At the Compassion Consortium, we celebrate diversity. We believe every being brings a unique view to the community that we co-create when we gather together. So, each month, we publish an essay which provides a view from our community, a slice of one human's journey of compassionate living.
Animal Liberation, Atheism and Spirituality
by guest essayist Jon Hochschartner
Lately, I've found myself thinking a lot about M. Night Shyamalan's 2002 film, 'Signs.' For those who don't remember, the movie stars Mel Gibson (I know) as a former minister experiencing a crisis of faith after his wife is killed in a freak accident. Then aliens show up! The title refers both to crop circles and evidence of divine intervention.
Since my senior year of high school, when I became interested in leftism, I've been an atheist. I'm not sure whether it was reading about Spanish anarchists burning down churches during their country's civil war or repeat listening to John Lennon's secular anthem, 'Imagine,' but atheism seemed like the price of admission to the left.
So it might seem odd I've become somewhat obsessed with this movie about faith. Undoubtedly, part of the appeal is nostalgia. I saw the film in a Stone Harbor movie theater with my older cousins while on a family trip to the New Jersey shore. It brings to mind fond memories of boardwalks, hemp necklaces and boogie boards.
But the truth is, in recent years, I've become more interested in what might be termed spiritual matters. It might have been inspired by worries about the rising threat of fascism, the pandemic, or my child being diagnosed with autism. Whatever the case may be, I felt like I needed additional support.
I started by giving myself a permission structure. You can see this in an article I wrote for CounterPunch about Victorian anti-speciesists: "I can’t help but think contemporary activists hobble themselves by not positioning their cause as an extension of religious faith. Twenty-first century America is not nearly as Christian as 19th-century Britain. But it’s still very Christian, like it or not!"
This is the kind of thinking American communists adopted in the 1930s. Marxists at the time employed the slogan "Communism is 20th Century Americanism," which cast socialism as an extension of the United States' democratic ideals. For what it's worth, I think anti-speciesists would benefit from a similar effort to tie our cause to the national narrative.
Eventually, I started reading Eknath Easwaran, my mother's favorite spiritual writer. He appeals to me for a number of different reasons. Among others, he was a vegetarian, who was sympathetic to animal rights, my primary political concern. Additionally, he was open-minded in his approach, inviting atheists to interpret his teachings in their own way.
As ridiculous as it sometimes makes me feel, I've started meditating for a half hour every day. I repeat what's commonly known as the Prayer of Saint Francis, but was actually written by an anonymous author in the lead-up to World War I, silently in my mind. I don't believe all of it in a literal sense, but the prayer contains a lot of timeless life advice. It's also the meditation passage Easwaran typically suggests to Western audiences.
At this point, I guess I'm an atheist Easwaranite. If you want to define God in a pantheistic manner, as I understand Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein did, I could get on board. Frankly, though, such a definition is so vague it's basically meaningless. If everything is God, than nothing is, at least so far as what the concept is generally understood to mean.
If you're defining God as an all-powerful, all-good being who orders the universe, I just can't get there. The world is too flawed and I'm not simply talking about human affairs, such as war and factory farming. The most basic facets of nature, like starvation and predation, can't be seen as the will of a compassionate god. At least, I can't see them that way.
In 'Signs,' Mel Gibson's character offers the film's thesis statement: "People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance."
The ex-minister continues, noting that when group number one experiences hardship, they're comforted by their belief in a higher power. Meanwhile group number two feels alone and afraid. Despite my best efforts, I remain in the second group. I wish I was in the first! Maybe I'll get there someday.
Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter: A Biography of Ronnie Lee, Founder of the Animal Liberation Front, Ingrid Newkirk; A Biography of PETA's Founder, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He has written professionally for the San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, and Salon. He thinks the first two Strokes albums are pretty much perfect.
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