Secular man may say he cares for the tree because if he cuts it down, his cities will not be able to breathe. But that is egoism, and egoism will produce ugliness, no matter how long it takes or what fine words are used. ‒ Francis Schaeffer
Climate change is a concern for future generations, not for today, critics say. But the numbers are pointing to something else. In 2017, climate change cost the United States $306 billion, writes David Wallace-Wells in his frightening but important book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. If the world continues under “business-as-usual” conditions, he explains, we will continue to experience a loss of $551 trillion in damages at 3.7 degrees warming by 2100.
And according to the United Nations, we are headed that direction inevitably. In fact, experts warn that we are expected to hit 4.5 degrees warming by 2100.
As of today, pollution is already killing as many as nine million people annually. By 2050, it is estimated that sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America will generate more than 140 million climate refugees, as I touched on in my previous blog post. Other major cities will also be evacuated, including Miami, New Jersey, Hong Kong, Baghdad, Paris, New York, Montreal, Seattle, creating countless more refugees. The problem is that large portions of the population live within thirty feet of sea level, 600 million people to be precise, and these areas are expected to be hit the most.
One of the most recent reports from The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that even if everyone stops polluting all at once, we’ll still get to 3.2-degree warming. 3.2-degree warming would mean that 100 urban centers would be flooded, including Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai, Hong Kong, New York, Montreal, Seattle, London, Baghdad, San Francisco, Sacramento, Houston, Philadelphia, Florida (97%), and 70% of New Jersey. The trend toward increased flooding is escalating.
From 1992 to 1997, 49 billion tons of ice of the Antarctic ice sheet melted annually on average. From 2012 to 2017, that number increased to 219 billion tons of ice melting annually. Since the 1950s, the Antarctic has lost 13,000 square miles from its ice shelf. Experts suggest that the fate of it will be determined by the action taken within the next decade.
In fact, 2.4 million American homes and businesses — $1 trillion in value — are expected to experience chronic flooding. Ninety-seven percent of Florida will be off the map by 2100, calculated by leading ocean chemist, David Archer.10 The science on this is irrefutable, experts claim. The predictions may vary in severity. Business-as-usual will, however, not prevent apocalyptic calamities from regularly occurring. So, the urgency is apparent.
For atheists, life on Earth may be all there is. That is why, for them, solving man-made climate change is of high importance. If by 2100, we find ourselves in a truly “uninhabitable earth,” as Wallace-Wells says we may, then we lose everything. Some estimates suggest that it is unlikely that man-made climate change will eradicate our species. But near extinction is enough reason to act. The question is whether Christians can be urgent on climate issues.
My answer to this is both yes and no because Christians have one thing that is slightly more urgent than the climate and the preservation of the species: eternity.
Biblical Climate Change Action
The Bible presents a mixed account on the responsibility of humans to preserve the earth. Wayne Grudem writes that “[T]he Bible’s picture of the earth in general is that it has abundant resources that God has put there to bring great benefit to us as human beings made in his image. There is no hint that mankind will ever exhaust the earth’s resources by developing them and using them wisely.” The authors of Genesis write:
While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. (Genesis 8:22 ESV)
I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Genesis 9:11–15)
These passages indicate that God expects His people to preserve the gifts of God. However, the Bible is also clear on the inevitable destruction of the Earth. Although these passages may be metaphorical and in no way suggest that the Bible prophesied man-made climate change in the 21st century. Some of these passages include:
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places (Matthew 24:7).
There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven (Luke 21:11).
When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake (Rev 8:1–13).
Apart from wanting to take care of God’s Creation, as God called them to, Christians do not have any other biblical reason to find solutions to man-made climate change. There is only instrumental value in nature for the Christian, value in service for different causes, not intrinsic value, value for its own sake, since nature directly proves God’s existence according to the Bible (Romans 1:20). Apart from that, the Bible is not clear on why we should protect nature in the first place.
The Bible’s silence on this is arguably why many in the Christian right do not prioritize man-made climate change in their sermons. In the end, eternity is on the line, and preaching the Gospel comes before taking care of the environment we live in. Needless to say, when the global concern becomes much more apparent and demanding, Christian leaders will have to be more outspoken on these issues because of their influence and the tangible ethical consequences of not speaking up. Some Christians have started to do so already.
Francis Schaeffer, one of the leading Christian thinkers of the 20th century, tackles environmentalism in his book, Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology. Schaeffer was not your typical Christian thinker. He had hippie-like sensibilities and, upon moving to the United States in 1948, even forsook the possession of his car. Schaeffer would frequently go on hikes, tend to his garden, and regularly traveled across the world because of his love of nature.
He would pick up trash from the hiking trails on his hikes with students and objected to waste being thrown overboard on his boat trips overseas. In his book, Schaeffer writes that only the Christian can unite on environmental matters because “God has spoken” on it. He blames humanism and rationalism for “looking at the particulars” to then make a universal, which he believes is philosophically futile and arbitrary. He blames our current environmental predicament on humanism. There’s nothing new under the sun, it seems; Atheism is always to blame.
