I never trust any defense of suffering that is unconcerned for those who are doing the suffering

Peggy didn’t at first see the little mammal step in front of our van, its mouth full of sword fern. As we examined its corpse, we realized that she (for it was a she) had been a rare animal known as a mountain beaver, a member of the oldest rodent species on earth, one whose humble ancestors witnessed the end of the mighty dinosaurs. In an instant, her bowels had been ripped from her body, her blood splattered on the ferns she had dropped in a final moment of panic. The excrement that lay atop her viscera suggested that she would have needed a bowel movement soon, and this plus the evidence of her nest-building, reminded me that she was more like us than not. Peggy was inconsolable, and I could but stand with my hand on her shoulder as she petted its broken body and apologized though her sobs.

We camped at 4,600 feet in a field of daisies from which the land fell away steeply on three sides. A snow-capped Cascade peak stood to our east, an unnamed mountain a mile to our south, and the Coast Range on the western horizon. Darkness found us enjoying stars, planets, and the faraway lights of Eugene. The next day, we walked through meadows filled with bear grass (see photo below), but thoughts of the mountain beaver were ever with us. Peggy spoke of it as a tragic accident; I as evidence that most of our choices are, at best, of doubtful morality. But what are we to do? I can easily argue that it’s unconscionable to kill animals for their fur, but to argue in favor of staying home so that I might avoid causing death on the road... 

When our schnauzer, Wendy, came out of the woods one day looking enormously pleased with herself, we soon realized that she had the still warm corpse of a baby rabbit in her mouth. It was a case of innocence killing innocence. I was eight when I killed my first animal—a robin—and I felt guilt rather than joy, so much so that I had my Granny cook the tiny bird for my supper so that its death wouldn’t have been in vain. When I was a teenager, my girlfriend and I often bought boxes of KFC and ate them under the post oaks at Brookhaven, Mississippi’s Exchange Club Park. By then, I had become almost as amoral as my schnauzer, a state that allowed me to enjoy that chicken with unblemished joy. 

I’ve swung back, but what am I to do? Even vegans must kill, but the harm they cause goes well beyond that. Truly, our species  paints the earth with blood, and there is no way out. Someone said that if I care so much about saving the lives of “animals,” I had best kill myself. No, I thought, I had best kill you and a hundred others like you who don’t give a shit about anyone’s misery but their own. Better yet, I should kill the CEOs of companies that profit from death. (I would not have you take this as a serious proposal because to murder in the name of a reverence for life would be no less absurd than to murder in the name of a loving God.)

This same critic complained that people like myself think we’re better than everyone else, but my thoughts are more complicated than that. First, while a great many people bring more misery into the world, they still manage to live in greater consistence with their values, while I regularly act in opposition to mine. Second, while I consider my values in this regard to be more rational and compassionate than his, I don’t assume that they make me an all-around better person. Third, I renounce the arrogance of exalting our species—or our group within our species—as being at the forefront of virtue, so I try to avoid it. Do I succeed every time and in every way? No, but I’m aware that to fail is to alienate, and to alienate is to harden people, and to harden people is to make the problem worse.

What I can
t do is the one thing that my critic demanded, which was to agree that the killing of animals is morally acceptable for him because he can do it with a good conscience. This honor diversity approach to ethics removes ethics from a foundation of  bedrock and places it upon a foundation of wind. Could there be anything more absurd than an ethic toward other creatures that doesnt take their welfare into account no matter how inconvenient doing so might be for us? Such a human-centric value system sees other creatures as little better than inanimate objects.

The honor diversity approach to ethics rests upon how a given person feels about a behavior, rather than upon the impact of the behavior upon nonhuman (and oftentimes human) lives. Its so heavily focused upon an individual's feelings and desires, that my critic didnt even think to refer to the feelings and desires of the animals he kills. And why should he? If non-human animals have few if any inalienable rights, they might as well be inanimate, and why should anyone mourn for what amounts to a furry toaster on legs, except—as their detractors portray them—for those perennially angry women whose shrill voices beg for kindness to animals while caring not a wit for the problems of human children; and for their equally squeamish, tearful, bookish, and anemic male counterparts, whose failure to shed unnecessary blood proves that theyre not real men, for a real man isn’t content to simply shoot a deer, he must bathe in its blood, while snorting Jack Daniel’s, the "real man’s whiskey" from the Tennessee wilds, no less. It is the only initiation ceremony that most American boys will ever receive.

