Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed, by Kim Socha (Minneapolis-St. Paul: Freethought House, 2014, ISBN 978-0-9884938-1-0) 209 pp. Softcover, $20.00.
“Our religion,” wrote Montaigne more than four hundred years ago, “hath had no surer human foundation than the contempt of life.” No lives have been held in greater contempt than those of nonhuman animals, argues Kim Socha, in her zealous if sometimes unsatisfying new book, Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed. For Socha, author of Women, Destruction, and the Avant-Garde: A Paradigm for Animal Liberation (2011) and contributing editor to both Confronting Animal Exploitation (2013) and Defining Critical Animal Studies (2014), all religions are culpable, although Christianity is most often her target of choice.
Because religion is antithetical to any genuinely enlightened defense of animal rights, Socha’s first chapter focuses on the failure of religiously based animal advocacy. The problem is that such defenses invariably require cherry-picking passages from Scripture and subjecting them to what she dismisses as the misreadings of progressive revelation or the essentially secular arguments of liberation theology. Although such pleas may encourage the religious to think more kindly of nonhuman animals, they fail despite often “confounding” creativity, because each necessitates forcing religion onto the Procrustean bed of her book’s subtitle. “Despite the compassion behind them,” she writes, religious arguments “merely hack away at or stretch the parameters of religion to make animal liberation fit what is essentially an anthropocentric, spieciesist, hierarchical belief system that fails to speak to the liberation of nonhuman animals.” That most religions are also patriarchal, she adds later, helps not at all.
Socha waffles on the wisdom of making ad hoc alliances with “progressive believers” to forward the cause of animal emancipation—“I don’t think it has to be an either/or situation for everyone, even for me”—although she insists that the more ethical position requires “problematiz[ing] the role of religion” while forwarding an atheological argument. Such arguments are, however, in short supply, as “the corpus of secular thought” surveyed in chapter two makes clear, for even those who think they have liberated themselves from religion have not escaped the “cruel worldviews and mindsets embedded in religious doctrine,” views that have been “internalized” and so remain operative though unrecognized.
Unable therefore to take arguments to their logical conclusions, most secularists have failed to espouse the cause of animal rights strenuously or to act upon their lackluster sympathies by becoming animal activists and/or vegans. Because Socha has a penchant for digression, she adds that secular thought’s contamination by religious doctrine explains why not all atheists are “against the heterosexism, sexism, ableism, and racism that arise from religious traditions”—as though it were otherwise inconceivable that someone could be a secular homophobe.
Because even the most outspoken atheists (save Socha) have the germ of religion lurking inside them like some ideological Varicella-zoster virus, a review of their thoughts provides more opportunities to find fault than to forge alliances: Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are guilty of “logical slip[s]” that permit them to justify eating meat; atheist activists “have bought and swallowed the myth, perpetuated by all religions, that nonhumans are disposable bodies”; Peter Singer’s acceptance of animal testing that benefits humanity is reprehensibly utilitarian; professional skeptic Michael Shermer, in an article for Scientific American, is disturbingly “blasé” when admitting he is speciesist.
Socha acknowledges that there are people for whom animals may still be necessary as sources of food, transportation, and clothing, but this, she observes, is not the case in America or elsewhere in the developed world. We can get by nicely, she explains, without meat and dairy. Even medical research, she contends, no longer requires animal subjects (the proof of this assertion is accomplished in less than a paragraph), and we certainly can make do without using animals as suppliers of such things as wool and leather. Likewise, employing animals as entertainment or pets (however kindly we think we are treating them) is merely a shameful legacy of religiously sanctioned human exceptionalism.
So far, so good. One can quibble over how heinous it is to use dogs for therapeutic or drug-sniffing purposes, but Socha’s position is clear. What was less clear as I finished chapter 2 was that Socha’s argument had largely been made and that the remainder of it would arrive as had the points already summarized here: in bits and pieces tucked amid much else that, while interesting, isn’t the focused, sustained atheism-based animal-rights argument I had been anticipating. Although a third and final chapter remains, what it offers is a rebuttal of the idea that veganism is a religion, a rejection of the use of religion “as a conversion device” to woo others to veganism, and a comparison of animal-rights activism to other social-justice movements with “nonhumans as heirs apparent within the advancement of social progress.”
Socha’s agenda is an important one, and she has many compelling things to say, but, among other things, she is reluctant to make what strike me as useful distinctions. Reading Socha, one might think that grandma keeping a canary is as grievous an affront to all that is decent as the slaughter of thirty to thirty-four thousand hogs each day at the Tar Heel, North Carolina, Smithfield processing plant. Nor has Socha much interest in distinguishing the moral difference between the consumption of eggs and the large-scale lethal effects of habitat destruction, air and water pollution, human overpopulation, and climate change, all of which, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, help explain why “99 percent of currently threatened species [both plants and animals] are at risk from human activities.” Indeed, Socha might usefully have included “Veganism” in her book’s title, for convincing people of the wrongheadedness of consuming meat and other animal products seems her principal purpose and chief hope for improving the lot of nonhuman animals.
Additionally, Socha’s fondness for substituting assertion for argument often undermines persuasiveness: nutritionists who claim meat is a necessary part of one’s diet are dismissed as “a few notable individuals,” and Richard Dawkins’s refusal to give up meat means he is “thinking and eating like a Christian. . . .” Similarly, quoting Sam Harris’s contention that humans alone possess the capacity for “complex language,” Socha sneers, “according to Harris, it would seem Homo sapiens have divine favor after all, albeit in a lay sense.” By that concluding phrase, I take her to mean that Harris imagines he is making a secular observation when of course he is not; it seems not to occur to Socha that Harris, a neuroscientist, may in fact be voicing an informed (secular) opinion, or that perhaps he is simply wrong, or that he and Socha, two atheists, simply disagree.
The problem may be that Socha underestimates the market, politics, and popular culture as more immediate, powerful, and frequent influences upon our attitudes and behavior than is religion’s tacit anthropocentric approval of animal abuse.
Although marred by enthusiasm, Animal Liberation and Atheism is a usefully provocative book, one that often articulates its ideas memorably, as when Socha suggests that people stop “looking to the heavens” and look instead “at the research labs, [at] the slaughterhouses . . . in their closets, and on their plates when th
inking about living moral lives.” Socha will in large part fulfill her purposes if she encourages those who think their minds are made up to reopen the case. As for those of us who have not given animal rights much if any thought, she provides plenty of reasons to contemplate our moral and ethical shortcomings.