The Gospel According to PETA

The Gospel According to PETA

You know who PETA is, right? PETA stands for “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It is a radical animal rights organization based in the United States. They claim to be the largest animal rights group in the world with about 1.8 million members and supporters.

Even if you don’t know anything about them, you have probably heard about some of their shenanigans. They are very good at making headlines. Here are some that you may have seen in the newspaper over the past several years.

  • PETA Demands Tax Breaks For Vegans (The reason for this relates to the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.)
  • PETA Demands Closure of KFC Outlet
  • PETA Demands Marv Albert Remove Dead Animal From His Head (PETA believes that it is inhumane to kill an animal and wear it as a toupee.)
  • PETA Demands Rehab For Alcoholic Elephants
  • PETA Demands Withdrawal of Nike Commercial (It featured the NFL’s Denver Broncos which they considered to be the “unethical” use of an animal’s image).
  • PETA Demands Necropsy [animal autopsy] of Dead Siegfried & Roy Elephant
  • PETA Demands That Cockroaches Be Given Respect
  • PETA Demands “Rally Monkeys” be Banned from World Series (“Monkeys are not on this earth for our pleasure,” said PETA spokesperson Mae Cummings.)

PETA  was founded in 1980 and is based in Norfolk, Virginia. It is a nonprofit, tax exempt 501(c)(3) corporation with 187 employees. It is funded almost exclusively by the contributions of its members.

The primary thrust of PETA’s attention is focused in four areas. According to their literature, these are the places where the largest number of animals suffer the most. The four areas include: factory farms, laboratories, the clothing trade, and the entertainment industry. They also pay attention to certain other issues such as the cruel killing of beavers, birds and other “pests,” as well as the abuse of backyard dogs.

Their ultimate goal is to protect animals to the highest degree possible. And they not only want to protect the animals, they also want to change people’s attitudes and actions. To do this, PETA is involved in public education, cruelty investigations, research, animal rescue, promoting legislation, sponsoring special events, getting celebrity involvement, and developing protest campaigns.

Basic Beliefs of PETA
At this point, you may be wondering why we are dealing with PETA? What could they possibly have to do with worldview? They are not a cult, religion or philosophy – or are they?

Here are some of the things they teach.

  • PETA doesn’t believe people should use silk (comes from silk worms), wool (comes from sheep), leather (comes from cows), etc., because humans don’t have the right to take these things from other animals.
  • PETA doesn’t believe that people should eat honey (they claim bees are mistreated), drink milk (they say cows are mistreated), or eat meat (animals have to be killed).

The question then becomes: Where do these beliefs come from? While PETA is not a formal religion, everything they do is based on a set of beliefs which becomes a religion for those who are believers. In relative terms, there are only a small percentage of people who hold these beliefs. But in real numbers it is a significant group, and they are well financed. They also have some very high profile people on their side. This gives their message a much greater influence than would normally be the case for a group like this. And they tend to be very outspoken. You are bound to run into some of these folks as you live out your life. You ought to know what makes them tick.

Why Animal Liberation?
The philosophy of PETA is based on the concept of “Animal Liberation.” The core belief is that animals should have rights. Supporters believe that animals have an inherent worth that is completely separate from their usefulness to humans.

The bottom line in making this determination relates to the question of suffering. The main question for adherents is not “Can they reason or talk?” Rather, it is, “Can they suffer?” PETA believes that the capacity for suffering is the main issue which gives an animal the right to equal consideration with humans.

For them, suffering is not just another characteristic, like the capacity for language or mathematics. Certainly, the lower animals can’t compete with humanity on this front. But suffering puts all animals on equal footing. Each one has the ability to suffer in the same way – from roaches to humans. To the PETA crowd, whenever a human considers doing something that would interfere with an animal’s needs, we are morally obligated to take the animal’s situation into account. In the words of PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk, “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness, and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” In the words of PETA, “This is a social movement that challenges society’s traditional view that all non-human animals exist solely for human use.”

In the view of PETA it is prejudice which allows people to deny others the rights that we expect to have for ourselves. Their assertion is that whether it is based on race, gender, or sexual orientation, prejudice is morally unacceptable. We might all agree with them to a large degree regarding this statement.  But they go one step further and include species prejudice on the list. It is evident that this whole idea is based on a worldview belief that all living creatures are of equal worth in every respect.

The Worldview of PETA
If you were to talk to a PETA adherent and assert that they are following a religious belief, most of them would probably be very surprised and would likely deny it. But their core belief – the capacity of a creature to suffer makes all animal species equal – is the foundational basis for orienting the adherent’s entire life and thinking. That belief had to come from somewhere. And this is not simply a belief which is held in one’s head. It is a principle which directs a PETA believer’s entire life.

Let’s use the worldview categories and see how this is a religious phenomenon.

What Worldview does PETA Represent?
How PETA Answers the 7 Worldview Questions

1. What is the nature of ultimate reality?
While PETA does not lay out a formal doctrinal statement on this topic, we can deduce the answer to this question by what we do know. They recognize all animal life (human and other) as completely equal. The foundation for this understanding is that there is no God in existence to make any creature more special than another. Or if there is a God, he has not revealed himself to mankind.

2. What is the nature of material reality?
This topic is also not addressed directly, but we can infer the belief by looking at how they view the topic of life. The belief that all animal life is considered completely equal in value is an indication that there is no God to bestow special value on human beings. Or if there is a God, he has not bestowed special value on human beings. In any case, all creatures evolved to their current state in the same way. As a result of either of these approaches, material reality becomes a value neutral place.

