Suffering > Blustering

After a leave of absence and a bout of stomach virus that has left me completely useless for the better part of a weak, I have been shaken out of my stupor by one of the most inane pieces of journalism I have ever had the misfortune to witness. In an opinion piece for the Telegraph website, Cristina Odone opines that our humble livestock are now more important than our Jewish and Muslims citizens. My entire response could simply be strangled cries of “category error!” followed by a string of meaningless typed gibberish created by the unhappy meeting of forehead and keyboard, but I shall attempt to be slightly more eloquent.

 If John Blackwell, soon to be head of Britain’s vets, gets his wish, ritual slaughter will be banned. Blackwell, you see, is worried about the pain that animals might feel if they are not stunned before they are butchered. He is not worried though about the millions of Muslims and Jews whose religion dictates that they eat only animals that have been killed in a particular way.

It should surely be unsurprising that a vet is more concerned about the suffering of animals than religious dictates. Indeed, anyone would be well within their rights to question the wisdom and morality of any religion that demands an appropriate level of suffering be inflicted upon a creature before it can be ingested. How much respect can a belief system that prizes tradition over material realities like pain really be afforded?

Halal and Kosher butchers have for millennia practised a ritual slaughter as part of their religious tradition. It is a hygienic way of butchering animals which consists of slitting their throats and allowing them to bleed to death. Not for the faint-hearted, but religion seldom is.

For millennia humankind felt no compunction to keep their faeces out of their food. The age of a practise has no bearing on its legitimacy, and in fact the trend is often the opposite. Astrology, trepanning and the owning of slaves all have a long history, but few would argue that they ought to be respected one the basis of their age (astrology’s ubiquity notwithstanding). Hygiene is not the primary concern as far as the morality of animal slaughter is concerned. Leaving aside arguments against the eating of meat and accepting that we are going to slaughter animals for food, the suffering of the livestock in question is surely more important ethically than how hygienic a method is. This is really a red herring, as the cleanliness of kosher slaughter is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Methods involving stunning are at least as clean and safe as kosher slaughter. As for the final line, I would remind you that Odone is discussing Judaism, not a rollercoaster. 

In a culture where animals matter more than people, and a lot more than religious people, halal and kosher are verboten.

Ours is not a culture in which animals matter more than people – but it is a culture in which animals matter. If what Odone writes were true, we would think nothing of abbatoirs full of people hanging from hooks, quietly and consciously exsanguinating. This is Odone’s category error. Her assertion is only correct if we equate a person with their “deeply held religious beliefs. In reality, it is perfectly simple to respect a person while giving no regard to their unfounded assertions. Rephrased, the true situation concerning the banning of religious animal slaughter is thus: In a culture where animals matter more than antiquated and baseless religious beliefs, halal and kosher are verboten.

Let the Danes stamp all over deeply held religious belief in the name of a calf. Who cares about the Koran or the Torah when it comes to soft furry creatures?

Credit to Luke Hecht, president of the University of Edinburgh’s Humanist Society for the perfect response to this – restate the last line without sarcasm and you have my position. 

Once this precedent is established, circumcision — another religious ritual practised by both Muslims and Jews — will be banned. 

Not only is this a textbook slippery slope fallacy, I don’t see the problem. While adult circumcision ought to remain legal, infant circumcision is the amputation of a body part without the consent of the patient for a non-medical reason. Protestations of its AIDS-defying efficacy are pointless, as this is not the specified reason for the surgery – it is about following God’s rules. Any “anger and upset” felt by Jews and Muslims barred from having bits cut off their children must be weighed against the child’s right to bodily autonomy and integrity. Removing nebulous, faith-based ideas from the equation, the balance swings violently in the direction of the rights of the child. Thus, Odone attempts to scare-monger by threatening an outcome that seems all too reasonable.

Banning a religious ritual because an animal may (who knows) feel some pain before its killing, is a nonsense value. It prioritises the animal over the human, and the four-legged over the pious.

Rene Descartes, in one of his more deranged religious investigations, held that humans were uniquely ensouled and therefore unique among animals in possessing self-determination. Conversely, non-human animals were mere automata, incapable of sensation and simply obeying physical laws. This led to a resurgence in vivisection, with misguided scientists dismissing animal suffering as an impossibility. The illusion of pain was exactly that. Thankfully, we have learned better. We know now that cows, pigs, and other animals involved in the meat industry, while they may lack the range or intensity of feeling that humans possess, certainly can suffer and suffer horribly. Odone’s snide “(who knows)” is a weasling attempt to cast doubt on the verifiable fact that stabbing a live animal in the throat and inflicting upon them a slow death by blood loss will cause them pain. The label “nonsense value is misapplied, as the truly nonsensical consideration in this argument is value of a ritual from centuries ago that is bestowed with significance because “God said so!”. Countless religious rituals have come into collision with brute reality and lost – staying within Judaism, the cleansing of women after childbirth or menstruation is generally no longer demanded except in the most Orthodox sects – and I see no good reason why kosher slaughter shouldn’t join these on the scrapheap. Odone has certainly failed to make even the most superficially convincing argument for her case, and I still can’t decide whether to be disgusted or amazed at the depth of her failure. 

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