I am firmly in the camp of the critics. To repeat: our relationship to other animals is almost universally premised upon the belief that other animals have no significant rights, which means that the morality behind killing them hinges upon how a given person feels about killing them, and that no consideration need be given to the creatures that are being killed. My view is that some behaviors are always and everywhere shamefully and abominably wrong no matter how many people approve of them. For example, rape, slavery, gender and racial discrimination, the use of steel-jaw traps, female genital mutilation, the individual accumulation of unlimited wealth, killing in the name of God, over-breeding animals and destroying the excess, permitting the poor to die for a lack of healthcare, and the wearing of fur coats as a fashion statement. These things are all wrong all the time without exception.

While I don’t doubt that many people do many things with a perfectly good conscience, having a good conscience doesn’t make it okay to oppose dignity, freedom, and the right to live life as one thinks best. For a meat-eater to demand that a vegetarian say that killing animals is okay for those who think it’s okay is no different than for a Moslem to insist that, while mutilating the genitals of young women might be wrong in my culture, it’s okay in his, and he wants me to respect that. In the case of my meat-eating critic, I doubt that the cows he kills are interested in whether he kills them with a good conscience, and I
’ve yet to hear of a young girl who joyfully had her genitals mutilated so that her husband wouldn't have to worry about her having an affair.

Would I not be happier, though, if I was an up-with-people kind of guy and could go back to my KFC-in-the-park days? Yes, but what kind of person would wish to believe things that he honestly considers wrong? Here is how I see my species:

We are a singular species in that, except for those microorganisms that might evolve to the point that they threaten our existence, we rule the earth. So far, we have been able to survive all
that nature has thrown at us. I think that our degradation of the environment might change this, but it has been true so far.

We interpret dominance to imply superiority. Our attitude as a species is similar to the attitude of the U.S. as a country. In short, we could kill all of you foreigners. Sure, our culture and education is dropping ever deeper into the toilet, but, by god, we have more bombs than the rest of you put together. Hell, we could wipe the Middle East off the globe today if we wanted. Hence, we feel superior even though we keep losing wars. As we see it, we are God’s chosen nation, which is similar to how the human species regards non-human life. Because we have creative minds and opposable thumbs, we imagine that we are superior to every other life-form on earth. By exalting our gifts—both real and imagined—and deprecating the gifts of other species, we become as arrogant as a species as the U.S. is as a country.

Once we regard a species, a race, a gender, or an ethnic group as inferior, we can trample over their rights with a good conscience. I have a racist book—that I bought from a black preacher no less—entitled The Negro, a Beast or in the Image of God? The author’s answer could be found by looking at the many drawings of stooped, tuxedo-clad, ape-like black men with lechery in their eyes who were marrying refined, straight-standing, Aryan-looking white women. We take the same track with other species. We alone are in the image of God, therefore we can dispose of everything else without compassion. Too many unwanted dogs? Kill the mongrels even while breeding genetically inferior pedigrees. Bears and mountain lions forced to the outskirts of ever-expanding suburbs? Track them down and shoot them, or else tranquilize them and move them to the backside of the wilderness (which is pretty close to what white Americans once did to Indian Americans). 

By dismissing the worth of other people and species, we can bring untold misery into their lives with a clean conscience. March for civil rights in the morning and eat steak in the afternoon. Hear about justice and compassion in church, and go clothes-shopping for products made in sweatshops by yellow-skinned foreigners whom we regard as inferior to ourselves because they are yellow-skinned and work in sweatshops.

How is it that so few people make the connection between our unfair treatment of other species and our unfairness toward other humans? Life is life, and to imagine that our species, or our group within our species, is more worthy of life than all others is to  ignore facts that don’t serve our purpose. What I wish for us is that our eyes would open so we could see ourselves for what we are. What are we? We are the only species that can—or needs to—rationalize, and this enables us to live in a bubble of illusion that has grown so big as to threaten our existence. 

A major period of mass extinction is in progress, and the fact that we are to blame makes our imagined superiority absurd. We live by an un-falsifiable premise, namely that we are superior to all other species, no matter what we do. Just as Christians attribute goodness to God despite cancer, mosquitoes, malaria, Alzheimers, and the rape of children by clergymen; we attribute goodness to ourselves despite slavery, poverty, sex-trafficking, endless wars, denial of medical care, and preventable starvation. We imagine ourselves to be in the image of God, not because we are good, but because we want to surpass the criminally insane God of the Bible in terms of power, knowledge, and immortality. After we reach "his" exalted state, we can relegate him to the sort of second-rate comic book superhero that prepubescents discard at adolescence.

