BOOKS: Kinship & Killing

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2010:

Kinship & Killing:
The Animal in World Religions
by Katherine Wills Perlo
Columbia University Press (61 West 62nd St., New York,
NY 10023), 2009. 256 pages, paperback. $27.50.

Kinship & Killing: The Animal in World Religions is
unfortunately more learned than readable, cutting back and forth
among the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism,
and scholarly commentaries with what might be dizzying speed if the
connecting passages were not plodding academic jargon. Hinduism is
mentioned in passing, but not discussed in depth, for reasons not
very clear.

Author Katherine Wills Perlo, says the back cover, “proves
that our relationship with animals shapes religious doctrine,
particularly through the tension between animal exploitation and the
bonds of kinship. She pinpoints four different strategies for coping
with this conflict.
“The first is aggression, in which a divinely conferred
superiority or karma justifies animal usage. The second is evasion,
which emphasizes benevolent aspects of the human/animal relationship
within the exploitative structure. The third is defense, which
acknowledges the problematic nature of killing, leading many
religions to adopt a propitiation mechanism, such as apologizing for
sacrifice. The fourth is effective-defensive, which recognizes
animal abuse as inherently unethical.”
But the 228 pages inside are more an exercise in counting
angels dancing on the head of a pin than useful illumination of the
central question. In truth, all four of the coping strategies that
Perlo outlines are so thoroughly intertwined and mutually supportive
as to constitute the strands of a single thread, stretching back
into the earliest written religious texts. Tenuously teasing them
apart does not really accomplish very much.
The problem remains: did religion ever really have any other
purpose than rationalizing human use and abuse of others, whether
animals, slaves, or other occupants of coveted land? Were
pro-animal prophets such as Isaiah, Mahavira, the Buddha, and
Mohammed actually representative in any way of the religious
traditions from which they came, and into which their teachings are
subsumed? Or, were they the dissident voices they appeared to be in
their own times, whose attempts to “reform” religion were really
attempts to reinvent it?
As the back cover again summarizes more succinctly than the
book itself, “As humans feel more empathy toward animals, Perlo
finds that adherents revise their interpretations of religious texts.”
Indeed, every cause revises readings of religious texts to
try to advance itself. But does this really mean that religion is
evolving, as Perlo seems to believe, or just that new uses are
transiently made of old tools?
History has amply demonstrated that the faithful are ever
ready and willing to pervert and ignore the teachings of any prophet
who teaches against the popular rationales for animal and human
exploitation. Perlo describes several of the ways in which this is
done, but so have many of the pro-animal prophets themselves, to
little avail in persuading those who were unwilling to be persuaded,
if becoming persuaded meant giving up meat.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.