The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Animal Ethics

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Andrew Linzey, Clair Linzey
Routledge Handbooks in Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    , October
     390 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Animal Ethics offers the reader an impressive array of essays exploring the intersection, both rich and impoverished, between religion and animal welfare. It uses an analysis of the world’s major religious traditions to explore the breadth of human attitudes towards non-human animals and, with feet firmly planted in the real, confronts the plain and irrefutable fact of animal exploitation by religious (and secular) humans. It challenges the ordinariness, even banality, with which animal exploitation is undertaken, and calls into question the theological justifications for its continuation. It also looks afresh at classic religious studies themes, such as sacrifice, theodicy, and the afterlife, through an animal studies lens.

The volume is edited by Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey, director and deputy director, respectively, of the Oxford University’s Centre for Animal Ethics, the world's first academic center devoted to animal advocacy and research. The very existence of the volume, much like the existence of the center itself, is significant because, above and beyond any particular contributions to knowledge, it marks the concern for nonhuman sentient life as a legitimate academic pursuit. It points to a reality that, until recently, has largely gone unseen. A reality that, if seen, was typically dismissed as unworthy of intellectual attention. With each contribution to the field of animal studies, systematic injustices against animals become increasingly difficult to not see.

Much has changed over the past forty years since the appearance of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (HarperCollins, 1975), the text usually credited with spawning the modern animal rights movement. Still, decades of advocacy work had to be undertaken before the universities began to pay attention to the issues of injustice that the Singer book exposed. Though animal studies is now more entrenched in academe, with several excellent journals and hundreds of monographs to its name, and with a presence at academic societies (e.g., the Animals and Religion group at the American Academy of Religion), it is still largely treated as a specialty interest, like antiquarian books or numismatics. Until those ethical principles that govern knowledge creation come to include more-than-human concerns, animal studies remains vulnerable to “more important” matters—as if human concerns can ever be truly extricated from those of other sentient life with which our lives are interwoven.

In the main, the contributors to this volume resist the temptation to downplay speciesist teachings so prevalent within religious traditions in order to highlight more progressivist pro-animal sentiments. Instead, they undertake the difficult intellectual work of examining the moral anthropocentrism that remains at the heart of most religions.

For instance, the chapter on Islam and on African religions explore emic theological justifications for animal sacrifice which exist alongside expression of great sensitivity to nonhuman life. The chapter on yoga, while offering a positive and pro-animal interpretation of rebirth in animal form, acknowledges that normative Hindu interpretations are more likely to treat animal birth as a kind of punishment. The fascinating pro-vegetarian reading of Old Testament food laws acknowledges that normative interpretations treat the consumption of animal flesh as a given. The chapter on Jainism reveals that, even in a religion widely recognized for its sensitivity to animals, the force of tradition can lead to ethical blindness. The Jains’ age-old dietary habit of consuming milk products works against their ability to acknowledge the violence of the modern dairy industry. The chapter on North American indigenous religions explores how the exploitation of animals is inseparable from the oppression of First Nations peoples, whose spirituality is marked by a connection with the earth, and whose ethics have historically been grounded in relations with the nonhuman. The growing empowerment of Indigenous communities around the globe, and the concomitant rise of Indigenous studies within academics, heralds the decline of the materialist instrumental worldview that has been so hostile to spirituality and animal welfare alike.

Ultimately, the book seeks to demonstrate how religious traditions can serve as a source of inspiration and provide fertile ethical ground for establishing human relationships with nonhuman animals. In its significant introduction, the editors enumerate what they consider to be core pan-religious insights that possess important implications for human-animal relations. For instance, they argue that a fundamental feature of a religious worldview, qua religious, is precisely that it attaches prime importance to something other than humans, deemed higher, purposeful and ethically charged, to which humans must submit. By identifying shared religious orientations, the editors establish the overarching coherency for the volume; the subsequent chapters are united by virtue of being concerned with religion and animals. In a volume that covers as much ground, both theoretically and in the sheer number of traditions explored, discrepancies in style, tone and even caliber, are to be expected. All the same, in a few cases, stronger editorializing would have provided the volume with a greater uniformity, and might have served to better integrate the essays into a single coherent project. The paper on Judaism, for instance, though certainly interesting, seemed only tangentially concerned with animals.

Taken as a whole, the volume is an excellent resource that will be of particular interest to students of religious studies, animal studies, ethics and, more generally, to all those interested in human-nonhuman relations—in other words, to an educated readership everywhere.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anne Vallely is associate professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Linzey is Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics; Honorary Research Fellow at St Stephen’s House, University of Oxford; and a member of the Faculty of Theology in the University of Oxford.

Clair Linzey is Deputy Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.


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