I’m not a big fan of animals, so when I reached the chapter on “Openness to Animals” in Jay B. McDaniel’s Earth, Sky, God and Mortals: Developing an Ecological Spirituality (Wipf&Stock, 2009), I knew I was facing a challenge! I can reflect fairly easily on oneness with creation when the focus is earth, water, sky, and people. But, animals! Yikes!
I learned to love animals in the wild when I spent time in Botswana and South Africa in the 1980s. I was working on an education project funded by the U. S. Agency for International Development. On weekends, my colleagues would take me on day trips to view elephants, giraffes, lions, warthogs, buffalo, every kind of antelope, and several species of birds. I found it amazing and inspiring to watch all these animals in their natural environments. Having grown up in the city, I view farm animals in much the same way – from a distance in their own environments. I didn’t have pets when I was growing up, unless you count goldfish and parakeets, so I am not particularly fond of dogs and cats. I respect animals, but I like to keep them at a distance.
However, reading McDaniel’s book is giving me a new perspective on animals. He talks about five ways of perceiving animals (pp. 65-72). Here, I would like to focus on just the first way: Animals as having intrinsic value. In the past, Christianity has emphasized that human beings alone have intrinsic value, and that the rest of creation has only instrumental value for humans or for God. In other words, animals exist for the use and well being of humans. An ecological spirituality diverges from this traditional Christian perspective by recognizing that each and every living being has intrinsic value. McDaniel believes that some animals may have more “value in and for themselves” than others, depending on the animal’s capacity for richness of experience. The more complex an organism’s nervous system, the greater is its capacity for richness of experience. McDaniel proposes that if we must take a life, for example for food, it is better to take that of a plant than an animal; and if we must take an animal life, it is better to take the life of an animal with a less complex nervous system, and hence a lesser capacity for richness of experience, than to take the life of an animal with a more complex nervous system.
This is a complete shift in thinking for me, and has already influenced my choices of food. I cannot claim to be a vegetarian because I have not yet sorted out everything about my relationship with animals. I can say that I am much more aware of what I eat – not just for my health, but also in gratitude for the animals who gave their lives to feed me. I try to choose plants first, then animals with less complex nervous systems, for example, fish and shellfish. I think the point is not that we should not eat meat, but that we ought to be mindful of how the animals are treated while they are alive.
McDaniel continues with a discussion of why one would choose to become a vegetarian (pp.74-76):
- Much of the grain that now goes to feed livestock could better be used to feed the poor. Given population projections, available land is used much more efficiently as cropland than as pasture for grazing. If we want to contribute to a long-term solution to hunger, we ought to refrain from eating meat; in industrial nations, our survival does not depend on the eating of meat.
- The North American meat habit is a driving force behind the destruction of the tropical forests in Central America, which are cleared to provide pastureland for cattle.
- Feedlots and slaughterhouses are major polluters of rivers and streams.
- A meat-based diet is itself a cause of many chronic diseases, not the least of which are heart disease in men and breast cancer in women. All the protein necessary for good health can be obtained through a vegetarian diet. In addition, we ought to considerably reduce our intake of dairy products.
- We ought to become vegetarians for the sake of the animals themselves. In the U. S., almost all poultry products and half the milk and red meat come from large-scale indoor production. The best way to end the inhumane treatment of such production is to cease consuming the products of the factory farms, buying meat only from sources where animals have been treated with respect.
McDaniel continues that the choice of vegetarianism is not a choice for the well being of animals alone, important as that is. It is also a choice for the well being of tropical forests, for healthy rivers and streams, for the long-term goal of feeding the world’s hungry, and for bodily health. A preferential option for animals is simultaneously a preferential option for the earth and the poor.
I am not trying to persuade you one way or another. I find these ideas compelling, and for me, worth giving it a try.
Q. You may find McDaniel’s ideas to be controversial? Which ideas seem most conducive to a healthy respect for animals? Which, if any, are most difficult for you to accept? Why?
Q. Are human beings justified in domesticating animals for any purposes? On what basis are they justified?
Q. Consider McDaniel’s arguments for vegetarianism. Do you agree that Christians who seek to be “open to animals” ought to adopt a vegetarian diet? Why or why not?
I want to recommend a two-part video program, called Man and Beast with Martin Clunes (2015). (It is available on YouTube or from your local PBS station.) The program asks, “Is our new-found knowledge of animals making their lives better?” Martin Clunes, who himself raises sheep and horses, travels the globe, exploring the roles that animals play in many diverse cultures. Clunes is not a vegetarian, but he is very much concerned with the quality of life of the animals in his care.