Animal Welfare in World Religion by Joyce D’Silva

Book Review

Review by Barbara Gardner

In her new book, Animal Welfare in World Religion: Teaching and Practice, Joyce D’Silva examines what the five major faiths, in terms of their numbers of followers – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – and other world traditions say about our relationship with animals, and how our treatment of animals compares to their teachings.

Joyce points out the huge anomaly that over 80% of the world’s population claim to belong to a faith and that these faiths teach that all animals should be treated with respect and kindness, some saying that the divine dwells within all animals.  And yet, humans are responsible for huge amounts of animal suffering, in entertainment and laboratories, for example, but particularly in farming where 80 billion land-based animals and between half a billion to one billion farmed fish are raised and slaughtered every year for our consumption, most in cruel factory farm systems. In addition, there are over a trillion wild-caught fish consumed by us every year.  How can humans reconcile their practices with the teachings of the faiths they claim to adhere to?  Joyce takes up this challenge.

Joyce is particularly well placed to do this.  She is a former Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming, the leading farm animal welfare campaign group in the world, and is now its Ambassador Emeritus.  She has been awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Winchester and the University of Keele, and is the author of many books on animal welfare.  She is a patron of the Animal Interfaith Alliance.  Many authors have written about what their faith says about animal welfare and some have written books about what each faith says about animal welfare (see Books – Faith & Animals – Animal Interfaith Alliance (  What is unique about Joyce’s book is that she examines modern practices in our treatment of animals – in farming methods, wildlife and biodiversity, hunting and sport, caring for animals, diet and eating animals, slaughter and vivisection –  and compares them with the teachings of the world’s faiths.

Joyce examines why there is such a huge discrepancy between what the faiths teach about animals and how the followers of those faiths treat them today. This discrepancy is caused partly because people ignore or are ignorant of the teachings of their faiths, preferring to continue the practices handed down to them, rather than referring to the original texts and practising their teachings.  And it is partly because the literature of the faiths themselves are inconsistent, with texts having been built up over millennia by different people from different places and cultures.  Take Christianity, for example.  Not only were the books of the Old Testament written by many different people over many decades with many different views, but post Christian interpretation of the teachings have been varied and often contradictory.  The main books were selected by the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century AD to form the New Testament, but there were many other texts that were excluded, so we do not see the full reports on the life of Jesus in the New Testament.  Then, when it comes to animals we have two schools of thought. Firstly, there are the examples of the lives of the Saints, who lived with and protected animals, with their ‘Franciscan’ view of a sisterhood and brotherhood with the animals and the natural world, and secondly there is the ‘Aristotlean-Thomistic’ view which says that man is superior to other animals, as man has reason and a soul which animals do not have, and that animals are there for our use.  Today we have very unclear and opposing views in Christianity concerning our relationship with animals.  Unfortunately for the animals, the Aristotlean-Thomistic view has become dominant. These same contradictory views can be seen in Judaism and Islam for the same reasons, with some sections based on the lives of the saints and mystics, who practice kindness to animals and vegetarianism, and other orthodox sections who, for example, argue for slaughter without stunning.  In Hinduism we see sections who carry out mass sacrifices, such as in the Gadhimai festival in Nepal, and others who practice ahimsa and vegetarianism.  Our faiths have, in truth, offered us total confusion.  Probably the only example of a faith which is clear about how we should treat animals is the beautiful and ancient Jain faith, which promotes ahimsa that says that no animals should be harmed, so they do not farm, slaughter, eat or use them in any way.

But despite this, as Joyce points out, all faiths have wonderful teachings about how we should treat animals with respect and kindness, even if we are not prohibited from using them for food and other uses.  Joyce refers to these teachings in her book and provides important references for all faith practitioners.  I would strongly recommend that people read the book and become familiar with these references.

This is a modern book, which not only looks at the ancient teachings and practices of the faiths, but looks at the views of very modern theologians who are living in today’s world of mass animal cruelty, that the writers of the ancient texts could not have imagined.  Could the writers of the prescriptions on the most humane way to slaughter an animal for food in an ancient desert wilderness have had any comprehension of the factory farm of the 21st century?  Their prescriptions could have been very different if they had.  Joyce brings in the views of today’s modern theologians who can apply their faiths to today’s world – and she describes that world very thoroughly. 

But away from all the teachings and the dogma, I leave you with a quote from Saint Isaac the Syrian (613-700 AD) who, for me, sums up what faith is about – compassion: “What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals… and for all that exists.  By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pours forth tears in abundance.  By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation”.

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