Theodicy and Animal Suffering

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Four ten-day-old kittens

Four ten-day-old kittens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Too many attempts at developing a theodicy, a broad-based account of why God allows evil and suffering in the universe, take account only of human suffering. Either writers do not deem it important, or else in Neo-Cartesian mold they deny either than animals have emotions or that because they do not find a sense of anomie in pain that they do not suffer in the way that human beings suffer. The Neo-Cartesian route, though still defended by certain Evangelical Protestant scholars who want a cheap way to get God off the hook for animal suffering, is so far from our experience of animals to be absurd. When will Calvinist philosophers stop try8ing to find a cheap way out of a real problem by denying it’s a problem? It is the propensity of some Evangelical scholars to deny the hard issues of their position: the Bible not being inerrant on historical and scientific matters, the evidence for some kind of macroevolution (even if more than Darwinian mechanisms are insufficient to explain all of evolution), the accounts of God in the Bible as an arbitrary, angry, jealous individual who kills with as much ease as He creates–and the problem of animal suffering. Not all Evangelical scholars agree with the Neo-Cartesians (to be fair, this includes Calvinist scholars–my intense dislike of Calvinism encourages me to be rather expressive emotionally).

The Neo-Cartesian position some scholars espouse has been used to justify abusing animals since “they don’t really understand pain like we do” and since “humans are over the other animals”.Despite the claim of some that animals have a sum total of positive emotions that outweigh any bad, one should also consider their short lives in the wild, often spend in running from predators and seeking sufficient food. Human beings have burdened animals with enormous tasks, The history of man’s treatment of animals has, at best, been a “mixed bag” (no pun intended). Abuse and/or abandonment of pets is a growing problem, especially during difficult economic times. Thus both evolutionary biology and its nature “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson) and man’s abuse has resulted in a tremendous amount of animal suffereing. How could a good God allow such suffering.

Evolutionary biology provides little help, for animals must pass on their genes to their offspring for the species to survive. Survival–life–is the necessary condition for all other good things in life. Why the food chain? Why so much pain due to predatory relationships between carnivores and omnivores and their prey?

Why is there so much human abuse of animals–dog fights, cock fights, beating pets until they are bruised and bleeding. Does God simply overlook such pain and suffering? If man, the steward of the animals, fails to exercise stewardship and instead exercises cruel domination, do animals have any recourse in a just and merciful God?

Francis Collins, John Hick, and C. S. Lewis have provided attempts to explain animal suffering within an evolutionary framework. For Hick, animal suffering is the required result of God using evolution to bring forth life. Lewis posits a fall of some kind to explain animal pain. Without an eschatological dimension, as I have mentioned in previous posts, animal pain has no redemption–and Romans 8 makes clear that the entire creation, not merely man, will be subject o the saving power of God. John Wesley correctly understands that animal resurrection is a possible implication from the Romans passage.

I do not believe that such resurrection involves just the species. God’s concern is for individuals, and millions of individual animals have suffered over the millenia without a smidgeon of support Duns Scotus was correct in holding that each being is individuated by haecceiitas, a unique formality that contracts the individual natures into an individual thing that is incommunicable. Only God knows the haecceitas in this life. It is arbitrary to say that only the human body is resurrected–why not animals? If God cares about each blade of grass, surely He cares enough about individual animals not to allow them to be annihilated at death. Alternatives allow no justice for the suffering endured by animals (or by people), In raising humans and non-human animals, God reveals His mercy and love in extending the gift of eternal life to the sentient beings of His creation. To deny this is to deny the love of God for His creation and His concern for the “least of these.”

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Duns Scotus, God’s Ability to Keep Forms in Existence, and Animal Immortality

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John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November 8, 1308) ...

