Thursday, June 22, 2017

Three Years Ago Today

A Christian-atheist conversation, Part 1: About animal rights

By Morris Dean 
& Kyle Garza

[Originally published on June 22, 2014, not one word different.]

Morris: In my Thor’s Day post of June 5 (“Value experience for its own sake: It’s an art”), I not only stated positively my view of the sacred art of living in a way that values life and respects one’s own and others’ experience for its own sake, but also outlined six areas in which I found the monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam wanting:
  1. Animal rights
  2. Non-holy days
  3. Founded on fabrications
  4. Condoning immorality
  5. Proselytizing through fear
  6. Closing minds to rationality
    An extensive commentary followed between me and my colleague, Columnist Kyle Garza. As a result, we have agreed to collaborate on a series of columns to try to address everything in a collegial, constructive way, and to limit the discussion to Christianity.
    Today’s column addresses the first of the six points enumerated above, the criticism that Christianity doesn’t value all sentient creatures’ experience for its own sake.
    Our views regarding religion and reality differ fundamentally. Kyle is a Christian; I am an atheist. Kyle believes in the supernatural; I don’t – I’m a materialist. Kyle believes that God made humans in “His own image”; I believe that our sentience (and the sentience of other living things on Earth) evolved from the atoms and molecules of matter existing on Earth. Kyle believes in an afterlife; I don’t.

Kyle: I think that adequately addresses our primary stances. I almost feel like I should expound on what I mean by “Christian,” but I think that is just because the very word has been distorted by the media and hypocrites nowadays.

Morris: Go ahead and tell us what you mean by “Christian.”

Kyle: As of course there are several denominations and little things that differ church by church, I would want to say that “Christian” to me means primarily that most of what I think and believe is founded in the inerrancy of the Bible. Even that is a difficult definition to establish, though, because Bibles differ nowadays – any standard non-denominational Bible will do. Beyond that, I would assert that Jesus was a real historical figure who, as He claimed, was God incarnate come to live a perfect life and that, through His death and resurrection, human beings are offered redemption from our fatal flaws by believing this to be true and living a life that seeks to know Him more.

Morris: That’s hard-core!

Kyle: The term I have received a time or two is “die-hard” – not sure if that is a compliment.

Morris: I just meant it descriptively.

Morris: Okay, so far, Kyle, you and I haven’t seemed to be on a course that leads to our agreeing on any of these issues. But we have agreed to try to come to some sort of resolution on “my six points” (as we came to call them), even if the resolution be simply to agree to disagree.

Kyle: I think we can agree that we are both aiming to better understand the True, the Good, and the Beautiful – the trinity that I think all humans seek to know. The kind of questions and issues you have raised are all part of “the great conversation” of life, I think, and while I will admit I have come to a few positions of solace and “firmness” in my views, I always enjoy re-stirring up the conversation. These great conversations are like a river: you never step into it at the same point because it constantly flows past you. Revisiting them always yields fresh perspective, understanding, and hopefully, closure.

Morris: I like that. Even though we may not agree on the six points, our conversation might lead each of us to a better understanding of our own and each other’s position.
    Okay, my Point 1 was that Christianity doesn’t champion animal rights. Christians may sacrifice animals for rituals or propitiations, and even eat them with no qualm whatsoever.
    From the commentary on the June 5 column, it appeared that you consider humans unique from animals in having an immaterial soul or spirit. So, for our continuing discussion here now, I asked you whether you think animals are different from humans in not having a soul or spirit? I asked you whether you think God created humans with their current brain power? (I had referred to animals as “non-human animals,” and to humans as “human animals,” so I also asked you whether you objected to my even characterizing humans as animals.)
    And, on a more personal note, I asked you whether you cherish animals and respect their right to flourish?

Kyle: In regard to animal rights, I admittedly have been avoiding this one because I do not have a formed opinion on the topic. What I think of animals (or their spiritual side or anything else) isn’t based on what I read in the Bible. I could easily see myself reading Scripture and thinking “Well, God placed me above them in authority. I suppose I ought to take good care of them though since He told me to.” I could also see myself thinking “Well, I’m more highly evolved than these other sentient beings, but they seem important enough to the ecosystem, so I’ll eat them and manage their populations as best I can.” Either way, I’ve just never been swayed to think much of them from either camp.
    But, anyway, Christians nowadays do not sacrifice animals for “rituals or propitiations,” as you put it. That was a practice for a specific period of Jewish history, and it certainly was not without moral qualm or hesitation. It was a painful reminder that mankind was stuck in its sinful nature without a permanent form of redemption, which would later be fully realized in Jesus. Livestock was a part of the daily family life, so animal sacrifice was certainly not without qualm.

