Science on Religion

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Animals may have religion

SwansThe word “religion” usually brings to mind complicated belief systems, rituals, and symbolic engagements with a higher reality—all of which seem well beyond the capabilities of animals less intellectually advanced than humans. However, “religion” may not be so complex. While animals don’t, for instance, write scriptures, they can perform other behaviors that indicate their religiosity. Philosopher Donovan Schaefer (Haverford College) looks at some of the evidence for animal religion – specifically, animal responses to death and awe.

First, animal responses to death show striking similarities to how humans religiously respond to death. For instance, magpies, gorillas, elephants, llamas, foxes, and wolves all use ritual to cope with the death of a companion. Magpies will peck the dead body and then lay blades of grass next to it. Gorillas hold something so similar to a “wake” that many zoos have formalized the ritual. Elephants hold large “funeral” gatherings and treat the bones of their deceased with great respect. Llamas utilize stillness to mourn for their dead. Foxes bury their dead completely, as do wolves, who, if they lose a mate, will often go without sex and seek solitude. In all of these cases, the animals rely on ritual to ease the pain of death. Even if one will not grant their rituals the title “religious,” at the very least the overlap between animal and human death rituals stands out as striking.

Second, primates respond to what appears to be the “awe” of nature in ways that could be described as “religious.” The chimpanzees of Gombe “dance” at the base of an enormous waterfall in the Kakombe Valley. This “dance” moves slowly and rhythmically alongside the riverbed. The chimps transition into throwing giant rocks and branches, and then hanging on vines over the stream until the vines verge on snapping. Their “dance” lasts for ten minutes or longer. For humans, this waterfall certainly instills awe and majesty. Obviously, no one can know the internal processes of a chimpanzee. That said, given the champanzees’ reaction to the waterfall and their evolutionary nearness to humans, it is not far-fetched to think that they too may experience feelings of awe when they encounter that waterfall.

Another set of primates, the savanna chimps of Senegal, perform a fire dance. Most animals flee from wildfires, fearing for their lives. To the contrary, these chimps only slowly move away from it, and at times even move closer to it. One dominant male went so far as to make a slow and exaggerated “display” at the fire.

For one last example of primates possibly exhibiting a reaction to the awe of nature, Gombe baboons perform a “baboon sangha.” Without signal or warning, these baboons sat in silence before a stream with many small pools and simply gazed at the water. They did this for over 30 minutes, without even the juveniles making a peep. Again without signal or warning, they resumed their normal activities.

Schaefer argues that the best explanation for these animal behaviors is that these animals are expressing religious emotion—they are naturally reacting to the mystery and “divinity” around them. As Schaefer puts it, “Animal religion… is a product of bodies constructed inside particular evolutionary-historical lineages—affective, pre-linguistic bodies.” In other words, religion is not primarily about beliefs or highly cognitively demanding complex systems, but about something affective and bodily. Animal religion does not have language or philosophy, and it does not need to to be religion because religion is much more primitive (perhaps even more natural) than either of those.

Of course, none of these instances definitely proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that animals have religion. One could easily hypothesize different reasons for the aforementioned behaviors. Still, given evolutionary theory, there must be some connection between animal and human behavior, including religious behavior, and the rituals performed by animals could be this very link. It seems that whether animals have religion or not boils down to a matter of faith.

For more see, “Do Animals Have Religion? Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Religion and Embodiment” in the journal Anthrozoös.


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