A new movement of college professors are delving into how humans interact with animals through the lens of world religion. Courses are teaching that how we perceive our role in the larger ecosystem as well as the role of other non-hominid animals is largely peppered by religious upbringing. While this may not be a complete surprise to many of us – it is a viewpoint that is under-appreciated in higher education.
It bridges an important gap between the sciences and compassion and serves to shine a brighter light up less egocentric religions world-views than many experience in a largely Christian nation. It creates a robust educational environment that looks beyond the mundane and into the greater sphere of ethics and compassion in relation to fields of inquiry and science.
“Some students say they never even thought about animals and religion having anything to do with each other,” Hobgood-Oster says, but the course’s examination of animals – mainly through the beliefs of Christianity, Buddhism, the Lakota Sioux and market capitalism – changes that. “Students come to see how much religion tells humans about how to treat animals.”
The course also includes a week of discussion of the modern animal rights movement that developed following the 1975 publication of Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer, now a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and the writings of Tom Regan, now an emeritus professor of philosophy at North Carolina State University. Their work and the work of a few others, Hobgood-Oster says, sparked broader interest in animals outside biology departments that was first reflected in research and has slowly migrated into course offerings.
Students, she says, “say that more than any other course they’ve taken, this one leads them to question their basic assumptions” about life. “We break down that human-animal binary and allow students to consider that it might be a faulty assumption that humans are not more important than or superior to other animals.”
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