Address at Westminster Abbey

Sunday 2nd October, 2011

Address by the Revd Professor Andrew Linzey

Service in Celebration of Animals
Westminster Abbey
Sunday 2nd October, 2011

My text is from John Henry Newman: “Cruelty to animals is as if a man did not love God.”1

I have been involved in the animal cause for more than 40 years. And what has changed for animals during these years? Sometimes it appears that sensitivity to animal suffering is increasing. It is certainly true that the last 40 years have seen significant strides in the United Kingdom.

Hunting and coursing have been banned; fur farming prohibited, veal crates, sow stalls and battery cages are being phased out, testing for cosmetics has been effectively discontinued, and the use of great apes in experiments has been curtailed. The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 introduced for the first time a “duty of care” for domestic animals.

Underpinning these legislatives changes has been a dramatic increase in philosophical work on the moral status of animals, almost all of it critical of existing practices. This, in turn, has been buttressed by scientific data demonstrating that all mammals at least experience not just physical pain, but also mental suffering, including fear, foreboding, shock, trauma, stress, distress, anticipation, and terror – all states previously regarded as exclusive to human beings.2

Yet, animal abuse is like a multi-headed hydra. As one is cut off, another grows up. Having seen a progressive reduction in the number of experiments in the early nineties, they are now back to the levels of the 1980s – over 3.7 million alone in the U.K. in 2010.3 And many of these experiments are due to the massive growth in genetic manipulation, of which animals have been the prime victims. Having dismantled the worst aspects of factory farming, we now face the emergence of “mega dairies” in which up to eight thousand cows are to be kept permanently inside factories devoid of natural light and pasture.  Only a few days ago, we heard of plans for “mega- piggeries” to house no less than 30,000 pigs.4 More than ever, we are turning animals into food machines.

And the underbelly of cruelty to animals shows no sign of diminishing. Complaints of cruelty investigated by the RSPCA have risen year on year from 137,245 in 2007 to 159,686 in 2010.5  Is this because people are more sensitive or because they have become more callous? The jury is still out, but the overall trend is disquieting.

Why is it that we cannot as a society see that animal cruelty, like cruelty to children, should not be tolerated?

Part of the answer is sheer political sluggishness. The Government has done nothing to thwart plans for “mega-dairies”. Despite overwhelming support for a ban on “wild” animals in circuses, DEFRA and the Prime Minister obfuscate. The Government still manoeuvres to bring back hunting with dogs. The previous government was at least preparing to examine the links between animal abuse and human violence, but the current Government has shelved all that. Despite scientific evidence that killing badgers is ineffective, even counter-productive, in reducing bovine TB, the Government now proposes yet more of the same. I am still waiting for an answer from Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for the Environment, who appears unable to provide answers to my specific questions about its scientific validity.

Instead of frustrating reform, the Government should celebrate the fact that Britain led the movement for the protection of animals, lament the fact that it is so falling behind, as it should vigorously support the initiatives of the RSPCA to make Britain a less cruel country.

And then we come to the churches. Where are they? The answer is that they are nowhere in this debate. With a few honourable exceptions – and I mean a very few – English archbishops and bishops haven’t even addressed the issue in the past decade or more. Almost all church leaders, who are normally loquacious in lamenting regressive social policies, can’t even register animal cruelty as a problem. They talk airily of environmental responsibility, but, when it comes to confronting our specific duties to other sentient creatures, fall silent. What is true about the church’s teaching is even more true of the church’s liturgy. A prayer for the welfare of God’s other creatures is nowhere to be found in its liturgical offerings. And why is it that those Christian pioneers, like Arthur Broome who effectively founded the RSPCA, are not remembered in such hallowed places as this?

All this represents not just a failure in moral perception, but a fundamental failure in theology, much deeper and much more profound than is commonly appreciated. Ludwig Feuerbach famously argued that Christianity is nothing other than the self-aggrandisement, even deification, of the human species.6 Christian theology needs animals to save itself – and ourselves – from idolatry. By “idolatry”, I mean the attempt to deify the human species by regarding the interests of human beings as the sole or exclusive concern of God the Creator.7

To avoid this charge, theology needs to show that it can provide what it promises – namely a truly Godward (rather than a simply anthropocentric) view of the world. Its obsession with human beings to the exclusion of all else betokens a deeply unbalanced doctrine of the Creator.

Christians haven’t got much further than thinking that the whole world was made for us, with the result that animals are only seen in an instrumental way as objects, machines, tools, and commodities, rather than fellow creatures. We just haven’t grasped that the God who meets us in Jesus is also the Logos through whom – and for whom – all creatures exist. To think that animals can be defined by what they do for us, or how they meet our needs, is profoundly un-theological.

The truth is that we are spiritually blind in our relations to other creatures, as blind as men have been to women, whites have been to blacks, and straights have been to gays.

