February 20, 2013
Peter Singer, Animals & Christianity
Author Charles C. Camosy attempts to set the record straight on the controversial animal activist with regards to his faith
by Charles C. Camosy
Peter Singer is the poster-child for animal rights activism, and this—almost all by itself—is enough for traditional Christians to run away from the movement in horror. It isn’t difficult to figure out why.
After all, Singer himself is the one who sets up the Christian sanctity of life ethic for ridicule and eradication as the major impediment to ethical treatment of animals. Without Christianity’s unjustified speciesism, says Singer, our culture wouldn’t think that humans have dominion over animals.
Furthermore, we’d recognize that certain non-humans (like apes and dolphins) are persons with rights, while certain humans (like newborn children and the severely disabled) are not persons with rights. What serious person could join a movement with a leader who tells them that they have to give up what they believe to be most fundamentally true about the world? Happily, many are realizing that this narrative is false.
Speciesism has been a fundamental human reality for as far back as we have evidence—well before Christianity. In fact, violent exploitation of animals (and other vulnerable populations like racial minorities and prenatal children) rarely needs ideological justification—it is about raw power. Authentic Christianity, by contrast, resists violence and stands up for the most vulnerable.
For those traditional Christians who recoil from Singer, here are some things you may not know:
- He agrees with pro-lifers on abortion except on one narrow and complex issue of metaphysics. He totally rejects, for instance, the idea that “privacy” or “reproductive rights” are legitimate reasons for allowing the killing of human prenatal children.
- At a recent conference he expressed empathy for pro-lifers—in particular by claiming that Roe v. Wade is bad law and that pro-lifers should be able to get the law changed if they can convince a majority of their fellow citizens of their position.
- He rejects our culture’s moral relativism and believes in public, legal defense of moral truth.
- He blames the loss of Christian influence on Western culture for neglect of the poor and the dramatic increase in focus on consumerism and attaining wealth.
- While he once thought Christianity was to blame for our horrendous treatment of non-human animals, he now believes that it can be an ally in the fight against this treatment.
This final point is very important. Peter Singer’s thought can push Christians to rediscover our own tradition of concern for non-human animals—a tradition that was lost when our secular culture put almost all of our focus on the individual, rational, wealth-producing human being.
He can help us rediscover the fact that God cares for animals and commands us to care for them as well. He can help us rediscover that a self-centered focus on human beings is not biblical—and that human beings share the breath of life with many animals.
He can help us rediscover the Christian understanding of non-human persons in the form of angels (and demons)—and what implications this might have for rational and self-aware animals like chimps and elephants. Finally, he can help us rediscover the deeply Christian idea of self-denial—especially when it comes to fasting by avoiding meat and dairy.
Charles C. Camosy is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University, and is author of Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization. His current project is a book on animals and Christian thought for Franciscan Media.