That is not to say that Christianity has the answer outright but instead that it is the most compelling worldview that provides a solution to big questions such as man-made climate change. Schaeffer believes that because Creation is a gift from God, only Christians have a justified reason to care for it. Indeed, Schaeffer writes that “[Christians] treat nature with respect because God made it.” The question then is why so few Christians prioritize speaking about nature and protecting it if Christians are the only ones who can experience unity on this issue.
Closely tied with the preservation of the Earth is the issue of factory farming and animal rights. As I hoped to show in my previous blog post on whether Christians do indeed have a way of defending the sanctity of human life biblically, I hope to provide a similar analysis of whether Christians have any way of defending animal rights.
Historically, animals were not given much thought as to whether they should have any rights at all. The father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, for example, nailed living dogs to wood, digging into them searching for a soul, which he could not find. One has to wonder why this “scientific” experiment did not extend to humans.
The experiments slowly became more humane, as scientists figured out that animals have cognitive abilities and are sentient as we are. However, progress can still be made here as well. Societies across the Globe are making considerable advancements in treating animals with the dignity they deserve. These advancements were seen as early as 1800 when laws against bear beating were established in the British Parliament. By 1835, The Ill-Treatment of Cattle Act extended protection to bulls, dogs, and cats.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and many societies have outlawed blood sports, including foxhunts and bloodhounds in 2005, cockfights in 2008, and bullfights in 2010. Society is slowly catching up with what science has been telling us for years. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, the Professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, claims that “With every passing year the cognitive gap that supposedly differentiates us from mere animals is shrinking.”
Of course, the underlying premise for Christians for defending these animals is much different than for those who are non-Christian or unbelievers. Throughout the Bible, animals are treated with indignation, often slaughtered alongside entire cities and tribes, because they made the simple mistake of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One memorable and particularly barbaric occasion was when animals were punished alongside humans in Noah’s flood.
Some animals, precisely two members of each species, were spared by God. But most of them drowned along with the humans that God thought were unforgivable enough to kill. The question in that story is why God had to drown seemingly innocent animals for crimes that were not their own. If animals had nothing to do with the sinful condition of humans, then why would God need to punish them? Because of our understanding of animal sentience today, the killings of these animals are even more barbaric.
Many Christians will justify treating animals decently based on Christian teaching to take care of God’s creation, but they do not go as far as science tells us to. In fact, many Christian thinkers have voiced concerns about focusing too much on the rights of animals because of what they insist that will do to the value of human life.
In A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement, Wesley J. Smith writes that the animal rights movement of the 1970s was an “antihuman ideology.” Smith is persuaded that ‘Human exceptionalism,’ that humans are a particularly unique species, is the only basis for universal human rights. And that since the animal rights movement rejects this premise, it is actively harming our well-being.
Smith does not call for altogether abandoning suffering animals, however, and argues that the “core obligation of human exceptionalism” is never to cause animals suffering for “frivolous reasons.” Smith continues that we cannot define rights “Without the conviction that humankind has unique worth based on our nature rather than our individual capacities.” Without human exceptionalism, Smith firmly believes, “[U]niversal human rights are impossible to sustain philosophically.”
Nicholas Christakis disagrees with Smith’s belief that exposing the similarities between animals and humans rids us of a meaningful basis for human rights. In the words of Christakis, “[W]hen we resemble other animals with respect to the social suite, it binds us all together. The more like these animals we are, the more alike we humans must be to one another.”
In his book, Blueprint, Christakis writes that it is a fictitious notion to think of ourselves as exempt from the rest of nature. The similarities are striking, whether that is seen in the friendships of elephants, the cooperation of dolphins, and the culture of chimpanzees.
Human Exceptionalism and Loving Your Neighbor
The concept of human exceptionalism is mainly a remnant from Christendom’s dualism, the belief that the soul is a separate eternal entity from the physical body. Animals do not really have a purpose in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, apart from glorifying God and giving Adam a job, in particular, to name them. God creates humans in his image, meaning that we have a soul and moral conscience (Gen 1:27).
The consensus of the Christian right, perhaps even of Christianity at large, on this is clear, “[H]uman beings are much more valuable in God’s sight than animals.” The Bible starts as early as Genesis 1:28 in clarifying on how humans should treat animals:
And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
In one passage in the New Testament, Jesus exorcises a Legion of demons, letting them enter into a herd of pigs, numbering at about 2,000, who then run into the Black Sea and drown (Mark 5:13). In another revealing passage in the Old Testament, Saul is asked to “strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have,” including “man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Sam 15:3). Saul fails to slaughter all the Amalekites and animals, for which Saul suffered severe punishment. In what way did Saul fail his God? He kept some animals for sacrifice to God. Unfortunately, this was not favored in the eyes of God. The meat was “unclean.”
