Guide to world’s religious teachings on animal rights

Religious symbols and praying methods

A simple guide on how religion has influenced our attitudes to animals.

Throughout history, religion has had a profound influence over world cultures in shaping our attitude to animals and the common theme has always been that we have ‘dominion’ over them and should subjugate them. According to many religious teachings man is set apart from the rest of creation because we were apparently made in God’s image and likeness.

Back in the day when religion was of far more relevance, being widely followed and believed, it entrenched our attitudes and the philosophy of power to do what we want with them. Prior to this, ancient civilisations had looked upon many animals as gods and deities. Mostly though, in theology they have been thought to be beings without mind, reason, immortal soul or moral status, with the emphasis on man being more special to God than non-humans. Each religion though has a different approach to the position of animals in society and this has formed the basis of how different parts of the world have treated animals with different degrees of empathy.

In the ancient Middle-East, the cradle of western culture, the domestication of animals resulted in animals having to be debased in order to elevate human beings above them. Although the common theme amongst most religions is that they should be shown respect and compassion, they still do not deserve any rights.

History is littered with ancient sages, philosophers and theologists who have interpreted the teachings of various religions and beliefs and set the standards by which we view and should treat them. Generally, theology has not been a great friend to animals.

Theology’s view

The two main influential enemies of the rights of animal were a French philosopher Rene Descartes back in the 1600’s and a man named Saint Thomas Aquinas.  They both believed that animals were lower level beings created to serve us and thought they were irrational and imperfect creatures, without souls and therefore having no moral status so we didn’t need to concern ourselves with their feelings or sentience. This type of thinking has finally been shown to be incorrect by science but remains with us in our psyche.

St Thomas Aquinas believed that the universe was built as a hierarchy in which lower level beings were there to serve us and so humans being the strongest and most intelligent were free to use other living creatures as they wanted. Worse still ancient theologians conveniently decided animals didn’t have souls (whatever they may be) and therefore had no rights or deserved any consideration.

religious teachings

Unfortunately, with the rush of modern development and western cultural influences, the basic doctrine of eastern religions and beliefs of respect and the benefits received by not harming or killing them, does not have the same relevance and reverence as it once did. In many parts of the world our sensitivity towards them is influenced by whether we are poor and unable to care for them properly, a problem that exists throughout the world.

Religious teachings

So how does religion view the position of animals in the scheme of things and what if anything has it done either to help or harm the cause of compassion towards animals. Unfortunately for animals, doctrines have always set man apart from the rest of creation because he is made in God’s image and likeness. This creed has had a profound effect from early days on our attitudes to animals, when religion was of far more relevance, being widely followed and believed, it entrenched our attitudes and philosophy of power to do what we want with them.

There are so many beliefs and followings that like everyone else’s attitude to animals it is a complicated issue. In general theological views on animals and their treatment does not look good for animals as they are largely interpreted as giving humans dominion over animals, but attitudes are based on interpretations of assorted mentions in scriptures of all the various religions. Each religion though has a different approach to the position of animals in society and has probably formed the basis of how different parts of the world have treated animals with different degrees of empathy.

Quick guide to the different teachings of the various religions:

Unfortunately, Christianity has always maintained that they were put on earth to serve human beings. Most original versions of the Bible gave humans “dominion” over all living creatures, but many non-protestant scholars believe that the use of the word dominion has been misinterpreted through translation and should be more akin to ‘stewardship’ over them which either way gives the impression that humans can do what they want.The question of dominion over animals is mentioned on many occasions, but there are many slightly differing clarifications of Genesis 1:26 – 2:3.

Most modern versions of the Bible have somewhat tweaked the writings with the Church of Latter Day Saints giving man dominion over all things and commanding us to multiply and fill the earth and the New American Standard Bible has tweaked it further and wants us to “rule’ over every living thing and fill the earth and subdue it”. The New International Version of the Bible states And 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 in the sky, over the livestock and all the creatures that move along the ground”.

religious teachings


The Christian Bible has a habit of describing animals as beasts, a rather derogatory description and is all for going out and killing these beasts, even spreading fear and dread on animals. The book of Geneses contains many references on how to treat and use animals. such as: The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (Genises 9.2 & 3)

The Christian tradition supported the ideological justification for the abuse of animals up until the 19th century, when conversely certain Christians started animal welfare charities. In essence the Christian religion in all its guises has done little for the animal cause apart from perhaps the odd and somewhat patronising thanksgiving services for animals that are sometimes held.

Most Asian or Eastern religions appear to have a more benevolent attitude to animals if not always so in practice, believing that a soul could pass into the body of an animal or even that we could be re-incarnated as an animal.