We think God is only interested in the human species. This is the fault line that runs through almost all historical and contemporary theology

When I was a theological student in the 1970s, I loved reading John Macquarrie’s majestic book Principles of Christian Theology8 – an attempt to marry humanistic existentialist thought with traditional theology. At the time I remember thinking to myself how his whole edifice would collapse if he saw that God had interests beyond the human species. And what is true of Macquarrie is true of almost all theology.

Later on, when I did my PhD on Karl Barth’s doctrine of creation, I was astonished by how he defines without a blush creation as anthropology: “… in practice the doctrine of creation means anthropology  – the doctrine of man”. Again: “He who in the biblical message is called God is obviously not interested in the totality of things and beings created by Him, nor in specific beings within this totality, but in man …”.9  Such crassness, from someone who is probably the greatest theologian of all time, takes one’s theological breath away.

Now I know all the usual responses.

“We have been given dominion over animals” it is countered.

Well, dominion does not mean despotism. For centuries, it needs to be admitted, Christians have interpreted Genesis 1 as meaning little more than “might is right” – a view that has influenced the largely secular view of animals today. But modern scholarship has made clear how wrong we were. The priestly theology of Genesis is not that of man-the-despot, but rather of humanity as the species commissioned to care, under God, for the creation. And in case this appears like liberal revisionism of an ancient text, there is internal evidence in the text itself. In Genesis 1. 26-9 humans are made in God’s image, given dominion, and in the subsequent verse (29-30) given a vegetarian diet. Herb-eating dominion is hardly a license for tyranny.10  Our power over animals is a power to care, not to exploit.

“We humans are made in the image of God”, it is often said.

But the God in whose image we are made is a God of love, mercy, justice. It is difficult to see how being made in that image can justify the infliction of pain whatever the motives. Indeed modern scholarship reveals that “image” and “dominion” go together: humans are to represent God’s own benevolent care for other creatures. If one truly believes that God is benevolent and that humans are made in God’s image, then our obligations are clear: we also must be benevolent not just to other humans but to the whole of God’s creation.  Humans are uniquely responsible to God for how they exercise their authority. What emerges from Genesis chapter 1 is that God that creates humans with God-given capacities to care for creation as God’s own representative on earth. We are to be not so much the “master species” as the “servant species”.11

Frequently religious people speak of the specialness of human beings, how we are made in the image of God, or blessed by the Spirit, but so often they fail to point out the equally biblical truth that humans are also the most unlovely species in the world – the species capable of degrading themselves beyond that of any other creature. Unique we may be, but unique also is our violence, our wickedness, our capacity for evil.  Alone among all beings in the universe, we are capable of the best – and also the very worst. It is not for nothing that God says in Genesis 6.6 that he “was sorry that he made man on the earth”.

“But the Bible is preoccupied with the salvation of human beings”, it is often said.

Well, from my perspective, so it should be. Humans need saving from their wickedness and violence. That animals will be redeemed strikes me as rather obvious – after all they are morally innocent or blameless, not sinful, violent and wicked like human beings. The real question is not whether animals will be in heaven, but whether any humans will be there as well.

I am getting rather fed up with the way in which the animal cause is so casually dismissed.

“We should care for children rather than animals”, it is claimed.

Well, this rather overlooks the fact that it was members of the RSPCA who helped found the NSPCC, and that the leading lights of the RSPCA – Wilberforce and Shaftesbury to take only two examples, worked equally hard for suffering children as they did for suffering animals. They saw, as we need to see, that the cause of cruelty was indivisible. A world in which cruelty to animals goes unchecked is bound to be a less morally safe world for human beings.12

“We shouldn’t indulge animals when humans are starving”, it is claimed.

Well, as we all know, there would be more food to eat in the world if we all became vegetarian or vegan. Animals are protein machines in reverse, since grain fed to animals could be used to directly feed hungry humans. But in fact, as a rule, we don’t indulge animals. Some companion animals may be lavishly treated, but the RSPCA has to live daily with the thousands who are abused, neglected, and treated as fungible, disposable items. The RSPCA, and other animal organisations, have the unenviable task of rescuing creatures from those who – far from indulging them – do not even given them the basic rudiments of care.

“But human suffering comes first”, it is argued.

Well, in my book, all suffering is suffering. It is all part of the great conceit and hubris of the human species to suppose that only human suffering really matters or matters most of all. What after all is most pitiable about the suffering of young children, especially infants? It is surely that they cannot represent themselves, they cannot give or withhold their consent, they cannot fully understand, they are defenceless and vulnerable, and especially that they are morally innocent or blameless. But all these factors are equally true in the case of animals.13

John Henry Newman argued that “Cruelty to animals is as if a man did not love God.” The point was made even more strongly by that Anglican divine Humphry Primatt in his great work The Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty in 1776. This was the book that influenced Arthur Broome and which he subsequently helped revise, after Primatt’s death, for its second edition. Primatt wrote: “We may pretend to what religion we please, but cruelty is atheism. We may make our boast of Christianity, but cruelty is infidelity. We may trust to our orthodoxy, but cruelty is the worst of heresies.”14

