Go Ahead, Beat Your Dog—If You’re Christian

Gregory Paul

Lots of really bad things happen to what people often used to call dumb animals. Consider a documentary I recently viewed about a small East African river during an extended drought. The program was horrific. The fish first died off in the shrinking pools. Later to die were the crocodiles that had been dining on the former until the riverbed was dry. Meanwhile, the surrounding fauna agonizingly started to starve or die of thirst. The elephants helped out for a while by digging for water, but that too ran out. Even the clever baboons went belly up. By the end of the damned program, I was way depressed. That never happened on the sanitized Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom when I was a kid.

Lacking police protection or health care, wild animals live in anarchy because no creator has offered them the basic protections decent humans provide their pets. But captive animals also suffer all too often, as documented by the string of ads begging for money to aid the abused dogs, cats, horses, and so on.

But we don’t really have to worry about that after all. Why? Because, as the infamous Christian apologist and debater William Lane Craig explains, animal suffering is obviously not important. It cannot be seriously bad, Craig argues, because the perfect creator god allows it… .

There’s a second level of pain awareness which sentient animals have, which is experience of pain. And animals like horses, dogs, and cats would experience this second-level pain awareness. But they do not experience a third level of pain awareness, which is the awareness of second-order pain, that is, the awareness that one is oneself in pain. For that sort of pain awareness requires self-awareness, and this is centered in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, a section of the brain that is missing in all animals except for the higher primates and human beings. And therefore, even though animals are in pain … they are not aware of pain, and therefore they do not suffer as human beings do. … The problem is that we humans are so often guilty of “anthropopathism”… we treat animals as though they were human beings … But … God in his mercy has spared the animal world the experience of suffering such as human beings exhibit.1

Taken to its logical conclusion, Craig’s bio-moral theory means that if you regularly beat the hell out of your dog or otherwise severely abuse it, that’s okay, because the beast is not smart enough to really suffer. Also, if it’s morally acceptable for our flawless creator to torment literally trillions and trillions of animals throughout the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras, then what’s wrong with God’s most special creations doing the same thing, albeit on our smaller human scale? If it’s good enough for God, then by God it follows that it is fine for us too. And don’t imagine that Craig is out of line with core Christian doctrine. The Bible explicitly gives man dominion over animals, and only one passage (Proverbs 12:10) bothers to note that it’s good to be nice to animals one owns—unlike the extensive notes on, say, how Judeo-Christians should treat their slaves. After all, animals lack immortal souls, so why worry about them all that much? Only as modern secularization took hold did animal rights become a prominent cause. Nor is it an accident that members of the religious Right tend to be mostly opposed to the animal rights movement.

As it happened, perhaps too startled to fully comprehend Craig’s sick depravity, Stephen Law, Craig’s opponent in the debate during which he made these statements, did not offer a direct counterargument. So I shall do so here. Before doing so, I must note that Craig also said that his theory on animal suffering offers “a tremendous comfort to those of us who are animal lovers like myself, or to pet owners. Even though your dog or cat may be in pain, it really isn’t aware of being in pain, and therefore it doesn’t suffer as you would when you are in pain.”

Note that Craig implies he does not have pets. That may explain a small bit of his twisted inanity. How many of you atheists who do or have had in your charge a dog, cat, horse, or the like, think that when your beloved creature is experiencing pain that it just is not really “aware” of it?

Craig, who knows far less about animal biology than his empathy-deficient frontal cortex thinks it does, is living well back in the last century, a time when some accepted the over-the-top thesis proposed by the likes of B. F. Skinner that since we can’t really tell what’s going on inside the brains of animals, we may presume they are automatons. When you think about it, that is a very odd idea, and fortunately it has pretty much collapsed. Among other things, it violates evolutionary theory, in which the capabilities of animals, including mental capabilities, are gradations between taxa. Also, Craig is off base when he says only higher primates have a possible brain capacity to suffer. There is good observational evidence that the big-brained elephants have some awareness of death—they have an inordinate fascination with fellow elephants’ remains. The surviving dinosaurs, birds, often show indications of high-level intelligence. Very likely the awareness of suffering goes pretty far down the tree of animal evolution, and for all we know may include fish.

So here is the rejoinder that I wish Stephen Law might have offered. William Lane Craig and all of you who believe that a creator made this agonizing world, what is wrong with you? Actually, that’s obvious—wanting to imagine that a creator is going to aid and save your sorry butts, you will try to come up with some sort of excuse for anything it does, no matter how cruel and heartless, and then justify it as part of His Glory and Love for humans. In this sickening scheme, we human souls are so important that the process of deciding our fate warrants the tremendous suffering of creatures great and small. It’s disgusting. And as I will show in a subsequent column, that suffering is also biologically unnecessary. So, William Lane Craig and the rest, a challenge to you all. If you cannot come up with a really logical and truly decent explanation for animal suffering, would you at long last admit that your “God of Love” does not exist?

To be fair, I am not trying to take some grand moral high ground here. If you are an atheist who, like me, eats dead animal carcasses, then you cannot claim anything resembling moral perfection. I merely maintain that the suffering of animals is a direct, overwhelming, and screamingly obvious contradiction to the ridiculous notion that there is a good god. The suffering of animals is, however, compatible with the existence of a really nasty creator god. As it is with natural evolution, which does not know better.



  1. I do not make this stuff up. See www.reasonablefaith.org/does-god-exist-the-craig-law-debate for transcripts of Craig’s October 2011 London debate against humanist philosopher Stephen Law.

Gregory Paul

Gregory S. Paul is an independent researcher, analyst, and author. His latest book is The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs (Princeton University Press, 2010).

The suffering of animals is an overwhelming, screamingly obvious contradiction to the ridiculous notion that there is a good god.

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