Animals and Religion

Jonathan Morgan

Monkey yogaHow much evidence does it take to change our beliefs about the world?  Sometimes, when we don’t really care about the belief, it doesn’t take much evidence at all.  For example, say you like ducks and believe mallards are the most devoted of partners.  That’s a good belief- mallard marriages stay together about 91% of the time.  They’re more steadfast than American marriages, which along with the Nazca Boobie, split up 40% of the time.  And they’re way better than flamingoes, who break up 99% of the time.  BUT, your belief about mallards would be wrong because Albatrosses are 100% faithful.  They never break up.  In this case, unless you really, deeply believe in mallard fidelity, it probably didn’t take much to change your belief.

In other instances our beliefs are much more entrenched and therefore much harder to change.  Take, for example, our beliefs about intelligence.  You may not even think you have beliefs about intelligence, but just because they aren’t well articulated doesn’t mean they aren’t there.  Think of someone you know is smart.  How do you know she’s smart?  Whatever criteria you thought of form part of your beliefs about intelligence.  How about when ants form bridges, is that a sign of intelligence or just a fluke of adaptation?  What about this wily honey badger?  The author Michael Pollan wrote a great article about the intense debates surrounding plant intelligence.

My point is that our beliefs about intelligence are like a complex net of largely unexpressed assumptions.  Evidence may change certain strands of that net, but in order to really change the belief one must look at the overall structure of that net.  You do that by asking- What do we really mean by intelligence?  That’s why it would take a large amount of evidence AND a philosophical shift to make scientists feel comfortable with a term like “plant intelligence.”

So how about religious animals?  Last week the New York Times cover story was about the attempts of attorney Steven Wise to get legal standing for chimpanzees.  The story is a prime example of the question above- how much evidence does it take to change our beliefs about who, or what, deserves legal rights?  And what sort of boundary exists between thinking of a chimp as what instead of who?  This article echoes a similar debate about rudimentary religion among animals.

What would it take for us to believe that animals are capable of religious emotions or experiences?

As I talked about above, many animals show strong intelligence (seriously, watch the honey badger video), but that’s not sufficient for thinking of them as religious.  What about a sense of self?  There’s good evidence that chimpanzees not only have a sense of self, but also recognize goals and intentions in others (this is what cognitive scientists call “theory of mind”).  The biologist and theologian Oliver Putz argues that’s sufficient to talk about animals as having religious emotions.

Is a sense of awe enough?  The religion scholar Nicholas DiDonato describes primates performing various ritual-like behaviors around water and fire.  For example, baboons have been regularly seen meditatively watching a tranquil stream.  That may not seem significant, but even the young baboons were completely quiet, mesmerized for up to a half-hour.

What if they were to perform rituals around death?  DiDonato also describes magpies, gorillas, elephants, llamas, foxes, and wolves all responding to death with what seems like ritualized grief.  Elephants hold something similar to funeral gatherings and treat the bones of the deceased with what looks like respect.  Wolves will bury their dead and often the mate will go without sex and seek out solitude.  Magpies lay pieces of grass by the bodies of their deceased.

Would empathy be sufficient?  The writer and scholar Connor Wood describes experiments where rats showed empathy by learning to free other rats who were trapped in a cage.  If that weren’t enough, over half even saved chocolate chips to share once they helped their friends escape.

What about shame?

Of course any of these examples could be questioned.  Does a pack animal seeking solitude and abstinence really count as a ritualized response to grief?  If a rat learns to free its friend-rat, is it still too anthropomorphizing to call them “friends”?  But that proves my point: the evidence alone, no matter how bizarre, isn’t enough to change our beliefs.  Change also requires a philosophical shift.  If we want to call the baboon’s behavior “awe” then we’ve got to examine what we mean by awe.

That’s even more the case if we want to call this behavior religious.  What do we mean by religious?  Early Christian missionaries didn’t recognize the beliefs, practices, institutions, and experiences of the people they encountered as religious because their definition had them looking for a very specific thing.  This is still the case for people who trip up on calling Buddhism a religion- it’s only a problem if you think religion means holding the type of beliefs that are familiar to Abrahamic religions.

So are these animals religious?  I’d say no, but that’s because I think a necessary part of religion is the use of symbols.  And as far as I can tell, these animals aren’t yet using symbols.  While I’m not willing to go as far as to call this behavior religious, it certainly challenges our assumptions about the internal, emotional, life of these animals.  It’s hard to explain why elephants would gather around the bones of the dead or why rats would save food for a non-related friend if they were just meaty survival machines adapted to protect selfish genes.  Bit-by-bit evidence pushes on our beliefs, but it needs a little interpreting along the way.  In debates about religious animals or the selfhood of primates or the intelligence of plants, it’s important to pay attention to those interpretations, because in the end that’s what shapes the seemingly neutral evidence.

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