As for those strange-looking people who work in sweatshops, what is their dream but to come to America where they can be as exploitative as we are? We are not a good species; we are a species that has a largely unmet capacity to do good things. If we were a little more evolved, perhaps we could be a blessing to the earth, but as it is, we are a curse.

An attempt at further explanation as inspired by Philip and Linda

“Symbol Rock is on the divide between the McKenzie River and Fall Creek…It was used by the Indians for ceremonial vigils.” —from the 1,073 page compendium Oregon Geographic Names

Holy, sacred, numinous, immanent, spiritual, mystical, and transcendent, are words that few atheists use and that most hold in contempt because they are principally used to describe the supernatural. Because atheists deny the existence of the supernatural
—or anything else deserving of the word God—they regard such words as only descriptive of human experience, and, by refusing to use them, deny themselves the ability to express that experience, often holding that they are superior to it.

Just as oil and canvas are the vehicles of a Van Gogh painting rather than its essence, the essence of Symbol Rock is beyond
physics and chemistry. If I say that it is soaring, magnificent, breath-taking, and awe-inspiring, my words will be too tame, too generic, too low-flying. I prefer numinous, by which I mean that it GLOWS with a presence that rises immeasurably above my own in terms of beauty, grandeur, timelessness, and, sad to say, detachment. Sad, because I want Symbol Rock to care. I want Symbol Rock to need me, or to at least look forward to seeing me each year when the snows melt because then I might feel safe. But what am I to a 40-million year old basaltic intrusion (an intrusion is a subterranean body formed from magma and, where visible, later exposed by uplift or erosion)? Nothing, I should think, but I am comforted by my inability to know.

I recognize that my desire to believe that Symbol Rock cares about me is similar to my desire to have a dog reassure me that I
’m loveable and therefore worthy of survival. This is what people often seek from God. They imagine that if they pray enough, or help other people enough, or kill other people enough, God will love them and “…make all things work together for their good…” I too need a deity who cares, but I don’t have one. I do have Symbol Rock and its hundreds, if not thousands, of Cascade Mountain relatives. In most of the American states, any one of them would be a major tourist attraction, but because of Oregon’s abundant beauty and scant population, they are only visited by those few who are drawn to them in the same way that other people are drawn to cathedrals. I say, those few, but I’ve never seen anyone in such places. Once I rise higher than Oregon’s rivers, reservoirs, glacial lakes, volcanic lakes, and waterfalls, I seldom see or hear another person in the back country except on those unusual occasions when I visit the High Cascades. If there is heaven on earth, it exists in Oregon, but few people care enough to see it.
I would call Symbol Rock God, and I want my remains to rest upon it. But why God, why not Symbol Rock? Because only God seems adequate for it and for many other things—probably for all other things if my eyes were open to see it. If I were to think of it in lesser terms, I might as well call it Spot or Tippy. But isn
’t my species vastly superior to a mere rock by virtue of its intellect? Intellect is no more superior to Symbol Rock than a fart is to a typhoon. Intellect is but an evolutionary adaptation that’s inferior to many other adaptations, but Symbol Rock exists without fears, ends, or the possibility of loss. It represents Nirvana, a state in which there is no need for adaptation and no direction for evolution.

Even though we humans could use our intellects to grind Symbol Rock into gravel for our logging roads, this proves our deficiency rather than our supremacy. Like Bramha, Vishnu, and Shiva, Symbol Rock represents a universal power that creates, preserves, and destroys worlds. Like Jehovah, it represents the singular, the all-encompassing, the I AM THAT I AM. No less than the stars, it stands for pure being. Through it, I touch wonders beyond wonders, and I see my own fallenness, my own inability to rise above the low estate of being human. It tells me that the only way I can transcend myself is through death because this life is but a spark of temporal insignificance.

I often wonder if the American Indian blood that I inherited from my Granny makes a difference in how I see things. I just know I can be neither a good atheist nor a believer in the supernatural, yet to most people, there exists an obvious line between the two, and a person must stand on one side of that line or the other--or live in eternal doubt as an agnostic. I fit nowhere, but there is that within me which is like the pressure within a volcano, and I can no more deny its expression than I could plug Mt. St. Helens. It points to that which is greater than I, and while I can’t call it the supernatural, I must call it something.

