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Austin Cline

Communion for Pets?

By March 17, 2004

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People receive communion, but pets? How about benedictions or special religious services for them? Not normally, but some churches are so desperate to attract people that they have begun to offer just those sorts of things for people's pets. And, in at least a few cases, it's actually working.

Elizabeth Bernstein writes for The Wall Street Journal:

Occasionally, clergy are even officiating at pet funerals and group "bark mitzvahs." Congregants at temple Beth Shir Sholom, in Santa Monica, Calif., have an animal prayer sung to the tune of "Sabbath Prayer," a song from "Fiddler on the Roof": "May our God protect and defend you. May God always shield you from fleas." ... Pet services are aiming to draw in the elderly, many of whom rely on pets as their only companions, and people who have strayed from religion because it no longer seemed relevant. The effort is part of a larger movement among houses of worship to attract worshipers by offering amenities considered important to modern lives. In recent years, churches and synagogues have added everything from in-house Starbucks cafes and sports clubs to special worship services for children and singles.
Helping the trend along: the $30 billion pet-products industry, which is marketing spirituality in new ways. After pet gravestones became one of its five most-requested products, Petco introduced memorial stones in 2002. Customer requests also prompted the company to start carrying kosher dog food and Hanukkah treats last year. Hallmark, which annually ships 500,000 pet sympathy cards, introduced several with spiritual imagery last year. One features a drawing of a little bear with wings and a halo flying up to heaven and the line "Such a sweet little soul could never be forgotten."
Skylight Paths just published a book called "What Animals Can Teach Us About Spirituality." "Peace to All Beings: Veggie Soup for the Chicken's Soul," (Lantern Books) contains prayers for all sorts of creatures, including insects. (One prayer: "Peace and compassion prevails on Earth for our tiny brothers and sisters everywhere.") Pet boutiques, such as Miami Beach's Dog Bar, carry plush toy dreidels, Stars of David and St. Christopher pendants for collars, and kosher pet food (production supervised by a rabbi).

Are these religious leaders ministering to animals, or ministering to the humans by pretending to minister to the animals? I would suspect the latter - which is ironic because it means that they are basically pretending to do something in order to achieve some alleged religious/spiritual result. And how much of how many religious services could be described in similar terms?

Religious services for pets sounds strange, but is invoking the assistance of gods for human problems any more sensible than invoking the help of gods for dog problems? Not in a religious context, I don't think, but it may point to warped priorities. Spending that much money on pets when humans go hungry doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

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