Understanding Animal Rights Activism As Functional Religion
Research conducted among animal rights activists in Switzerland and the United States found that activism plays a role in these people’s lives similar to religion. Activists conform to components of Yinger’s definition of functional religion, including intense and memorable conversion experiences, new found communities of meaning, normative creeds, elaborate and well-defined codes of behavior, and cult formation.
“Morally persuasive religious belief often originates in an experience of conversion.” Many of the subjects studied reported having had formative events that sensitized them to the movement, which began the process of dissonance, subsequently followed by an epiphanic event that helped them overcome dissonance by consolidating a new belief.
Converts create communities to gather, share, and support each other’s commitments, and animal rights activists do so accordingly, after experiencing some degree of isolation from individuals who did not share the same beliefs.
Those studied showed a commitment to the political guarantees of rights for animals, which was part of a larger system of beliefs about life and human/non-human relationships. They further believed that being active in the animal rights movement includes the assertion of the moral righteousness of the movement and the necessity of spreading this message.
The activists studied also demonstrated an elaborate code of behavior, which is sometimes impossible to keep, but it elicits a compulsion to achieve it. In addition, substantive religions organize worship around sacred teachings or consumption of holy foods. Though there is nothing as formal, elements of ritualistic behavior can be found in the gatherings of animal rights activists.
In conclusion, by recognizing the animal rights movement to be religious in nature, we can understand how the movement can gain the intensity over time which is required to transform societies. The modern animal rights movement has at least sensitized non-believers to animal issues, and likely introduced the foundations necessary to convert others to the cause.