While religion itself is not in itself bad for animals, religions that seek to separate humans from the natural world are indeed a problem
Several readers e-mailed after our post last week about the new generation of evangelical churches and their attempt to stanch the exodus of Americans to the ranks of the “unaffiliated.” We’d written that:
On a planet that will in some ways be unrecognizable 100 years from now, the message of today’s religions is not exactly preparing us for what is to come.
… What’s missing from the new evangelical “cultural centers”? Answer: Anything to do with how we humans relate to the rest of life on the planet that we’re systematically destroying.
… In a world where we all know that it’s our relationship with nature that’s screwed, far more than our relationship with some imagined or hoped-for non-physical realm, traditional religion is failing because it does the very opposite of repairing that deeply broken relationship.
… With very few exceptions, traditional religions either ignore or are actively hostile to anything that seeks to reconnect us with nature.
Basically, people wanted to know: “Are you against all religion?”, “Are you suggesting that only atheists care about animals?” and “Don’t you believe in a spiritual realm?”
We here are not against all religion, and whether or not you believe in God or gods or the supernatural has nothing to do with whether you care about the lives of nonhuman animals.
If, however, your belief system works to separate you from nonhuman animals and the world of nature, then it is, indeed, a problem.
Separating humans from the natural world
In today’s world, most religions either ignore or are actively hostile to anything that connects us with nature. They strive, instead, to connect us to some supposed nonmaterial realm and to reinforce the idea that we humans are separate from the rest of nature – that we are superior, indeed exceptional. There is, indeed, a whole philosophy of “human exceptionalism” that’s adamantly opposed to the very idea of animal rights and that places humans at the pinnacle of creation or evolution.
Religion itself is not the issue. (In many ways, indeed, the animal protection movement is a classic religion, in that it has a belief system with various orthodox, fundamentalist and liberal sub-groups, along with dietary “laws”, moral codes and heresies, and just about everything else you find in any typical religion.)
The problem arises from belief systems that seek to separate us humans from the rest of nature. That’s where it all goes wrong.
The basic reason why so many religions and belief systems do this is discussed in my post “I Am Not an Animal,” where we write that we humans are the only animals who live our lives in the terrifying knowledge that we are doomed to die. And we spend our lives doing everything possible to deny this irrevocable fact by creating Immortality projects through which we can tell ourselves that we will live on, one way or another, after we die.
There are many different kinds of “immortality projects” and the religious ones generally assert that we will be physically resurrected at some future time, or that we have a non-physical, immortal “soul” that transcends the body and goes to heaven (or hell) or is reincarnated.
If your belief system works to separate you from nonhuman animals and the world of nature, then it is, indeed, a problem.Whether or not any of this is true is beside the point. None of us can prove it one way or the other. The trouble with these beliefs, however, is not whether they are true, but rather that they have overwhelmingly failed to allay our fear of death. Deep down, regardless of whatever belief system we grow up with or latch onto, we can’t avoid the knowledge that we are indeed creatures of the Earth, just like all the other animals.
Along with all the other ways we seek to assert our superiority – our non-animal nature – this is always a disaster for the other animals, who are a constant reminder of our own animal, corporeal, mortal nature. And we have to keep fighting the fear of our own animal nature by raising ourselves, at least in our own imagination, above the other animals, talking of “human exceptionalism” and treating other animals as though they exist primarily for our own benefit.
Transhumanism and other techno-beliefs are just like fundamentalist religion
But it is by no means only religions that do this. There are numerous atheist belief systems that do exactly the same thing and for exactly the same reasons.
Take, for example, the trans-humanist movement, which seeks to transcend mortality by developing advanced technologies. Some of these set out to eliminate the aging process with everything from nutritional supplements to nanobots to cryonics to uploading our brains to computers and then downloading them into new bodies or have them living in a bottle in a laboratory.
There’s very little difference between a fundamentalist religious believer and an atheist transhumanist.One of the gurus of transhumanism is Ray Kurzweil, who writes about how, within a few decades, we’ll be able to transcend death, and who sells life extension supplements that can keep the user alive until the time when new technologies can turn us into cyborgs who have risen above our animal nature.
Similarly, the acclaimed scientist Stephen Hawking believes that the solution to our problems as Earthlings is to develop space travel as quickly as possible so we can survive the disaster we’ve created on Earth by moving to a new planet – presumably taking our mortality terror with us and re-creating the entire disaster all over again.
There’s very little difference, then, between a fundamentalist religious believer (Christian, Muslim or other) and an atheist transhumanist. Each may be appalled at the idea that they are but two sides of the same coin, but each is basically setting out to do exactly the same thing as the other: to deny their animal nature and to separate themselves from the world of nature.
So no, we are not against religion overall, any more than we’re against science overall.
But in either case, when the religion, the belief system, the culture, the science, the technology, the art form or whatever else is being used in an attempt to separate us humans from our fellow animals and to deny our own nature, then the result can only be entirely destructive and self-destructive.
And that, very simply, is precisely the situation we find ourselves in today.
(Stained glass window from St. Hilary’s Episcopal Church, Hesperia, CA.)