Atheists and Our Fine, Furry Friends

Polar Spring Animal Sanctuary

As Aron Ra says so eloquently, “it’s not that we descended from apes, we are apes.” If we accepted our equivalence with other animals, perhaps we would treat them better.

At a Family Reunion, my First Cousin is a Chimp

A recent report highlighted by the BBC focused on the emotional connections between bonobos, which like chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom . Chimps and other apes have one more chromosome than we do. And it looks like the human chromosome 2, known as the super chromosome, was the result of a merger of two smaller chromosomes found in other apes. Also, humans lost a caspase-12 gene, which other apes have, and some geneticists think may be related to Alzheimer’s disease. Chimps are also immune to malaria. So, god in his great compassion gave other apes protection from a debilitating diseases that he withheld from us humans. Nice guy.

It has always been a curiosity to me as to why many human cultures moved so far away, philosophically and in terms of religious orientation, from our fellow animals. It was not always like that. Early human ritual practices were focused on the natural world, including a respect for and acknowledgement of the importance of other animals. We don’t know enough about these early ritual practices to call them religions but these belief systems probably functioned in a very similar way. This is generally true for all hunter gatherer societies and perhaps early farming communities. (See Joseph Campbell, “The Masks of God: Primitive Religions” and James Frasier, “The Golden Baugh”.)

All of my comments here are about things that really pre-date Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. I am not here to discuss that, as it seems to me to be as factually evident as plate tectonics. I can’t see it happening, but in the right conditions it can be measured and proven to function as predicted. What I am talking about is the relationship between people and animals, so save any Darwin comments for another blog, please.

Hunter-gatherers and Animals Had Much in Common

Animals were once a closer part of our world. We were not separate from them. We worshiped or propitiated their spirits, especially of those we killed for food, as with the various bear fetishes existing in many early human communities. This was still actively practiced by the Ainu people in Japan until very recently; a line of tradition going back perhaps 10,000 years or more. Native American and Canadian peoples still maintain some rituals harkening back to these earlier spiritualistic symbiotic relationships between humans and animals. Sadly, these seem to have degenerated into mere cultural exercises rather than remaining part of a vibrant religious tradition deeply impacting their social ethos.

Perhaps it was partly the loss of freedom through domestication that resulted in the downgrading of animals from the human perspective. If the animal was caged, tied or herded, we did not depend on some natural force to bring it to us to be killed and eaten. We were doing that work ourselves. Animals were still seen as important, but they appear to have lost the equivalency they may have had before in the human consciousness when they ran free upon the plains or in the forests. For example, none of the mystery cults that flourished in the Roman and Greek worlds focused on animal life, other than the bull cult of Mithras. (If you know of others, please let me know.) Most were focused on the miracle of agriculture, including wine, rather than the majesty of the animal.

My Brother the Ox, on the Wheel of Life

Some religions, like Hinduism and it’s major offshoots Jainism and Buddhism, however, were able to maintain a semblance of this link through the development of agriculture. To a lesser extent, indigenously developed Shinto and Taoism, both of which have animal spirits of consequence, although not always equal to the value of the human spirit, are also examples of this.. And there were, from time to time, philosophical developments in the West that animals were worthy of compassion. Pythagoras is an example of this, though it is debated whether his preference for vegetarianism was truly motivated by compassion for animals or by other factors. In those cultures where the essential spirit was devoid of physical links to the material world, it would be free to participate in existence through any living medium. But even here, animals were generally seen as a lower form of life to humans, with certain exceptions. But the concept that a spirit could be invested in a human in one life and in an animal the next had a certain equalization to it. Although all three religions did hold that only humans were capable of achieving the ultimate elevation of self-realization. There are some minor offshoots for which this may not be so, but in the mainstream this is the case. No enlightenment for cats, however cute and fluffy.

Born to be Beaten; This Life as Punishment for the Sins of the Last

But sadly this concept of reincarnation, when coupled with a strict adherence to a ranking of qualities has often produced great harm, injustice, intolerance, and indifference in Hinduism. The rationale being that if someone is born into a lower human caste, or as an animal, they are in that predicament because they were evil or unworthy in their earlier life. Thus, the story of the man who every day kicked his dog, and one day his neighbor asked him why he kicked his dog every day upon waking and before going to bed. The man replied, “well, he must have been an evil person to be reborn as a dog, so I am helping to punish him for his past misdeeds and train him so that he can be reborn into a better life.”

The problem with this story comes from within Hinduism itself and any religion with an emphasis on reincarnation. The dog could have been an ant before, and was so noble as an ant that it was reborn as a dog, so being a dog would be an improvement. There are many stories illustrating this too, but when viewed in real life and the way lower caste people and many animals are treated, one tends to think that in most Hindu’s consciousness the former perspective triumphs in everyday life over the later. Thus, a misery is visited upon those deemed to be of less worth than oneself. The overall element of compassion that one would have expected from a belief in a universal consciousness is notably lacking in the actual society itself, in most instances. For Buddhism and Jainism, largely this is not the case as neither maintains a caste system of thought, and the virtue of compassion is much more highly stressed.

