Atheism and animal liberation

Here’s a video that shows two famous atheist thinkers, Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins, talking about animal rights. Singer makes it clear how his atheism is important to his arguments, as they are premised on the belief that humans are just animals. In fact, at about 3:45, you’ll see Singer make the clear connection between atheism and animal liberation:

Here’s what he said:

That’s why I don’t think we can justify eating them. Once we accept the Darwinian picture that we are not some specially created species that has been given the God-given right to rule over the other animals, we REALLY have to move towards not buying all these products that come from animals and that really embody the suffering those animals experience.

Translation: Once we embrace the atheistic view of man in relation to other creatures, where there is nothing special about our species, we must move towards the position of animal liberation.

Dawkins nods in approval and helps Singer rationalize why it is okay to eat some animals (apparently, Singer and Dawkins like to eat oysters, so there has to be some escape hatch). But Singer presses him, causing Dawkins to admit he is less moral than Singer for eating meat and he even compares himself to a slave owner. That he willingly compares himself to a slave-owner tells us that he connects his atheism to animal liberation.

Rather than stop eating meat, Dawkins acts as if society is making him do evil and hopes Singer’s “consciousness raising” will one day change society so that we all become vegetarians.

If you think about it, that’s a rather pathetic rationalization. Dawkins realizes that his atheistic views of evolution naturally lead him to the vegan lifestyle, but thinks he has to eat meat because society expects that of him. But doesn’t society also expect him to respect religion or even be religious? Then why doesn’t that societal pressure have an effect on him? When it comes to religion, he is the loud and brave dissenter. When it comes to a steak dinner, he’s completely helpless before the powers of social conformation. Yeah, right. Dawkins should just be honest and admit he eats meat not because society made him do it, but because he likes it. But he can’t be honest, because his atheism has him thinking he is immoral.

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12 Responses to Atheism and animal liberation

  1. Jon Garvey says:

    So, the argument runs that because we’re exactly the same as other animals, we should make a rational decision to alter our natural diet on moral grounds. But wouldn’t that demonstrate we’re exceptional?

  2. TFBW says:

    The argument isn’t really all that Darwinian when it comes down to it. As ever, evolution is used as narrative gloss: the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. If universal common descent is true, then relatedness is a matter of degree, and in a Darwinian argument, the degree of morality would have some correspondence with the degree of relatedness. What other possible metric could Darwinism give us? The argument they’re making is clearly not one from relatedness, however. Rather, the argument is based on the (alleged) capacity for suffering, and a denial of any intrinsic value to the human species, even on the basis of our special abilities, such as the capacity for complex reasoning and language.

    Dawkins @5:15: “Intelligence doesn’t seem to me to be relevant, per se — um — a capacity to feel pain does seem highly relevant…”

    It’s good to see that Dawkins is open to arguments from intuition, even if the scope of his openness seems to be strictly limited to his own intuition and that of like-minded people. I’m disappointed to see that he’s still practising the art of reaching conclusions before becoming acquainted with the evidence, however.

    Dawkins @6:17: “I don’t know much about it, but I suspect it’s unconscionable.”

    So much for empiricism.

  3. faraday says:

    I don’t accept that theists cannot behave ethically due to their belief. Theists can be just as ethical as atheists. There is no logical step (that I see) going from

    1. It is our God-given right to rule over the other animals.

    to

    2. We should not be concerned about the suffering of animals, nor should we be concerned that every year millions of animals suffer needlessly (and often horrifically) for our own gratification.

    Surely it can’t be hard to find religious support for the principle that the powerful have an obligation to protect the weak?

  4. Justin says:

    If a specific animal has an inalienable right to not be eaten, are humans the enforcer of this right? We’re not special, after all, so does a chicken have the right to life whether or not it is a human or a dingo which is trying to eat it? Do we only police human activity and allow these poor creatures to have their rights violated by other species? What responsibility do we have to police the coyote population and why? Is the death penalty an appropriate punishment for dingos gone wild? Or are they exempt because of their carnivorous nature? Do bacteria have lesser rights than calves or chickens? I mean, who are we to kill e coli? Surely there is some objective grounding for creating these new rules that will need to be put in place. I’m curious as to what organizations will have to be created to try other species for animal rights violations. Will other species be competent to stand trial, or will the non-special humans have to discern for them?

    I think I’ll have a burger while they figure all this out.

  5. ingx24 says:

    I don’t really see animal rights as being about putting humans down at the level of animals at all – I see it more as bringing animals up to the level of sentient beings in general. The religious conviction that animals simply MUST be inferior and purely material has led to things like Descartes dogmatically denying consciousness to animals and people today assuming that animal rights is bringing humans down rather than bringing animals up.

    That said, I’m not a vegetarian in any sense of the word. I think eating animals is perfectly OK – species eat each other all the time in nature. But I think it’s about time we realized that animals are not objects that have no more moral significance than a rock. They are sentient beings just like we are and should be acknowledged as such.

  6. faraday says:

    If a specific animal has an inalienable right to not be eaten

    That’s not Singer’s argument. Rather it’s about taking the suffering of animals seriously, as briefly mentioned in the video. Also, his argument draws on utilitarianism, as opposed to idealism/rights.

