The Oppression of Animals: Is Religion the Cause … or the Remedy?

Quick now:

How many vegans can you name who live in Southeastern Montana, where cattle outnumber people by a ratio of about 100-to-1? (Conservative estimate.)

Think that’s tough. Try this one:

How many religious studies professors can you name who research what our sacred texts say about the proper treatment of animals?

The Beet-Eating Heeb hates to show up his beloved readers, but he can name someone in both categories. It helps that it’s the same person.

Lisa Kemmerer, with a friend

Lisa Kemmerer, with a friend

Meet Lisa Kemmerer.

Tenure-track positions are hard to find in academia, which might explain why the professor who has written one of the most authoritative books on the intersection of animal welfare and religion is on the faculty of the Montana State University – Billings.

BEH, as one of the very few bloggers who writes about the theology of veganism, feels fortunate to have found Lisa.

Her book “Animals and World Religions” (Oxford University Press) is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the role that religion can play – make that, should play – in ending the oppression of animals.

Lisa and The Beet-Eating Heeb recently talked about her important work – and about what it’s like to be a vegan advocate in cattle country.

BEH: Lisa, what’s it like to be vegan in Billings, Montana?

Kemmerer: My social life is limited. It’s a ranching place, very conservative—not always comfortable.

I know there are other vegans out there, but they’re students, in a different space in life. They can’t provide a community for me. I don’t know any vegans in Billings that I have commonality with, and of course I simply don’t eat out.

BEH: Many of your students are cattle ranchers themselves. How do they respond when you tell them that the widespread suffering of farm animals is a violation of religious principles?

Kemmerer: I have lots of ranching students in my classes and they bristle at animal ethics. They especially bristle at hearing that what they’re doing is inconsistent with their own faith.

Why am I beating my head against a wall with a bunch of ranching students? I’m needed here. It’s not socially comfortable for me, but I think it’s necessary.

BEH: If the major religions emphasize the compassionate treatment of animals, how did we get into a situation where we’re slaughtering 9 billion farm animals in the U.S. alone?

Kemmerer: People can ruin any religion. There is no religion that teaches us that what is happening in animal agriculture is OK.

Humanity has a tendency toward ignorance of religions. We have a tendency toward selfishness. We tend to be arrogant. Between ignorance, selfishness and arrogance, we create a recipe for the dismissal of religious teachings.

The religions themselves can’t do anything. They are only powerful through believers.Animals and World Religions

In Genesis 1:29, after creating a vegan world, God said creation was “very good.” People can read these passages three times, but they aren’t hearing that the world was intended to be vegan. That’s where arrogance and selfishness come in.

One of my frustrations is that the religious community isn’t generally interested in these issues. It’s frustrating and sad because it’s so important—the suffering is so great.

BEH: The Beet-Eating Heeb knows a lot about the emphasis in Jewish texts on the compassionate treatment of animals, but what about Christianity?

Kemmerer: It is true that the Jewish tradition is rich with how to relate to nature and animals. Christians share these texts with the Jewish tradition. I wish they would pay more attention to this part of scripture. Too many Christians are ignorant of Jewish texts, but they are foundational to Christianity.

BEH: Was Jesus a vegetarian? There seems to be some debate about that.

Kemmerer: The Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus ate. And what he ate doesn’t make much of a difference, no more than it makes a difference what Jesus was wearing on his feet.

The real question is: What would Jesus think of what we’re eating today? What would Jesus think of our slaughterhouses? No sincere Christian can say, “Those slaughterhouses are fine. Jesus would only worry about human needs and suffering.”

Jesus would not like what we’re eating today, based on the suffering of animals.

BEH: What about Islam?

Kemmerer: Though Judaism does, Christianity doesn’t have laws for the protection of animals, and Christians ignore the ones they’ve inherited from the Jewish tradition.

Islamic law is very strict with regard to animals. Muslims are supposed to satisfy the basic needs of domesticated animals, which goes right to the heart of factory farming. Animals are not supposed to be targeted in warfare; we have no right to cause animal suffering through human conflicts. These are wonderful teachings! Such direct laws are very important for the protection of animals.

Muslims tend to restrict their focus to laws governing the slaughter of animals, but this is not the only issue covered by Islamic law.

BEH: That’s a problem in Judaism, too. Sigh.

Now what about Hinduism? Many of the Hindus whom The Beet-Eating Heeb knows are vegetarian, although not vegan.

Kemmerer: Hinduism has the wonderful ideas of ahimsa (not to harm) and karma.

Hindus are ahead of most of the world’s people in terms of actually living up to some of their basic religious beliefs. But milk is a huge part of their diet, and in contemporary times milk is associated with tremendous suffering. That is something Hindus need to look in order to adhere to the central tenets of their religion.

