I remember vividly, to this day, my first encounter with the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, or the sacrifice of Isaac, as it was propagandistically renamed by early Christian interpreters. I was somewhere near 8 or 9 years old, and only recently subjected to Sunday school. Even at that young age I was thunderstruck by the clear implication that we were supposed to take these fables literally. So I took it upon myself to randomly page through the bible, reading the various stories, and came upon the bone-chilling episode of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Before I came to the end I was confident I knew what the moral of this story was going to be: Don’t ever do something bad just because someone tells you to. I knew the command to sacrifice—murder!—his son was indeed a test for Abraham, but with my childlike ethical system I thought the response God desired was Abraham’s refusal. In the end, because sacrifice is imperative, Isaac is replaced by a ram.
At this age I was already an avid reader, and especially liked science fiction stories. Ursula K. Le Guin is a renowned author of science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories, and around this time I had read one of her most famous stories, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Omelas is a utopian village, whose inhabitants are all happy, prosperous, beautiful and healthy. At some point in their lives, every adult in Omelas is taken to witness the source of their perfect lives: an imprisoned child—dirty, forsaken, alone, suffering. Everything good and true in Omelas depends on this innocent’s continued misery. The title refers to those who, by walking away into the imperfect wider world, repudiate sacrifice and the sacralization of violence. Although I walked away, like those in the story, from Christianity in particular, and belief in God in general, I had a particular destination in mind: to become a veterinarian so that I could alleviate the pain and suffering of animals. The impact of this story, this moral fable of compassion, combined with my early and permanent love of animals, leads to the title of this essay; my question then, when I read the bible, as now, is: What about the ram?
Christianity’s regard for the welfare of animals has historically been appalling, despite the oft-touted example of St. Francis of Assisi. Gillian Clark, a British classicist who has translated many works of the early Christian Fathers, wrote: “[A]ccording to Augustine, the animal, animal behavior and animal suffering are all for the physical or spiritual benefit of human beings...”1 Despite the gentle symbolism of the ubiquitous St. Francis of Assisi garden statuary, Pius IX, that most despicable of popes, prohibited the establishment of a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Rome. He objected to the implication that human beings had any duties toward animals, presumably including the obligation to refrain from cruelty. The Protestant tradition is just as dismal. Beginning with Luther writing that “[A]nimals now suffer a more oppressive form of bondage because they are subjected to man as to a tyrant who has absolute power over life and death.”2, we end up with the typical fundamentalist contempt for environmental and animal welfare concerns. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in addition to being the home of the Amish, is also the puppy mill capital of the United States. The Amish and Mennonites who run these operations excuse the infliction of such egregious cruelty on the basis of their religious belief that humans were given animals to use as they see fit. These “gentle pacifists” dispute even the requirement of minimum cage sizes, saying this elevates the needs of animals over those of human beings.
C.S. Lewis, whose facile and pseudo-intellectual apologetics have made him a favorite among those who style themselves “thinking” Christians, to his credit was greatly troubled by the suffering of animals. Finding the problem insoluble within the confines of his worldview, he concluded that what appears to be the unnecessary pain and suffering of animals is merely an illusion. Lewis also devoutly believed in the reality of Satan, but it never occurred to him that those who trivialize, rationalize or deny evil and suffering in order to rescue their belief in God are doing the devil’s work for him.
Of course the Christian tradition is hardly monolithic, any more than the secular freethinking community is of like mind on every subject. Christian apologists concerned with the treatment of animals have recently begun to develop a theology of animal welfare. Although the goal is commendable, it requires selective and creative interpretation of historic Christian doctrine. I get the distinct impression that these well-meaning believers walked away from their own Omelas, dragging the bible and Christian doctrine kicking and screaming behind them.
Schopenhauer, the German philosopher and atheist, observed that “since compassion for animals is so intimately associated with goodness of character, it may be confidently asserted that whoever is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.”3 The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, seemingly in direct response to this quote, peevishly notes that “excessive fondness for them [animals] is no sure index of moral worth; it may be carried to un-Christian excess; and it can coexist with grave laxity in far more important matters. There are many imitators of Schopenhauer, who loved his dog and hated his kind.”4 We may fool ourselves that we have moved past the pious barbarity invoked by the sacrifice of the ram, but we continue in this Judeo-Christian soaked country to reenact that sacrifice on our companion animals. They are discarded, abandoned and neglected for convenience. Purebred dogs continue to be produced despite the fact that breed-specific genetic diseases literally fill a book. And so we sacrifice the health and quality of life of these puppies and kittens, these children of our perverse and self-indulgent genius. The dominionist mentality that stems from the pervasiveness of the Christian mindset continues to govern our treatment of farm animals as well. It is a bitter irony that it is completely legal to confine swine and chickens in such cramped and crowded enclosures that they cannot turn around, while federal standards for laboratory animals mandate minimum housing sizes.
I am an atheist for philosophical and intellectual reasons, which are doubtless well-known and well-rehearsed by the readers of this paper. But I also reject religion and supernaturalism for moral reasons. It allows believers to console themselves that things will all work out in the end, despite all evidence to the contrary. Upon reading the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, I vowed to make my covenant, not with the sadistic and bloodthirsty God of the bible, but with the wider world and all who suffer in it. I am an atheist, and a veterinary student, because I remember the ram.
1. Clark, Gillian. The Fathers and the Animals: The Rule of Reason? in Animals on the Agenda, edited by Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto, SCM Press Ltd, 1998; p. 78.
2. Quoted in Animals on the Agenda, p. 65.
3. All-creatures.org website. Accessed June 30, 2009. http://all-creatures.org/quotes/schophenhauer_arthur.html
4. New Advent website. Accessed June 29, 2009. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04542a.htm
I am a second-year veterinary student at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. I have been both an atheist and an animal lover since I was old enough to think about such things. After graduating I will practice small animal (companion animal) medicine, with a strong interest in anesthesiology/pain management, veterinary dentistry and travel. I often travel to attend science fiction conventions and veterinary conferences, combining two of my interests in one trip. My current pets are seven cats, a dog, a rabbit, two rats and two guinea pigs, all of which are rescue animals.