I am writing this on Animal Welfare Sunday 2016. It seems a good time to look at the science and animal sentience and consider how this fits with a Christian theology of creation.
Do animals think and feel? Do they have souls? Some people might suggest that these are childish questions, along the lines of, ‘Will my dog go to heaven?’ But I don’t think that any of those questions are childish. They are, I think, evidence of a mature theological thinking – a way of thinking that goes beyond one’s own interests and self-concern. Interestingly, a recent study of pet owners in the USA found that three-quarters believe that their pets go to heaven. It seems that, for those who have close relationships with animals, the idea that they have souls is not childish or far-fetched. The questions of whether non-human animals think and feel is an area, not only of theological, but also of scientific interest. Studies have been done to explore animals’ problem-solving abilities, tool use, their ability to recognise other individuals, their use of language and so on. In 2012, a group of scientists representing different branches of neuroscience signed the Cambridge Declaration of Animal Consciousness. In this declaration, they state:
“…the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
In other words, the physical and physiological elements that give rise to consciousness in human beings also exist in many, perhaps most, non-human animals (recent studies have shown that fish should also be included in this category). From a Christian perspective, it isn’t surprising that animals have consciousness and that consciousness may be similar to our own. In the creation narratives found in Genesis chapters one and two, the term ‘nephesh’, meaning soul, is used of both non-human animals and humans. If we accept that there is some sort of relationship between soul and consciousness for humans, then there is no reason to say that this would not be true of non-human animals.
From both a theological and a scientific point of view, the existence of consciousness in non-human animals raises serious ethical questions about how we use, and often abuse and exploit, animals. Can it be right intentionally to inflict pain on animals that we know can experience pain and suffering, fear and anxiety? Can it be right to deny our fellow creatures the opportunity to experience joy and delight, for example, by sharing the company of other animals or enjoying fresh air and sunshine?
Some might say, as Aquinas did, that because God has given human beings dominion over the rest of creation, we can do what we like with other animals, regardless of whether or not they have consciousness or a soul. Aquinas, of course, did not think that animals did have consciousness similar to our own – he didn’t have all the facts. I wonder if his thinking on non-human animals would have been different, had he known the things that we now do. But even if you do agree with Aquinas, that animal souls are of a lesser kind than human souls, that does not excuse exploitation. Dominion is not the same as domination. Human dominion should reflect God’s dominion over creation – loving, compassionate and merciful. In a household, a parent has dominion over the children, but we would not accept that as freedom to exploit and abuse. Quite the opposite. A parent has a responsibility to exercise their authority in the family for the good of the whole family and in the interests of the children who may not yet be able to make decisions for themselves. Humanity’s God-given dominion over the rest of creation should be exercised in such a way as to promote the well-being of our fellow creatures. It is not an excuse to make our own lives easier at the expense of others.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence to show that non-human animals have what it takes to possess consciousness. They are, in numerous ways, very like us – they are aware, they feel pain and pleasure, they experience emotions, they know when they are comfortable and when they suffer. The science of animal consciousness should cause us to stop and think about the way animals are routinely treated by human societies. How can we justify doing things to animals that we wouldn’t do to our fellow human beings because it would cause physical or psychological distress, when we know that non-human animals will also experience that distress? Christian theology should also cause us to question our practices towards our fellow creatures. Are we mistaking dominion for domination? Are we taking seriously the God-given life and souls of our fellow creatures? Christians believe that Jesus was willing to relinquish his privileged position in order to take on the creaturely nature of a human being in order to redeem creation, even sacrificing his own life for the good of others (Philippians 2.5-8; Romans 5.8). How Christ-like are we to the other animals with which we share this world?