What is the biblical view on specieism?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: What is the biblical view on speciesism? People that live by speciesism usually have a disdain for God’s morality. What would be the Christian response to that?

Answer: Before we start, I need to clarify how I’ll approach my answer… because your question potentially confounds the positions of those who stand on either side of speciesism. It is people like the animal rights advocates who often accuse us Christians of promoting speciesism. From their perspective, we are the ones who support biblical morality which they see as prejudiced against non-human species — an idea that, by and large, they repudiate.

From a Christian perspective, it’s people like animal rights activists who are against speciesism… so they don’t “live by speciesism” as your question seems to say. They are the ones who tend to show disdain for the special kind of biblical morality implied in our appointment as stewards. So, I’ll approach your question as if the second sentence said, “People who accuse Christians of speciesism usually have disdain for Christian morality.”

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26, ESV)

The above verse states that we were given “dominion” over all other species. But our role as “dominators” (if you will) is one of stewardship, not of tyranny… although, many animal-rights people don’t see it that way; they see this rulership as necessarily tyrannical and cruel. Furthermore, they see our purported speciesism as equivalent to racism or sexism… an accusation which I repudiate.

You see, since they discard the Bible’s teachings on this, they are free to argue for species equality — that all creatures are “morally” equal. But this is overtly anti-biblical. So, although the word “speciesism” applies to Christianity on some level, it gives a skewed picture of the relationship between us and the other creatures. Therefore, since the word is more inflammatory than it is probative, I will not use it to describe us… and I will object when others do so.

That being said, we are the only species that has the right to apply speciesism if we wanted to (… and I will use the term to satisfy your question). That’s because we alone were made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). We alone have a body, soul and a spirit.

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23, ESV)

This is the basis for “human exceptionalism” … which I advocate… although an increasing number of believers seem to be backing away from this. Both Scripture and common experience show that it is in our natures to rule… so we should. God created us to have dominion, and he made us able to rule via our large brains. But most importantly, he gave us a spirit so we might communicate with him. So, we get our stewardship instruction from an omnipotent and beneficent God who not only has his eye upon the sparrow (Matthew 6:26)... but he has the best seats in the house! Who are we to argue?

We only fail the biosphere when we don’t follow God’s instructions. So, any over-the-top cruelty to animals is on us, not on him. But no matter how we fail at it, it is still our job to manage the world’s resources in such a way that it optimizes human flourishing, and we do that by acting as God’s stewards over the animals (Genesis 7:1-3) … not by giving them human rights.

“And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
(Genesis 9:1, ESV)

Have you ever noticed that we — among all species extant and extinct — are the only ones who insist upon classifying every creature into a species? Certainly, no other animal cares about this… or do they? DreamWorks Animation had some fun with this idea in their movie, Over the Hedge. One of their characters, Verne — who was a turtle — was misidentified as an amphibian by one of the humans. “I’m a reptile,” said Vern… like he knew. But Turtles don’t know that about themselves… and that’s what made it funny.

In the real world, a turtle would be able to identify others of his type (for mating purposes), and he’d have an idea that there were other types of creatures (for his safety)… but he would have no idea about taxonomy. It is we humans — and it is exclusively we humans — that have the will and the brainpower to organize the world’s creatures into species. Yet, people go out of their way to say we are merely equal with the creatures we categorize! In logic, we call this a category error.

People who make this argument are often “materialists” philosophically. So, they have as their premise that material (biology, in this case) equals being, and that morality (if it exists at all) is a result of biology. But we humans are different (Genesis 2:7). Our essential selves — that is, our souls (or our personalities) — are metaphysical entities that merely use our biology for things like input and output.

So, biology is part of who we are here on earth…. but it is not all of who we are — or even the best part of who we are! In fact, our morality is not even a function of our biology. Morality transcends the physical creation. So, when someone compares our moral essence to that of other biological species, they are making a category error. We humans are in the category of “stewards” … and we humans are alone in that category.

This is why I believe that we human beings are the reason God created anything — and I’m talking the universe here, not just the animals (Psalm 115:16). Therefore, in our absence, there’d be no reason for other creatures to even exist — that’s how subordinated they are on God’s value scale! But this is not true of humans.

Without morally volitional creatures, there would be none of that special praise that only we can give.… and I feel the need to extend this: since, without volitional creatures, there would be a conceivable condition of glory that was greater than the one God had (… a condition which his nature — to be the greatest and to have the most glory —  could not tolerate), then God had to create us. But this is not true of the animals… love them, though we do.

The animal rights movement has become radicalized in recent decades. Originally, many Christians were involved in it. They saw the unnecessary cruelty in the way we process and distribute animal products, so — and as good stewards — such luminaries as William Wilberforce fought for reform. Now, people like Wilberforce who fought against slavery certainly understood that animals were not morally equal to human beings (… and lately to them, especially African slaves). But that is not true in today’s animal rights movement.

Most animal rights advocates want to elevate the value of animals to the “moral equivalency” of human beings. This gives them a step towards having equal protection under the law. But those on the extreme end want animals to have the status of “personhood.” This would make them essentially equivalent to — and not just morally equivalent to — human beings under the law.

This doesn’t surprise me. Even some rivers have been elevated to enjoy humanlike protection in the last few years. But Christians should resist any attempts to make animals equal to humans... which seems to make us guilty of speciesism — which is what I’m arguing against. So, let’s think this through.

Although the Christian worldview has pre-conditions that could justify speciesism (the Bible teaches that we humans are ontologically above all non-human life), our instructions are to act as stewards, and therefore, our attitudes should be ones of stewards. This is different than having the attitude of a bigot… and that’s where the animal rights movement is wrong. Because of their category error, animal rights advocates insist that bigotry is a part of speciesism and that Christians practice it. But there’s a huge difference between being stewards and being bigots… so you can see how the word “speciesism” does not do the job.

The brute fact here is that different biological entities have different forms — that’s what’s handed to us. But we — as stewards of the creation — must understand these differences to serve us and them… and species classification is an unavoidable result of that process (Genesis 2:20). But note this well: we do not subordinate any species through that process. We see their natures … and we agree with God that it is the nature of every non-human creature to be lower than us on some level.

I pray that this helped.

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