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The Vacuum Issue 4 spacer Issue 4
Humans And Other Animals
by Martin Bruhns
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Those of us who grew up within a Christian tradition would be aware of the centrality of animals within religious teaching. From Genesis to Revelation animals abound. Most of the time they provide the context of Biblical stories. Occasionally they serve as a ready metaphor for the relationship between humans and their creator or between the faithful and their spiritual leaders. In either function they indicate the socio-economic background out of which Christianity evolved.
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However, while animals might provide a rich store through which the relationship between the Divine and humans is articulated, what is rarely addressed is the relationship between humans and animals - as part of God's creation. There is the example of Noah, who might serve as a role-model. His task, to populate the ark with a representative menagerie of God's creatures, resonates strongly with current sentiments of human's role as stewards of the earth's biodiversity. Interestingly, Noah was only charged to populate his vessel with animals, not with plant life. This would imply a hierarchy among God's creations that places us at the top with a special relationship to the animals, with the rest of the environment as insignificant.
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Humans And Other Animals
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Most of the time animals are evoked within the Christian traditions whenever it becomes necessary to criticise human behaviour. They highlight all of our behavioural tendencies that are God-displeasing, if not outright sinful. Noah may again serve as an example. Once the deluge subsided he was happy to be a goat-herd, while his sons went out to do greater things. His interest in observing animals, developed maybe during the time aboad the ark when there was not much to look at. This brought to his attention the effects fermented grapes had on his goats. He subsequently became the first wine-grower and got drunk. According to one Rumanian folk-tale, Noah was assisted in his vineyard by the Devil who cuts the throats of three sacrificial animals and lets their blood drip over the plants: first a goat, then a lion and lastly a pig. Which explains why a man who drinks a little wine is initially gay and carefree like a kid, if he drinks some more he'll get excited and roars like a lion and should he drink too much he ends up rolling in the dirt like a pig.
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Animal behaviour does not merely provide a simile for human behaviour, but also a template for moral censor - hence the Devil. This explains the joke made by the secretary of one of the major Christian Churches in Northern Ireland when I got in touch with them. I asked if she would know of someone who could talk to me about the relationship between humans and animals to which her prompt reply was: 'We are all animals here' after which she burst out in a short laugh. Of course this was only funny, because we are not really.
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Once it has been accepted that we are not animals, the question remains of what our relationship to animals is. All the religious groups that I am aware of, would grant humans a special place among the creatures of the earth. Mostly, this puts them in the position of game-keepers. 'Stewardship' is the term that many people used when talking about the teachings of their belief. The notion that animals are there for us to use but not to abuse, a view central to the teaching of the generally compassionate Quakers, would be shared by the faithful of other religious groups. However, where the first stops and the latter commences is often a matter of individual choice. Among Friends there are many who would be vegetarians and even vegans, convinced that the eating of animals or their produce does constitute abuse, but this is a matter for the individual to decide and not religious dogma.
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Religions with reincarnation as a central concept have dietary rules that are often more explicit. One Buddhist suggested that in Buddhism 'there won't be too much' in respect to animals, 'it is generally no harming - and we don't eat them'. However, the belief that animals are spiritual beings in a hierarchy of reincarnations, does not put them on the same footing as us. According to the Hare Krishnans there are 8,400,000 species, eight million of which are animals. It is a duty for a Hare Krishnan to show compassion to them (and obviously not to eat them). This is done, primarily by providing them with sanctified food and chanting for them, their ascent through the different stages of reincarnation may be speeded up, but it is only humans who have the potential to be in touch with the spiritual realm. They are special, different from the rest.
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Humans And Other Animals
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In their ability to differentiate between their own and other species humans are just like animals. Most do differentiate among themselves. The idea that humans are like other animals, however, might be unique to humans - in the sense that this contains some form of moral interpretation. It is probable that this concept could have only evolved in a secularised context. At least the ideas of many of the world religions would suggest as much.
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