  7. Michael says:

    I don’t really see animal rights as being about putting humans down at the level of animals at all – I see it more as bringing animals up to the level of sentient beings in general.

    I do. When animal rights proponents destroy scientific research and labs, they are elevating the value of rat life above that of human life.

    The religious conviction that animals simply MUST be inferior and purely material has led to things like Descartes dogmatically denying consciousness to animals and people today assuming that animal rights is bringing humans down rather than bringing animals up.

    I see. So you agree there is a connection between atheism and animal rights?

    That said, I’m not a vegetarian in any sense of the word. I think eating animals is perfectly OK – species eat each other all the time in nature.

    Hmmm. But Dawkins and Singer say you are being immoral. Will Reason show us who is right?

    But I think it’s about time we realized that animals are not objects that have no more moral significance than a rock. They are sentient beings just like we are and should be acknowledged as such.

    What world do you live in? I live in a world where anyone is free to smash any rock with a sledgehammer. But no one is free, and rightly so, to grab a stray cat and do likewise. Clearly, we do not live in a society that treats animals like rocks.

  8. Michael says:

    I don’t accept that theists cannot behave ethically due to their belief. Theists can be just as ethical as atheists. There is no logical step (that I see) going from

    LOL. First you gotta work on getting the leader of the Gnus to start behaving ethically.

  9. stcordova says:

    Since shadowtolight is a blog about faith, let me offer a theological speculation. Our love and caring for animals while at the same time our routine destruction of them seems paradoxical. From a Christian perspective this makes sense. God made us such that we live only through the life and death sacrifice of other organisms (be they plants or animals), in other words, something beloved and special and innocent is sacrificed in order that we may have life. Any one who is a Christian will appreciate the symbolism that God has put through nature as it echoes a certain sprititual truth central to the Judeo-Christian faith!

    I should point out there is one animal that is capable of photosynthesis, and Futuyma once commented on the perplexing question why there is an animal kingdom at all. The photsynthetic animal shows that in principle, predators don’t need to evolve, but yet they did….why?

    But if one is an atheist, our compassion toward innocent lambs and calves being slaughtered is an evolutionary accident, and further, despite the fact that this impulse is an evolutionary accident, Singer couples our impulse for compassion with our supposed equality with animals to come up with his own form of bio “ethics” where it is okay to sacrifice human babies (not even those that are deformed).

    Btw, does Singer have any thing to say about animal infanticide? Does he write that the practice of killing animal infants is justifiable like he writes against human babies? Not to my knowledge. This all smells like someone putting on a veneer of “ethics” when deep down it is a veiled hatred of humans and adoration of nature.

    If Harris and Dennett are right that the religious impulse is in our genes, then this suggests atheists are not biologically immune from having religious desires too! If so, they have an opportunity to pour out some sort of adoration toward something by adoring nature. They won’t admit it, but the fervor which they adore nature sometimes strikes me as religious….the animal liberation movement, full of its absurdities, has religion written all over it. When something so obviously illogical is pursued with such fervor, it can properly be called religion, and the Animal Liberationists are fundamentalists deep down.

    I have a biologists/conservationist friend who was an atheist once upon a time. He confided to me that prior to believing in God, all he had in his life that was worthy of adoration and worship was nature. If his personal history is true of other atheists such as the Animal Liberationists, then the real driving force of Animal Liberation is the worship of nature not ethics and conservation. The worship of nature is promoted on the pretense of “ethics” and conservation, but deep down it is religion.

    If Dennet, Harris, David Sloane Wilson are right that humans have the innate desire to worship things and maybe even have Messiah’s and prophets to lead them, then why should atheists be immune. The GNU movement, the religious fervor to exterminate humanity…it all wreaks of religion, not rationality.

  10. ingx24 says:

    “I do. When animal rights proponents destroy scientific research and labs, they are elevating the value of rat life above that of human life. ”

    Ah, ok, I misunderstood. I thought you meant that treating animals with the same compassion as humans was lowering humans to the status of animals rather than bringing animals up to (similar) status as humans. But I agree that elevating rat life ABOVE human life is degrading to human life in a way.

    “What world do you live in? I live in a world where anyone is free to smash any rock with a sledgehammer. But no one is free, and rightly so, to grab a stray cat and do likewise. Clearly, we do not live in a society that treats animals like rocks.”

    I was exaggerating, obviously. I was pointing out that asserting that any equivalence between animals and humans necessarily devalues human life rather than bringing animals’ status up seems to imply that animals are inherently worthless.

  11. rubbermallet says:

    Its always hilarious to me this idea that anything an atheist does matters at all. whether you save 10000 animals from their demise or eat 10000 animals, at some point in time, the sun will burn up, earth will be destroyed and the scope of your existence is a blip of a blip on the radar of anything that matters. why waste time with animal liberation? Cut up an eagle and lets chow down.

  12. eveysolara says:

    in my opinion, Dawkins isn’t saying that slavery and eating meat are both equally morally reprehensible, just that they are situationally equivalent

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