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“Animals and World Religions” is a work of scholarly eloquence and moral power

The dire condition of Earth’s environment and our relationship with nature may often be drowned out by the daily debate of politics, economics, or celebrity gossip and vanity media. But this din should not distract us from one naked fact: the issues around the world ecology will always remain the most critical questions of each generation. Without the natural world, there is no hope for flourishing in any realm of human activity. So it would seem natural that all religions claiming spiritual authority and insight into humanity’s ultimate fate maintain an unashamedly moral appreciation of ecological sustainability.

Lisa Kemmerer’s new volume of Animals and World Religions (2012) is academically erudite and discerning, employing the theological methodologies that she has accumulated over her career of research and teaching. But as a philosopher-activist, her language is not one of detached study but of urgent ethical practice. In other words, while easy to follow, Kemmerer’s analysis confronts the reader (in particular the religious believer) with some very clear lifestyle choices that are grounded in the great religion’s animal theologies. Therefore, unlike other books on religions’ relationships with the natural world, Animals and World Religions is more challenging and honest in its argumentation.

The Buddha was aware of how language frames the way we see the world and how we treat it. It is with this reverential awareness in mind that Kemmerer writes about animals as “anymals” (and it should be appropriate that we do likewise), for by imposing the word “any” on to a word we do not delude ourselves that humans are different from “animals”. Kemmerer covers the extant world religions (indigenous, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) in her analysis of anymal theology. We were most convinced by her arguments in the Buddhist chapter (pg. 91 – 126). She covers an entire breadth of narratives underpinning the Buddhist stance; almost the entire gamut of Buddhist arguments is deployed in her philosophical arsenal: non-harm, the jataka tales, metta and karuna, the bodhisattva ideal, the precepts, the afterlife and interdependence, and more. We are convinced that Buddhism has traditionally offered the strongest arguments for anymal care. The chapter on Chinese traditions (pg. 127 – 168) should also be pertinent to a growing affluent class in China that, in the rush for a Western-style diet of meat or traditional luxuries like shark fin, rhino horn, and ivory, forgets that the deepest, foundational religions of Chinese civilization encourage benevolence (ren) through Confucianism and frugality and simplicity (jian) through Taoism.

We cannot speak for the other great religions’ ethics, but Kemmerer’s underlying point is consistent throughout each chapter: there is no extant religion that would conceivably

condone the way we consume or utilize (exploit) anymals today. Kemmerer acknowledges at various points that there is a great difference between what most religious practitioners do and what their scriptures exhort. Kemmerer’s conclusion is that a vegan diet holds up to the scrutiny of our faiths’ doctrines. Avoiding animal products not only lessens demand in the rapacious meat industry. It is also a principled statement against clearing land to make massive pens and prisons for suffering anymals while displacing and starving people who originally lived on that land (pg. 285 – 286). By seeing the world as an interconnected whole, there is only one logical conclusion for the spiritual conscience to make.

Kemmerer is skilled at tying activists’ modern concerns about corporate capitalism or industries profiting from anymal exploitation (zoos, circuses, food) to religious doctrines. By presenting three options of reaction to environmental facts – denial (the idea that anymal exploitation is not in conflict with religion), welfarist (exploitation is not irreligious but current ways should be reformed), and liberationist (exploitation is inherently irreligious) – she presents a case for the liberationist paradigm by building an argument that contrasts religious doctrines with the globalized exploitation of anymals (pg. 280 – 287). While no single book can settle the argument between vegan advocates and exploitation welfarists, we greatly appreciated her frank dismissal of denial as an immature, irresponsible, and unreasonable option.

The last sentence of the book is perhaps the most haunting: “The world’s great religions have tremendous potential to transform individuals and societies, to fight injustice and alleviate suffering, but religions are ultimately only as powerful as the people they inspire” (my emphasis, pg. 289). Kemmerer’s principled talk and relentless ethical vigor might make some of us uncomfortable. As well as it should. Discomfort is not a bad thing if said discomfort arises from awareness of our actions’ negative results. This uneasiness constitutes the birth pains of ethical progress, and can actually speak well of whoever is experiencing that discomfort. 

It is important not to lose faith in the teachings of religion. We are only as good as the standards we set ourselves, and religions are also only as compelling as the moral fiber of its adherents. Many Buddhists are already vegetarian and only need to avoid egg, milk, and other anymal products to make the transition to a vegan lifestyle. Animals and World Religions challenges us to do not only that, but also to look around our deteriorating environment and identify what aspects of our lives are harming our fellow living creatures. Kemmerer’s new book is an eloquent contribution to what has always been a critical issue for our long-term survival and wellbeing.

Animals and World Religions is published by Oxford University Press. We thank the publisher for kindly sending us a complimentary copy to review.

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