On the love of Christ

Last week was awful and this week worse, what with being too nauseous to eat; too fatigued to be up; and too headachy to read, blog, or watch TV.  When I wasn’t actually asleep, I brooded over getting old, over the recent loss of a friendship (and my partial responsibility for its demise), and over my terror of the day that Peggy’s death or mine will separate us. I also grieved over the fact that my life has no “spiritual” dimension, at least none that includes people beyond this blog.

I was so sick that I went cold turkey on every drug that I dared, a state that lasted until yesterday when I finally felt well enough to do yard work. During my time in bed, Brewsky was acutely aware of my suffering but at a loss what to do, so he finally settled on walking into my room from time to time and staring at me. I did manage to read for a few minutes at a time from three books, one of which was Honest to God by Anglican Bishop John Robinson (1919-83), the cofounder of “secular theology,” which I think it would be fair to describe as follows:

“To believe in God as love means to believe that in pure personal relationship we encounter, not merely what ought to be, but what is, the deepest, veriest truth about the structure of reality. This, in face of all the evidence, is a tremendous act of faith. But it is not the feat of persuading oneself of the existence of a super-Being beyond this world endowed with personal qualities. Belief in God is the trust, the well-nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted,’ that Love is the ground of our being, to which ultimately we ‘come home.’”

I would ask Bishop Robinson the same thing I would ask Christ: if you and your neighbor have an infected tooth, and you can only send one of you to the dentist, and you love your neighbor “as yourself,” who do you send? I question that I’ve ever known a Christian who struggled over such decisions. I’m sure some have—Simone Weil and Dorothy Day, perhaps, and maybe one or two of you—but for the most part, such decisions don’t revolve around whose needs should be met but rather what luxuries one can afford for oneself and one
’s family.

I’m not saying that Christians are bad people (many are surely better than I), but rather that they live by an unrealistic standard that appears to have come to them through social inheritance rather than personal commitment. It seems to me that they are obliged to twist themselves into pretzels to rationalize their way out of obeying admonitions that I consider as clear as they are appalling. Yet, I was in my early twenties before I had my first hint that other value systems even existed, a realization that came to me by way of Ayn Rand and Frederick Nietzsche. Whatever their flaws, they expressed what I had long known to be true about myself, namely that my love couldn’t be freely given but instead had to be earned through my faith in the goodness of my beloved, particularly as it related to his or her commitment to me.

When I think of what it must be like to love as Christ commanded, my thoughts invariably go to Peggy because she is the only person with whom I don’t count the cost. For some of the people I know, I might go so far as to give a kidney, but to her, I would give all of my organs and consider even that an act of supreme selfishness because such is my debt to her whom I love more than I love myself. I have even asked myself if there is any amount of torture that I wouldn’t endure on her behalf, but I really don’t know because how could I claim the strength to voluntarily endure for so much as an hour when I’ve known what it was like to count the seconds?

But while many no doubt love as deeply—and as limitedly—as I, how can any of us claim to love everyone with the all-surpassing love with which Christ was said to have loved us, and to which it is surely the duty of all Christians to aspire? I cannot imagine that such a thing is even possible, but if it is possible, it would surely be a case of intellectual assent rather than deepest emotion. It would involve saying, “I will do this (whatever this is) because I know I should,” instead of, “I will do this because every cell within me says that my supreme good lies in it, and that by doing it my existence will be justified.”

When I was a Freemason, I took a vow that I would risk my life to save a brother Mason if there was more than an even chance that I could save him without dying in the process. I don’t know how many Masons would go even that far, but if the Bible is right that, in his mind, Christ freely died a horrific death for people he didn’t even know, then his love for us must have been similar to my love for Peggy. If such a love for humanity as a whole is even possible, I would be surprised, but if I have ever actually known anyone who could even love most of his friends—much less people he didn’t know—that deeply, I would be astonished. I simply know that I could neither do it nor even want to do it, yet it is just such a love that has given my life meaning.

This isn’t to imply that my behavior toward Peggy is worthy of the value that I place upon her, it being, perhaps, easier to spend a moment dying for someone than a year living for her. Truly, if I—being, as I believe, no worse than others—can’t succeed in loving one person well, and this after 43-years of practice (I am far from being modest), I can well understand why a Christian would beat his or her chest while crying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Though I am exceedingly rare among atheists for believing as I do, I agree with the
writer of Isaiah that,

“…we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”