The Christian Argument for Vegetarianism

It is well known that during the last thirty years or more, farmers have been under increasing pressure to tailor traditional farming methods to the needs of cost-effective production. Farming animals intensively has become the norm.

It seems to me the only satisfactory basis on which we can oppose systems of close confinement is by recourse to the argument drawn from theos-rights. To put it at its most basic: animals have the right to be animals. The natural life of a Spirit-filled creature is a gift from God. When we take over the life of an animal to the extent of distorting its natural life for no other purpose than our own gain, we fall into sin. There is no clearer blasphemy before God than the perversion of his creatures.

To the question: 'Why is it wrong to deny chickens the rudimentary requirements of their natural life, such as freedom of movement or association?' there is, therefore, only one satisfactory answer: Since an animal's natural life is a gift from God, it follows that God's right is violated when the natural life of his creatures is perverted. Those who, in contrast, opt for the welfarist approach to intensive farming are inevitably involved in speculating how far such and such may or may not suffer in what are plainly unnatural conditions. But unless animals are judged to have some right to their natural life, from what standpoint can we judge abnormalities, mutilations, and adjustments? Confining a de-beaked hen in a battery cage is more than a moral crime; it is a living sign of our failure to recognize the blessing of God in creation.

What makes this situation all the more lamentable is the realization that the use to which animals are put in intensive farming goes far beyond even the most generous interpretation of need. It will be obvious that humans can live healthy, stimulating and rewarding lives without white veal, pate' de foie gras, or the ever-increasing quantities of cheap eggs. The truth is that we can afford to be much more generous to farm animals than is frequently the case today.

Churches need to reflect in their own collective actions the sensitivity they frequently hope for in others. [In England], under present legislation, animals can be subject to intensive farming and are so on Church land. It is anomalous that the Church of England should allow on its land farming practices which many senior ecclesiastics oppose and which one bishop recently likened to an Auschwitz for animals.

The Christian argument for vegetarianism then is simple: since animals belong to God, have value to God and live for God, then their needless destruction is sinful. In short, animals have some right to their life, all circumstances being equal. That it has taken Christians so long to grasp this need not worry us. There were doubtless good reasons, partly theological, partly cultural and partly economic, why Christians in the past have found vegetarianism unfeasible. We do well not to judge to hastily, if at all. We cannot relive others lives, or think their thoughts or enter their circumstances. But what we can be sure about is that living without what Clark calls "avoidable ill" has a strong moral claim upon us now.

Some will surely question the limits of the vegetarian world here envisaged. Will large-scale vegetarianism work in practice? I confess I am agnostic, surely legitimately, about the possibility of a world-transforming vegetarianism. But clairvoyance is not an essential prerequisite of the vegetarian option, and what the future may hold, and its consequences, cannot easily be determined from any perspective. What I think is important to hold to is the notion that the God who provides moral opportunities is the same God who enables the world, slowly but surely, to respond to them. From a theological perspective, no moral endeavor is wasted so long as it coheres with God's purpose for the cosmos.

Excerpted from the book:
Christianity and the Rights of Animals (Crossroads Publ. Co., NY)

Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey
Director of Studies
Center for the Study of Theology
University of Essex