October 2010

Dr Stephen M. Vantassel is the Dean of Students at King's Evangelical Divinity School and the Assistant Editor of the Evangelical Review of Society and Politics. His research interests include Christianity and politics (particularly international relations and economics), environmental policy and practical theology. In this interview, Dr Vantassel discusses his recent book on ecotheology. 

Dr Vantassel, your book on Christians and animal rights is titled, Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations. Please tell us briefly about your main thrust in this work.

The book engages two issues facing modern Christians. The first and primary issue is the narrow question concerning how Christ wants us to treat the animal kingdom, in particular wildlife. In recent years, an increasing number of self-professing Christians are asserting that God never wanted humanity to kill, eat, and otherwise oppress animals. Rather, just as Christ sacrificed himself for humanity, humans are to sacrifice themselves for animals and thereby extend Christ’s reconciliation to the animal kingdom. Therefore, these Christian Animal Rights (CAR) proponents (as I call them) contend that hunting, trapping, and fishing, and other forms of killing wildlife are violate Christ’s perfect will for human-wildlife relations. CAR proponents base their view on Scripture, ethical reasoning, and science. My book evaluates their arguments and evidence from all three areas. The second and broader issue is the question of creation care, or how God wants humanity to interact with the broader environment. While Scripture is not an environmental manual, I believe that Scripture’s description of human-animal relations provides a model by which to understand how God wants us to use the broader creation. One of my frustrations with contemporary Christian writing about the environment is the utter vagueness that characterizes the writing. I keep reading how “Dominion must be understood as stewardship and not domination.” Okay, all well and good. But how can a Christian decide whether cutting down a tree is an expression of stewardship or domination? To my knowledge, I am not aware of anyone who believes in destroying the environment. But people (including Christians) disagree about what constitutes abuse of creation. So my book, addresses the concrete question of animal use and wildlife use in particular. I take on the most controversial issue namely fur trapping and ask if it is morally acceptable to God for Christians to trap wildlife for their fur.

By answering that emotional issue, I believe Christians have a pattern and a series of principles which will guide them to answer the larger question, namely how we are to evaluate whether a use of the earth constitutes abuse.

Let me ask about one issue that is popularly discussed in the UK, namely battery farming of chickens. Do you think Christians should purchase poultry from organic or free range farms instead?

Let me begin to answer that question by establishing some foundational points. First, we should be clear that humans are morally permitted to eat chicken. We can do this because of our status as bearers of the image of God and by Christ’s declaration that all foods are clean.  So right off, I deny the animal rights position that humans do not have the moral right to kill and eat animals. Once that decision has been made, the discussion changes from “May we eat animals?” to “What are the limits of our use?” Put more abstractly, the question of rights turns to one of welfare. I have to make this point because animal rights activists routinely attempt to hide their true agenda by pointing to alleged horrors of animal husbandry. Many people are deceived by this bait and switch technique. Remember, for an animal rights activist, any killing of animals for food is by definition an expression of cruelty. 

Second, we must be careful not to personify animals when we consider their plight. Too often the public evaluates the treatment of animals based on how they would like to be treated. There are limits to this idea because humans are not chickens, or cows, or dogs. Third, animals under stress fail to thrive. So I think a key principle to evaluate animal husbandry is “does the technique result in healthier animals or not?” I am not an expert in the area of animal husbandry, (I focused on wildlife) but I love mentioning the story of the Prodigal Son. Note how the father killed the fatted calf. That could be read as the stall-fed calf. Does this sound similar to veal production? The calf probably wasn’t fed milk, but by keeping the calf in the stall, the ancients knew that its muscles would be less developed and therefore more tender. My point is simply to show that we must be careful how strenuously we press for “animal welfare” standards for doing so could raise questions about the moral purity of Jesus Christ.

Fourth, we should never forget that humans are fallen. While animals are not humans (I deny that humans are just another animal as Darwinists claim), neither are they plants or rocks. Animals experience pain and humans should always consider whether an animal’s suffering is responsible or gratuitous. Gratuitous suffering is suffering with no purpose other than the sadism of the human. For example, kicking a dog because you are angry is gratuitous. Setting a foothold to catch a raccoon for its fur is a harvest technique. 

The topic of animal use is frequently clouded by the failure of speakers to distinguish between domestic animals (those owned by a person) and wild animals (those owned only by God). I believe Scripture holds our treatment of domestic animals to a higher standard than wild ones.  I hope as my research into the area of human-domestic animal relations progresses, I will develop some concrete guidance to help Christians make moral decision. I would say though that my hunch is that much of the conversation in this area is really a distraction from the bigger issues. I am amazed at how people are broken up about a farm animal but seem to have no problem with the suffering in Africa or the people on skid-row. I think it is immoral to spend more money on animals when our giving to the human poor is so lacking. In addition, I think too many Christians make idols of their pets.  I simply ask, if one grants for the sake of the argument that eating battery chickens supports cruelty, then is it also possible that treating your pet like a furry king supports the financial oppression of the poor because you lack the additional funds to give to the impoverished?

