Animal sacrifice

About two months ago, I reblogged a post from Loki’s Little Hippie Witch, adding my two cents to the ongoing debate about whether or not it is right to sacrifice animals to satisfy religious beliefs. Today, I read an interesting argument posted at the Magick from Scratch blog, bringing up the possibility that there is a degree of hypocrisy among those in Western society who advocate telling people of various faiths that animal sacrifice is no longer an acceptable means of worship.

In my previous post on this subject, I responded mainly to the argument stating that animal sacrifice is acceptable because it is what our ancestors did. I followed up with my thoughts on this logic in this post, and concluded that the argument is not sound. The hypocrisy argument, however, holds more water: people who guzzle down meat, with no regard for the animal(s) involved; and at the same time criticize adherents of religions who slaughter animals in the name of their deities, run the risk of engaging in hypocrisy. Major sporting events were examples brought up in the “Western Hypocrites” post – I will go one step further and mention the uncounted masses of turkeys that get slaughtered for major holidays in some countries, events that perhaps more closely represent the religious sacrifice of animals.

There are a few differences, however, though the lines are fairly blurred. One article on the subject of animal sacrifice in India describes heaps or piles of carcasses, left by officiates of the sacrifice who have little or no training in the butchering of animals. The piles of carcasses are a concern for various diseases, which suggests that the meat is not completely eaten, that much gets wasted. In Western cultures with which I am familiar, the controls for how animals are butchered and how the carcasses are disposed of are more strict (though not as rigidly enforced as they should be, due to politics and economics, rather than religion). This does not, however, mean that the meat from the animal does not go to waste: gorging one’s self over a turkey (for example), eating more than one’s fill just for the pleasure of eating, and with no mind for eating only what is necessary, is just as wasteful as if the meat were left to rot on the ground – perhaps even more so, as at least meat left out to rot will provide food for carrion eaters. That much of this orgiastic approach to feasting takes place with absolutely no sense of gratitude to the animal(s) involved (common prayers give thanks to a deity as the source for the meal, ignoring the animal’s involvement) is unconscionable to me.

However, while I will certainly agree that the hypocrisy exists, this is not a valid argument with which to support the practice of animal sacrifice. In fact, it’s a fairly good reason why someone who disapproves of animal sacrifice (and there are many who do) should work at least as much within their own culture to eradicate this practice as in the cultures of others. While the “Western Hypocrites” post singles out and generalizes animal rights activists as being guilty of hypocrisy, it ignores the possibility that many of these activists are dedicated advocates for the rights of animals, and might very well not be guilty of hypocrisy, regardless of the politics some of their organizations might engage in … there are quite a few sources available that show animal rights activists taking on Western governments, corporations and practices as well as governments, corporations and practices from other regions of the world.

Specifically, the author of the “Western Hypocrites” post lists several key points or arguments at the end of the post, of which I consider only the first to be a valid argument: that, despite this practice among Hindus, more animals are slaughtered in other countries, like the US, Brazil, and countries within the EU (and according to the graphic attached to the post, also China) than in India. Point two on this list, that the animals being slaughtered for sacrifice are not being tortured, is not valid: standing around in a mass of animals being slaughtered, with no recourse other than to simply await one’s turn to be beheaded by someone who is not necessarily trained in techniques to ensure speed and efficiency of the kill (to include how to keep their blades sharp), surrounded by a crowd of cheering onlookers, is torture. This may not be much worse than slaughterhouse practices in Western nations; but this does not mean that the rituals to Gadhimai do not amount to the torture of animals.

Point three, that animal sacrifice is an element of ancient religions falls partially under the same logic that I refuted in the post I linked to above, namely that the practice is acceptable because our ancestors did it. In a number of ancient religions, human sacrifice was also a component, as was the taking of slaves. Yet these practices are currently legislated against in the majority of countries around the world … does this mean we should stop all current legislative measures against these practices, so that we do not cross the lines of ancient religious practices? This ties in neatly with point four on the list, that insisting upon the cessation of a religious practice because it makes one uncomfortable makes out of that person a bigot. Considering the counter argument presented above, halting human sacrifice and slavery risks turning most of us into bigots … the logic simply fails to support this kind of argument. Further, bigotry is defined as an unreasonable intolerance to beliefs or practices differing from one’s own, usually on the simple grounds that said beliefs or practices are different. At the core of bigotry is a fear of what is different. I think, especially considering this with the counter arguments I’ve presented here, slapping anyone who rejects the practice of animal sacrifice with the label of ‘bigot’ is unfair, and more rant than reasonable argument. I say this because there has been no sound argument to support this kind of generalized attack; and because of this, it places the author of the “Western Hypocrites” post very close to the degree of hypocrisy that the post goes out of its way to expose.

