The world’s major religions are Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Each religion is practiced by billions of people around the world and has sacred, ancient roots. Animals play a role in each religion’s sacrifices, meals, and ceremonies.
Each religion values animals differently. While some people view animals as sacred based on the religion they follow, others merely see them as a source for food. Additionally, each religion has evolved over time and is practiced differently across cultures and countries.
Buddhism is known to be a religion that practices and promotes peace for both human and non-human animals. Some even argue that Buddhism supports animal welfare because compassion for all living beings is highly integrated in the beliefs of Buddhism.
Just as Christianity and Judaism have the Ten Commandments, Buddhism has the Five Precepts. The First Precept, do not kill or harm others, is highly debated over as it relates to animal suffering. Who was the Buddha referring to when using “others” in the The First Precept? Should this precept only apply to humans? Or should it apply to all sentient beings?
All Buddhists seek to be in line with the teachings of the Buddha, but there are different interpretations of this religion around the world. It is common for Buddhists to follow a plant-based diet, however, not all do.
The Mahayana tradition is more strictly vegetarian than other Buddhist traditions. In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha is quoted saying, “I have not permitted meat eating by anyone. I do not permit it. I will not permit it.” His reasoning is stated in the same scripture: “If meat is not eaten by anybody for any reason, there will be no destroyer of life.”
Many modern-day Buddhists argue that eating meat from supermarkets or restaurants is considered ethical as the animals were not killed specifically for them to eat, a stipulation the Buddha required of monks begging for food.
In the teachings of Buddhism, the act of eating meat and killing animals for meat are seen as separate, thus making meat eating acceptable in the eyes of many Buddhists. If they are merely scavenging at the supermarket to ensure meat does not go to waste, not actively taking the life of an animal, Buddhists see this as rational. Of course, many do not agree with this perspective.
The Buddha said in the Dhammapada:
“All beings tremble before danger. All fear death. When you consider this, you will not kill or cause someone else to kill. All beings fear before danger. Life is dear to all.”
Compassion is sought after by all who practice Buddhism. Therefore, Buddhists try to do as little harm as possible to animals, avoid any jobs in connection with the killing of animals, respect animals and humans equally, and believe that both humans and non-human animals are capable of reaching Nirvana, the highest state of well-being.
Christianity is practiced by billions of people, and is the most popular religion in the Americas, Europe, and the southern half of Africa. Animal rights and welfare are heavily debated over by Christians, especially in the United States and England.
Genesis 1:26 to 28:
“Then God said, Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
In Peter Singer’s 1975 novel, “Animal Liberation,” he claims that the Bible’s teaching about man’s dominion was an “impediment to animals rights.” Many traditional Christians believe that God put animals on Earth to be used by humans for food, entertainment, companionship, and clothes.
Conversely, many Christians believe animals should be treated with kindness. And as humans, they should avoid harming animals because it is sinful. Likewise, they believe that all of God’s creatures – human and non-human – are sentient and capable of pain and suffering. And while this belief is not mainstream for all Christians, it does reveal that Christians interpret man’s dominion differently.
Christian vegetarianism is becoming more popular as people learn where their food comes from. Christian vegetarians align biblical values with their eating, as they do not want to take part in cruelty toward animals. According to The Christian Vegetarian Association, “those who consume the products of factory farms are sponsoring violence.”
Christianity is based on one God, and Christians believe in serving their God in everything they do, including eating. Many believe that animals were put on Earth by God to serve man, while others believe animals are sentient, intelligent beings who deserve to be treated with respect.
Hinduism is a compilation of many traditions and philosophies, not just one organized religion. It embraces many different religious ideas and is sometimes referred to as a way of life instead of a religion.
Due to the mixture of religious ideas, there is not one single Hindu view on animal rights, much like other religions.
Hindu teachings hold the belief that all living creatures have a soul, and that they are a part of the supreme soul. Therefore, all living creatures – both human and non-human – are respected similar to Buddhist traditions.
While Hinduism calls for proper and respectful treatment of all living beings, animals are sacrificed in religious ceremonies. A great deal of importance is placed on how the animals are treated leading up to the sacrifice, as the proper treatment of animals is considered as a Hindu moves toward salvation, their ultimate goal.
According to the BBC, “Ahimsa is often translated simply as non-violence, but its implications are far wider; it is more than not doing violence, it is more than an attitude, it is a whole way of life.” Killing animals is viewed as a violation of ahimsa that causes bad karma, therefore many follow vegetarian diets.