BEH: One last question Lisa. Some people in the animal-rights and veg-advocacy movement blame religion for our society’s horrible treatment of animals. That’s the wrong place to put blame, if you ask The Beet-Eating Heeb. But if we’re ever going to have a more compassionate and merciful relationship with animals, can religion be part of the solution?

Kemmerer: Yes, religion is critical to bringing change for animals.

When I show people want’s happening on factory farms and point out how these methods are inconsistent with their most fundamental religious beliefs, they’re inclined to change — they feel compelled to change. But if you are talking to an atheist, you don’t know what their ethical code is, and they can simply say, “I don’t care.” Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus—they can’t say they don’t care. Religious teachings call us to care — require that we care.

If we’re going to talk about religion with others, we need to be informed so that we can be sensitive to the beliefs and practices of others. If we are educated, we will be more effective advocates for the animals. I would like to believe that “Animals and World Religions” can help us to be more effective in our advocacy, which is to say, I hope that this book will help bring change for animals.

About The Beet-Eating Heeb

I'm a meat-abstaining Jew who believes our religion commands us to treat our bodies with care, to treat animals with compassion, and to treat our planet like it's the only one we've got.

Posted on March 17, 2013, in Book Reviews, Torah/Bible and Veganism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Hey there! I’ve been vegan for a year, and last Christmas I got into a conversation with my dad about it. My dad said that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with eating meat because Jesus ate fish. I didn’t know what to say in response to this. Thanks for this post – it gives me food for thought about my dad’s perspective. Celeste:)

  2. Dear BEH, great that you are able to help Anon so practically and I also love the positive and hopeful message regarding birthright and the will to help change things for the better of all.

  3. There are so many arguments blaming religion, and therefore anyone who follows any religion, for all animal cruelty. People with religion try to defend their ability to reconcile religious beliefs with compassionate ones to atheists who ridicule and insult religion, and by extension, even their fellow vegans.

    Religion, as Lisa stated, does not cause or command cruelty to animals. People do – choosing to interpret and/or ignore whatever doctrine speaks or doesn’t speak to their desires.

    Thank you for this interview. I have been a fan lo Lisa Kemmerer for a long time. I look forward to reading her book.

  4. I’m aware of JVNA and am even on their advisory board but having personally met with many rabbis as well as other Jews in an effort to share the realities of animal cruelty, I’ve yet to find even one who was interested in exploring the issue. I had hoped to join a synagogue when I moved to L.A. several years ago but there isn’t even one led by a vegan rabbi nor a rabbi who is willing to screen a film like “Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish values to help heal the world.” With that kind of resistence I feel I have no choice but to seek spiritual and religious affiliation elsewhere.

    • Jana, if you’re looking for a veg rabbi in L.A., you need look no further than Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai. He’s the leading Conservative rabbi in L.A.

      And whether a rabbi is willing to screen “A Sacred Duty” should not be a litmus test. A better question is whether a synagogue consistently offers a solid vegan option at its communal meals.

      Our religion, Jana, is not a commodity. It’s our birthright. And if we don’t like the way it’s being practiced, we’re empowered to change it. JVNA is changing Judaism from within and entering a major growth phase.

  5. What about the Jain religion? There’s no mention of it in this article and it’s my understanding that Jainism is the ultimate animal-friendly reliigion. I’d be curious to know if the author and blogger regard Jainism as a religion that vegans in the U.S. and elsewhere might want to pursue if they feel disenfranchised from their own religions, be it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.

    • BEH would be saddened if any vegan abandoned Judaism, because veganism is the Jewish ideal, as clearly expressed in Torah. Jewish Vegetarians of North America will be working in the months and years ahead to create a deeper sense of community among Jewish veg*ns.

  6. For more info on religions and vegetarians, please visit http://www.SERV-online.org and on Jewish vegetarianism specifically, check out Jewish Vegetarians of North America at http://www.JewishVeg.com and The Vegetarian Mitzvah at http://www.brook.com/jveg

  7. Thank you for this valuable interview with Lisa Kemmerer and for sharing information about her book and ideas about the role of religions in promoting or impeding respectful and compassionate treatment of nonhuman animals. Unfortunately, many religious people I talk to about mercy and justice for chickens and other animals are less interested in what their God intended than in what their God “permits.” Most religions I’ve encountered have conflicting moral messages, including how humans should treat each other, and even Judaism’s relative interest in the suffering of nonhuman animals is as much about, if not more than about, Prudence and husbanding the “resources” “God” gave to “Man,” as about genuine empathy with other animals as fellow creatures on earth. But you are right that animal advocates must do what we can to invoke those elements of religious doctrine that encourage compassion and justice for the individuals who constitute life and feelings outside the narrow sphere of human existence. Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns

  8. It is great to hear more about how religion can help bring compassion back to the heart of how are Creator intended us to live. We so often hear how religion is the cause of humanities problems, thanks to Lisa Kemmerer, and you BEH, Gods true message is being brought to light.

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