John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November 8, 1308) was a theologian and philosopher. Some think that during his tenure at Oxford, the notion of what differentiates theology from philosophy and science began in earnest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is well-known that John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) had a more voluntarist bent in his philosophy than did St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). Scotus, writing in light of the Condemnation of 1277, in which the Bishop of Paris declared a number of Aristotelian propositions to be heretical, was careful to stay in line with current church teaching. Now the two great medieval thinkers would agree that God can do anything logically possible that is consistent with His nature. Aquinas, however, included all ten commandments under the natural law, while Duns Scotus held that the commandments dealing with human conduct were consistent with the natural law, but could be overridden by God given particular circumstances. Another issue to which Scotus devotes attention is whether God could maintain plant or animal souls (forms) in existence in the same way that the human soul is naturally immortal. (Unlike Aquinas, who believes in absolute proof of the immortality of the human soul, Scotus suggests that although probable arguments can be given to justify the soul’s immortality, conclusive arguments are lacking. Scotus, unlike Aquinas, emphasizes the freedom of God to maintain plant and animal souls in everlasting existence if He so chooses. Now Aquinas says that when a plant or animal dies, the soul is corrupted with the body, since plant and animal souls depend on a functioning body for their existence. Scotus accepts that position, but also emphasizes, as usual, God’s freedom.

What is significant about Scotus’ view has to do with the question of any child who has suffered the loss of an animal companion: “Will my (dog, cat, ferret, rabbit, hamster, etc.) go to heaven? For Aquinas, the answer is a definite “no.” Neither plants nor non-human animals will live in Heaven, but only human beings among embodied creatures. The four elements–earth, air, fire, and water will remain, though in a perfected fashion. When this world comes to an end, so do all the animals.

This is an uncomfortable position for the Thomist to hold, especially given the cosmic eschatological statements of Romans 8 which seem to imply that all of creation will be redeemed. It also ignores the great love between people and their companion animals, a love that is a good for the universe, a love that surely does not die forever with the animal’s death. Given the mistreatment of animals by human beings, it would be fair for animals to share in the eschaton.

If God wanted to keep a dog soul in existence (or a cat soul, a ferret soul, and so forth), according to Scotus He could do so. This does not imply that God would do so, but given the nature of God as love, it is difficult to believe that He would not raise those animals that are precious to human beings–and given God’s plenitude, why would he not raise other animals to whom individuality has worth?  A soul is a form, an informational pattern that acts to organize matter in a particular way. Even if it is not normally ontologically separate from a particular body, according to Scotus, God could miraculously maintain a dog or cat soul in existence up to an infinite future. Then at the resurrection, God would create a new body and allow that animal soul to inform that new piece of matter, perfect the composite, and by His grace grant eternal life to that animal. Scotus’ emphasis on the freedom of God gives more hope to the believer that animal resurrection may take place. That is my hope and prayer.

Anger at God

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A cat on a grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery

A cat on a grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cover of "A Grief Observed"

Cover of A Grief Observed

Sam was a wonderful cat–a yellow and white tabby whose fur matched that of Sienna, a sweet cat whom I really loved, who sat on my leg at night when I lay down on the couch and was by my side when I woke up in the morning. Sadly, she had multiple health problems and had terminal kidney failure for which she had to be put to sleep. From the start, Sam was every bit as sweet as Sienna. He’d virtually clamp to my side every morning and I’d reach over and rub the smooth white fur on his belly. Then he started having urinary problems. Two surgeries, which would have cured 98% of all cats with his condition (crystals blocking a narrow urethra, causing damage resulting in massive scar tissue growth) did not sure Sam. I was so upset when he was put to sleep (he was only five and a half years old)I could barely function. I was also furious–at God. It wasn’t that long before Sam died that I had lost my best friend to breast cancer–a woman who ate well, exercised, took care of herself, and died at 46. The two deaths so close together infuriated me, and the object of my anger was God.

God took our first cat, Liebchen, a real ornery character who still loved us; within a month He took Sienna. Then He took my best friend, then Sam. I was so furious I called God about every name from the depths of hell. I imagined that God became incarnate in a human body so He could “enjoy” Himself when animals and people, especially children, suffered. I mocked the design argument, pointing to the windpipe and esophagus having one entrance with only a flap making the difference between life and death. No human designer would be stupid and incompetent enough to make such a system. Evolution seemed cruel and arbitrary, and if there was a God, He seemed a cold, uncaring b…rd.