“In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self and should therefore refrain from inflicting upon others such injury as would appear undesirable to us if inflicted upon ourselves” Jainish Yogashastra

Jainism (part of Hinuism) is the closest you will come to finding a religion that cares strongly about animals and their place in the world. Animals are recognized as sentient beings with feelings and emotions. It is one of the oldest and has no actual God, but the soul of a creature can become a God through the collection of ‘karman’ particles obtained through good actions. The key to accumulating good karma and divine liberation is by avoiding injury to all life and having a reverence of all creatures.

Jains are obviously vegetarians and some devotees even brush the ground to sweep away life forms they might step on, preferring to be bitten by a snake than kill it. Perhaps this is going a little too far and rather impractical for most people, but the avoidance of causing injury and having a reverence of all creatures is something we can all learn from.


“Hurt not others with that which pains yourself” Udnavarga Buddism “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to free them” Bodhisattva.

The Buddhism creed towards animals is outwardly compassionate, but in practice not quite so. All animals are considered sentient beings and possess Buddha nature and therefore they can attain enlightenment, which is a good start.  Buddhists try to do as little harm as possible to animals and avoid any work that requires killing them as they believe all beings are afraid of injury and death.

Not all Buddhists are vegetarian as Buddha did not really have an opinion on this. “I undertake to abstain from the destruction of life” is the basic teaching. The question of vegetarianism is rather confused, particularly as it is believed that animals have infinite rebirths and may be your past relatives, so eating animal flesh would be the same as eating say your dead mother or father. Many believe that eating meat is not strictly prohibited in the religious scriptures or ‘sutras’, but in many countries like China, Korea and Vietnam, monks tend to be vegetarian.

How we like to envisage the teachings of Buddhism.

Animals and humans are treated with equal respect and kindness is shown to all beings, believing through the doctrine of karma that cruel acts to animals should be avoided as they may be paid for in future life particularly as a human soul can be reborn in the body of an animal which is looked upon as being a bad thing spiritually. as it results in perpetual bad karma and continual animal rebirths until the bad karma is expelled. Only when a person is finally reborn as a human can they continue their search for nirvana. This belief led Buddhists in the past to believe that animals were inferior and that they belong to a realm lower than all humans even the lowest morally corrupt humans.

Although monks are acclaimed for feeding zoo animals and rescuing and caring for street dogs, recently some have brought the religion into disrepute by being involved in the illegal wildlife trade. Some of the Buddhist rituals such as keeping elephants chained in temples and Feng Sheng involve death and unnecessary suffering to animals.

In regard to keeping pets, the Bodhisattva precepts discourage the practice as it is a form of enslavement and can lead to attachment. The belief is that animals were domesticated through continual enslavement over centuries stopping them from being able to fend for themselves in the wild and keeping pets perpetuates this enslavement, but again many Asian temples keep tigers, monkeys and other wildlife in unsuitable conditions.


“He who kills harmless and non-violent creatures for his own pleasure will never get true happiness, whether in this life, or after he dies”; “He who does not seek to kill, cause pain or tie up living creatures and desires the good of all attains everlasting joy.” (Manu Smriti 5.45-5.46 – Vishnu Dharma Sutra 51.68-51.69)

The term Hinduism, one of the oldest major religious traditions, covers a multitude of different, but related spiritual traditions, which with a few exceptions mostly have a fundamental regard for their ethical and compassionate treatment. They play an important part in Hindu myths and legends adorning temples and depicted as Gods and Goddesses. Animals nonetheless are considered ignorant, but have their own language and intelligence and perform an important duty in creation and the evolution of life. Hindus believe that animals must be very unhappy compared to human existence. The scriptures urge that animals are treated fairly, not harmed or subjected to pain and cruelty.

Cows are sacred and highly revered by Hindus and in India cannot be killed or eaten. “Meat cannot be obtained without injury to living creatures, and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to the attainment of heavenly bliss; let him therefore shun the use of meat” (Manu Smriti 5.48 – Vishnu Dharma Sutra 51.71). Because of these teachings most Hindus lean towards vegetarianism.

Humans are still superior and the duty of animals is to nourish humans through milk and self-sacrifice. The doctrine of ‘Ahisma’ (non-injury), Karma and reincarnation teaches that all living beings have souls, including all plants, and all animals down to insects and tiny organisms should be treated with great respect as aspects of the Divine. Lord Krishna stated that “Humans should take from this planet only that which is necessary for survival” and the taking of innocent life or causing unnecessary suffering and pain has serious karmic repercussions.


