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Soul Searching: From Roman Catholic to Secular Humanist

By Kevin Saldanha, DVM, BVSc&AH, MVSc
Mississauga, Ontario

I have been a companion animal veterinarian for more than 20 years and a practicing Roman Catholic for most of my life until about five years ago.

Deep In ThoughtImage by D.Hilgart via Flickr

My journey away from Catholicism and organized religion to atheism and now secular humanism was via a dietary change to vegetarianism coinciding with a quest to understand the after-lives of animals. It was through a discussion about having a 'Blessing of the Pets' at our local church that I started questioning my concept of 'soul' and how that applied to animals.

The parish priest was reluctant to allow a "St. Francis of Assisi" type blessing because of an incident at another church where a pet owner wanted her poodle to partake in the Eucharist and receive Holy Communion after the blessing. After acknowledging that it was inappropriate, I suggested that only a very passionate pet owner would want the similar blessings of communion for her closest companion.

He argued that the dog could not have benefited in any tangible way because it did not have a 'human' soul. A discussion ensued as to the difference of animal and human souls which left me more confused than before. Until that time, I had never questioned that animals had a similar after-life to humans, where we would all meet up once again, being whole and healthy as described in the comforting poem 'The Rainbow Bridge'

A few months before this conversation, I had chosen to follow a vegetarian diet while trying to follow a healthier lifestyle. Until then, I had not considered the after-lives of animals we breed, nurture and slaughter for food. Through my professional training, I learned humane animal husbandry techniques, but I never made the connection between the pets we treat with such love and compassion and the food on my plate.

I started becoming aware of the inconsistency of my attitudes towards different classes of animals based on their utility for humans. Two books which were instrumental in changing my attitude were 'Diet for a Small Planet' by Frances Moore Lappe and 'The Pig who Sang to the Moon' by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.

While I had effectively compartmentalized my knowledge of evolution from my religious beliefs, I was now beginning to feel the need to reconcile the two and felt that there could only be one truth. Which was it? That all animals, including the ultimate primate, Homo sapiens, had souls which then made the assumption that all had equally significant afterlives, or that none did.

Two books by animal rights activist and lawyer, Steven M. Wise—"Rattling the Cage" and "Drawing the Line"—blurred the line on sentience and intelligence in primates and other species respectively. When exactly, during evolution or gestation, did the eternal human soul get infused into our bodies?

As that concept began to unravel, so did many others of the faith of my baptism, leaving me bewildered and lonely. I knew that I wasn't the only one to come up with this conundrum and went online to find like minded individuals. I had to bypass the angry atheist and Internet infidel sites, finally landing on the secular humanists, who put reason and intent to our lives without need for a supernatural deity.