3. What is a human being?
This topic is addressed by looking at the way PETA understands the nature of animal life in general. To PETA, human beings are simply one form of animal life among many. No single one has greater value than any other. That is, creature life in general is valued over the life of any particular creature. They even go so far as to accuse humans who think otherwise of being “species prejudiced.” Essentially, human beings are simply one of many equal forms of animal life.

4. What happens to a person at death?
This topic is not specifically dealt with.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
This topic is not specifically dealt with.

6. How do we know right and wrong?
Right and wrong are completely centered around the belief that all animals are completely equal. Regarding mankind, PETA believes that mankind has a particular responsibility to look out for lower animals because of our ability to self-consciously consider our place among the other animals, and to understand that all are equal. Moral right relates to doing good by all animal life and wrong is anything which would exploit any animal creature.

7. What is the meaning of human history?
This topic is not specifically dealt with.

From this evaluation we should be able to discern a pattern. Even though we don’t have answers to all seven questions, based on what we do know, PETA’s belief system appears to be based primarily on Naturalistic ideas.

Since they do not see themselves as a belief system, they do not spell out their foundational beliefs in a way that makes it easy to make this determination. But there are cues which lead us to this conclusion. The primary key that we can use to figure out the worldview foundation relates to how they look at the nature of animal life and their means of determining what is right and wrong. Neither of these elements look to any kind of transcendent source to determine their beliefs. It is strictly up to human beings to determine these things. This strongly points to a Naturalistic worldview foundation.

The Practical Implications of the Beliefs of PETA
The headlines above give us great clues as to how the belief foundation of PETA plays out in life. Here are some of the practical implications of PETA’s philosophy.

  • People must become vegans because killing animals for food is immoral.
  • It is immoral to make use of any food products which come from animals – meat, milk, honey, etc.
  • It is immoral to use any material which is derived from an animal because humans don’t have the right to take materials from them (ex. silk, wool, leather, etc.)
  • Humans must subordinate their own needs and desires for the good of other creatures.

What Is PETA’s Authority Foundation?

At this point, things get rather interesting. I had an e-mail conversation with a representative of PETA for the very purpose of getting an answer to the question of the authority foundation for their beliefs. I asked, “What makes your philosophy about how animals ought to be treated right and other beliefs wrong?”

The representative replied, “We operate under the simple principle that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment. … I would say that these views come from the collective ’us’, activists, philosophers, educators, and really anyone living responsibly in a moral society and considering how their actions affect others.” (As an aside, this reply is another strong indication of a Naturalistic point of view).

Basically what he was saying is that “we decided for ourselves what is right and wrong. Those who agree with us have joined our organization.” So, the authority foundation is based completely on the presuppositions of the people in the organization. They believe that their understanding of the nature of life is right, so they act based on that belief. Then, they do all they can to impose that belief on society in general.

What Evidence Exists for its Authority?
As we have seen, PETA only appeals to their own personal ideas as the foundational authority for their beliefs and actions. So the only thing which must be justified is why their beliefs should have precedence over the beliefs of others.

Under Naturalism, the underlying principle is the survival of the fittest. The ones who are able to impose their wills can control the actions of others. And this is PETA’s approach. They believe they are right and are trying to impose their beliefs on the world. Other than the organization’s assertion of the rightness of their beliefs, there is no other basis for declaring that this belief approach expresses the Truth about the nature of reality.

How Can We Evaluate the Viability of PETA’s Authority?
So, how can we evaluate the viability of PETA’s authority source? The bottom line is, there is no reason why their belief is any more viable or valuable than any other belief. There is nothing to commend it except the desires of those who wish it to be the prevailing view.

Interacting with a PETA Believer
While philosophically PETA, as an organization, seems to fall into the Naturalistic category, it is very likely that you will find many individual adherents who claim to be believers of some more recognizable religion or belief system. This is possible because we human beings are quite capable of holding contradictory beliefs within our lives.

As an example, some who claim to be Christians might be drawn to PETA simply because they don’t like the animal cruelty that they saw on a TV show. These folks might not initially even know the beliefs which inform PETA’s activism. But once they are drawn in, the beliefs are absorbed more and more until, at some point, they completely buy into the PETA doctrine.

Because of the fact that PETA does not see itself as a “belief system” they are not concerned with being philosophically consistent. They have simply decided that what they believe is right and they follow that belief. And they have been somewhat successful in convincing others that this is the truth.

Since PETA has its focus on actions regarding animals rather than the beliefs which inform those actions, there ends up being a huge range of beliefs among the individuals who identify with the organization. As a result, those of us who wish to interact with one of these folks to share Christ are going to have to work primarily at an individual level.

Of course, it is essential to first know the worldview beliefs which inform the actions of the organization. This is necessary because that is where you will find their basis for valuing lower animals as equal to human beings. You must know where this philosophy runs counter to the truth.

But that is not enough. It is also necessary to focus on dealing with individual adherents in order to see how much of the PETA philosophy they have personally bought into. Once you know where individuals are, you are in a position to show them that the basis of their faith is weak, and can share how they can know Christ.

PETA is not a belief system in the traditional sense. But it is based on a set of beliefs which is completely contrary to Biblical faith. By understanding what this false belief system is based on, we are in a position to share Christ with a particular group of people who tend to be far from him.

© 2008 Freddy Davis