Some people were horrified when they heard my thoughts, saying I would go to hell–that helped me a great deal–to increase my anger. Some people understood, including some Christians, thank God. I remembered the book of Job, which some Christians conveniently forget–or they do not read it carefully. Job is faithful to God, yet is clearly angry at God. He believes God is behaving in an arbitrary way toward him–“if it is not He, who is it” who is causing his suffering. Even after that, God says that what Job said regarding Him was “right.” This does not suggest, as some suggest, that there is an evil part of God, but it does suggest that God understands human anger–it often does seem as if the universe is unjust, uncaring–and that Stephen Crane‘s conception of nature as not giving a d..m about humanity is correct. The only plausible answer to the mystery of evil is eschatological. That seems inadequate for many atheists, agnostics, and even theists. Dostoevsky understood that unless somehow the pain and suffering of this life were rectified in an afterlife one could, with some justice, blaspheme God.

I was falling apart to the point that my work was suffering when I saw Sam lying on the other side of the bed one night. I was neither asleep nor obviously dreaming. I reached over, touched the soft fur, and watched him slowly fade away. I have seen him two times since then. I think it was a true visitation, though skeptics will have their own answers. It helped me get on my feet and mitigated my anger at God. God and I still have a love-hate relationship (on my part–God is love so He cannot hate). But without God, nothing is redeemed, and all the suffering and pain of humans and animals from the dawn of evolution until the present is ultimately worthless. I’d rather be angry at times at the only Source of meaning rather than be indifferent.

Christians should not condemn someone’s anger at God, but should bear with the person since most of the time the anger is temporary. Give positive advice at an emotional level–do not condemn the person who is angry to hell. It’s not your call in any case. Suggest books such as C. S. Lewis‘s, A Grief Observed and Nicholas Wolterstorff‘s Lament for a Son. Too many Christians have driven doubters and those angry with God permanently from the faith by their legalism. If you are angry with God, realize that such anger may not be permanent–it is best that it not be permanent, for that would lead to the bitterness of total lack of faith and a sense of meaninglessness in life. If a Christian is legalistic about your anger, confront him–let the person know that he is responding in an inappropriate way. Be patient with yourself and with others–only then can one day, perhaps you can be patient with God when bad things happen.

Animals Have Feelings: Against Neocartesianism

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Cover of "Descartes (Collector's Library ...

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If you step on a dog’s tail and it yelps, does it feel pain? Are some intellectuals so thickheaded that they cannot see the obvious? Yes and Yes.

People in both the ancient and medieval worlds believed that all living things had souls. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the greatest Christian thinker of the Middle Ages, accepted Aristotle’s view that plants have vegetative souls, animals have sensitive souls, and human beings have rational souls. Aquinas would have no problem admitting a dog feels pain when someone steps on its tail. He believed that animals have emotions that parallel human emotions, and although he did not discuss the issue directly, I have no doubt he would have said animals are consciously aware of themselves and the world, especially higher animals such as mammals.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed that only human beings have souls and that only human beings are conscious and aware. For Descartes, animals are automatons, machine. So a dog yelping in what appears to be pain is no different than a mechanical toy with a sensor causing a yelping sound when someone steps on it. It is hard to believe that Descartes actually owned a dog!

A few years ago an article appeared in the scholarly journal Faith and Philosophy that defended God from the charge that He created a world with extreme animal pain–“nature red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. They referred to scientists who defend Neocartesianism, a contemporary view that animals either lack consciousness or their consciousness is so limited compared to us that they experience either no pain or very little. The same would follow for other feelings, emotions, and thoughts.

I must admit that my first reaction on reading the article was fury. These Evangelical Protestant scholars were so intent on getting God off the hook for animal pain that they were willing to deny the fact of animal pain, or at least minimize the amount of feeling a nonhuman animal could have. But in doing so, reality, like an angry dog, bites them in the face.

