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Thou Shalt Have No Other Dogs Before Me

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For the Love of Dog

Luxury pet resorts with spa packages.
Ice cream trucks exclusively for dogs.
Tools to monitor your dog’s fitness.
Canine costume festivals.
Hyper-gourmet dog food.
Doggy dating services.
Canine clothing lines.
Pet psychotherapy.
Pet fashion shows.
Pet TV channels.
Doggy daycare.
Bowser beer.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of the fact that pet adoption in America happens over twenty-three times the rate of human adoption,[1] or the fact that there are more than twice as many cats and dogs in America than children,[2] or the fact that we spend over $61 billion each year on our pets—enough to feed, clothe and educate more than 135 million children in poverty-stricken countries.[3]

Considered in isolation most of these pet innovations are probably harmless. Yet the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When you consider them together, an ugly cultural trend becomes apparent: we have a “pet humanization” problem, and fewer and fewer people (Christians included) acknowledge it as a problem at all.

It’s true that “a righteous man regardeth the life of his beast” (Proverbs 12:10), but he does not regard the animal as human. To do so ignores the ordered diversity of God’s creation and obscures the surpassing worth of those uniquely made in the image of God. Virtually everyone once understood this basic notion, but several studies have recently indicated a concerning trend: nearly half of Americans today would save their dog’s life at the expense of the life of a human stranger.[4]

In a sense, this is nothing new. Pagan cultures have always blurred the lines between people and pets. Egyptians worshipped cats. Romans buried dogs in human cemeteries and even talked about them like children—while throwing their unwanted children into wells to drown or leaving them to remote hilltops to die. Is our own society much better off? Dog abuse is a felony, but murdering your unborn offspring is a government-funded “right.”

We have a “pet humanization” problem.

How Did We Get Here?

Pet humanization is a strong current fed by multiple streams. The first is philosophical. When God is ripped out of his rightful place at the center of everything, all we are left with is the Self as the only frame of reference, source of meaning and goal for life. In other words, I define what is right and true (my ‘truth’); I decide what matters and what doesn’t (my values); I live for myself above all (my happiness). In this cocoon of self-centeredness the concept of morality is meaningless. There is no ‘oughtness’ to life, except the siren song to be true to yourself, to follow your heart and to ignore the haters as you push your designer dog in a stroller through the canine clothing outlet.

Second, there is a sociological stream. Our nation’s birthrate is at an all-time low, deliberate childlessness is at an all-time high and delayed parenthood—often until a couple is in their late 30s or even 40s—is also on the rise. Several factors feed these related trends, but it’s increasingly hard to deny the correlation with pet humanization. In fact, child birthrate and small dog ownership have mirrored one another with inverse correlation for almost two decades. “There are more single and unmarried women in their late 20s and early 30s, which also happens to be the demographic that buy the most small dogs,” says Damien Shore of the market-research firm Euromonitor. “There’s definitely some replacement happening there.”[5]

The final stream fueling the pet humanization trend is a theological one. That is, we were made for life with the God who is love (1 John 4:8). And he put a longing for his infinite love deep within the hearts of man (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Separated from God by sin, we do not cease searching love; instead, we unknowingly settle for cheap substitutes. As Augustine rightly says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[6] Thus do you find star-crossed lovers at the courthouse filing for divorce, confused why a marriage didn’t make them ‘whole.’ Thus do you find people who openly profess their greater love for dogs than for babies—for a dog will never grow old enough to reject his owner. He will always love you, and he will never judge you.

Dogs make wonderful pets but terrible gods.

What Is the Way Forward?

First, we must see that self-centeredness is self-defeating. As David Wells notes,

By every measure, depression has never been more prevalent, anxiety has never been higher, and spiritual confusion has never been more widespread. We are not holding our marriages together very well, our children are more demoralized than ever, our teens are committing suicide at the highest rate ever, we are incarcerating more and more people, and the list goes on.[7]

In other words, we keep turning to the self as if it’s the solution, when it’s actually the source of our problems. The only way out is to start from solid ground, which Christ alone can give, allowing him to define what’s true, what’s beautiful and what’s worth living for.

Second, in view of the previous, the church cannot follow the dating, marriage and childbirth trends of the world. God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), and he tells us to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) that we might receive children as a special heritage from him (Psalm 127:3).[8] It is true that children take more work than pets, but the reasons for rejecting children are lies from the pit. You cannot worship Jesus and the idol of “personal freedom”—the kind that dies when you say “I do” or when a child says, “Daddy, I need you.” God intends this death to self for our good. There is joy at the end of the tether! So we must trust what God says about the beauty and significance of marriage and family, and to train up our children to do the same.

Note: The problems addressed here are willfully delayed marriages and deliberate childlessness. These are cultural conditions founded upon rejection of what God says is good, therefore, the critique does not apply to singles that affirm the goodness of marriage but aren’t married yet, nor does it apply to couples who affirm the goodness of children but remain childless due to infertility or miscarriage. God sees both groups, and he knows your hearts (Acts 15:8).

Finally, we must see that dogs make wonderful pets but terrible gods. When we look to them for the kind of unconditional love that is only found in Christ, we are settling for a shallow satisfaction when an ocean of joy is available to us. For while it’s true that a dog will never judge you, we must see that this because a dog doesn’t truly know you. But Jesus offers you something infinitely greater: he knows you fully but still loves you completely, not in ignorance (like a dog or cat) but with forgiveness full and free.

Image Credit: Matthew Henry / Unsplash

[1] According to the ASPCA, 3.2 million dogs and cats are adopted each year (https://www.aspca.org/animal-homelessness/shelter-intake-and-surrender/pet-statistics), while only 135,000 human babies are adopted each year (http://www.pbs.org/pov/offandrunning/fact-sheet/).

[2] According to the Humane Society, there are 163.6 million registered dogs and cats in the US (http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/pet_overpopulation/facts/pet_ownership_statistics.html), which more than doubles the 73.9 million children under the age of 18 in the US (https://naeyc.org/policy/advocacy/ChildrenandFamiliesFacts).

[3] US News reports that we spent over $61 billion on our pets in 2013 (https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/05/22/americans-spend-61-billion-on-pets-annually). Organizations like Compassion International can feed, clothe, and educate a child for $38 per month, or about $450 per year (https://www.compassion.com/about/faq.htm#faq-tcm:5-3012410). The former divided by the latter is enough money for more than 135 million children.

[4] Dennis Prager first drew my attention to the several studies by social psychologists which show that over 40 percent of people, including 46% of women, would swerve to hit (and kill) a stranger in order to save the life of their dog (cf. https://www.cnsnews.com/commentary/dennis-prager/would-you-save-your-dogs-life-over-life-stranger).

[5] https://qz.com/197416/americans-are-having-dogs-instead-of-babies/

[6] Augustine, Confessions, I.1.

[7] David Wells, God in the Whirlwind, 22-23.

[8]  Moreover, God equates deliberate childlessness with being “faithless” toward your spouse in Malachi 2:14-15, where the Scriptures clearly state that at least one purpose of the marital union is the production of “godly offspring.”

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Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder (M.Div., Th.M. Southeastern Seminary) is the Teaching Pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA. He also serves as Dean of Faculty and Professor of Biblical Studies at Grimké Seminary. He and his wife, Jessica, have four sons.

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