A few years ago I picked up a pamphlet introducing Islam from a street stall. After reading the first few pages I thought that if you replace the word “God” (or “Allah”) with the word “nature” you could be introducing Humanism.
This week I had a twitter conversation with a Humanist who clearly rejected any notion that religions and their practices were rooted in the same humanitarian principles as his (dare I say, “religion?”). I tested him. The very concept of God, Our Creator, Our Provider was enough for him or her to erect a very high and impenetrable barrier.
I strongly believe that Humanists should do not this. Towards the end of this post I develop this. With or without a belief in God there is common ground at a spiritual level.
The religious tract was describing how Islam should relate to the natural world and care for it. All religions have at their heart a similar foundation. Some, Jainism, take the respect for life very seriously indeed. Why, I wonder, do Humanists assume that belief in God or a god is incompatible with Humanism?
Many humans kill animals to eat and have done for many a century or indeed millennium. It is clear from what we know of Bible times that the peoples of the Middle East and probably Europe generally must have had a concept of the sanctity of life. The pyramids, the Coliseum in Rome, Greek architecture and other evidence testify to the prophets, the seers, priests and the like were not stupid. We cannot but assume that they also worked out what was a good way and what was a bad way to prepare food and especially the meat they chose to eat.
I think that we can assume that they had no idea of bacteria but for sure they would have worked out when bad practice created public health hazards. Casually discard the inedible remains of a carcass and you invited rat infestations and a whole host of infections – dysentery and so on. They would almost certainly have worked out what was not good meat to eat – that is meat from diseased animals and those whose death they did not understand. A good test of a healthy animal was its being conscious, alive and kicking as it were.
Martin Henig, in his “Religion in Roman Britain” (Routledge; New Ed edition (5 July 1995)), describes how the people of Britain would have had feelings of guilt when killing. At least those associated with cults. Cults, sects and religions would have been led by priests who passed their knowledge on by word of mouth through initiation ceremonies – rote teaching with incomplete understanding. From that we get rituals.
If we look at this from a Muslim perspective and their belief in a Creator God, The Provider of Life, a Supreme Being (a philosophical construct indicating that there is something much bigger than me or oneself and people generally that inspires us to develop a sense of community and common good) these feelings of guilt are manifest in a prayer at the time of killing for meat. The prayer, the Bismillah, is intended to thank Our Maker for His bounty and more importantly perhaps seek forgiveness. The slaughter process briefly connects man, a beast and God in the correct environment.
Of the kill itself the correct procedure will inflict minimal if any pain. This is achieved by using a carefully sharpened knife and a single swift cut that creates a catastrophic drop in blood pressure leading to rapid unconsciousness, which may be preceded by a brief period of wooziness. Everything that can be done to eliminate discomfort is done. No doubt poleaxing was deemed to be a rather hit and miss procedure (and its modern forms may well still be so).
Jews have really mastered the skills to sharpen the knife without nicks and blemishes to avoid tearing tissues and cause pain. One the most acclaimed experts is Dr Temple Grandin, who was interviewed here:
There is a proper way and a proper place for so-called religious slaughter. My own research suggests that it does not scale up well. It’s doable but needs careful design of facilities and properly trained personnel. But let’s not kid ourselves into religiously believing that so-called “humane” slaughter in perfect. It’s a very secretive world. Operators are often desensitised. It’s a grim task. Many may well resort to fun and jollity as a coping mechanism.
For sure the Islamic requirement for the slaughterer in effect to confront His Maker and the animal whose life is about to be taken simply isn’t possible – certainly not for chicken, which are killed in huge numbers.
As I see it this is very much in line with Humanist principles are actually not far removed from Islamic principles. Both want to see and expect humane rearing and as humane a death as is possible. Reality may be far from expectation for both. Industrial scale halal forces stunning because not to do so would be unconscionable. Humanists assume that their rituals are foolproof when it may be an awful lots worse than the industry wants to admit to. Even RSPCA, yes RSPCA, accredited facilities have been caught out by undercover Animal Aid filming. Two Soil Association approved slaughterhouses have also been exposed. That Animal Aid captured examples bad practice is significant. They film over very short periods and would be unlikely to witness rare incidents.
Where Humanists and Muslims differ is in their belief on a God or Creator. That’s fine but if humans feel guilty for taking life – and if they have a concept of sanctity of live they will do – who or what do they confront to seek forgiveness. If it is a matter between them and the animal or bird they are about to eat they have to confront the animal when it is still alive and is conscious.
Without a process not dissimilar to the proper halal process Humanists effectively treat their meat as a commodity.
My Twitter conversation ground to a halt when I introduced this argument. The barrier was well and truly reinforced. Of course developing this argument of in chunks of 140 characters is impossible.
I post here because there is a need to have an open discussion without barriers and preconceived, fixed ideas. At this point I have to get some matters off my chest. I discovered recently, in part after gatecrashing a Liverpool students union debate on the subject via its twitter feed, that many veterinary students learn from the Daily Mail (or their Christian vicars) that Islam is evil and therefore halal slaughter is wrong. They are not taught how it works and its context. They in turn inform our political leaders. The intellectually blind and leading the intellectually blind, so to speak.
I will close with this thought. Humanists need others to have a God in order to justify their non-belief and they would invent God if there wasn’t one in order to define their spirituality.