A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

When Religion Means Cruelty to Animals

What are the proper limits of religious freedom? Marianne Thieme, leader of the Party for the Animals in the Netherlands, offers this answer: “Religious freedom stops where human or animal suffering begins.”

Peter Singer takes up the topic of ritual animal slaughter, as practiced  by Jews and Muslims, in the wake of the Dutch parliament giving religious leaders a year to prove that their methods of slaughter cause no more suffering than the standard method that first stuns the animal.

Rabbis and imams argue that a law prohibiting kosher and halal methods of slaughter would prevent people from practicing their religion. Singer responds that such a law would not do this since all anyone has to do in order to comply is to stop eating meat.

He likens this to other religious issues, like orthodox Jews in Israel demanding that women be seated separate from men on buses, and Catholic bishops saying that “Obamacare” violates their religious objections to contraception. Singer argues that no one is compelled to use public transport and that orthodox Catholics are not compelled to run hospitals, so there’s no violation of freedom to practice one’s religion.

Not all conflicts between religion and the state are easy to resolve. But the fact that these three issues, all currently causing controversy in their respective countries, are not really about the freedom to practice one’s religion, suggests that the appeal to religious freedom is being misused.

But one person commenting on the article notes that there are indeed various religious rules that require animal sacrifice. One is the Eid, during which it is mandatory to slaughter an animal as a symbol of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son. This tradition accounts for more than 100 million animals slaughtered in the two days of the festival. In Pakistan, nearly 10 million animals are slaughtered on Eid days.

Religious laws and traditions that involve animal sacrifice (which includes slaughtering animals to eat them) have their origins in antiquity, when we humans were first struggling with the terrifying awareness of our own mortality, grappling with the fear that killing other animals might provoke the wrath of animal spirits, and appeasing those gods by not drinking the blood, which was considered the life force of the animal.

These acts of appeasement came down into the culture of the Hebrews, Canaanites, etc. as laws that, for example, prescribed that an animal should be killed in a way that would drain away as much of the blood as possible (i.e. while the heart is still beating), so the blood could be collected and offered to the deity or animal spirit: “For the life of a creature is in the blood.” (Leviticus 17:11).

And so today Jews and Muslims, the inheritors of those ancient rituals of appeasement, are stuck with antiquated laws without even a shred of a clue as to how they came into being and how their original purpose (respect for the animal) might be honored today. If they and we understood the origin of these practices, we would immediately see that nothing could be more offensive to the spirit of any animal than, for example, being treated as a commodity at a factory farm.

But no. Instead of exhorting us to honor the lives of our fellow animals, these ignorant religious teachers and their followers do the very opposite, demanding the right to inflict further suffering on already-terrified animals by turning them upside down and slitting their throats while they’re still conscious.

Many renowned rabbis including the chief rabbis of Great Britain, of Ireland, and of Israel have embraced a vegetarian lifestyle. David Rosen, former   Chief Rabbi of Ireland, has said that “the consumption of meat [is] halachically unacceptable.”

Peter Singer is right in saying that there’s no need to be eating meat at all. But it’s time to go further and to replace meaningless, empty rituals and other “cultural traditions” – from animal sacrifice to bullfighting and rodeos – with behaviors and rituals that respect the lives and deaths of all animals – human and nonhuman alike.