Something has bugged me for 60 years.
When I was fifteen, I shed tears when I saw my cat catch a bird or mouse and play with it until it died. I was not always successful in rescuing them. My lovable kitty was so well fed that he did not eat his prey so when it stopped flopping he lost interest. Recently, I’ve witnessed my two semi-feral cats do the same thing with mice, birds, shrews, and chipmunks. They weren’t hungry either. Sometimes they chew on the warm meat but seldom eat it.
I majored in zoology in college and have been a nature lover all my life so I think I understand something about the instinctive nature of animals, especially cats. But, it still is upsetting to me when I witness my cat’s play with a helpless little mouse or bird until it dies. Sometimes, I manage to rescue the little critters. Yes, I know feral cats must eat to survive and kittens must learn how to catch and kill prey. Yes, I know instinct rules. Nevertheless, I find myself routing for the prey animals to escape because I know my cats don’t need more nourishment than what I feed them everyday. When I watch a lion catching and killing a zebra I don’t feel quite as bad because I know it has to do it in order to survive. However, I am bothered when lions start their meal before their dinner is dead. I like to think prey animals go into shock before the meal begins.
Watching one animal eat another while it’s still alive bothered Charles Darwin.
He noted that a species of wasp lays its eggs in the living body of a caterpillar, which is slowly eaten, alive by the wasp larva. He found it hard to believe a merciful designer God would have thought of such an arrangement.
This, and other “godly atrocities” are thought to be some of the reasons Darwin eventually abandoned his creationist beliefs and replaced them with his own theory on why such things happen. Darwin realized that nature was neither cruel nor kindly. He knew a beneficent god did not control nature and he dedicated his life to discover the principle that did. If he had not been successful, someone else’s picture would be in my biology book instead of his.
In spite of evangelical protests, evolution has been an established scientific principle since Darwin published his “Origins of Species”. More evidence confirming it appears every day in science journals and in news reports. And yet, there are still a surprisingly large number (50%) of people who say they reject evolution. When asked if they got their annual flu vaccine or have ever been treated with an anti-biotic, they usually say they have and thereby unknowingly admit they really do believe in evolution. Why? Viruses and bacteria evolve so rapidly they are prime examples of evolution in action. Medical scientists can actually watch evolution take place in their petri dishes. They watch as these critters evolve from one kind into another kind. Microbes and viruses frustrate our desperate attempts to keep them under control because they evolve so rapidly.
All the polls have shown that those who still reject evolution do so not because of the lack of scientific evidence but due to the advice of their religious leaders. Evangelical religious leaders openly admit their beliefs are not based upon science but on their interpretation of the scriptures. They cannot accept science if it conflicts with scriptures. Faith before science is a common principle among fundamentalist believers. More liberal Christians, as we know, usually have no trouble believing in evolution.
I do not expect anything I write here will change minds, but nevertheless, I would like to present a simple argument based upon the observation that bugged me as a child and helped destroy Darwin’s religious belief.
The argument is not new. It boils down to the existence of evil. Why does a beneficent God design a system where the good suffer? More specifically, why does a God allow horrific and totally unnecessary suffering to occur, such as wasp larva eating the insides of a living caterpillar or a twenty-foot long parasitic worm living in the intestines of a third world child. The study of parasitology reveals the mindless suffering and death of millions of animals including humans. Why did a loving and forgiving God diabolically design lethal bacteria, viruses, and parasites? Why would a deity allow this evil to exist in the world? I could understand the logic if only sinners were afflicted with God’s wrath, but when the righteous and innocent suffer the same as sinners it should be enough for believers to question the motives of their God or at least the word of their leaders. Religion does offer an answer, but it’s a shit poor answer.
Christian theology has two ready explanations to justify evil. Namely, without evil there can be no good. Also, without making a conscious choice between good and evil (Christ and Satan) mankind cannot please God and achieve everlasting life. Justifications for these reasons were manufactured by ancient church fathers to help them control the masses. There had to be a punishment for misbehaving and a reward for behaving. Without this double-edged sword, religion would not have been as successful as it has. Religions readily admit to the importance of control, obedience, and retribution.
Getting back to my cat and its dinner guest: If God intelligently designed the slow kill behavior, he must be either a damn poor designer or a very evil designer. Cats are well equipped for quick kills; there is no need for a prolonged and slow torturous death for their terrified prey, beyond practice for young cats learning how to capture prey, release and recapture prey. Why does any animal have to die a slow painful death when a fast death achieves the same purpose, to fill a predator’s belly? Prey animals are not being punished for rejecting God or for doing evil, are they?
How do church leaders reply? “We cannot hope to know God’s mind and purpose.”
This is religion’s greatest cop-out and perhaps half the U.S. population accepts the above confession of ignorance without a second thought. They are comfortable believing without reason, without understanding, without question. Their church’s answer is feeble but it’s the only one a true believer has.
Rational people understand, if a deity actually exists he/she must be an evil entity. A beneficent god would not allow the innocent to suffer as they do. Only an evil god would allow and sponsor evil. The Old Testament is chock full of God sponsored atrocities, but that does not seem to bother the faithful.
Damn! It just happened again. I woke up this morning to my feral cats’ excitement on the porch. They, with their needle sharp claws, were having fun again, playing with a cute little brown mouse that had been captured in my back yard. It was so terrified it could do nothing but run in circles to my cats’ delight. I used my rescue net to capture it, and then released it on the other side of the house.
With so much wrong with the world, why am I so concerned about a mouse and the instinctive behavior of my cats? The answer is: evolution gave me a sense of empathy. It is an important sense, effectively utilized by religion to keep their coffers full and control their followers. Today, it allows me to imagine how I might have felt if I were entertainment and dinner for a saber-tooth lion a million years ago.
I am well aware that the human brain is easily capable of maintaining two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time and without realization that it makes no sense. Therefore, the belief that a loving and beneficent God designed my little killer kitties to enjoy torture is quite acceptable in their minds, or perhaps its just not worth worrying about.
Killer in Disguise
My kitty sits and watches me
in the dark when I cannot see.
And when I sleep, she stays awake
and prowls all night, for goodness sake!
If I could probe her feline mind,
what thoughts therein might I find?
When she sleeps and dreams like me,
I wonder what those dreams might be.
Does her little brain remember
the last mouse she dismembered?
Does she recall her dear old mother,
or her sister, or her brother?
Does she recall when first we met
or the times we visited the vet?
Does she think like you and me
and if she does, would we agree
that wild instincts must be controlled,
that valuable things are made of gold?
Would we agree that there’s more to life
than catching birds and little mice?
Would we agree it’s OK to kill
just for sport or for a thrill?
I live my life by different rules.
I don’t like violence or fight duels.
I don’t hunt and like to kill,
although I know she always will.
I understand that deep inside
her furry body there does reside
wild instincts that control her actions
and make birds a top attraction.
Her little brain is programmed to
stalk and hunt, as cats must do,
without regard to what I say
or what I wish or what I pray.
Although right now she’s in my lap
having a peaceful little nap,
it should come as no surprise
that my kitty’s a killer in disguise.