On June 8th this year West Suffolk College’s Religious Studies & Ethics department held a free conference on the role of animals in religion and ethics, which a number of pagans attended and spoke at. It’s an intriguing area and practically every religion has drawn on animal imagery to convey lessons and philosophical concepts. For example, take the regal lion. In the New Testament, Revelations 5:5 predicts a future descendant of the tribe of Judah: "And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof”. Many Christians regard this as a reference to Jesus, though he is more usually depicted as a lamb – partly because they are very gentle creatures, but also because they were a common sacrificial animal at that time, and the crucifixion was seen as the final sacrifice. In Judaism the Meshach, or messiah, is seen as a far more forceful character who will lead future armies to victory, sweep away the enemies of G-d, and reclaim the Holy Land. As such, the Meshach is a decidedly leonine figure, and an inspiration behind C S Lewis’ character of Aslan. The war-like character is also reflective of the Egyptian lion-headed deities Maahes and Sekhmet, who also battled the forces of evil. Within Rastafarianism the Emperor Haile Selassie was regarded as the living incarnation of the Lion of Judah.
The same animals can be seen in quite distinct ways by different religions, with something reviled in one faith being revered in another. Not all religions regard animals as simply metaphoric; the ancient animistic religions of the world have a very genuine conviction that all things have soul or consciousness, and that the souls of many animals are capable of communicating with humans. To such religions the spirit of wolf is not a poetic allegory, but seen as the actual animating force of the creature. One of the issues under discussion at the conference was the degree to which non-human species have consciousness and therefore a greater level of legal recognition and protection (whether the word ‘rights’ is applicable here was also a topic for consideration). Without getting too side-tracked by the historical roots, for a long time law makers have regarded consciousness as a key issue in the granting of full legal status – questions arise as to when a foetus becomes a person, when children’s mind are sufficiently mature that they can be held legally accountable for their actions, which animal species deserve protection from cruelty (which is at least partly connected to their perceived capacity to experience pain and mental distress), etc.
Evidence from science combines with philosophical views and religious values to create varied views about the nature of animals and how humans ought to treat them. Some governments have granted personhood to specific species. For a brief period in 2015 a New York judge granted legal status to two chimps held in a research laboratory, though another judge later overturned this. Whilst this might sound like an abstract issue for people to mull over whilst scratching their beards, the legality brings home a degree of reality. There are things we cannot do to people that we might get away with doing to non-people. People cannot be forcibly caged up without good reason and due legal process, nor can they be eaten (even if they are voraphiles who relish the prospect), subject to unwanted medical experimentation, or any of dozens of other things.
This is not simply a sentimental argument emanating from people who love furry creatures. Many societies around the world, both in ancient times and some still today, have debated whether certain humans are actually fully people or not. Doubtless most of readers, if asked what a person was, would automatically assume that any human was a person. However, this outlook is much more recent than many might assume it to be, and not necessarily as widespread around the world as may be hoped either.
Slave-owning societies of the past usually struggled to think of slaves as completely human (and certainly not worthy of the fully fledged rights of a citizen), whilst others have looked at disabled people, women, despised ethnicities, the mentally ill, and various other groups as being somehow less than “real people”. Once someone has been demoted to a lesser status, it is easier to maltreat them and deny them full legal rights. When English-speakers wish to insult someone they often refer to them as an animal (pig, snake in the grass etc.), as indeed do many other languages. Implicit in this is an assumption that an animal is an inferior being, something that no human would wish to be like. Not all cultures denigrate the non-human in this way, and some positively celebrate other forms of life. Nepalese Hindus celebrate Kikur Tihar, a festival in November that gives thanks to dog-kind and all which they do for humanity. The dog festival is just one of many examples of ways in which other species are honoured. Look around the world and one can find ancient and current festivities dedicated to cats, cows, bears, wolves, crows and so forth. On the other hand some religions have made a practice of sacrificing animals and, where those religions have proliferated in scale, this can lead to enormously large numbers of creatures being dispatched. Being an object of reverence is not always a pleasant experience.
The world is moving in an interesting, arguably positive, direction in which most countries legally recognise the personhood of most humans. I say legally, because daily reality in many countries doesn’t always live up to the ideal set by law. No country on earth legally permits slavery, though it clearly still goes on illicitly and the gang masters and owners of today can have little better view of the humanity of their captives than did the slave owners of the 18th century plantations or those in Ancient Rome. Almost all countries now treat women as fully equal to men at the level of basic humanity – that not every single government does beggars belief in the 21st century. Clearly this equality often fails to grasp parity of pay and other such practical recognition of personal worth. Most nations likewise recognise the human worth of disabled people, and a growing number also of LGBT people.
Just as most of the world’s governments are finally acknowledging that (almost) all humans are people and have the same basic rights, so several are now starting to debate if other species might also be considered people – for the purposes of law, at least.
A groundswell of individuals already do extend recognition that cats, dogs, dolphins, apes and whatnot have sufficient sapience to be treated with respect. Within some religions and philosophical movements all life, regardless of how sapient it may be, is granted a high level of respect and seen as having spiritual worth.
This may be a trend that expands in the future, as levels of consciousness are formally recognised in other species, and perhaps we will restrict the uses we put other creatures to. With the exponential growth of Artificial Intelligence, we may very soon find ourselves discussing whether some robots and computers are also conscious and, if so, does this make them persons worthy of legal recognition and protection? The future may hold any unusual developments when it comes to who and what is a person and what “merely” an animal.