Cows in particular are greatly revered by Hindus because the cow is associated with Aditi, the mother of all gods in Hindu scriptures. Additionally, cows provide more than they take.
“The cow, they say, produces five things — milk, cheese, butter (or ghee), urine and dung. The first three are eaten and used in worship of the Hindu gods, while the last two can be used in religious devotion or in penance or burned for fuel.”
In India, where 80 percent of the population practices Hinduism, the act of killing a cow is banned due to how sacred they are. Hindus do not eat any beef products.
With the overall premise to be kind to all creatures with a soul, Hinduism holds animal rights to a high degree, although animals are sacrificed for religious purposes.
Muslims believe that animals exist for the benefit of human beings, but also that they should be treated with kindness and compassion.
The Qur’an explicitly states that animals can and should be used by humans:
“It is God who provided for you all manner of livestock, that you may ride on some of them and from some you may derive your food. And other uses in them for you to satisfy your heart’s desires. It is on them, as on ships, that you make your journeys.”
And while Islamic teachings call for the use of animals, any cruelty toward an animal is considered a sin, and killing an animal – except for food – is forbidden. Muhammad stated in the hadith that mercy towards animals will be rewarded, animals are like humans in how they should be treated, and mental cruelty is forbidden, among other instructions on how to properly treat animals.
Islamic teachings do not allow Muslims to consume pork, meat from an animal that was not properly slaughtered, blood, the meat of an animal that died from electrocution, strangulation or blunt force, or any food contaminated by the above.
While most Muslims do eat meat, there are strict guidelines as to how the animal is slaughtered to be considered halal and not haram. Ritual slaughter that is halal consists of the following:
“Muslims slaughter their livestock by slitting the animal’s throat in a swift and merciful manner, reciting “In the name of God, God is Most Great” (Quran 6:118–121). The animal should not suffer in any way, and should not see the blade before slaughter. The knife must be razor sharp and free from any blood of a previous slaughter. All of the animal’s blood must be drained before consumption. Meat prepared in this manner is called zabihah, or simply, halal meat.”
While Muslims believe this slaughtering method is the most humane way to end an animal’s life, animal rights activists disagree. Activists argue that animals consciously suffer a great amount throughout the halal slaughtering method. Pre-stunning animals was not always considered halal, and some cultures still abide by this.
In 2004, Masood Khawaja president of the Halal Food Authority, stated that immobilising an animal prior to killing it is not against halal practice, so long as the animal is not actually killed before their throat is cut.
Islamic practices intend to be kind to all animals, even as they are slaughtered, due to the strict guidelines set forth in the Qur’an to respect all animals.
Judaism places a large amount of stress on the proper treatment of animals because they are seen as a part of God’s creation. The Jewish tradition clearly states that it is forbidden to be cruel to animals. Humans must avoid tsa’ar ba’alei chayim – causing pain to any living creature.
While Christianity and Judaism hold similarities in the values and beliefs of the religion, Judaism holds animal welfare to a higher standard.
According to the BBC, “The Talmud specifically instructs Jews not to cause pain to animals, and there are also several Bible stories which use kindness to animals as a demonstration of the virtues of leading Jewish figures.”
While animal rights are important to Jews, Judaism also teaches that it is okay to harm or kill animals if that is what one needs to do to fulfil an essential human need. It is stated early in the Torah that people take priority over animals when God gives man the ability to control all non-human animals.
Observant Jews only eat meat that comes from an approved slaughter process, called shechita. Much like the process in Islamic tradition to render meat halal, animal rights activists find shechita to be egregiously cruel to animals, while Jews believe the opposite.
“Since the desire of procuring good food necessitates the slaying of animals, the Torah commands that the death of the animal should be the easiest. It is not allowed to torment the animal by cutting the throat in a clumsy manner, by piercing it, or by cutting off a limb while the animal is still alive.”
The shechita slaughtering method is designed to kill an animal with one single stroke of the knife, killing the animal instantly so they do not feel any pain. If done correctly, the meat becomes kosher.
Judaism is primarily concerned with the essential needs of humans, and sets forth that if animals are treated properly, they can be sacrificed for human need.
Major religions around the world believe, to varying degrees, that animals should be treated with compassion and respect. In the countries and cultures where these religions are practiced, and animals are to be treated with respect, animals are still used as a food source and sacrificed for religious purposes.
Mohandas Gandhi said, “To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. The more helpless the creature, the more that it is entitled to protection by man from the cruelty of man.”
As time passes and religious traditions continue to evolve, will we see animals’ lives being spared in furtherance of animal rights within a religious capacity?
Krista is a writer and animal advocate.