Morris: I’ll accept that you’re right about Christians no longer sacrificing animals in a particularly religious way. They sacrifice them today purely for feasts, celebrations, and the daily satisfaction of their bodily appetites, even on the least holy of days. But I think those Jews’ qualms were all about their hesitation to endanger their family’s economic well-being, and not a moral qualm at all – certainly not a qualm on behalf of the animals being sacrificed.

Kyle: On the contrary, the Jewish sacrificial law actually made provisions for the poor. For instance, Leviticus 5:11 reads, “If he cannot afford the two turtle doves or two common doves, the sacrifice that he must bring…” and so on. It is also worth noting that all of these sacrifices were voluntary on an individual basis. Jewish priests didn’t demand sacrifices from the people. If you had a sin issue, you brought your sacrifice to the priest because of your own guilty conscience, and you brought the very best of your flock or herd (obviously a prized possession), and that was intended to remind you of the grave consequences of immorality. So the moral qualm rested in the painful reminder that your most prized possession (perhaps your favorite sheep) was at risk due to your sinful behavior, and it was not easy letting go of those animals.

Morris: Good. Thanks again for confirming that their concern was with themselves and their own well-being.

Kyle: True, that was the primary concern, but the emotional pain of the animal’s loss was still there as well. I would not overlook that.

Morris: On the other part of your reply, it’s fair enough that you, personally, have not yet formed an opinion about the rights of animals. But doesn’t that prove my point? If you, as a well-informed Christian, have no opinion on animal rights, doesn’t that say that Christianity doesn’t champion them? In my own time as a Christian, I certainly saw no evidence of it. And in my relatively short time as a non-Christian – as I have come to appreciate that I am genetically related to all other life on earth – I have come to see the Bible’s failure to include non-human animals among “the least among us” as a striking moral shortcoming.

Kyle: This is a point that actually surprises me in your stance, Morris, that humans, being omnivores, are considered immoral for eating other creatures. But would you consider other omnivorous creatures to be immoral? What is it that makes humanity the “immoral” creature for eating other living things? Is it the idea that we have evolved a “conscience” that could be persuaded not to eat other living things? Are humans the only “moral” creatures on earth? I just want to make sure I understand where you are coming from on this one.

Morris: Yes, I consider humans the only moral animals, by virtue of their higher evolution. Of course, only a small minority of humans agree with me in the moral judgment that it is wrong to eat other animals. However, the Christian author Leo Tolstoy, who wrote War and Peace, was among them. He said,
A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.
He also said,
If a man earnestly seeks a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from animal food.
More of Tolstoy’s writings on ethical vegetarianism are quoted at “Animal Rights Online: Quotations Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).”
    One has to wonder – I wonder, anyway – how Jesus felt about killing animals. Not that it matters in practice, since the church that grew on top of him didn’t propagate any such teaching.

Kyle: Two notes on this: First, I am uncomfortable calling Tolstoy a Christian author (though certainly he was influenced by Jesus’ teaching style and a few of His messages). He viewed Jesus as a great human teacher, not as the Son of God, and he didn’t believe anything miraculous that he read in Scripture. I have little more in common with that kind of Christian than I do with a Muslim.
    Secondly, Jesus did comment on eating meat in Mark 7:18-19 (declaring food that Jews once thought “unclean” to not truly be so). The latter portion of your comment also suggests that “the church” (not sure which authors or time frame you are referring to here) haphazardly decided what was most convenient to tell people what Jesus said (assuming they had an “agenda” for what kind of Christianity they wanted to establish). I do not see any rational grounds for assuming that Jesus said anything less than what we read in the Bible about eating meat. He did participate in several Jewish feasts after all, most of which involved that practice.

Morris: Ah, so Jesus likely cared no more about animals than any other Jew of the time. Thanks for disillusioning me.

Kyle: I really could not say if he did not care about them at all. But then perhaps He created some living things to be consumed and that is one of their higher purposes. I think we both feel no qualms in eating plants. Some are perhaps shocked that we “don’t care” about them.

Morris: It is true that plants are also “other living things,” a point my wife raises to try to get me to shut up about not wanting to eat the flesh of animals. And some are arguing (championing the view) that plants even have a kind of sentience, even if they do not have a central nervous system. I find that discussion a fascinating challenge to ethical vegetarians and vegans.

