A few weeks ago, as part of my post called “On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism,” I examined a couple of quotes from atheists, which I had once liked, in a misery-loves-company sort of way. One of these passages was by Richard Dawkins, who has become, I think, the leading spokesman for atheism as a laudable, desirable, even necessary ideology, one to which he seeks to win converts through writings, personal appearances, and selling atheist-logo tee shirts.
In rereading the Dawkins excerpt, I was rather surprised to see how much of his case for there being no God rested on the observed suffering inherent in the animal world, where the contest between predator and prey propels the evolution of species, which here on Earth has led to thinking creatures that may view the process with pity, anguish, and dismay. Dawkins cannot forgive God for doing it this way, and denies His very existence as a consequence. He would rather have no God than what he sees as a cruel God. He cannot reconcile his innate sense of a loving God with the facts of the biological world. In a sense, he is rejecting his Father for cruelty to animals.
Without denying the truth of animal suffering, I usually just try to put it out of my mind and avoid it. I eat meat. I love to eat meat, I might even say; though I do it without thinking about what I am eating or how it came to be on my plate. This is a rather unnatural situation. Until very recently the slaughter of animals was not hidden, so almost all people were either involved in it or witnesses to it. I even killed some chickens at my grandparents’ as a boy, and the image brought to my mind by the expression “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” is vivid and rather disturbing.
We can also note that there is a wide gap between the hunter and the non-hunter in the industrialized world. I was struck by this a few minutes ago when looking at a picture on the internet of the governor or Alaska, Sarah Palin, newly announced as John McCain’s running mate, posed, along with her younger daughter, with the very bloody carcass of the caribou she had just shot. The sight is almost shocking to this city dweller, though I have seen plenty of kills in my younger days. Does our move away from killing represent progress or an evasion of our nature?
From recent occurrences in my life, I can’t help thinking that I am being forced to consider more deeply animal suffering and the cruelty of nature. First there was the Dawkins quote itself, which just came into my mind back when I wrote the post referenced above. I hadn’t thought of it in years; and, when I started to look for it, the only part I could remember was the “universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose,” not recalling what those “precise properties” were supposed to be. Then on my recent visit to Texas my mother several times referred to the cruelty of nature as witnessed by the vicious gang-pecking of birds in the tiny aviary of the assisted living facility she lives in.
But all that was nothing compared to what I experienced a couple of nights ago. I was awakened sometime in the night by what I at first thought was a cat fight. I mean with real felines; and not the preliminaries, but when they are really going at it tooth and claw. That was more or less what it sounded like, but with only one cat. That sound became mingled with a heart-rending cry of pain or call for help by what I took to be a young animal of some kind. It might not have been young, and I can’t for the life of me decide what kind of animal it was. I think I can eliminate any domesticated animal though. It did not sound like a dog or cat of any age. It sounded a bit like a wounded rabbit, but softer, less raspy, and terribly plaintive, as though calling for a parent to come to the rescue. Could it have been a squirrel? We have lots of those, but it was a far different voice from any of the sounds they make ordinarily.
After the cat-fight sound had ended, the cries of pain or for help went on and on at several-second intervals. Two or three more times, spaced at five or more minute intervals, the original cat-fight sound resumed, once or twice accompanied by a rustling of leaves or undergrowth that seemed to be made by a fairly large animal.
What was going on? Was there some kind of cat and mouse game in progress, where the predator animal would release the prey animal and then capture it again? Was the wounded, scared animal in some sort of hole that the predator animal was trying to get it out of? Did the prey animal garner the strength and desperate courage to fight back or attempt escape at intervals?
Perhaps it was a cat with a young squirrel, but there was no yowling mixed with that hissy attack sound I heard. We have raccoons around, but I’ve never heard one sound like that. Could the prey animal have been a young raccoon? Again I’ve never heard one sound like that. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard any sound from a raccoon. We also have possums and skunks in the neighborhood, but I suppose the possum would have fallen into its playing possum state and we would have smelled a skunk. The predator animal almost sounded birdlike. Do owls make such noises? Obviously, I’m mystified.
I went to the window to look out into our back yard but couldn’t see anything. I think it may have been happening on the other side of our back fence in a neighbor’s yard. My wife, who had been half asleep, was finally awakened by one of the cat-fight sound outbursts, but she was spared hearing the other pitiful cry. Finally, mercifully, all sounds stopped.
I lay awake a long time after all the sounds of the night had ended. It was almost as if I were being tested. So, you think it’s easy to dismiss Dawkins’s position, do you? Or perhaps I was being told something. I have certainly been compelled to think about animal suffering more.
I’m far from being knowledgeable about all the world’s religions, though I know there is a great deal of overlap in their teachings of right and moral conduct. Still, it seems to me that Christianity is more accepting of suffering than any of the other religions; not that it necessarily has a ready and satisfactory explanation for the inherent suffering in the world. The Fall only deals with stepping over the threshold from blameless animal to human being, as I read it. But Christianity posits the unjust suffering of Jesus, deemed God incarnate, as having been essential for the redemption of the world. Perhaps there is some deep connection between God and suffering in the world that Christianity has discovered. Try as we might, can we separate love from suffering in this world?
Simone Weil believed that it was only through suffering and fully recognizing how terribly contingent our position as creatures in the material world is that we are able to reach across the infinite distance that separates us from God. I don’t feel that is true, but these cries in the night have set my my mind off in the other direction. I’m wondering, and not wanting it to be true, if God is not crucified continually in Creation; if that is not the necessary condition for Creation; and if the cries of that animal in the night, and all such cries, are not a sign and measure of God’s love.