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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

Once [in Issue 63] I asked why religion had become your hobbyhorse. Since then you seem to have been riding another one, indeed, a real horse: our mistreatment of animals. Is there a connection?

Yours truly,

Still Curious

Dear Curious,

At first I didn’t think so, but of late I have indeed become convinced that the way humans treat other animals does have a great deal to do with religion. You know that I have been resident in the United States for some time since my return, and here it is impossible not to notice the sharp divide between theists and atheists. A significant proportion of the population holds to a claimed ‘literal interpretation’ of the Bible. This has led some of them to object strongly to teaching biological evolution in the schools, for they see it as contradicting what the Bible says. For example, evolution requires that the universe be very old, but the genealogies of the Bible are claimed to limit the universe’s age to just a few thousand years.

Most emotionally charged is the implication that humans have ‘descended’ from ape-like beings, who in turn descended from rodents, rather than each species having been created as such by God, as the book of Genesis would have it. The way the Biblical literalists react, you would think Darwin had suggested that all of their parents had committed animal sodomy! The question is usually portrayed as whether a Creator is needed to account for the existence of the universe as we know it. Darwinism is seen as giving a body blow to religion with its intuitively powerful explanation of the ‘fitness’ of every type of organism to its environment. Before Darwin’s postulation of natural selection, the imagination of human beings had been limited to a benign divine designer as the only possible explanation.

But the real clash between evolution and religion is not a metaphysical one about the need for a Creator but a moral one about the compatibility of a benign Creator with the world as we know it. My understanding of this came from reading an excellent book by James Rachels, called Created from Animals, as well as Darwin’s Autobiography. In Darwin’s own words:

“That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.”

And thus you see the real connection of religion to animals: for even more than the evil that befalls human beings is the evil that nonhuman beings have suffered. Darwin wasn’t even speaking here of the evil inflicted on animals by humans, but of the mechanism of natural selection itself, which carves out new species precisely by killing off the less ‘fit’ ones. Note that there is only a problem if animals are capable of suffering. That they are is commonsense; but now commonsense is backed up by evolutionary theory itself, since it doesn’t admit any sharp dividing line between the experience of human beings and other animals.

This further suggests to me that it is not so much our being related to animals that so riles the religionists as that this relation infringes on our presumed prerogative to use them as we will. The former ‘insults’ us as being ‘mere’ animals, but the latter inconveniences us, which is even more intolerable! Recently I came upon an article which confirmed this suspicion. It was written by Rabbi Marc A. Gellman, who answers readers’ questions just as I do. One of his readers had written in to profess his atheism, and here is an excerpt from the rabbi’s response:

What I can’t quite understand is how a person who believes that we are just chemicals and goo can find a way to affirm the special dignity and moral worth of human beings. The reason religions endorse eating and using animals is the religious belief that, although created by God, animals do not have souls. (The God Squad, © Tribune Media Services, March 19, 2009)

There you have it in a nutshell, except that I think the rabbi has put his cart before my hobbyhorse. The truth of the matter, I now believe, is the opposite of what Gellman asserts, to wit: Religions deny souls to animals so that we can use them! That is why evolution is anathema to such religions, since it shows that other animals have souls as much as we do, so we should treat them far better than those religions currently condone. Darwin could not morally countenance or ignore the suffering of other animals any more than he could logically reconcile its existence with a benign Creator.

As ever,


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