Without any disrespect to atheists (after all, I was once one myself), this has to be said from a Christian perspective. And how do we know this is true? We know it is true because of the generosity of God in Jesus Christ. Here we reach the decisive consideration from a theological perspective: our power or lordship over animals needs to be related to that exercise of lordship seen in the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus provides us with what I have called a “paradigm of inclusive moral generosity” that privileges the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, the marginalised, and the outcast.  As Primatt goes on to say: “… a cruel Christian is a monster of ingratitude, a scandal to his profession, and beareth the name of Christ in vain …”. But if costly generosity really is the God-given paradigm then it ought also to be the paradigm for the exercise of human dominion over the animal world. The doctrine of the incarnation involves the sacrifice of the “higher” for the “lower”, not the reverse. And if that is the true model of divine generosity, it is difficult to see how humans can otherwise interpret their exercise of power over other sentient creatures.

When we speak of human superiority, we speak of such a thing properly only and in so far as we speak not only of Christlike lordship but also of Christlike service. There can be no lordship without service and no service without lordship. Our special value in creation consists in being of special value to others.15

Let me conclude, then, in this way: we worship a false God when we worship ourselves, or when we think only human beings matter to God, or when we think our power over animals is its own justification, or when we regard cruelty to any creature as a small, insignificant, matter, or, even worse, when we think God condones any infliction of suffering.

Let me also be frank about the implications of this: we shall not stop cruelty simply by doubling the number of RSPCA inspectors (highly desirable though that is) or by conducting more campaigns (essential though they are) or even by more education (vital though that is too). We shall only change the world for animals by changing our ideas about animals and how we think about animals. We have to change our mental furniture, our whole mental outlook. We have to move from the idea that animals are just things, tools, commodities, resources here for us to the idea that all sentient creatures have intrinsic value, dignity, and rights. And that is why Christian theology is so important. It has shaped our thinking, both positively and negatively, and continues to do so. We need a new theology freed from naïve anthropocentrism and able to confront the selfishness of our own species.

The Anglican priest, Arthur Broome, set up the RSPCA in 1824 as “a Christian society based on Christian principles”.16  He saw that Christian charity, if it was to be real, had to extend beyond human beings. Some of us are still striving after that vision and still living that hope.


1. John Henry Newman, Sermon Notes, 1849-1878 (Longmans, Green & Co, 1913), p. 113.

2. See, for example, David DeGrazia, Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and Bernard E. Rollin, The Unheeded Cry: Animal Consciousness, Animal Pain, and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

3. See the Home Office figures at

4. For details of the planning application, see

5. Statistics supplied by the RSPCA, September 2011.

6. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1957), Trans by George Eliot, Introduction by Karl Barth, Foreword by H. Richard Niebuhr, section 2, pp. 12ff.

7. The point is expanded in Andrew Linzey and Dan Cohn-Sherbok, After Noah: Animals and the Liberation of Theology (London: Mowbray, now New York: Continuum, 1997), pp. 118-119. My earliest complaint against Christian anthropocentrism can be found in Andrew Linzey, ‘Is Anthropocentricity Christian?’ Theology, Vol. LXXXIV, No. 697, January 1981, pp. 17-21.

8. John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (London: SCM Press, 1970).

9. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/2, The Doctrine of the Creator, Part Two (“The Creature”), ed. by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. by H. Knight, G. W. Bromiley, J. K. S. Reid and R. H. Fuller (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960), p. 3, and Church Dogmatics III/4, The Doctrine of Creation, Part Four, ed. and trans. by A. T. Mackay, T. H. L. Parker, H. Knight,  H. A. Kennedy, and J. Marks (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), p. 337.

10. I summarise the consensus among Old Testament scholars in Andrew Linzey, Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology and Practical Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 28-29.

11. See “Humans as the Servant Species”, chapter 3, Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (London: SCM Press and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), pp. 45-61. I have also made these points about dominion and the Imago Dei many times (and in much the same language), see, for example, “Animal Experiments: Ethics, Theology and the Possibility of Dialogue”, in John H. Morgan (ed.), Foundation Theology 2008: Faculty Essays for Ministry Professionals (South Bend, Indiana: The Victoria Press, 2008), p. 92.

12. For supporting evidence, see Andrew Linzey (ed.), The Link between Animal Abuse and Human Violence (Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2009).

13. These are, I contend, the objective rational grounds for being concerned with animal suffering; see Linzey, Why Animal Suffering Matters, chapter 1.

12. Humphry Primatt, The Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty (Edinburgh: T. Constable, 1776), pp. 288, and 288-289.

14. See Chapter 3 in Linzey, Animal Theology.

16. Arthur Broome, “Prospectus of the SPCA”, 25 June 1824, RSPCA Records, Vol. 11. (1823-1826).

© Copyright, Andrew Linzey, 2011.