[M]y daughter Katie and I were watching a nature program on television. We saw baby rodents, more ugly even than baby rats, under the desert sand of Saudi Arabia. ‘Look at that,’ I said to Katie. ‘Aren’t they awful.’ With little hesitation, she replied that they were also God’s creatures.
I was humbled by her response, ashamed, in fact, that such simple words should show up the grossness of my attitude. I could think of no words that could express better and at the same time so simply this wonderful acceptance of all living creatures.Gaita goes on to explain that it is nothing about theism as a metaphysical thesis (or the "God of the philosophers") that underwrites his response to Katie's remark, for he does not himself believe in God. I think I understand the idea that "God-talk" can be appropriate and meaningful even when not, as it were, "literal," but then I wonder about what the normative force is of the figurative God.
The idea that animals are all God's creatures would seem to express at least the following two ideas: (1) that there is goodness in the life of every creature (in Genesis, everything that God makes is found by God to be good) and (2) that animals are not "ours"--they do not belong to us.
Now it might be asked whether this "goodness" is non-instrumental or only instrumental (Genesis does not tell us), and what the practical implications of human non-ownership of animals are. But it might also be asked whether we have any reason to accept the overall picture of (1) + (2) if we are only able to speak figuratively--if we are able to speak at all--about God.
Those familiar with Gaita's (Wittgensteinian) approach to questions of normative grounding will know that he will ultimately accept that fundamental values are groundless but are at the same time bound up intimately with our particular form of life. Accepting the picture--and making use of the words--above is less (if at all) a matter of reason, but instead a question of one's fundamental attitude toward the world: say, whether one accepts the world as good and (as he discusses) whether one sees life as a gift for which to feel gratitude.
But I have found myself wondering still about the normative force of figurative (or some might say, "fictionalist") expressions invoking the divine, particularly in the context of animal and environmental ethics.
One might, for example, think of the idea of God as the idea of an "ideal observer" and adopt a dispositionalist theory of moral truth (or correctness) such that it doesn't matter whether there actually is an ideal observer (or a God). Rather, what matters is what judgment an ideal observer (a God) would make if there were one. (Firth  is the place to start looking into this idea.)
But before we even get to what judgments the ideal observer would make or how we could have epistemic access to this information, it seems like one might ask why we should care at all about the judgments that flow (or would flow) from an uninstantiated point of view. I suppose the response is these judgments would be the correct ones, and if we don't care about what the correct judgment is in ethical matters, then the conversation is simply over. (There are other worries about the coherence of the idea of an ideal observer, or similarly, the idea of God, but let that pass.)
The differences between the ideal observer and God the creator might matter here. For the ideal observer is not a creator (or an owner) of anything--only a judge. And if animals (and everything else) were not really created by God, then we cannot say that they (and everything else) belong to God. But this might emphasize the notion of ownership too strongly. "All God's creatures" might mean (A) that animals are all God's property, but it might instead mean (B) something roughly equivalent to the thought that we are all God's children. True, some will point out that only humans were "made in God's image," but then we would have to ask what it would take to live up to our divine lineage when it comes to our dealings with animals. And if the emphasis of "all God's creatures" should be fixed not on the notion of divine ownership, but rather of divine authorship, then we have to take into account the idea that animals (and everything else) was fashioned by divine hands. (Abusing and mistreating animals would be like defacing the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel.)
But then we run into the problem that if God is not really the author/creator of all creatures, which in fact evolved somewhat willy-nilly, there is no true divine origin that imbues the lives of animals (etc.) with the special significance that a work acquires when it is the work of a true master.
What now? Well, here's one thought: if we are so impressed that evolution led to us humans, then why should we not be as impressed by its other results, its other "innovations", etc.? (Some of them are harmful to us, but that was true on the other picture, too. Many of them are absolutely amazing and beautiful.) Those "awful" baby rodents are "also God's creatures" insofar as they sprang from the same primordial process as we did, whether that source is God or not.
(Obviously, these are all new thoughts on which I'm working, trying in part to figure out where the center is...)