As the holiday season approaches and people of various religions gather to celebrate, I am reminded of one of the principles shared by all monotheistic faiths—the belief that humans are separate from nature. Even religions that accept evolution believe that humans are uniquely imbued by the Creator, and exist in a separate moral universe.
This great divide between humans and all things non-human has led to incalculable destruction and pain inflicted on untold billions of animals over thousands of years. I do not claim that the religious separation between humans and other living beings is solely responsible, but it has contributed significantly. Virtually all research into violence shows that the propensity for cruelty increases in proportion to the dehumanization of “enemies”; animals perpetually live in that dehumanized space.
We torture and kill billions of animals in our industrial farming system every year; animals are out of sight and out of mind. Animals today have forceful advocates who are questioning and fighting back against the factory farming complex; religion, though, still holds that animals exist solely for human purposes, and we can do with them what we wish. Animals are also abused for sport and in the name of science, for purposes as trivial as testing hair dyes and lotions. Again, there is the belief, promulgated by religion that animals are here to serve us and little more.
Fortunately, we are slowly beginning to realize that the line between us and the animal kingdom is essentially artificial—little more than a product of our arrogance and lack of imagination. We are learning that animals not only have an immense capacity for pleasure and pain, they have complex emotional lives: they pine for other animals, mourn, and develop deep and affectionate ties—with members of their own species, and others as well.
Videos proliferate on the internet of orangutans befriending dogs, dogs befriending elephants, deer befriending rabbits, and even lizards cuddling with cats. Many humans have forged bonds with animals as diverse as lions, tigers, whales, and dolphins. We are also discovering mental capacities in animals far more sophisticated than we once imagined, including the ability to build and use tools, solve complex puzzles, and communicate in complex languages.
These discoveries have begun to impact public policy. The National Institutes of Health just put a freeze on medical trials for chimps, with new criteria that will make it much harder to employ chimps in future medical experiments. The Constitution of the European Union contains language banning animal cruelty, and the Ecuadoran Constitution is the first to include explicit “rights of nature”.
We are nearing a moment in history when societies across the global will recognize that life exists on a continuum; while humans are unique in many aspects, we are only one manifestation of the evolutionary process. This does not mean that all life is equally valuable—an ant is not equivalent to a person—but morality must be broadly defined. It is not enough to simply claim that humans are inherently superior to all other beings.
When we reach this point, we will be able to appreciate our place on the continuum without looking down on other creatures or creating the kinds of divisions that have led us to inflict harm on other creatures and on our consciences as well. The truly moral person is the one who has the power to dominate and control others, but chooses not to (and even a few religious people understand this).