotes self-discipline and toughness, usually linked to masculinity. Some regard this process as promoting spiritual maturation.


Although by definition sport hunting is not necessary to provide food, eating the bodies of their kills is important to many hunters; one writer mentions his pride in providing his family with good food for a considerable time from the body of a single deer. He sees himself as thus fulfilling an important part of a husband and father’s duty, his wife’s duty being to cook it competently, something she enjoys. Feminists, whether Christian or not, may feel less than enthusiastic about such a view.

The hunters see predatory violence as continuous between humans and (non-human) animals. One writer sees the universe as made up of a kind of three-linked Great Chain of Being: God on top, then human beings, and then animals below us. We humans have a right to kill animals; God has given them to us as our food, and thus to do so is not a sin. The passage in Genesis 9 in which after the Great Flood God gives “every moving thing that lives” as food to the surviving humans provides a handy proof-text for some who hold this position.

However, there are at least three important issues which call any religious, especially Christian, justification for sport hunting into question. The first has the most concrete evidence.

The Challenge of Nutrition

Many readers of PT are aware of increasing numbers of nutritional studies showing that the characteristic Western diet, centered in animal flesh (and also dependent on cows’ milk products and chickens’ eggs), fosters chronic diseases such as major cancers, coronary heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. I will sketch out one study dealing with coronary heart disease, and cite two others with diabetes.

In 1985, Caldwell Esselstyn (pronounced ESS-ul-stun), a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, began a twenty-year pilot study of people with advanced coronary heart disease to whom conventional medicine had essentially given death sentences--after all the regular treatments had been gone through, nothing more could be done for them. (Esselstyn [pictured] wanted to have a control group as well, but funds weren’t adequate for that.) Twenty-four people were enrolled. Esselstyn put them on a diet with the following features: No animal-origin foods (“nothing that had a mother or a face”), no added oils, and (generally), no nuts or avocados. The only medication in the plan was a cholesterol-lowering drug. He gave his subjects a great deal of support, meeting with each one every other week, checking blood pressure and blood cholesterol, and phoning them with their results; the entire group convened every three or four months, sharing recipes and comparing progress. This was during the first year; later, after the new regime was well established, the contacts were less frequent, but they continued.

For the sixteen who stayed strictly on the regimen, the results were dramatic. Within weeks, angina eased or disappeared, and blood cholesterol went down; eventually, it averaged out to the low of 137 milligrams per deciliter. This is below the intended goal of 150 milligrams, and almost half of what the average had been at the beginning. One person, although two of his coronary arteries had in fact widened, died after nearly six years because the long-time scarring in his heart was so bad that it essentially “electrocuted itself.” The others had no cardiac events over twelve years. There were no cases of progression of symptoms, and in many cases, arteries that had been narrowed widened measurably, some more, some less. In contrast, among the six persons who had dropped out of the plant-food diet, all had progression of symptoms, and there were thirteen cardiac events. After twenty years, those who followed the diet strictly remained free of symptoms.

The take-away from this study, confirmed by other studies, is that consuming animal flesh (and other animal products) clearly fosters our culture’s Number One killer, coronary heart disease; consuming a whole plant-based diet tends to heal. (Sixteen and six don’t add up to twenty-four; I wasn’t clear about the situation of the two remaining persons.)

Type 2 diabetes offers further examples of the dangers to human health of consuming meat and other animal foods. There are several studies done with Seventh-Day Adventists, a Christian denomination in which about half are omnivores and half vegetarians. In the Adventist Health Study of about 34,000 persons (published in 1999), after adjustments for possible confounding factors, men who ate meat had a 97% greater risk of diabetes, and meat-eating women a 93% greater risk, than the vegetarians did. The second Adventist Health Study, including nearly 61,000 persons (published in 2009) yielded similar results: after adjustments, the odds ratio of a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes among regular meat-eaters “remained approximately twice that of individuals avoiding meat.” See the essay by Neal Barnard et. al, Meat Consumption Risk

The problem these and many similar scientific studies pose for Christian (and other Western religious) hunters is clear. A God who loves human beings could not have assigned us to kill animals and eat their flesh, seeing that it seriously increases our risk of major diseases and earlier death. In contrast, the healing effects of the vegan diet of Eden are consistent with Divine love that seeks the well-being of humans, but the post-Flood diet of “every moving thing that lives” is not. The plant-based Eden diet is indeed “God’s best dream for the world,” to quote Stephen Kaufman.

