Rules Are for Schmucks: Religion and the Torture of Animals

Most of the civilized world has laws banning gratuitous cruelty to animals. I suppose we humans can pat ourselves on the back for this because these laws don’t selfishly benefit any of us. We’re just being nice.

We shouldn’t be too proud, though. There are plenty of people who torment animals in order to please some spirit in the sky—and we let them get away with it.

The latest example involves two courts, one in New York and one in California, that have declined to act against a Jewish ritual rendered in English as “kaparot,” “kapparot,” or “kaporos.” Whatever the spelling, it involves grabbing a live chicken by the wings and swinging it around your head a few times. When her screams of fear become deafening, you slit her throat and let all the blood squirt out. Why? Because this magically transfers all your sins to the chicken by some sort of centrifugal force, putting you OK with God. It sure beats the heck out of the Catholic penance of making you say all those Hail Marys. And when animal rights groups dare to suggest that this kind of torture should be banned, rabbis are quick to piously proclaim, “This is an issue of religious right and religious expression,” putting them neatly above the law.

Quite a few Jews are disgusted by the practice and not all that many chickens have to endure it. On a far vaster scale, though, is the cruel kosher and halal method of animal slaughter. Most countries require that animals be numbed before they are slaughtered for food production, which spares them from most of the pain. Jewish and Muslim God experts flatly refuse to do this, because their interpretation of millennia-old books is that numbing first would annoy God. Undercover cameras in England earlier this year of a halal slaughterhouse showed scenes of workers repeatedly hacking at sheep’s throats and animals being kicked in the head and face. The scale of kosher and halal slaughter is so enormous that hundreds of animals have been tortured this way just in the few minutes since you started reading this article.

When pressed, Jewish and Muslim God experts assert that what they do doesn’t bother the animal at all and numbing does no good. If the term “lying” includes “reckless disregard for the truth,” then this counts as a “lie.” Scientists have done electroencephalograms of animals being killed with and without first numbing them and found enormous differences in pain level and duration—a finding that comes as no surprise to any neutral observer familiar with the meat industry.

Any attempt to protect these animals, though, is immediately slammed as anti-Semitic and Islamophobic, and people advocating greater animal protection are likened to Nazis. Even simple proposals to label food from inhumane slaughterhouses so that consumers would have a choice are blasted as “naked discrimination.” In the US, it’s the same folks who defend religious discrimination against gays and religious attacks on contraception in healthcare plans who are leading the charge against the humane slaughter of animals.

At least the animals who endure kosher and halal torture-slaughter ultimately get eaten. That’s not the case in some other religions, notably the Hindus in Nepal who tickle the fancy of the goddess of power by routinely murdering an estimated 500,000 animals in ceremonies at the Gadhimai temple. Then they leave the carcasses to rot in blood-drenched fields. If you have a strong stomach, you can see pictures of pious men ripping apart goats with their bare hands here. Who pays for all these animals that no one is ever going to consume? If you understand religion, the answer is easy—the Nepali government pays, at least in recent years.

Here in the US, the Supreme Court insists that we tolerate the animal sacrifice rituals of the growing pagan religion of Santeria. We don’t know how many animals have been wasted to delight the Santeria god, but in one Philadelphia home, investigators found the remains of more than 500, including two primates that may have been monkeys. A persistent Dallas reporter worked her way into one Santeria initiation ceremony that involved the killing of forty assorted goats, roosters, hens, pigeons, quail, turtles, and ducks.

It seems the more you look for religious mistreatment of animals, the more you find. Christians near Jerusalem ritually sacrifice lambs. Another Christian in South Carolina hanged her nephew’s dog from a tree and burned it after it chewed on her Bible. Mass animal slaughter is part of Islam as well, especially as part of the annual Eid-al-Adha festival. When an Egyptian blogger complained about this last year, she was arrested for “contempt of religion” and is still awaiting trial. In Taiwan, Buddhists practice a ritual of “mercy release” of thousands of birds, fish, and other animals back into the environment, which is supposed to create good karma. At first this may seem to be the opposite of cruelty. But think about it: how do they get the animals to be released? Someone catches them first and then sells them, that’s how. That’s why the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan has been fighting this practice for a decade, beating their heads against the vested economic interests of people in the business of catching and selling the animals to be “released”—at least the ones who don’t die during the capturing process. Might not there be better karma in just leaving the poor creatures alone?

On a tinier scale, but still poignant, is the woman in New York who decided to starve her dogs for a day on Yom Kippur, because she thinks they have “a Jewish essence.” If my dog understood what was going on, she’d make a meal out of a hunk of that woman’s leg. And she’d be right.

All of this might leave us nonbelievers feeling pretty good about ourselves. In a 2008 book, even Mike Huckabee noted, “An atheist who believes that we are on our own and that our only true God is the natural world might be more protective of bugs, plants, and animals than one who believes that God created all these things for us to manage.” I don’t think he was trying to be complimentary, but we’ll take it. When Harold Camping told us the Rapture was coming back in 2011, thoughtful atheists offered to take care of the departed Christians’ pets that would be left behind for a paltry $135 advance fee; they had some 259 clients. But let’s not be too smug. We still have a duty to stamp out the religious privilege mentality that allows all this abuse to happen.