That is a question I've asked myself and thought a lot about. AR and fundamentalist religions certainly share a lot of attributes. They both proselytize, often obnoxiously. They often both view the "unbeliever", the "heathen", or the "pagan" as some how morally and ethically inferior to themselves. They both involve adhering to some sort of self-denying dogma. For the fundamentalist Christian, this dogma may involve abstinence from things such as alcohol, dancing, or sex. For the ARA, this dogma manifests itself as veganism. Like the "religious right", they often seek to make their own personal beliefs a matter of public policy enforced by the power of the state. And most frightening, like militant, fundamentalist Islam, AR has its extremist zealots that are all too willing to engage in violence and terror tactics in order to get others to bow to their beliefs.
With there being so many similarities between AR and religion, I began to wonder if anyone had actually studied this in an academic or professional way. Sure enough, that is indeed the case. In 2000, a paper entitled Every Sparrow That Falls: Animal Rights Activism as Functional Religion was published by Wesley V. Jamison, Caspar Wenk, and James V. Parker in the journal Society and Animals. In this study, the authors found that AR activism functioned as a form of religious belief in the lives of activists. The authors used Yinger's typology of functional religion as a standard and analyzed how well AR beliefs met the criteria for functional religion of that typology. The criteria for functional religion in Yinger's typology are as follows:
- Conversion experience
- Cult ( collective meanings expressed as symbols and rituals )
The study found that AR meets all five of these defining criteria. Interviewees that participated in the study recalled having "formative events" in their lives that lead to their conversion to AR ideology. Converts, in turn, form communities as they seek out the company of those who share a similar set of beliefs. The authors also found common beliefs among ARAs that add up to a functional creed, or system of beliefs. Among these beliefs are the following:
- Assertion of the moral righteousness of the movement
- True belief necessitates proselytizing/evangelism
- Human use of animals is wrong and is not necessary
- A belief in the moral "goodness", as opposed to the moral neutrality, of
- The belief that suffering is always "evil" and the alleviation of suffering
is always "good".
The study also found that AR, like religion, involves a code, or a set of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors that are to be followed by the believer. In other words, legalism or dogma. As I hinted at before, in AR, that code is veganism. Finally, we come to cult, or the use of rituals and symbols. Participants in the study reported that how at AR meetings, participants would talk about themselves and their failures to keep the code ( like a confession of "sin" ) in a ritualistic manner. Much like a profession of faith in religion, participants also noticed the importance of personal profession of beliefs in AR. The study also found that many ARAs also used symbols such as pictures of animals being used in research, much like religions use symbols. An ARA may identify to such a picture as a symbol of "unnecessary" animal suffering in much the same way that a Christian identifies with the cross as symbol of Christ's suffering.
I found this study to be quite fascinating. It confirms much of what I have long thought: although the AR quasi-religion lacks the spiritual deity of traditional religions, it has almost all the other hallmarks, from evangelism to militant fanaticism. To read this study, go here.