Christianity Harmful to Animals, Says Animal Rights Godfather

Princeton University Professor Peter Singer, dubbed the 'godfather' of animal rights, says Christianity is a "problem" for the animal rights movement.

Singer, author of the book "Animal Liberation" and a professor of bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, criticized American Christianity for its fundamentalist strain that takes the Bible too "literally" and promotes "speciesism." He defined speciesism as the belief that being a member of a certain species "makes you superior to any other being that is not a member of that species."

In an address to the national Animal Rights 2002 conference in McLean, Va., on Saturday, Singer also reiterated his controversial position that a "severely disabled" infant may be killed up to 28 days after its birth if the parents deem the baby's life is not worth living.

"I think that mainstream Christianity has been a problem for the animal movement," Singer told about 100 people attending a workshop entitled "When Is Killing OK? (Attacking animals? Unwanted dogs & cats? Unwanted or deformed fetuses?)"

He singled out the "more conservative mainstream fundamentalist views" that "want to make a huge gulf between humans and animals" as being the most harmful to the concept of animal liberation.

Singer rejected what he termed "the standard view that most people hold" -- that "just being human makes life special." He told one questioner from the audience, "I hope that you don't think that just being a biological member of the species homo sapiens means that you do have a soul and being a member of some other species means they don't. I think that would trouble me."

"I am an atheist, I know that is an ugly word in America," he added.

Singer pointed out that the Judeo-Christian ethic teaches not only that humans have souls and animals don't, but that humans are made in the image of God and that God gave mankind dominion over the animals. "All three taken together do have a very negative influence on the way in which we think about animals, " he said.

He explained that his mission is to challenge "this superiority of human beings," and he conceded that his ideas go very much against the grain of a country that mostly still believes in human superiority.

Infant's Right to Life?

Singer also reiterated one of his most controversial positions regarding the right to kill a newborn infant within 28 days of birth if the infant is deemed "severely disabled."

"If you have a being that is not sentient, that is not even aware, then the killing of that being is not something that is wrong in and of itself," he stated.

"I think that a chimpanzee certainly has greater self-awareness than a newborn baby," he told

He explained that "there are some circumstances, for example, where the newborn baby is severely disabled and where the parents think that it's better that that child should not live, when killing the newborn baby is not at all wrong...not like killing the chimpanzee would be. Maybe it's not wrong at all."

He said his original view, published in his book Practical Ethics, that the parents should have 28 days to determine whether the infant should live has been modified somewhat since the book's release.

"So in that book, we suggested that 28 days is not a bad period of time to use because on the one hand, it gives you time to examine the infant to [see] what the nature of the disability is; gives time for the couple to recover from the shock of the birth to get well advised and informed from all sorts of groups, medical opinion and disability and to reach a decision.

"And also I think that it is clearly before the point at which the infant has those sorts of forward-looking preferences, that kind of self-awareness, that I talked about. But I now think, after a lot more discussion, that you can't really propose any particular cut-off date."

He now advocates that the life or death decision regarding the infant should be made "as soon as possible after birth" because the 28 day cut-off, based on an ancient Greek practice, is "too arbitrary."

He called his views on killing "non-speciest" and "logical" because they don't "depend on simply being a member of the species homo sapiens."

Protecting insects

Singer was asked several questions about whether his concept of animal rights included the protection of insects, rodents or shellfish. "I think insects are, you are right, the toughest conflicts we generally face. I wouldn't kill a spider if I can avoid killing a spider and I don't think I need to," he said.

What if termites were threatening his home? "With termites that are actually eating out the foundation of my home, and this happens, this is a more serious problem and I think at that point, I would feel that I need to dwell somewhere and if I can't drive them away in some way, I guess I would end up killing them," he conceded.

When asked by why humans should not be able to eat animals when animals eat other animals, Singer acknowledged that humans have to be held to a different standard.

"Animals generally are not making moral choices. Animals are not the same as humans. They can't reflect on what they are doing and think about the alternatives. Humans can. So there is no reason for taking what they do as a sort of moral lesson for us to take. We're the ones who have to have the responsibility for making those choices," he said.

One woman at the workshop, who identified herself only as Angie, asked Singer if killing humans is acceptable to defend animals. "My name is Angie and I am not going to kill anybody, but I have a question about self preservation, because I am thinking about doing a goose intervention where people are going to be coming to my neighborhood to kill geese. I am wondering, would it be my right to kill somebody that is harming, that is killing, 11,000 geese in New Jersey?"

Singer replied, "For starters, I think it would be a very bad thing to do to the movement." He later explained that he does not support violence to further the cause of animal rights, but he does support civil disobedience, such as "entering property, trespassing in order to obtain evidence."

Singer also defended his previous writings that humans and nonhumans can have "mutually satisfying" sexual relationships as long as they are consensual. When asked by how an animal can consent to sexual contact with a human, he replied, "Your dog can show you when he or she wants to go for a walk and equally for nonviolent sexual contact, your dog or whatever else it is can show you whether he or she wants to engage in a certain kind of contact."

'Hard for Someone Not to Agree'

The animal rights activists attending Saturday's conference had nothing but praise for Singer and his influence on the movement.

Singer, who was introduced as the "godfather" of animal rights, received three standing ovations during his keynote address on Saturday night, attended by about 400 people. Conference participant Jennie Sunner called Singer "fundamental to the movement's inception and its movement forward."

"I am so relieved he exists...he's so well-reasoned and well-thought-out, that it is hard for someone not to agree," she added.

"I think he's got a really important message and a really inspiring message," stated David Berg of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition.

Jason Tracy of the Ooh-Mah-Nee Farm Sanctuary called Singer "very, very important to our movement." He has "done a lot of great work," he said.

Those participating in the conference had a wide variety of animal-related issues on their agenda, from anti-fur campaigns to promoting veganism to lobbying against "factory farming."

T-shirts and bumper stickers seen at the conference included the following slogans: "Stop Hunting"; "Milk is Murder"; "Animal Liberation: Wire Cutters are a terrible thing to Waste" (with an image of a cut farm fence cut); "Beef, it's what is rotting in your colon"; and a T-shirt featuring a cow with the slogan "I died for your sins."

Mentally Ill?

Barry Clausen, a critic of the Animal Rights movement and author of the book Burning Rage, has studied the animal rights movement for 12 years and believes that it is having an impact.

Clausen, whose book details the illegal activities of some members of the animal rights and environmental movements, believes the biggest threat the animal rights advocates pose is their ability to limit animal medical research.

"If we can't have animal research, we can't have solutions to medical problems. You just can't stop everything to save a chimpanzee," he told .

Clausen cautions that some animal rights activists have been involved in acts of what he calls domestic terrorism. "Over the past 12 years, we have had over 3,000 acts of terrorism by environmental and animal rights extremists," he said.

Clausen does not pull any punches when it comes to his opinion of the animal rights activists. "I have not come across one of these people who I did not consider to be mentally ill," Clausen said.

But conference participant Sunner defended the animal activists.

"Being normal by nature means you will never do anything extraordinary, so everything revolutionary that is good has been preceded by that kind of ridicule and trivialization," she said.