Animal Sacrifices: Religious Perspectives on the Use of Animals in Science

Margaret Setter interviews Tom Regan on his book

Based on a conference which explored the views of religion toward scientific experimentation on animals, Animal Sacrifices is a collection of essays addressing an explosive issue from a number of different perspectives. Animal Sacrifices is a fair-minded and informative discussion of a contemporary ethical dilemma.

Tom, what lay behind the decision to convene a conference on the use of animals in science from a religious perspective?
I was approached by Colin Smith and Ethel Thurston, now, sadly, both deceased, to organise a major international conference on animal rights in general, the use of animals in science in particular. The question they asked was: How can we explore these ideas in a new, a different way. I suggested we frame the ideas against the backdrop of some of the major religions of the world. I favored this approach for more than mere intellectual curiosity. I believed then, and I still believe today, that the struggle for animal rights will remain on the margins of progressive social change if the community of religious believers remains disengaged. The way I read history, all the major moral advances owe much of their impetus to the hard work of people within this community. So you might say I had a political interest in framing the issues the way I have described. I was interested in seeing what, if any, resources some of the major religions of the world can bring to the struggle for animal rights. I was gratified when Colin and Ethel offered their enthusiastic support of the first-ever international conference on (this was the conference’s name) “Religious Perspectives on the Use of Animals in Science.”

In your preface you identify several people to whom you owe ‘a debt of gratitude for their help in making your work easier as Chair of the Conference and as editor of the present volume.’ You make special mention of Colin Smith, executive director of IAAPEA, ‘for his vision and courage.’ Sadly, Colin has since died at the comparatively early age of 60. Would you like to say something about his valuable contribution to the struggle for the abolition of animal experiments?
Colin was a wonderful person. In addition to having the skills it took to run IAAPEA (essentially by himself, I should add, when it came to publishing the organisation’s newsletter and the like), Colin had a rich fund of historical information, especially about the history of animal protection in Great Britain. He was full of stories, often (as it happened) very funny ones that illustrated his own and other people’s foibles. He was, of course, heartsick over what was being done to animals. I think it is fair to say that he could barely get by, from one day to the next, knowing what he knew. That said, I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone who enjoyed laughter more. Enjoyed making people laugh, too. Truly, he was one of a kind. My wife, Nancy, and I valued his friendship and continue to miss him.

Sydney Gendin, whose paper The Use of Animals in Science was not delivered at the conference, is of the opinion that some animal rights advocates are ‘over-sanguine’ about achieving their abolitionist goals, because in any issue of moral complexity, there is always a ‘wavering middle’; an ‘ebb and flow’ of opinion that is never satisfactorily resolved. What do you think?
I think I have to respectfully disagree. It’s true that progressive social change always involves an ebb and flow, and true as well that, at various times, you find a wavering middle, comprised of the majority of people. Still, history illustrates how sometimes major issues are resolved, at least in fundamental ways. I have in mind, for example, the end of chattel slavery and the removal of legal barriers to full citizenship for women. I am not saying — clearly, I am not saying that all matters of racial and gender equality have been settled, once and for all. What I am saying is, some changes have occurred, in some places, that illustrate how many of those who once were part of the wavering middle become part of the critical mass that changes various social customs in fundamental ways. And I am also say that, if this can happen some times, in some places, I myself do not see why it cannot happen when it comes to achieving the abolitionist goal’s Animal Rights Advocates embrace. Why it cannot happen in Australia, for example. And if there, then the next country. And the next. And the next. And so on. But not without a struggle!

For me personally, Rabbi Dr. David Bleich’s presentation is the most problematic of the series. His version of Judaism strikes me as being based on authoritative rulings by long-dead rabbinical commentators, which in total, seem ambivalent, if not exactly serendipitous. Perhaps Jewish activists, who either sidestep orthodox limitations, or else ignore them, will be the agents of change? Is this a misapprehension on my part?
Rabbi Bleich is a distinguished Jewish scholar, widely published in bioethics and Talmudic jurisprudence. As was true of others who gave presentations at the conference, Rabbi Bleich did not speak for everyone who shared his basic religious convictions. In particular, he did not speak for more reform-minded Jewish thinkers like Roberta Kalechosky or Richard Schwartz. However, he did speak for a considerable body of Jews throughout the world, and Colin, Ethel and I thought it was essential for the academic integrity of the conference to have his voice be heard, even though, in large measure, he defended current practices involving the use of animals in science.

Much as I admire and respect Rev. Andrew Linzey, I also have a problem with his (classical) theology of God as ‘infinite, self-existent, incorporeal, eternal, immutable, impassable, simple, perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent.’ With my present state of knowledge I find Process Theology more convincing, based as it is on a more limited conception of God’s power. Can these differing viewpoints be reconciled?
I don’t presume to have any credentials when it comes to theology. I never took a class in it let alone a degree. I can only say how I see things — what makes sense to me. And the idea of a finished God, so to speak, one that is not incomplete in any relevant way, the sort of God I take it that Linzey believes in: I can only say that I have never related well to that sort of deity. What makes sense to me is the idea that God needs our help just as we need God’s. That both God and you and I are working to solve the same sorts of problems, making this a better world first among them. I’m not sure this idea of God-needing-us-to-help-God-make-the-world-better can be reconciled with the idea of God as a complete, a finished being, but I’m inclined to think not. What’s important is to enable all the voices to be heard, those who favor a classical as well as a process theology.

It is a commonplace in the peace movement that if you desire peace, you must work for social justice. Father John Dear, peace activist, priest, and animal rights advocate, is currently on a speaking tour of Australia, with the topic “The Non-Violent Struggle for Justice’. In Australia, at the institutional level, there is little or no evidence of any developing overlap between peace and justice and animal rights. Is the situation any different in the US?
I wish! No, things are not (yet) any different here in the States. I say “yet” because I am hopeful that things will change. One of the major challenges we face concerns helping people see the violence being done to animals. The more institutionalized a practice is; the more routine and socially sanctioned it is; the more the violence that occurs in it is socially invisible. It’s there, all right, it’s just not seen, not acknowledged by most of the people, most of the time. Consider the use of animals in science. Everyday, throughout the world, cats, dogs, nonhuman primates, and other animals are drowned, suffocated, and starved to death. They are burned, subjected to radiation, and used as “guinea pigs” in military research. Their eyes are surgically removed and their hearing is destroyed. They have their limbs severed and their organs crushed. Invasive means are used to give them heart attacks, ulcers, and seizures. The list of horrors goes on. But (and this is the key point) if most people are asked about how animals are used in science they don’t say, “Oh, it’s terrible, the violence that is done to them!” Most people don’t see the violence. So (to my way of thinking, anyhow) it’s not too surprising that most people don’t see the overlap between peace and justice and animal rights, including most of the people who are working for peace and justice! They want a peaceful world. They want a just world. They just want to be able to continue to eat “meat” and wear wool in the bargain. If only we could clone Father Dear! However, given that that’s not going to happen, the rest of us need to redouble our efforts. Our friends in fur and feather and fin deserve nothing less.