Here is a tug-of-war.
On one end of the rope is our common conviction that life—our life, other lives, life in general and as a whole—is a good thing. For some this conviction is passionate and spiritual, for others it is a cliché. But in either case we lean hard towards life and away from the state of dust and stones. We ally ourselves with being alive and, in the abstract, with all things that are alive.
But tugging at the other end of the rope are the distinctions that we make every day between lives that we value and those we value very little or not at all. We favor people who are similar to us, we belittle others, and we are indifferent, sometimes fatally so, to many others. We oppose abortion but accept capital punishment, and vice-versa. We cuddle some animals, save others from extinction, eat a few, exterminate many. We value plants only when they provide us with food or a desirable environment; the life of a plant in and of itself has no status for us. When it comes to actual lives, we have favorites and losers, with life and death consequences.
In this tug-of-war between reverence for all life and differentiation among lives, it’s differentiation that usually wins. This isn’t surprising. We must draw distinctions each day in order to stay alive, deciding who to align with and who to oppose, what to eat and what to cut down, spray or ignore. Most people go through most days with no interest in revering life universally. We toast our health and long life and then eat our chicken dinner. We wake up in the morning feeling glad to be alive, we send a contribution to help poor children, we call the exterminator, and we pull dandelions. None of that seems contradictory.
You might expect that after we had declared that we value life above all else, being alive would outrank any other feature of a thing, and we would care for that thing because, no matter what else it is, it is alive. Insects might be repulsive, but they would be precious because they live. Plants might be so abundant that lawns and streets could be overgrown but the right to life of plants would be defended. Obviously this is not how things go.
Perhaps tug-of-war is not the best metaphor. Compartmentalization might be a better label. We seem to keep reverence and preference in separate compartments. The compartment for reverence for all living things would be, if taken strictly, impossibly demanding. If we took it literally, we would starve from trying to survive on fallen fruit and dead animals.
What we do instead is to take such reverence out of its compartment every so often when the time seems right and to try to move society a step in its direction. We join forces to extend a better life to those of other ethnicities or social classes or genders or sexual orientation—as well as to some animals, to fetuses, to endangered plants. Reverence for all life may be beyond our reach, but we put it to powerful use when we are able. We may draw grim, unfair distinctions among other lives too easily, but as long as we remain a little uneasy that we do so, reverence for all life remains a cause that can be advanced.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.