We share similar brains and nervous systems with animals, especially mammals. Just as an animal withdraws from painful stimuli, so do we. Just as animals cry out when in pain, so do we. Just as some animals become aggressive when in pain, so do some of us. My thoughts are if something looks like it’s in pain, acts like it’s in pain, and cries out like it’s in pain, that is sufficient evidence to say it feels pain. Neocartesian scientists and their defenders accept what C. D. Broad called “a silly philosophy,” that is, a philosophy that would send anyone outside of academia to an insane asylum. I suppose if Neocartesians are consistent, they would support the most violent research on animals; after all, if they are automatons or near-automatons, why not vivisect them–without anesthesia, too! But I doubt the Neocartesians would go this far. One never knows.

Of course we cannot enter an animal’s mind to know for sure what its thoughts and feelings are. But neither can we enter into another human being’s mind in that way. We have to rely on behavioral evidence to identify an animal’s emotions just as we do with human beings. Now humans also have language, but the fact that animals lack a language in the sense that humans have one does not imply that they are without thoughts and feelings.

In defending God from the charge that He created a world with excessive suffering, one should never ignore reality. That is intellectual cheating, and that is precisely the crime of which the Christians who wrote the article in Faith and Philosophy are guilty. Reality is what it is no matter how much humans try to deny it. Animals do feel, and without the strong rational sense that humans have in the way, they most likely feel emotions in a rawer and more intense fashion than human beings. Only a Neocartesian is intellectually obtuse enough to deny that.

Life after Death for Nonhuman Animals?

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Spitz

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I must have been about seven years old when my Spitz, Fuzzy, died from being hit by a car. I remember Daddy and Great Uncle Bill searching and finding the body near a mailbox. I could not accept that Fuzzy was really gone, and for days I would look for him to come back, jump on me, and lick me half to death, as was his habit. I lost other dogs through the years, and the pain remains to this day. Five years ago my wife and I lost both our cats, Liebchen and Sienna–Liebchen from squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth and, a month later, Sienna, from kidney failure. I was at work when Liebchen was put to sleep, but I helped bury him; when Sienna was put to sleep I was there, crying my eyes out. Sienna used to curl up and sleep on my leg almost every night. The heartbreak in losing both cats was as bad as the heartbreak from losing members of my family.

Is there any hope for animal afterlife? Living only with memories and not the hope of a reunion with beloved pets is a painful prospect. Mama had always said that animals didn’t have souls and couldn’t go to Heaven. I disagree on both counts.

Many Christian theologians and philosophers have supported the idea of animal afterlife, although one must be careful to distinguish the view that there will be, for example, dogs in heaven from the view that dogs who once lived on earth will live in heaven. Joseph Butler, John Wesley, and C. S. Lewis all supported some form of animal afterlife. Lewis supported the notion that pets who were close to humans would be raised from the dead. In some of his early works, the contemporary British theologian Keith Ward supported animal afterlife. Stephen Webb of Wabash College has defended animal afterlife in his fine book, Of God and Dogs. Several works were written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the subject of animal afterlife. Today there are a few popular-level works available, such as Kim Sheridan’s Animals and the Afterlife. My focus, however, is on philosophical and theological reasons (within Christianity) for supporting an afterlife for individual animals.

First, the notion that animals do not have souls is a modern one stemming from Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who thought animals were nonfeeling, nonthinking automatons and that only human beings have souls. But earlier thinkers, from Plato to Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas, all believed that animals had souls in the sense of a wholeness that is more than the sum of their parts. Aquinas believed that the souls of animals were destroyed at death, but he was not aware of modern research on animals that suggests that they have rudimentary reasoning ability.