The fifth and final argument presented in the original post I’m responding to states: “Prioritizing an attack on religious animal sacrifice over either throwing away half a dead cow (sorry, 30-40% of a dead cow), or factory farming shows that you don’t care about animal rights. You care about religious supremacy.” This is a conclusion that has no support anywhere in the original post. To say that this mentality demonstrates hypocrisy would be valid, and would be supported by the post’s arguments. Religious supremacy, however, is another generalized label that is simply not supported: at no point in the article was information presented that suggested that animal rights activists are religiously motivated in their perspectives concerning the ethical treatment of animals; that is what would have qualified as an argument in support of the motivation by religious supremacy.

While I will agree that hypocrisy in this regard is something that needs to be looked at and dealt with, I do not think the existence of it negates the cruelty to animals that exists in these kinds of practices – it does a very good job, however, at exposing other areas in which animal activists could stand to improve their efforts at helping the plight of animals. I personally do not feel that the practice of animal sacrifice is necessary to appease the gods; and there have been no arguments I’ve encountered that would persuade me to believe otherwise. While I have explored some of the arguments presented to support this practice, I am not judging the people who adhere to the sacrifice of animals, or their religions. I simply disagree.

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15 responses to “Animal sacrifice

  1. So. That post wasn’t an argument. It was a rant. Here is an argument:

    Animal sacrifice, if the edible parts are completely and moderately eaten, such as was the case in most ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, is morally equivalent to slaughtering an animal for food consumption.

    Animal sacrifice is not something that any objecting person should have to include in their practice. If you are truly concerned for reducing the number of animal deaths, there are better places to start that by attacking animal sacrifice in particular. There are places to start that smack less of racism, cultural supremacy, and religious coercion.

    As to whether you can have an experience of the divine without animal sacrifice that is as powerful as what you can have with it, neither you nor I (I suspect) can answer that question, since it is not a part of your practice or mine, and never has been. The thrust of my practice is using ceremonial magic techniques in place of sacrifices of any kind, to facilitate stronger connections with deities. If words and actions can take the place of wasted food and drink, I’m all for it. Of course, some would not consider the bread or wine offered to a deity “wasted.” Though, given your description the slaughter above, my wager is that you would.

    Taking into consideration the points about gratitude and mindfulness: I think that part of the gross overconsumption of meat that we are seeing in the EU, US and elsewhere is in part because most of those people have literally never seen an animal die. It’s an abstraction for them. If Thanksgiving required a ritual turkey sacrifice, carried out by the head of each household, there would not be an increase in animal deaths, and it is possible that less of the turkey would be wasted. It is also possible that some people would opt for something plant based, because killing things is generally unpleasant.

    Animal sacrifice, when it is conducted properly, is a sanctification of, and awareness-raising practice regarding the meat-eating that people are already doing, and are going to do so long as it is environmentally and fiscally tenable.

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    • Thank you for commenting, Thenea; and for doing so in a civil and thought-out manner. Your first argument is well-reasoned; and I would take it a step further and suggest that in situations when an animal is consecrated for a sacrifice, killed quickly and without torment (to include fear), and completely consumed by celebrants of the sacrifice in a grateful and non-wasteful manner, that this is actually morally superior to commonplace slaughterhouse practices, not just equivalent. However, this is not necessarily the case with the festival in India, which is what is sparking this debate.

      Your second point I also agree with, up to your final sentence; which borders again on generalizations and rant. And you are quite right, in that I consider food that is either not consumed, or consumed in a wasteful manner, to be a waste of food – regardless what that food may be, to include water. This, if anything, I tend to see as an insult to the gods and spirits of the food involved; rather than the reverse.

      Your next point is an interesting line of speculation. Would the personal slaughter of animals reduce the rates in which meat is wasted? I can see where you arrive at your conclusion that it would; but at the same time, I’m not so certain. Sport hunters and poachers kill without hesitation or regard for the animal, while I have known more than a few vegetarians who have never witnessed the slaughtering of an animal. I tend to think that the disregard for animal welfare in the meat market comes more from political and economical support for advertising and other sorts of social programming that encourage meat consumption while glossing over the plight of the animals involved (or outright glorifying their plight). As such, I would advocate efforts to reverse this social programming at all levels.

      Your conclusion makes a very good point, in that the awareness of people should be raised. This is, at its heart, what most of the animal rights activist groups accomplish – regardless of how susceptible the organizations may have shown themselves to be to politicization. The problem with your conclusion is that you are stating that animal sacrifice is a sanctification, “when it is conducted properly,” which puts you in the position to judge the correctness of other traditions – a point you have thus far fervently argued as being bigoted and religiously coercive or superior, if I have been reading you correctly.