Remember, choices have consequences. I suspect that the rise of animal rights thought is just a legalistic distraction from the issues that should occupy a greater portion of our attention.

What about testing of animals in the healthcare or cosmetic industry? Should there be limits on the use of animals for testing?

Absolutely, and I would point out that there already are rules governing this research-use of animals. I think this is another area that animal rights activists endeavour to cloud the issue by talking about needless testing. Who decides what is needless? Remember, animal rights activists think that all research would be needless because it is immoral to use animals for human ends.   Readers may think that testing cosmetics on animals is frivolous. Okay, then the simplest way to solve this problem is to change tort law (also known as civil liability law). I suspect cosmetic companies would be happy to avoid testing animals if they knew they couldn’t be sued if someone hurt themselves using their products. Strange, I don’t see an outcry of pressure to change the law. Some people think they get around the problem by using so-called animal-testing free cosmetics. What these people forget is that the products don’t need to be tested because the manufacturer is using testing that was done previously.

I would also mention again that I find it odd that people are concerned about animal testing in medical research but are silent about the use of embryonic stem-cell research. If someone counters that embryos don’t feel pain, I would simply ask, then how hard are you fighting against second trimester abortions?

A recent reviewer said that your viewpoints are, "far outside" historic, evangelical tradition. Do you think that is a fair comment?

The comment of my critic completely mystified me.  I responded to his comments on my website http://www.stephenvantassel.com but let me summarize them here. First, I endeavored to contact him through the publication’s editor but I never heard from him. I suspect his lack of response was due to his acceptance of the academic code of silence.  Certainly among non-Christians, it is understandable why academics don’t answer critics. After all to do so would somehow convey credibility to the critique. But one would think that self-proclaimed Christians would be more interested in the truth than personal ego. I welcome debate because as of this point, I have not found anyone able to answer the questions I have raised.

Second, I suspect my critic either does not understand what the term Evangelical means, or that the Evangelical church in Europe has fallen so far from Biblical orthodoxy that only a pale skeleton of its true identity remains.  I can assure my critic that in American Evangelicalism, my ideas are still mainstream (for how much longer is anyone’s guess). Third, his statement regarding Wilberforce is likely an example of fallaciously transmitting modern understandings of animal use into Wilberforce’s words. Catholics do this all the time when the read the word “Bishop” in the Bible. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that Bishop meant one thing in the 1st century and quite another in the 4th. It is one thing to recognize that Wilberforce fought against horse abuse in the context of his day, it is quite another to suggest that Wilberforce was calling for the adoption of veganism. (I should add that research suggests that vegetarianism actually results in more animal deaths than would be had eating a mixed diet of meat and vegetables.)  I would further state, with all respect to Wilberforce, the standard for Christian belief is not Wilberforce, it is Scripture. Regrettably, my critic never bothered to address my exegesis, my use of science, or my reasoning. Instead, he decided to emote about my description of trapping, rather than deal with the substantive and important issues I raised. 

Have you received any feedback from non-Christians, either positive or negative?

Yes, but very little.  Ironically, the most thoughtful reviews were written by non-Christians. One was positive (he was a non-animal rights activist) and the negative one was from an animal rights activist. Most reviews have been decidedly negative, but as I noted above they failed to deal with the substance of my book. One reviewer, who had a Ph.D. in theology as well as a law degree, said that I needed to adopt a more theocentric view of animals (versus an instrumentalist or ecocentric view). I responded that one cannot be more theocentric (i.e. God focused) than obedience to the revealed Word of God. I haven’t heard from that self-identified Christian scholar either. 

Can you recommend any other books on the subject of animal rights from an evangelical, theological position?

Other than Tom Rakow’s booklet entitled “Hunting and the Bible” and to a lesser extent “Animal Rights, Human Responsibilities?” by David Williams, I am not aware of any Evangelical works on human-animal relations that I can recommend. Unfortunately, those self-proclaimed Christians who write on the subject on the Christian view of animals essentially use Scripture in a highly selective and arbitrary manner. In addition, they ignore the mountain of scientific literature showing how an animal rights view of animals would have devastating consequences for humans and the environment. 

I would suggest that readers investigate the qualifications of the authors of these evangelical books on the environment and animal use. A close look will show that the authors generally lack a high view of Scripture, as demonstrated by the selective and or revisionist use of Scripture, and/or lack sufficient scientific knowledge. Unlike most, perhaps all, writers on the subject of human-wildlife relations, I am a trained Evangelical theologian but also a certified wildlife damage management professional. In other words, I didn’t just read about wildlife and its use; I actually ran a business resolving wildlife damage problems. Presently, I run a university website that provides research-based information on wildlife damage management.

I suspect my unique vantage point on this subject is why my book has been ignored and so completely misunderstood.

Dr Vantassel, thank you for your time. 
The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty members of the King's Evangelical Divinity School. The Talks with Scholars series is a regular feature at KEDS. Visit the Talks With Scholars for more engaging discussion and conversation with world class academics.