Historically Judaism places great emphasis on the proper treatment of animals and preventing “Tsa’ar ba’alei chayim” or suffering of living creatures to the extent that causing unnecessary cruelty to them is forbidden and in is this they were far ahead of Western civilisation. It also accepts that animals have feelings and relationships and under the law have some of the same rights as humans, but also that is acceptable to harm or kill animals if that is the only way to help humans. Therefore experimenting on animals is acceptable as long as the benefit to humans is a real possibility and there is no unnecessary pain involved. Hunting and animal fights for sport are also forbidden.

Although the Torah like Christianity gives humanity dominion over animals it is interpreted as not giving the right for us to cause pain and suffering although it does not actually have views on whether animals actually experience physical or emotional pain.

Pet keeping is not prohibited, but Jewish law has a complicated approach to it and does instruct certain conditions under which they are kept. There are in fact many teachings on animal welfare enshrined in Jewish law and taken from the bible including all animals being fed before their owners and being rested on the Sabbath. Also that a person should not purchase an animal unless he is capable of feeding it. There is also concern in some of the commandments for the psychological suffering of animals such as not taking eggs away while the mother bird is present. Non-Kosher food can be fed to them, but there are rules for feeding animals during certain religious holidays.

The Torah prohibits the castration of any species and views neutering of female animals as causing suffering, all of which is not helpful for stray animal control, but it doesn’t prevent the adoption of animals already neutered. Any form of mutilation such as docking ears or tails in dogs or declawing cats is forbidden, but again not if adopted in that state.

Jews believe animals can be eaten and their products used, but they must be killed in a way to reduce as much suffering as possible. This immediately makes the method of killing contentious with many people as Jews believe indisputably that Shechita or kosher slaughter is totally humane, but most animal rights advocates disagree and experts cannot agree either whether Kosher is humane. The actual act of Kosher killing is a form of ritual slaughter with the throat being cut to sever the trachea, esophagus and large blood vessels in one deep cut. a single stroke of a very sharp knife across the throat designed to be fast and painless with a strict procedure that has to be followed.


“A good deed done to an animal is like a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as cruelty to a human being”

Islam basically follows the Christian line that humans are the centre of the universe and animals purely exist to benefit us and although do not have free will they should be allowed to follow their natural instincts. The Qur’an describes them as ‘muslim,’ as they were created by Allah to live and obey Allah’s laws in the natural world.  Allah loves all animals and dictates that they must be treated with kindness and compassion. The Qur’an instructs that animals should not be treated cruelly or neglected, or overworked or over-loaded and not hunted for sport.

Islam also forbids physical and mental cruelty to animals and killing animals except as needed for food. Pet keeping is allowed and there is strict guidance stating that any Muslim who decides to keep a pet must provide appropriate food, water and shelter and generally take full responsibility for the animals care and well-being including providing veterinary treatment as borne out by this teaching: A woman was once punished after death because of a cat whcih she had kept confined until it died, and because of this she entered the Fire. She had neither given it food or drink while confining it, nor had she let it free to eat the creatures of the earth”.

Muslims are only allowed to eat meat killed according to Sharia law, another form of ritual slaughter which is similar to Kosher killing with the throat being cut to sever the trachea, esophagus and large blood vessels in one deep cut. The same disagreement exists as with Kosher killing and all forms of ritual slaughter. Sharia law insists that animals being killed are well treated, must not see each other or be in an uncomfortable position and that the knife must be free of damage and not sharpened in the animal’s presence.

Is religion a friend of animals

It is difficult to determine whether ‘God’ in all his/her guises was a supporter of animal welfare and rights as the different teachings of the various divinities have been interpreted by mere humans in so many different ways to make it impossible to know, but nearly all lean heavily towards human dominance. The common theme amongst most religions is that animals should be shown basic respect and compassion, but this is often influenced and eroded by being poor and unable to care for them properly making animal rights and welfare an impossible priority or a legitimate urgent issue.

Historically Eastern cultures have had a more respectful attitude to animals but unfortunately this is fast disappearing with the rush of modern development and western cultural influences making the basic premise of respect of animals and the benefits received by not harming or killing them less important. The world’s cultures have moved on and religious doctrine does not hold the same relevance and reverence as it once did.

We still enjoy imposing our will over them, which these days mainly manifests itself in our obsession with training or forcing them to obey, behave, do tricks, work and die on our behalf. We also see no problem in hunting them with bows and arrows, experimenting on them for our own good, killing them out of hand to feed us and keep up the old traditions of using them as beasts of burden. Subjugating them still makes us feel empowered and reinforces our attitude that they are our slaves and in many respects we haven’t really moved on at all from our ancient past.

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