The Challenge of the Empathic Life Review

The empathic life review is a very uncomfortable concept from Near-Death Studies, which I have dealt with before in the October 2008 PT (see Whatever One Sows ). In brief, a certain number of Near-Death Experiencers (NDErs) report that their experience included a life-review in which they not only saw many or all of their past actions and words, and not only relived them, but found that their consciousness had expanded so that they shared the feelings of all with whom with they had interacted, both human and animal. In other words, it was a kind of individual Great Judgment, but, as Near-Death Experiencer P.M.H. Atwater reported, “There wasn’t any heavenly St. Peter in charge. It was me judging me, and my judgment was most severe.” This element of self-judgment is what makes the Empathic Life Review quite different from nearly all religious conceptions of a Great Judgment, whether in ancient Judaism, or in the Egyption Book of the Dead (being weighed on the Scale of Maat), Christianity, or Islam, or some strands of folk Buddhism. In these, the Judge is God or a powerful spiritual being, who is usually depicted in a state of wrath. In the Empathic Life Review, by contrast, some experience God as present as they judged themselves, present not in wrath but in compassion, sharing their suffering as they endured the harmful things they had said and done to others. The experiencers also relived and shared the blessings and joys they had given out.

Clearly, whether or not the Empathic Life Review really happens to us all at some point beyond death, the evidence for it is not on the level as that for the nutritional issue. Most people, including myself, don’t like to anticipate going through it; they would probably rather forget the whole idea. We know that whether we think about it or forget it doesn’t affect the question of whether or not it is real. But if real, it provides a deep foundation for the sense of oneness with others reflected in all major religions by their high valuing of love and kindness, and their condemnation of cruelty and selfishness. “Saving one life is saving the world entire,” “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “ Allah is compassionate,” “Whatever you have done to the least of these my brothers, you have done to me,” “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others,”and the like. Jesus’ teaching “Love your enemies . . . and do good to them,” in the light of the Empathic Life Review, goes from being a virtually impossible counsel of perfection to being common sense: good things done to our enemies are good things done to ourselves. And such actions just might make them into friends.

If the Empathic Life Review does await each of us, where does that leave hunters? How many of them, whether religious or not, would be willing to undergo what they put the target animals through? “Bambi-Lovers” is a term of derision for hunters, but what if the hunter’s target animal is bonded to a mate, to a mother, to young ones--is the hunter willing to experience the anguished bereavement of Bambi as well as his mother’s violent death?

Animal painting

The Challenge of Spiritual Evolution

The idea that humans are intended to lead the spiritual evolution of the world’s animals can be seen as having an even weaker foundation than the prospect of an Empathic Life Review. It is outlined in “The Animals Are Waiting”, in the June 2010 PT. To summarize: the origin of the idea of a coming Peaceable Kingdom, a renewal of Eden, is found in at least two biblical passages. One is Isaiah’s famous “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb . . . and a little child shall lead them” scene, and in Paul’s line in Romans 8: "the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The Eastern Orthodox churches put a great deal of emphasis on this coming transformation of the whole cosmos, which they see as having originated from Christ’s Incarnation, his Transfiguration, and especially the Easter event.

The idea that humans are to lead this process by engaging in meditation [and contemplative prayer] originates from a line by the sage G. I. Gurdjieff: "The animals are waiting for us to move up so they can follow . . . . “ In Look a Lion in the Eye, Katherine Hulme reflects on this line, and concludes that “This was the answer I had been unconsciously groping for ever since my first confrontation with Africa's wildlife. This surely was why the animals' long, slow stares took us in, unaware that they were waiting for us to ‘move up’ that ladder that Jacob saw in his dream, thronged with angels moving up and down . . . ."

Hulme thought of this spiritual evolution as brought about by inevitable natural forces. But “a little child shall lead them” may mean leadership by a powerful core of humanity being renewed (reborn), who are more and more living in harmony with the Center and Source of the universe, with our human siblings and our animal cousins. They will be increasingly at peace with all beings, listening to and learning from others; they will influence both other people and other animals toward peace and love. Animal predation may begin to diminish, beginning perhaps with omnivores increasingly becoming herbivores.

So far as I know, there is no evidence that human meditation or contemplative prayer, in connection with a nonviolent lifestyle, diminishes violence among animals; but there is some evidence that it actually diminishes violence among humans. A nonviolent diet may have an important part. The Maharishi Effect by Aron & Aron tells of a long series of experiments by Transcendental Meditators (many of whom were vegetarians) who gathered in this or that city, and carried out their daily meditation together. During these periods, the rates of violence, including crime, suicide, and accidents, declined measurably from the rates in the same months during previous years. Regrettably, after the meditators returned to their homes, the rates of violence returned to “normal.”

These phenomena don’t prove anything, but they are suggestive. From the perspective of spiritual evolution, eating the flesh of animals killed for entertainment, as well as paying for cellophane- wrapped chunks of flesh from mammoth killing hells, would serve to retard rather than promote an “Age of Gold / when peace shall over all the earth / Her ancient splendors fling . . .” Those who justify hunting as part of the predation system see the world as pervaded with violence; they appear to take animal predators as their models for diet. Would it not make more sense to choose as our models spiritual giants of peace such as Mohandas Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King, and Mildred Norman (Peace Pilgrim)? –Editor


  • Coming Back to Life by P.M.H. Atwater
  • War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges
  • Look a Lion in the Eye by Katherine Hulmes
  • Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Caldwell B. Esselstyn
  • The Uttermost Deep: The Challenge of Near-Death Experiences by Gracia Fay Ellwood

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