The ape-language studies of the 1970s were controversial, but more because of a backlash from neo-Cartesians who believe, like Descartes, that animals are automatons. Despite the objection that the apes were just emulating humans or picking up subtle body language, the evidence of real communication through language seems to be the stronger position. Birds have shown a great deal of intelligence, especially parrots, and one (who is now dead) could speak, apparently using not just syntax, but also semantics. Animals have shown some basic math ability. Many animals use tools. It is clear that they are conscious at some level; whether they have self-consciousness in the same sense as human beings is difficult to tell. From my experience of dogs and cats, they reveal their individual personalities so strongly that the idea of them being resurrected with those same personalities and memory patterns does not seem absurd. I do, after all, believe in an omnipotent–and loving–God. Surely He would raise up the animals we love, our beloved companions such as dogs, cats–and other animals that are objects of our love. But unlike C. S. Lewis, I believe that God might raise up other individual animals as well.

Animals suffer a great deal–both by the hand of man and from the natural cycle of the food chain. An antelope caught by a lion isn’t saying to itself, “Boy, this feels great! Just what I wanted today, to be killed by a lion!” Instead, the antelope really feels fear and pain. It is only human presumption that denies that it anticipates such pain. And with so many animals damaged in cruel experiments (such as rats which were made to run or drown–until some died of either exhaustion, stress, or sleep deprivation), animals require justice. Raising up the species will not provide justice for individual animals. If animals have some sense of selfhood, even if not as developed as human beings, and could appreciate continued life, then a good God could raise them into a world without suffering. In that world these animals could live in peace with one another and with human beings–a subject of so many great works of art in the Western World–“the Peaceable Kingdom.” Best of all, we have every reason to believe that we will see our beloved companions again.

Two years ago, I was visiting my aunt’s church, which is across the street from where Fuzzy was run over. I was thinking about Fuzzy. Suddenly I saw a large white Spitz, the spitting (sorry about the pun!) image of Fuzzy, who crossed the highway and went behind a house–the house where Fuzzy had visited a female friend–and where he was going when he was killed. Now this may well have been a dog who lived there or somewhere else in the area. I looked behind the house–no dog–and in subsequent trips I have not seen him since. That experience I leave as a mystery–at the very least it was a nice coincidence or “synchronicity,” to use Jung’s term. Perhaps it was a foretaste of the future. I hope so.

North Carolina: Inhospitable to Animals

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Cover of "Dominion: The Power of Man, the...

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Some of the weakest laws concerning animal welfare in the country are found in the state of North Carolina. Dogs and cats are routinely killed in cruel gas chambers used by county animal control organizations. Dogs and cats are placed into the chambers, the lid is closed, and the gas released. One can hear the howls of the dogs as they gasp for air. A law to forbid gas chambers and require human euthanasia via injection failed to get past committee in the North Carolina state legislature.

In addition, the state allows county shelters to routinely get away with violations, but threatens private no-kill shelters with the most inane regulations. The state is always a hair’s breadth away from closing no-kill shelters. Any attempt at reform is opposed by several county animal control offices.

The state legislature is considering–again–this fall, a bill that would regulate dog breeding in way that is more humane for dogs. This bill has been opposed by special interests, including the hog farm industry.

Speaking of hog farms, pigs are reared in close quarters in factory farms, with sows genetically modified to continually produce more offspring than they could via their natural design alone. Hormones increase their muscle mass above what their bones can handle. The same sort of treatments are given to chickens, who are also packed in close quarters rather than being free range. Those who are unhealthy are killed on the spot. Hog and chicken factory farmers routinely say that “those hogs [or those chickens] are treated better than your dog or cat at home.” They are lying–and they oppose every attempt at reform of their industry.

