Elementary Forms of Religious Life in Animal Rights Activism
Keywords:Animal rights, activism, Durkheim, secular religion, sacred, social movement, Yinger
Many scholars have noted that secular belief systems, despite lack of a spiritual base, can possess qualities and display features similar to religion. The most well-known and forceful formulation of this is, arguably, Durkheim’s claim that elementary forms of religious life pervade collective life in all societies. This article suggests that animal rights activism can fruitfully be analyzed as an instance of “secular religion”. Drawing on Durkheim and based on a study of animal rights activists in Sweden, the article identifies a number of elementary forms and experiences of religious life in animal rights activism. These include overwhelming conversion experiences, a division of the world into sacred and profane, concern about protecting the sacred, commitment to spreading the message and living out one’s faith, the feeling that suffering and guilt have meaning, and the constitutive role of common symbols and rituals. The article argues that it is in the light of the activist group as a moral community formed around a sacred ideal that these religious elements are best understood. At the same time, the animal rights activists challenge established boundaries between sacred and profane, when dismantling the symbolic boundary between humans and animals.
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