Kyle: Apart from Peter Singer, I have not seen a common trend among atheists to champion animal rights. I actually do not see this platform particularly championed in any social group, except perhaps for a few Eastern religions (but that is usually because they believe the animals to be gods themselves or perhaps a reincarnated relative).

Morris: My column of June 5 didn’t speak for atheists. If you’re suggesting that I might have indicted them along with Christians for not championing animal rights, I guess I could have – except that atheists aren’t organized in churches and don’t have formal creeds that they recite together on Sunday.
    I have long admired Jainism’s nonviolence towards all living beings, whatever its roots, and I could admire Christianity’s if it, too, preached nonviolence toward other sentient beings.

Kyle: To say that atheists aren’t organized “in churches” seems a bit of a misnomer. Christians occasionally organize in churches, but are not limited to church buildings for gathering. “The Church” in the New Testament often refers to people anyway, not buildings. Plenty of “church” was done in people’s homes in the first century too. I’m also not sure what you are referring to by reciting formal creeds on Sunday. Is that a practice you grew up with? What church does that? It sounds like something you might hear in a Catholic mass.

Morris: Yes, I had churches like the Presbyterian and the Episcopalean in mind, and, of course, the Anglican and the Roman Catholic. I really only meant that atheists aren’t organized. They don’t belong to a church, whether it’s a building or a “corporate body.”

Kyle: Perhaps not universally, but the very existence of things like Project Reason looks to me just as much like a microcosm of a “corporate body” (as you put it) as any.

Morris: Hmm, interesting point. Project Reason’s mission statement is:

Project Reason is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. We seek to encourage critical thinking and wise public policy through a variety of interrelated projects. The foundation can convene conferences, produce films, sponsor scientific studies and opinion polls, hold contests, publish original research, award grants to other charitable organizations, and offer material support to religious dissidents and public intellectuals – all with the purpose of eroding the influence of dogmatism, superstition, and bigotry in our world.
    While Project Reason is devoted to fostering critical thinking generally, we believe that religious ideas require a special focus. Both science and the arts are built upon cultures of vigorous self-criticism; religious discourse is not. As a result, religious dogmatism still reigns unchallenged in almost every society on earth – dividing humanity from itself, inflaming conflict, preventing wise public policy, and diverting scarce resources. One of the primary goals of Project Reason is to change this increasingly unhealthy status quo.
Well, I support Project Reason, but I may have to go along with you about such projects or movements, especially since I’ve already admitted that secular values regarding animal rights aren’t necessarily any better than clerical or sectarian ones.

Kyle: One point I would also bring up in this conversation is the idea that perhaps mankind’s carnivorous side is a result of the original Fall in Eden. Were we originally supposed to eat meat? Perhaps that is something that will be redeemed in Heaven (imagery of a lion and lamb lying next to one another comes to mind). This is still a new discussion topic to me, so I am somewhat thinking on the go.

Morris: Human animals have been around for a while, for longer than they’ve had culture and evolved concepts of right and wrong. And, as noted above, only a minority of humans have arrived there when it comes to animal rights. I have to say, of course, that our “being originally supposed” to eat meat rests on an assumption that I reject. I mean, there’s no one to have done the supposing – nor any place called “Heaven” where everything can be made right.

Kyle: I’m not sure here what you are referring to by “human animals.” I assume apelike men. There is a sharp contrast between an ape that has no sense of morality and a human that does, correct? Do you know of any “hybrids” or “missing links” perhaps that have partially developed senses of morality? Or do you suppose morality suddenly evolved? Do you suppose it was just a few of the Ten Commandments at a time? Perhaps one generation evolved the idea that stealing was wrong and a few generations later mutated the idea that murder is wrong and they should stick to flora for sustenance.
    My point being thus: How would one know if such “apemen” did not have culture and morality? Would you be able to read it in the fossil record or genetics? Perhaps this is just a concept in a Dawkins book that I have not yet read.

Morris: I am really glad you asked for clarification of “human animals.” Your confusion seems to confirm my observation that, for you, “animal” denotes a lower, or second-class citizen of the planet. No, by “human animal” I simply mean animals of the human variety – as opposed, for example, to animals of the canine or feline variety. Dogs are a species, cats are a species – and so are we. But they and we are all animals.

