“Animals are people, too. Animal radio!” So goes the jingle on XM’s Animal Radio station, and they are not the only ones making this outrageous claim. Billboards all over Arizona say, “Animals are children, too. Love them. Don’t abandon them.” More and more, our culture in America is elevating animals to the level of human beings. You can go to the grocery store today and find greeting cards to send to your pets. As if that were not weird enough, you can also buy greeting cards from your pets to you! At a frozen yogurt shop in Fountain Hills, AZ, they had an entire assortment of frozen yogurt options for your dog or cat with flavors like “sardines” and “salmon.” Because animals are being so anthropomorphized, many people today are even calling for animals to have rights and liberties, or even to be declared as legal persons. This view is problematic at best and blasphemous at worst. Animals do not have consciousness or an eternal soul and therefore are not entitled to the same rights and freedoms as human beings.
With 2.3 billion professing Christians worldwide, the Bible is the most influential book on philosophy and morality in the history of mankind, and it has a lot to say about animals. For those of us who believe it is the word of God, it is the final authority. In the Bible, there is a great distinction made between animals and humans. After God created all the animals in Genesis 1, he said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Unlike the animals, man is made in the image of God, and has been given dominion (lordship) over the animals on this planet.
Throughout the Bible God kills animals indiscriminately and does not assign their lives the same value he assigns to humans. For example, in Genesis 6, when God is grieved by the sins of mankind, he decides to wipe out the world with a global flood that kills almost all the animals, even though the animals themselves had done nothing wrong. In Leviticus, he institutes a mandatory program of animal sacrifice that involves killing and butchering a multitude of creatures. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus sends 2,000 pigs sailing off a cliff to drown in the sea in order to save one person (Mark 5:1-17). Finally, in the book of Revelation, God pours out his wrath on this earth once again, killing a tremendous number of animals.
Despite this overwhelming evidence from scripture, some would object to this view that God doesn’t seem to care about the lives of animals by pointing to Bible verses that would seem to indicate that he does. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy, there are laws protecting animals and wildlife, such as the admonition “not to muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn” (Deuteronomy 25:4) or the command not to kill the mother bird if you find a nest containing eggs or young birds (Deuteronomy 22:6). There is also the statement in Proverbs that “a righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” (Proverbs 12:10). Another example is the famous statement by Jesus about sparrows when he said, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?” (Luke 12:6)
However, upon closer examination, we see that none of these verses is actually teaching that God cares about animals. In fact, this question is specifically addressed in 1 Corinthians 9 9: “For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.” Notice that the question is asked, “Does God care about oxen?” The answer is that this was not said for the sake of the oxen, but that there is “no doubt” that it said 100% (“altogether”) for our sakes. It was not written to protect oxen whatsoever. Also, when we examine the context of the bird’s nest command, we find that the reason given for keeping the mother alive is “that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days.” Similarly, when Christ gave the illustration about the sparrows, he followed it up with, “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many ,” showing his regard for humans, not sparrows.
In addition to the biblical argument, there are also many practical arguments against considering animals as persons or giving them the rights and freedoms that people enjoy. In 2014, a lawsuit was filed by the Nonhuman Rights Project suing for the freedom of a chimpanzee. The same organization had also tried to win legal rights for apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales. The court ruled unanimously that since chimpanzees are not legal persons, they are not entitled to freedom. The Nonhuman Rights Project claimed that since chimpanzees exhibit highly complex cognitive functions, they should be considered persons and accorded similar rights. They essentially sought to redefine the legal definition of a “person.” One problem with declaring chimpanzees to be “persons” is that Chimpanzees have no concept of right and wrong or morality, and so nothing would stop them from killing, stealing from, or harming others. Since chimpanzees are not capable of fulfilling societal responsibilities, and since they are not held accountable when they break the rules of civilized society, declaring them to be “persons” is very problematic.
Advocates of granting personhood to animals believe that animals are sentient beings with conscious feelings. In fact, the vast majority of people who don’t believe in giving personhood to animals also hold this view of animal sentience. However, there is an alternative view that should be considered, which was famously put forth by French philosopher and scientist René Descartes in the 17th century. Descartes argued that an animal is like a “machine” or an automaton. He acknowledged that animals have sensations and emotions, but he argued that their emotions are just a result of the way they are “programmed” to feel. In that sense, they are similar to “machines,” or as we would put it today, they are like robots or artificial intelligences. They are simply the products of their inherited instincts and biology and not the possessors of eternal souls or spirits.
For those who argue for animal consciousness, the question of which animals are conscious must be answered. Where do we draw the line? Are snails and roaches sentient, or only whales and chimpanzees? Is the distinction between mammals and non-mammals? Is the distinction between warm-blooded and cold-blooded animals? From a biblical perspective, the line is drawn between humans and animals, but from an animal rights perspective, some other line must be drawn. Animal Welfare Acts passed in the United States do not protect all animals. They exclude mice, rats, birds, cold-blooded animals, and many others. There must be some authority by which the decision is made as to which animals are conscious and which are not.
Another issue with granting personhood to animals is the question of whether it is ethical to harm animals for the benefit of people. If someone truly believes that animals have equal value to humans, then logically they would not be able to justify eating animal meat or wearing animal based textiles. Not only that, but if they truly believe that “meat is murder,” they would have to make it against the law for anyone to eat meat. Medical studies and testing done on animals also come into question. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals argue that many animal tests are not required by law and even provide false or misleading data about the effects of products on humans. They believe that animal testing is immoral, a waste of money, and not beneficial to humans in any way. Those in favor of animal testing have cited vaccines against Typhus, yellow fever, and polio, as medical advances that would have been impossible without the use of animal testing.
Whether or not we believe in the personhood of animals makes a big difference in our everyday lives. It impacts our diet, our clothing choices, our medical choices, and the way that we view our pets and the pets of others. Whatever the conclusion we come to, it will have a profound effect on our life decisions if we actually think these things through and are consistent in the application of our beliefs.
While my belief that animals are not on the level of people affects the way I live my life, it does not mean that I mistreat or am cruel to animals. I believe that we should treat animals humanely for our own sakes, not for the sake of the animal. Being cruel to animals is harmful to the person carrying out the cruelty. If a person enjoys hurting animals, it is likely that they lack normal human empathy. People who torture animals are sometimes even disturbed individuals who will later graduate to harming humans. Even though animals are not people and are not eternal, they are here on this earth for our benefit and enjoyment, and we would do well for ourselves to treat them humanely and decently. As scripture says, “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.” Click here to hear my sermon on this subject.