What If Animals Believe in God?

"In Thought" by Flickr user irishwildcat (edited), via Creative Commons
"In Thought" by Flickr user irishwildcat (edited), via Creative Commons

Chimpanzees believe in God. This news, widely reported last week, is only a slight exaggeration. Using hidden cameras, scientists have indeed captured footage of chimpanzee behavior that resembles religious ritual. In the footage below, groups of chimps can be seen throwing rocks into the crevices within trees:

The rocks pile up to create something resembling an altar. This “ritualized behavioral display” apparently has no evolutionary function, and instead resembles religious rituals from humanity’s archaeological past.

This isn’t the first discovery of animal behavior resembling religion. Elephants and dolphins, for example, have burial rituals for their dead.

More importantly, if animals were conclusively shown to have religion, this would represent yet another blow to the longstanding notion that humans are, somehow, fundamentally different from other animals.  Octopi use tools. Capuchin monkeys have symbolic language. Orcas have culture. Dolphins have self-awareness. Is religion, too, something that we share with beasts? If animals can in fact have religion how might this change our ethical obligations towards them?

To pursue these questions further, the Cubit reached out to religion scholar Aaron Gross, author of a 2014 book, The Question of the Animal and Religion: Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications. Gross, an Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego, and the founder of Farm Forward, met with Cubit co-editor Andrew Aghapour at a coffee shop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to explore how religion applies to elephants, dogs, chimpanzees, and factory farming.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

As a scholar of religion, why do you think it’s wrong see religion as exclusive to humans?

I think most of us have the sense that whatever religion means, it’s not obvious. It’s complicated, perhaps beyond words—similar to a concept like God, which is, within classical theology, always something you can’t quite describe. So the first thing I would say is that to utterly exclude animals from the phenomenon of religion is to pretend we know what it is more than we do. That’s bad scholarship. It’s also bad theology.

I can imagine skeptics saying that religion requires belief, and beliefs are made up of symbols. If so, why would it be wrong to say that religion requires symbolic language and that it therefore doesn’t occur in animals?

It may not be wrong to say that religion requires something like symbolic language. But then the question becomes, “What is symbolic language, and can we really deny it to all animals?” Based on what we have learned about primates, elephants, dolphins, whales, we know that [they engage in] cultural transmission. We know that, for example, there are particular ways of using tools which are passed from grandparent to child, parent to child, that are specific to particular primate groups—or even particular crows.

Some of these [unique transmitted behaviors] appear to be utilitarian. But some of them are not, like where there are specific places of beauty that particular animal groups will go to. For example, chimpanzees go into particular waterfalls, dance in front of them, and sit on rocks afterwards, apparently just marveling at it. And the scientists who observe this tell us they have no utilitarian explanation for this—it seems to be aesthetic appreciation for the beauty, some kind of awe experience.

I don’t think we want to say in advance there’s nothing symbolic about that waterfall for them—that, “it’s just H2O that helps their bodies function.” That seems implausible. So when we look really carefully at the richness of animal behavior, it’s not so easy to exclude them from [religious] categories.

Another direction we might take is, well, who else gets excluded if we say religion is primarily about something like symbolic language? Can children have religious experiences then? Do we have to say religion is something that only adults or teenagers can have? I think many people have the intuition that there is something spiritual to childhood. One of the things we foreclose when we cut animals out of this picture is the ability to acknowledge our own deep intuitions that, say, my four-year-old is in touch with something that’s not just material, but is something we’d want to call religious.

So excluding animals from religion amounts to a kind of intellectual gerrymandering?

Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it. Excluding animals, when we look carefully, ends up forcing us to conclusions we don’t necessarily want to accept. It is a kind of gerrymandering, and it’s an ingrained habit. We keep repeating what we’ve been told, but when we pause and reflect, it’s not so clear. Then, the next step is that people go back to their authoritative sources—Christians and Jews, for example, can look at the Bible. And it’s astonishing to see that the Bible, in particular, does not exclude animals from religious life. And I mean this in very straightforward ways.

In the drama we have in Genesis of creation, sin, the Flood, and recreation: it’s all flesh that becomes corrupted, not just humans. Animals seem to participate in that problem. When the Covenant with Noah is formed in Genesis 9, it is repeated seven times that that Covenant includes all creation, so animals seem to be able to enter covenants with God. Which is maybe the central metaphor of Jewish and Christian traditions.