Kyle: Is this to suggest that all animals are first-class “citizens” of the planet as well? Would you not value the life of a human animal more than any other (dog, cat, spider)? The very connotation of the word “citizen” is privy to those human animals that create civilization – something I do not think exists elsewhere in the kingdom of Animalia. Hierarchically in the food chain, why not eat other animals just because some of us accidentally evolved a “bad feeling” about eating them? Is that really an evolutionary advance? Perhaps it is a defect.

Morris: To eat other animals just to stick it to people who think it wrong seems rather unkind to me, but maybe that’s not what you meant. I am on record in my June 5 column as valuing the lives of other animals (human and non-human) in themselves. You are correct, though, that “citizen” is a legal concept, and humans make laws, not animals. But from a moral point of view, any individual animal deserves its life as much as any other.
    But my regarding it wrong for a human to eat other animals – or my “bad feeling” about it, as you put it – did not “accidentally evolve.” The human animal, or his ancestors, evolved to be carnivores, yes [no, this is wrong, and I apologize; eating flesh was a cultural innovation - see Jim Rix's comment], because that gave them an adaptive advantage, but humans can now decide whether to continue to be carnivores or not. The growing consumption of meat is harming more than those who consume it. The atmosphere is degraded by the release of methane from huge herds of factory-farmed pigs and cattle. The planet is losing large tracts of rain forest in order to obtain pastureland. The plant food needed to raise animals for meat could feed several times more humans than can be fed by the meat.
    You asked earlier how one would know whether “apemen” did not have culture and morality? From my limited reading in evolutionary psychology, I gather that some rudimentary forms of what might be considered moral behavior do seem to have arisen, not only in earlier species of homo, but also in other species as well. Altruism, for example, evolved biologically because it conferred an adaptive advantage (in “the survival of the fittest”). But language, especially written language, has set homo sapiens apart for developing a culture allowing for the accumulation and communication of information (knowledge) outside their DNA. This is what sets us apart when it comes to morality.

Kyle: This wonderfully sets up the intriguing conversation of how semiotics could be a product of evolution, but I will leave that to a separate discussion. May I ask what your bridge in thinking is between man’s evolved acquisition of semiotics and how that could produce a sense of morality not present in other animals? Dogs seem to have a good sense of guilt, but it does not arise from anything semiotic in their brains.

Morris: Semiotics – or the study of meaning-making – is not a field I’m conversant in, or even that familiar with. And the question how the human brain evolved to enable meaning-making is beyond me and my reading. So you might need to have that conversation with another person. But your question how a sense of morality arises from meaning-making is a fair one, and to say that it arises from an ability to make meaning seems a fair way to characterize what I’ve been contending.

Morris: Well, if we can wrap this up, I’d like to end by saying that I think our conversation about animal rights has helped me understand both our positions better. I didn’t realize how deeply you regard animals other than humans as of relatively little account. And I didn’t realize that you consider the Bible to be inerrant (and you mentioned that only in the aside about what “Christian” means to you).
    It was particularly useful to me that we started out by summarizing our fundamentally differing views regarding religion and reality. Our difference on the status of the Bible is one we might have included among them. To me it is a fallible book written, edited, and selected by humans, and dated as to its time and place.

Kyle: I would end by saying how refreshing it has been for me to think these new thoughts! I have never personally had an intelligent conversation with someone who advocated strictly herbivorous habits in humans. In the past, I thought I had come to an understanding of an atheist mindset where one could rationalize carnivorous habits, but never the opposite.
    It is also interesting to me how this conversation has opened up quite a can of other great questions: what sets man apart from other animals? How do semiotics arise from evolution? How do semiotics affect man’s understanding of morality? Perhaps my favorite is how this involves Hume’s Guillotine: How can we get an ought (“human animals ought not eat non-human animals”) from an is (“man has a moral conscience”)?
    Looking back at the other things that cropped up, I am also looking forward (hopefully) to learning how your early years’ exposure to Christianity is subconsciously affecting your interpretations of everything I say.
    There is also an intriguing epistemological conversation just waiting to happen on how one can evaluate the veracity and reliability of the Bible as a source of Truth; that conversation is one of my favorites: there is a lot of material for it. I’m looking forward to the other topics of conversation already!
    Thank you for inviting me into this, Morris. Perhaps I’ll feel a bit worse every time I eat steak from here on out.

Morris: Thank you, Kyle, for joining me.
    I believe that the subject of our next conversation here is non-holy days, or my contention that Christianity devalues experience that doesn’t occur on the “holy days.” I’m looking forward to it.

Copyright © 2017 by Morris Dean, Kyle Garza, Moristotle

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