Jesus says, “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!” (Matt. 12:12) Jesus repeats this sentiment with regard to the “birds of the air” (Matt. 6:26) and sparrows (Matt. 10:31). The Christian worldview poses no serious objections to animal subjugation apart from imposing unnecessary violence and cruelty on God’s creation. But once again, the instrumental value is not in the animal or their rights but rather in the fact that God has given them as a gift to humans. The onus, then, is on the stewardship of these animals, not on any intrinsic worth or suffering inflicted on them.
As we have seen from my previous blog posts, Jesus says that among the two most important commandments is to “love your neighbor,” which suggests that God cares for humans and thinks of humans of value. The Bible says that God “knows us” before our birth and “knits” us together in the womb, as we saw when discussing abortion (Ps 139:13–14, or Jeremiah 1:5).
Paul goes so far as to say that God knew us before the foundations of the Earth (Eph 1:4). So, it may not be surprising that Christians do not focus all that much on animal rights or factory-farming. The problem is that animals should receive our attention especially because of how poorly they are treated. Human exceptionalism permits excuses and detachment from the insurmountable suffering factory-farming causes to animals. And that is unacceptable.
The Problem With Human Exceptionalism
Human exceptionalism often comes across as poor philosophy. In the end, what truly distinguishes humans from animals is a capacity for advanced language (allowing us to express our suffering better and cooperate) and cognitive skills.
The closest animals to ourselves are chimpanzees. And many are starting to call for fairer treatment of chimpanzees because of their similarities to us, including the organization, The Great Ape Project, which calls for advanced rights for chimps. Critics of The Great Ape Project will say that humans and chimps differ at a fundamental level even if there are physical similarities between us.
Jonathan Mark writes in What it means to be 98% chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes, “Apes deserve protection, even rights, but not human rights.” For Mark, “Humans have human rights by virtue of having been born human.” This birth comes with the rights of citizenship, “an endowment by the state.” Mark further writes, “[T]he phrase ‘human rights’ has no meaning if it does not apply to all humans and only to humans.”
It is often argued in defense of chimpanzee rights, that our DNA and bone structure closely resembles chimpanzees, and we should therefore extend human rights to them. However, Marks clarifies that saying that we are 98% chimpanzee does not say much about the similarity between humans and chimps. It is true, he writes, that chimps and humans have similar bone structures, which should be of more significance he writes than DNA similarity.
“Genetics appropriates that discovery as a triumph because it can place a number on it, but the number is rather unreliable as such. And whatever the number is, it shouldn’t be any more impressive than the anatomical similarity.“
However, it is not for genetic reasons that we think that chimpanzees should be treated equally, as I argued above; It is instead because they can suffer.
Obviously, no one is arguing that chimps have the same rights as humans do regarding the justice system and penal code. For example, you cannot expect a chimp to be given a lawyer if accused of third-rate homicide. Mark’s argument here is rather silly. Few are arguing that chimps will be given equal rights to humans. Rather, animal rights activists argue that chimps will be given the right not to be tortured needlessly in science experiments and so forth.
I don’t see exactly how we are incapable of defending human rights by acknowledging that most animals are equally able to process pain and should be treated accordingly. Science has indeed revealed that almost every animal alive can suffer to a certain extent. It then follows that we should adjust our relationship with non-human animals. Otherwise, we are causing unnecessary suffering to countless sentient creatures.
The Christian will have difficulty arguing otherwise, except by applying the sort of poor philosophy that Smith and those that echo him exhibit. Shanor and Kanwal write in Bats Sing, Mice Giggle that “It’s well documented” that animals sing, babble, giggle, and communicate with unique dialects. Mustached bats, they write, exemplify a capacity for “a vocabulary that at a phonetic level is comparable to ours.” In a Northern Arizona University study, prairie dogs are shown to have different accents based on which colony they are found in.
Nancy F. Castaldo writes in Beastly Brains: Exploring How Animals Think, Talk, and Feel, that “animals utilize vocabulary, grammar, accents, and gestures.” They also “communicate with vision, smell, touch, or taste as well as sounds.”
Elephants have shown to care for injured humans, for example, and will assist members of other species that are under predatory threat. Elephants have also been seen to put branches and vegetation on corpses in respect and acknowledgment of their passing. They also pause in locations where one of their kind has passed for several minutes at a time, as if in memory of the deceased. Frankly, the scientific consensus on this is telling. Christakis explains:
Dogs and even rats have empathy. Crows, crocodiles, and wasps use tools. Gorillas use language. Chimpanzees and elephants form friendships. These abilities are not precisely the same as ours, but they still amaze and trouble us as we sense our continuity with the animal kingdom in fuller ways. The recognition of this continuity makes it increasingly hard, morally, to ignore that animals’ muscles, which we eat, are guided by their brains, which have thoughts and feelings. As we break down barriers between ourselves and the animal world, the human claims to superiority and dominion, not just distinctiveness, break down.
If you want to continue reading on this topic, I have released a book on the topic. This is an excerpt from Chapter 7: The Christian, Animal Rights, & Climate Change. It is now also in kindle version.
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I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,