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      • I meant the “if it is conducted properly” as a limiting statement, to say that it is possible that not all animal sacrifice will necessarily have this effect. That is certainly not to say that I am in any position to judge who is doing it correctly or not, and yeah, the main thrust of my argument has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness or animal sacrifice, but rather, the wrongness of one culture or subculture, and telling another group of people that their ancestral customs are wrong.

        I agree that reversing social programming is key to ending the overconsumption of meat. I have known some hunters in my time. In general, the hunters I have known have been very careful with the use of their kills, freezing the meat of the kill and eating it slowly over many months, and making use of every part of the animal. I will not eat meat that is killed in this way, but I respect their attitude.

        I believe that animal rights efforts should be focused on reducing over-consumption, and fighting for legislation against the practices of factory farming.

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      • Thank you for your explanation of your limiting statement about the correctness or proper application of animal sacrifice. The problem with an approach that focuses entirely on overconsumption and factory farming, but fails to address other ways in which the rights of animals are violated, is that it provides a loophole. This is in some ways exemplified by the scientific research excuse, used to justify a whaling industry. If the torture and wholesale slaughter of animals is wrong for the Superbowl or other commercial purposes, the nature of equal application would suggest that such practices are wrong for religious purposes, as well – otherwise, one is left with a hypocrisy that swings toward the other end of the spectrum. This is why I applauded your original post for shining a light on the concept of hypocrisy, and for providing another direction in which animal rights activities might be focused.

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      • Sorry, part of a clause got deleted:

        ” but rather, the wrongness of one culture or subculture dictating cultural or religious practices to another, or one group of people telling another group of people that their ancestral customs are wrong.”

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      • I understand that you are reluctant to step on the religious customs of others, and I genuinely appreciate your respect for this. In all fairness, I would not welcome people telling me how to express my beliefs. However, at the same time, if I feel (from my beliefs) that something is wrong, it would be unethical for me to say nothing against it – and disagreement does not make me a bigot, hypocrite, religiously superior, or even religiously coercive (not saying that you have accused me of this directly, but rather simply using myself as an example to serve as an advocate for those whom you directed these labels toward, who may not have deserved it). If I understand the articles you linked to correctly, the legislation that has taken place to curb the practice of animal sacrifice in India was brought about by the government of India. This may have been a response to outside pressure; but the decision was made within the cultural and regional boundaries where the sacrifice is practiced; and the decision to legislate was theirs to make. That does not necessarily make the decision itself correct (the laws passed by the US government against indigenous religious practices within its own borders comes to mind); but my guess is that there are Hindus who were involved in this legislative process, making the decision one made within the culture in question.

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      • So, part of my thinking is that Hinduism is really more of a collection of related traditions than a monolithic faith.

        Christianity isn’t really one faith, either. Taking anything animal-rights-related out of the issue, consider if Southern Baptists used their influence over politicians in the US to bring legislation to end the American Catholic practice of “confession.” We can imagine some reason why, but that’s not really necessary for my next question:

        Is this religious persecution? Is this religious coercion? They are, after all, all American Christians.

        As to your point about disagreeing with a practice — I think there is a world of difference between saying, “This is an example of something wrong with the world, and here is why it is wrong” and using that as a jumping-off point to say what people in your local religious community should or should not be doing, and going over to the church (or coven, or grove, or kindred or demos) down the street that you don’t belong to and pamphleting their place of worship with your particular views (not to say that you’d ever do this, but it is what I feel is going on in this particular region of the world).

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      • Confession – just using the example you provided – involves people, and does not require mass slaughter of any creature. As such, it would be unreasonable for the Southern Baptists to aggressively impede the Catholic practice of confession – no one comes to harm from this practice, and the practice requires the consent of all involved. I think this is where most of the activism is coming from when it comes to the animal sacrifice in India: people on one side are trying to support the advocacy of animal rights and welfare (whether they are aware or unaware of the potential hypocrisy this may expose them to); while on the other side are people advocating that the human right to worship in an established manner takes precedence, even if it means ignoring the rights of other creatures. This is a really profound and defining division; which is why I am happy for the chance to explore it the way we have in this exchange.

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  2. Also, as a point of courtesy, I’m letting you know that I edited my original post, since I changed my mind of a few things, and that I will be taking said post down entirely on Monday, since the post is entirely off-topic for my blog, and I’m trying to develop my blog as a place where I am curating useful information for my future reference.

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    • I appreciate not only this point of courtesy; but your courteous approach to discussing this issue within my own blog. I find it refreshing to be able to openly conduct a civil and articulate disagreement with someone – this is something that helps me to maintain humility, while allowing for a more thorough exploration of the given topic, and I do genuinely appreciate our exchange. I cannot suggest one way or the other what you do with your original post – I can only say that I think it led to an exploration of a topic that has been coming up more and more in Pagan circles (as well as elsewhere); and as such would have value and usefulness in its own right.