What Went Wrong?

In the West, although animals were valued, they were not accorded the same spiritual equivalence as was the case in Eastern traditions. In Egypt, many gods were identified with animals, and some of those animals were accorded special status under some dynasties. You have animals taking roles in many stories, Aesop’s Fables perhaps being one of the most famous. Indeed most cultures project some degree of anthropomorphism onto animal protagonists in folk stories, and religious stories. Even the Hebrews did this to a limited extent with the talking legged snake in Genesis and the talking donkey in Numbers. In Roman and Greek mythology, the gods sometimes took on the form of animals, often for sexual purposes, which does make the stories a bit more interesting if you are into bestiality. And transformative stories played an important role, especially in tales of morality or divine caprice, as in Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” and Apuleius’s “Golden Ass”. But in none of these was there a demonstrable spirit accorded to an animal, equivalent to that of a human.

But the real stinkers in the soup are the monotheists, who for some odd reason came up with the notion that animals were made FOR humans. Humans were given dominion over the other animals (Genesis 1:26-28). The odd thing is that the stories hold that animals were made before humans, so YHWH made all these original creations before thinking: “hey, wait a minute. Why not make one that looks like me?” Please, don’t get me started on the idiocy of the Hebrew creationist myth and its lack of creative imagination. It was mostly cribbed from nearby peoples, and is not even internally consistent or logical. I prefer Yimar and the ice cow, quite frankly, out of Norse mythology. At least the Hebrews gave animals one day off each week for the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-10, Deuteronomy 5:14).

The monotheisms go out of their way to protest that animals don’t have souls, at least until recently. Perhaps as a result of the lower birth rates and family scattering after children reach maturity, many people have become rather fond of fido the dog and fluffy the cat. So we see in many places the advent of baptisms for animals, animal weddings, people burying their animals in pet cemeteries, etc. I always find it odd that someone would buy gourmet food for their pet and at the same time deride government spending on food support for poor humans – but perhaps this is an exclusively American anomaly.

Science is Leading Us Back to Where We Began

Western philosophy, religious teachings and what used to pass as science, are replete with examples of how humans sought to differentiate themselves from other animals. Almost any farmer could have told you that much of what passed for established fact was errant nonsense, like the idea that animals don’t mourn for their dead, or didn’t feel pain the same way humans do. Much of what was focused upon was obvious, like the use of tools, language or intelligible means of communicating , the worship of God, but entirely missed the point. Other animals do use tools. And as for language, I am still working on basic “cat” but am getting better at it.And yes, there was an argument against animals having souls. Since they didn’t worship God, they must not have souls.

The point was, or should be, do animals experience pain the same way humans do? We now know this to be “yes” with some qualifications based on neurological function. Do animals think? Again, most scientists pretty much agree that animals experience a thought process, but whether this is similar to that of humans is debatable (see “Do Animals Think” by Clive Wynne, which was written in 2006 and is now quite dated. Newer research is reported at Positive News where the conclusion is that animals experience cognition in a manner similar to humans). The old distinction between elevated cerebral cogitation versus hard wired indomitable instinct are falling away, as we discover more and more ways that human are also hard wired in many areas, and animals exhibit decisions based on choice and are able to learn. Any shepherd with a sheep dog could have told you that 5,000 years ago…

The comparison of our genetic material also is a factor bringing us together again. The genetic evidence linking humans to other animals is undisputable. The religious fundamentalists take refuge in the contention that the similarities exist because god made it that way or they deny them although. Neither position is worthy of a response. The funny thing is that many religious people today in the West want their animals to have souls. They want to be reunited with dear old fido or fluffy in the great hereafter (perhaps to get forgiveness for euthanizing and neutering them?). The myth of heaven thereby comes into conflict with the myth of the uniqueness of the human soul. In Islam, heaven is well described, and pets don’t make it there. In Christianity little or nothing is said about heaven, so you can pretty much believe whatever you want, although all orthodox thinking does not ascribe souls to animals.

Will people following Islam and Christianity start to believe that animals have souls again? I doubt it. But will they stop fighting against laws protecting animal rights in the name of religion? That is a different matter, and I hope that they will come to support animal rights as more evidence accumulates on the character and nature of our furry relations. According animals a modicum of compassion is not anathema to the core beliefs of any of the three monotheisms, so hopefully this will be able to progress. Will they all become vegetarian? No way. Humans developed with the capacity to eat meat. It’s built into us. But we can raise our livestock and slaughter it with greater sensitivity to the animals’ condition than is the case today. If you have ever seen how most calves are raised to be slaughtered for veal, you would understand what I am talking about. Also, although I acknowledge the need for some medical, but not cosmetic, experimentation on animals, this too can be conducted in a much more humane manner than is the case today. And just in case anyone is curious, I do eat chicken and pork, all seafood, and insects. I would like to give up pork, but the smell of frying smoked bacon always brings me back. I guess I need to get a pet pig to develop the necessary degree of compassion to give it up.

Photo Credits: sneakerdog

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