Religious behavior in animals

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Animal faith is the study of animal behaviours that suggest proto-religious faith. There is no evidence that any non-human animals believe in God or gods, pray, worship, have any notion of metaphysics, create artifacts with ritual significance, or many other behaviours typical of human religion.[inconsistent] Whether animals can have religious faith is dependent on a sufficiently open definition of religion. Thus, if by religion one means a "non-anthropocentric, non-anthropomorphic, non-theistic, and non-logocentric trans-species prototype definition of religion",[1][2] ritual behaviour can be interpreted in the actions of chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins and other animals.

The study of proto-religions in modern animals is relevant to the study of the development of religion in modern humans and their recent ancestors.

Ritual behaviour in apes[edit]

Theologian and biologist Oliver Putz notes that, since chimpanzees are capable of moral agency, it is possible for Christians to understand them as sharing in the Image of God.[3] Furthermore, Nancy R. Howell suggests that "chimpanzees and bonobos may have the precursors for culture and spirituality, such as connectedness, interdependence and sociality' and a level of 'symbolic capacity'".[4] Primatologist Jane Goodall goes further, noting that some chimpanzees may "dance" at the onset of heavy rain or when they come across a waterfall. She speculates that "their 'elemental'" displays are precursors of religious ritual."[5] However, theologian Christopher L. Fisher believes that Goodall anthropomorphizes chimpanzees. While Fisher admits that chimpanzees are capable of "intense emotion", he maintains that they cannot experience spirituality, because "there is no meaning without language."[6]

Ritual behaviour in other animals[edit]

Ronald K. Siegel has studied the precursors of religious faith in African elephants and concludes that "elephants are aware of natural cycles, as they practice "moon worship," waving branches at the waxing moon and engaging in ritual bathing when the moon is full."[7] Observations by Pliny the elder also note supposed elephant reverence for the celestial bodies.[8]

Funeral rites in animals[edit]

While grief is common to many animals, funeral rituals are not. However, they are well documented in African elephants.[9]

Ronald K. Siegel writes that: " cannot ignore the elaborate burying behaviour of elephants as a similar sign of ritualistic or even religious behaviour in that species. When encountering dead animals, elephants will often bury them with mud, earth and leaves. Animals known to have been buried by elephants include rhinos, buffalos, cows, calves, and even humans, in addition to elephants themselves. Elephants have [been] observed burying their dead with large quantities of food fruit, flowers and colourful foliage."[10]

Both wild and captive chimpanzees engage in ritualized behaviors at the death of a group member. These behaviors begin with group or individual silence, which may last for hours and followed by behaviors such as distinctive vocalizations; grooming the corpse; solemn visitation and gazing at the corpse by group members; displays; and lamentation-like whimpers or hoo-calls of distress.[11]

Attention to the dead is not unique to elephants or chimpanzees. Dolphins have been known to stay with recently deceased members of their pod for several days, preventing divers from getting close.[12] However, the reasons for this remain obscure. While scientists can observe their actions, the thought processes that motivate them are beyond current study.[13]

Relevance to the study of early modern humans[edit]

The ritual lives of animals are of interest to paleoanthropologists, as they provide a convenient insight into how religious belief systems may have developed in our ancestors. "The skeletal remains of Cro-Magnon man are found buried in the foetal position in line with the primitive myth that such a position facilitates rebirth. The study of allied behaviours in non-human animals provides an opportunity to understand their nature and function in man."[14] Indeed, some have seen superficial similarities between the funeral rituals of African elephants and the burial rituals of Neanderthals.[15]

Evolutionary psychologist Matt Rossano has theorised that religion evolved in three stages: In the pre-Upper Palaeolithic, religion was characterised by ecstatic rituals used to facilitate social bonding. Later, shamanic healing rituals developed in the Upper Palaeolithic. Finally, religious expressions developed over time to include cave art, ritual artefacts, ancestor worship and the development of myth and moral structures.[16] If this is true then the behaviour of chimpanzees witnessed by Goodall may be interpreted as similar to pre-Upper Palaeolithic Human religion. However, De Waal notes that bonobos show no evidence of ritual behaviour yet are extremely peaceful and demonstrate moral agency. This casts doubt on the co-development of morality and proto-religion.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harrod JB. (2014). "The Case for Chimpanzee Religion" Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (8.1)
  2. ^ Harrod, JB. (2011). "A Trans-Species Definition of Religion". Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. 5 (3): 327–353. doi:10.1558/jsrnc.v5i3.327.
  3. ^ Putz O (2009). "Social Apes in God's Image: Moral Apes, Human Uniqueness, and the Image of God" Journal of Religion and Science, August
  4. ^ Harrod JB. (2014). "The Case for Chimpanzee Religion" Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (8.1)
  5. ^ Goodall J () "Primate spirituality" The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature. edited by B. Taylor. Thoemmes Continuum, New York. Pp. 1303-1306
  6. ^ Fisher CL (2005). "Animals, Humans and X-Men: Human Uniqueness and the Meaning of Personhood" Theology and Science Volume 3 Issue 3 pp.291-314
  7. ^ Siegel RK (1980). "The Psychology of Life After Death" American Psychologist, Vol. 35(10), October pp.911-931
  8. ^ "The elephant is the largest of them all, and in intelligence approaches the nearest to man. It understands the language of its country, it obeys commands, and it remembers all the duties which it has been taught. It is sensible alike of the pleasures of love and glory, and, to a degree that is rare among men even, possesses notions of honesty, prudence, and equity; it has a religious respect also for the stars, and a veneration for the sun and the moon." Pliny, Natural History (VIII.1)
  9. ^ Bekoff M (2009). "Grief in Animals" Psychology Today, October
  10. ^ Siegel RK (1980). "The Psychology of Life After Death" American Psychologist, Vol. 35(10), October pp.911-931
  11. ^ Harrod, James B. (2014). "The Case for Chimpanzee Religion". Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture. 8 (1): 16–25.
  12. ^ Ritter F (2007). "Behaviour Responses of Rough-toothed Dolphins to a Dead Newborn Calf" Marine Mammal Science April pp.429-433
  13. ^ Dudzinski KM; Sakai M; Masaki K; Kogi K; Hishii T; Kurimoto M (2003). "Behavioural Observations of Bottle Nose Dolphins Towards Two Dead Conspecifics" Aquatic Mammals 29.1, pp.108-116
  14. ^ Siegal RK (1981). "Accounting for 'Afterlife' Experiences" Psychology Today, January p.4
  15. ^ Sapolsky, Robert M. (2006) Monkeyluv: And other Essays on Our Lives as Animals. Scribner Book Co. p.189 ISBN 0-743-26015-5.
  16. ^ Rossano MJ (2006). "The Religious Mind and the Evolution of Religion" Review of General Psychology, Vol 10(4) December pp346-364
  17. ^ De Waal, Frans (2013) The Bonobo and the Atheist. W.W. Norton & Co., ISBN 978-0-393-07377-5