Why is such treatment of animals accepted by many in North Carolina. I believe it is due to the unhealthy influence of toxic Fundamentalist Christianity, a twisting of orthodox Christianity that holds that animals are the slaves of man. Ignoring the Bible’s claims that man is a steward of the animals, such Christians believe that man has the right to treat animals in any way he sees fit. Christians should read Matthew Scully’s book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy for an animal-friendly interpretation of the Christian tradition. A person does not have to deny some priority to man to accept that non-human animals also have intrinsic value. The twisting of Christianity to justify cruel treatment of animals is evil. I believe that if this toxic religion were replaced with a Christian orthodoxy that affirms the value of non-human animals, the people of North Carolina would be far more willing to pressure legislators to pass laws that protect animal welfare. If this happens, even the powerful lobbyists of factory farms and the influence of unethical county animal shelters can be stopped. The state of North Carolina can become hospitable to animals–but only if we the people of North Carolina change our hearts and our actions toward animals–and then lobby legislators to do the right thing. Stop gas chamber killings of animals. Stop fighting no-kill shelters every step of the way. Support humane dog breeding. Stop the abuses of factory farming. It can be done.

Animal Welfare and a Red Herring

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A young male cat

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Many years ago, to train hunting dogs, trainers would throw a red herring in front of a dog to try to draw it off the trail. When properly trained, the dog would continue to follow the scent of its prey rather than to follow the red herring. Thus the “red herring” fallacy occurs when someone throws out an argument that is not relevant to the argument a person is making in order to change the subject, to draw the argument away from the real issues.

When I argue that human beings should treat animals in a humane way, and that the present system of animal welfare, especially concerning stray dogs and cats, is broken, some people throw out a red herring. The red herring is “Why do you worry so much about the treatment of animals when there are so many people in need? Do you care more about animals than people?”

This is an easy way for people to avoid the arguments I make in favor of animal welfare–that there are too many stray dogs and cats, that the pet population should be controlled by spaying and neutering, and that the killing of healthy dogs and cats at “animal shelters” should cease. I could also go into the issue of the treatment of chickens and hogs at factory farms, but for brevity’s sake I’ll limit my focus to cats and dogs.

There are two strategies to use in answering this red herring. One strategy is to ignore it and continue giving my main argument: Cats and dogs, like other mammals and birds (and probably many other animals) are sentient creatures. That is, they are not automatons as Descartes and the behaviorist psychologists think (and even some Christian philosophers who want to get God off the hook for animal pain). Dogs and cats have emotions–joy, sadness, love, anger, and grief. In a way, they feel more deeply than humans–we have a developed sense of reason to control our emotions. Animals, though they have some rudimentary reasoning skills, do not have the level of reasoning and humans, and their emotions therefore stand out more. I remember a photo in the 1980s from the Memphis Commercial Appeal. A hunter had died of a heart attack, and his dog remained by his side, even after rescue units arrived. Loyalty, love, and grief were summed up in one photo. When my cats look up at me with eyes that seem full of love (at least at times when they’re not hungry), some biologists would accuse me of anthropomorphism, of transferring human qualities to the animal. But
why throw out the idea that the cats are showing affection or something akin to love? My two cats love each other–they are friends, they groom each other, sleep by each other–sometimes one cat will wrap its paw around the other.

Now if dogs and cats are sentient and have a high degree of emotion, then it is wrong to inflict pain on them without a great deal of justification (such as to cure an illness or treat an injury). Plus, dogs and cats are not only valuable because of their interaction with humans, but they have intrinsic value. As living, sentient, emotional beings, animals have more than mere utilitarian value.

Beings with intrinsic value require a high threshold before they can be killed. Now I do not believe that non-human animals have the same degree of value as human beings–I differ with many animal rights advocates on that point. But I do believe that dogs and cats should not be killed unless they are so sick or injured there is little chance of recovery, or if their treatments would cause them so much pain (which they would not understand) that is is more human to euthanize them. But killing healthy dogs and cats, puppies and kittens in shelters seems to me an obscenity. A society that mistreats animals is twisted in itself, but it can also quickly more to devaluing and killing people it considers to be a burden.

One could also attack the red herring directly. To say that our primary concern should be with human welfare does not imply that we should not be concerned with animal welfare; this “argument” is a non-starter from the beginning. The issue is not whether to treat “non-human animals or humans” with dignity and respect; the issue is whether to treat both humans and non-human animals with the dignity and love they both deserve.