The way to live the message of compassion that underlies each of these traditions is to truly extend that compassion to animals.
With 84 percent of Americans identifying as religious, and 97 percent agreeing that animals deserve protection from harm and exploitation, why do so many religions continue to ignore, or even encourage, practices that cause animal suffering?
And why do people blindly follow along? Is the issue ignorance, or is it tradition?
The two of us grew up following and learning our family’s religion, more or less, though we’re hardly experts on the subject. But, as animal rights activists, it’s hard not to notice that so many religions—which are supposed to provide guidance on how to live—seem to ignore, or even worse, participate in, animal suffering.
We started thinking about this recently when we learned about the ritual of mercy release in Buddhist practice. The idea stems from something quite beautiful: In order to create good karma, one releases captive animals to the wild, freeing them to live their own lives.
As founders of the animal advocacy organization Our Hen House, we are devoted to the idea that animals should own their own lives, and should not exist just to be the slaves, or property, or food, of humans. So this idea touched us.
But the person from whom we learned about this practice, Iris Ho of Humane Society International—who is slated to be a guest on Episode 173 of our podcast, airing May 4—enlightened us about the cruel underbelly of this religious practice. (Somehow, when it comes to relations between people and animals, the hidden reality is usually ugly.)
Literally millions of animals—including birds, turtles and fish—are used in these rituals each year in Buddhist communities around the world.
These individuals are captured, or bred, just for the purpose of being released. They frequently suffer and die horrifically in the process.
Most religions have something to say about animals, though the messages are not always crystal clear. For some religions, like Christianity, you have to look a bit harder to find these messages. For Buddhism, however, it is right out front—compassion for all beings.
So how does this deeply beautiful sentiment get so lost when it comes to “mercy release?” How did practice become so divorced from the kindness that the ritual is meant to embody? Why do we always seem to go so wrong when it comes to how we think about, and act, toward animals?
These kinds of religious distortions are everywhere.
Think of kosher slaughter, which is rooted in competing considerations—including the necessity of killing animals for food, the need to make sure that food is unadulterated (thus requiring that the animal be conscious when killed), and, most notably (and as Jasmin learned when she was a child), the necessity of causing the animal the least amount of suffering (thus requiring that the animal be killed with one single cut).
But how does this play out in the real world, right now?
The fact is that consumers, Jews and non-Jews alike, purchase kosher products today with one of their goals being to reduce cruelty to animals. While that’s a well-intentioned impulse, the reality tells another story.
A kosher label can’t change the fact that nowadays it is not necessary to kill animals for food, so there is no justification for any kind of slaughter, which is, regardless of how it’s carried out, inherently cruel.
Nor do kosher certifications generally mean anything about the way animals are raised, which means they were subjected to horrifying cruelty on factory farms. Nor should those certifications be allowed to hide the fact that kosher slaughter itself, even when attempts are made to ameliorate the worst suffering, is a process that can involve substantial, sometimes hideous, cruelty.
Consumers of kosher meat ignore the reality in favor of a religious imprimatur that may represent tradition, but whose practice runs counter to the original purpose.
The insistence on clinging to traditions that have not only lost their meaning, but undermine their meaning, is everywhere.
In India, Hindus follow a religious tradition that proudly encompasses vegetarianism as well as deep reverence for cows, and killing cows is actually illegal in many areas.
And yet many people continue to consume dairy, ignoring the inherent cruelties of modern industrial dairy production, which is now firmly entrenched in India—including the removal of calves right after birth, genetic manipulation causing pain and illness, and, when production wanes, long, brutal transport to those areas where it is legal to kill them.
Then there’s Christianity. When Mariann was growing up Catholic, religion classes didn’t really include any discussion of animals at all. But even in the absence of specific guidance, the same contradictions exist between people’s beliefs and their behavior when it comes to animals.
It seems likely that few Christians would seriously think that Jesus, whose message is rooted in love, would condone factory farms and slaughterhouses, but these people have no hesitation eating the animals who were condemned to live and die in them.
And how many Catholics find beauty in the words and life of St. Francis of Assisi, honor the memory of his connections with and reverence for all life, yet contentedly chow down on brutally slaughtered animals at every single meal? It will certainly be interesting to see if the new Pope, who took the name of St. Francis, will honor this part of his teaching.
We’re not holding our breath (though we are crossing our fingers).
How do religious people allow themselves to stray so far from their core beliefs when it comes to animals? Is this really what they think is demanded of them? Does it worry them?
It obviously worries some. In each of these religious traditions, there are voices crying out to honor the spirit of each ritual or tradition, rather than just carrying out a practice that has lost its meaning.
No matter what the religion, these people have come to the conclusion that the way to practice their faith authentically, the way to live the message of compassion that underlies each of these traditions, is to truly extend that compassion to animals, by caring for them when they need it, and leaving them alone when they don’t.
Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur
Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan, partners in life and in advocacy, are the co-founders of Our Hen House—a multimedia hub of opportunities to change the world for animals. The Our Hen House podcast was just named an Official Honoree of the Webby Awards, alongside NPR and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Our Hen House was also named by VegNews Magazine as the “Indie Media Powerhouse.” Mariann is an adjunct professor of animal law at Columbia, NYU, and Cardozo, and a former visiting professor at Lewis & Clark Law School’s Center for Animal Law Studies. Jasmin has written for numerous magazines and recently wrote a chapter in the anthology Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and the Sexual Politics of Meat [Lantern, 2013]. Jasmin has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, and can be seen in the documentaries Vegucated (for which she was also the Creative Consultant) and, along with Mariann, The Ghosts in Our Machine. She is the former campaign manager for Farm Sanctuary. Jasmin and Mariann live in NYC with their rescued pit bull, Rose.
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Assistant Ed: Stephanie V./Ed: Bryonie Wise