      Agree or disagree, I would certainly welcome more of your input here; and I will also follow your blog :-)

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      • Thanks a bunch. I agree that an ongoing and civil discussion about animal sacrifice in our local American communities of Pagans is important. Certainly, this has caused me, also, to think more deeply about the issue, and to become more nuanced in my thinking.

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  3. As the child of parents who farmed and hunted in order to feed us, I have a thought or two to contribute.

    As a child I ate: squirrel, rabbit, pheasant, dove, quail, partridge, goose, duck, chicken, bass, trout, salmon, blue gill, catfish, beef, pork, deer, snapping turtle, moose, elk, bear. I think that’s all of the animals we ate when I was small. Every last one of those animals was either a. raised by us or b. hunted by my dad or mom (or in the case of the fish, fished by one of us, kids or adults).

    I can tell you that when you know that animal was alive, and then you killed it, there is a different approach to the food entirely. When as a child I shed tears over the death of a farm animal, I was still expected to help with the butchering and the preparation of the food. I would never have dreamed of refusing to eat the meat (except liver, ugh to this day) because even as a child, without ever being told outright that it was so, I knew it was dishonoring the animal and its sacrifice to waste the food it provided.

    And it was the same for hunting. When you personally are responsible for the death of an animal, or one of your close family members was, and you can smell the blood of the beast, and you are removing entrails and washing them out for sausage casing later, it brings an entirely different view to the idea of meat and to food. Gratitude is one of the many feelings that spontaneously arises as you are prepping that enormous amount of food for later use, and gratitude remains as you use it up through the ensuing months. Gratitude to the animal, to the wights, to the deities you pray to, to your family for being good hunters/husbandmen.

    Feeding your family whether by hunting or by farming (or both) is a holy rite, a devotional work. It’s direct contact with the sacred. And trophy hunters will never ever get that.

    It COSTS those people a great deal to provide an animal for sacrifice, whether or not that resulting meat gets eaten. That is a mouth that they are feeding with no thought of a resulting meal on the table, for up to 4 years, that they are investing their resources into. They are doing it for the deity, marking out the best animal years in advance, taking extra special care of it, treating it as the holy vehicle for their prayers it will become.

    For us, it’s a few hundred dollars perhaps. For them, it’s the equivalent of a car that they are willingly sacrificing because they believe it will make their lives better and will reward them in the future with more cattle or wealth. For us to even begin to discuss this without consulting the people who are directly involved in and invested in this practice is just as shameful as banning the sacrifices was to begin with. It’s their deity, it’s their festival, it’s their livelihoods at stake, it’s their livestock, it’s their lives that are affected.

    You may disagree, but I felt like my two cents might be worth reading.

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    • You are absolutely right, your thoughts on this matter are certainly worth reading – my agreement or disagreement does not alter the value of your thoughts one single bit. And I happen to agree with some of what you wrote, and where it comes from. I do not see an open discussion of this issue as shameful, though – this is perhaps where I find the strongest sense of disagreement with your comment. The other point of disagreement that I find is in the description of how much the people sacrifice, just to bring their animal to the ritual. I do not dispute that the people involved have gone through great lengths to feed and care for an animal that has been set aside for a religious purpose. I simply do not see that as comparable to the unwilling sacrifice made on behalf of the animal. As humans in such a situation, we make the deliberate choice to sacrifice some of our livelihood in the name of religious expression. The animals involved do not. Instead, they are doomed to live out their final moments in an abject horror that amounts to torture. When we would say that the people involved must first be brought into any conversation about this topic, I think it is a greater shame that the animals are not always considered with equal weight. As such, I see no shame in anyone speaking their mind or heart when it comes to this.

      I also grew up in a hunting family – this is why I can relate to some of what you wrote. At the same time, I also knew people who became numb to killing animals with time. Even with my own self, as a kid, I can say that the second duck I killed was a lot easier than the first one. When it was expected that I would start hunting deer, I refused on the grounds that I didn’t want my comfort with killing things to graduate to a new level, and I hunted no more afterwards. My appreciation for the sanctity of life grew with that experience, where it had wilted before. When it comes to the mentality of someone who hunts or raises their own food, it’s been my experience that an entire spectrum of outlooks are present, and this is the reason why I’m skeptical of generalizing hunters. Even then, an ethical hunter takes precautions – training, practicing – to bring as little suffering to an animal as possible. A bone of contention I have is with a ritual of mass sacrifice, where officiates may not even be trained in this basic mercy.

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