So when we look into our intuitions and find it’s hard to exclude animals, and we look to our scripture and find some affirmation of this idea, we might begin to doubt the exclusion of animals [from religion].

I wonder if religious concepts could therefore be useful for understanding animal behavior, or relationships between animals and humans. Observed elephant burial practices, for example, are remarkably complex. Upon the death of a matriarch, her family will surround her body and lightly touch it with their feet and trunks. Family members cry out and weep. The group eventually covers her with leaves and dirt and stays there for days. How would a trained scholar of religion make sense of that?

Mourning is a very sophisticated thing, and it’s already a religious concept. We have a whole literature reflecting on the nature of mourning. Why do we need to mourn the dead? How does that, for example, preserve society? That moment when the elephants gather perhaps echoes something like what [French sociologist Émile] Durkheim called “collective effervescence,” which he thought defined religion by helping people draw boundaries between what was sacred and what was not.

What is sacred? At the most simple level, we can say sacred is something special in a particular way. There’s something special about the death of that animal. Presumably, that creates cohesion, which is important to a social mammal. There’s no reason to think that the cohesion that’s created is fundamentally different from the cohesion that’s created in humans, when we [mourn].

Looking at [human and elephant burial rituals] in parallel is likely to lead to a richer understanding of what this phenomenon is. We might better know what it is to mourn.

What are the ethical ramifications of including animals in religion?

There’s a remarkable book called A Dog’s History of the World, by Laura Hobgood-Oster, which looks at the amazing amount of scientific information we now have about dog-human relationships. What we find is that humans did not domesticate dogs the way we domesticated pigs and chickens and cows. It seems to be a relationship that wolves chose as much as humans chose. And when you look even deeper, you can see that the success of human beings depended on their relationship with dogs, which, for example, allowed them to hunt in ways that expanded their successfulness and range. The species Homo sapiens co-evolved with dogs. Our very DNA has been shaped in an evolutionary relationship with them.

So what does this imply about our ethical obligations to dogs in the contemporary day? We all talk about loving dogs and cats—that’s a very felt affection—but I would not want to be a dog or cat in many places in the world. Huge numbers, as we all know, are confined in shelters for long periods of time where they likely have rather poor qualities of life. Millions are killed. Humanity was [evolutionarily] shaped by dogs, and we find ourselves treating these animals in a disposable kind of way.

When we start to think about it in this register, it’s not just about cruelty anymore. I think it challenges us to go beyond the simple anti-cruelty ethic, and to acknowledge [one of] the deepest features of what it means to be human.

What about farm animals, which we have a very different relationship with?

Farmed animals are an even more extreme example. We, as a nation, have basically said that anything human beings want to do to farmed animals is acceptable. We do have anti-cruelty laws, which people will invoke with the honest hope that these protect farmed animals, but virtually every state has “common farming exemptions.” [According to this] legal principle, if something is a common farming practice, it is legal regardless of any consideration for the animals’ suffering.

Is this the relationship we want to have over life? That anything goes, so long as somebody can profit from it? That is what our current law says, and it means that people who want to do terrible things—like force chickens to live in spaces the size of a legal size piece of paper, with chopped off beaks and genetics so messed up that their very physiology causes them to suffer—are protected by the law.

This isn’t the vision of the Good Shepherd we have in mind. If the shepherds of today extract profit for corporations at the expense of animal suffering, what kind of religious vision are we putting forth?

Farm Forward helps empower religious communities to go through their own process of discernment about what they believe about animals and to then get active. The most developed project of this is called the Jewish Initiative for Animals, which just launched in January. We provide resources to Jewish institutions to allow them to look at where their food comes from and then ask, collectively, about what counts as “ethical food.” What does it mean to treat a chicken well? Do you want to be eating this many animals or should it be reduced? When you raise these kinds of questions, people light up.

This recognizes the way in which religion is present in everyday life. It not only does something really good for the animals by supporting a movement towards more humane farming, but it empowers people to live their values and in a most community-building way. Because nothing is more community-building than breaking bread together.

Also on the Cubit: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism