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Does man have a monopoly on religious feelings?

religioner      |      17/08/2013

Could it be that animals have feelings normally associated with religion? 

By Hans Olav Arnesen and Marit Simonsen


Photo: Frans de Waal.

Is religiousness a human privilege, or can other animals be religious? Most people would probably shake their heads overbearingly faced with such a question, but curiosity concerning animal spirituality dates back to the early days of written history. Even king Solomon, if we assume that it is really his thoughts that echo through the biblical book of Ecclesiastics,
wonders whether the soteriological prospects of man are any brighter than that of animals?

“I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?”

Michel de Montaigne is equally open minded, although the ethological data available to him are dubious, to say the least, largely taken from myths and legends and teeming with anthropomorphisms. In his “Apology for Raymond of Sebon”, he claims that animals have certain advantages compared to man, but also many similarities, such as religion:

“We may also say that elephants have some share of religion, forasmuch as, after several washings and purifications, they are observed to lift up their trunks like arms, and, fixing their eyes towards the rising sun, continue long in meditation and contemplation, at certain hours of the day of their own motion without instruction or precept. But because we do not see any such signs in other animals, we cannot thence conclude  that they are without religion, nor form any judgment of what is concealed from us (…)”.

For a long time scientists have done what Montaigne warned us from doing, and concluded against animal emotions, even though we lack the data for making such a judgment. Several ethologists such as Jane Goodall, Irene Pepperberg and Marc Bekoff have had to face hard criticism from skeptical co-biologists who either claim that animals have no emotions, or that they cannot be scientifically proven even if they should happen to exist. To most of us non-biologists, especially pet owners, such a position is as much in breach with our understanding of the nature of animals as the most outré claims of gender researchers are with regards to our understanding of human nature.

Elephants are social and loving animals. Photo: Siddharth Maheshwari.

Elephants are social and loving animals. Photo: Siddharth Maheshwari.

Emotions – the lingua franca of the animal kingdom

Bekoff gives some welcome support to the commonsensical understanding of the topic in his book, “The Emotional Lives of Animals”. He refers to research that shows how lay people are almost as accurate when it comes to interpreting animal emotions correctly as behavioral scientists with years of practice. According to Bekoff, this inherited ability is essential to survival in the wild, and autistic animals lacking  this skill is “evolutionary challenged”, to say the least. How long would one of our ancestors  survive if he was unable to read the emotions of a mammoth in musht? The same goes for all other species, of course, and emotions can therefore be seen as a sort of nonverbal lingua franca in the animal kingdom.

Montaigne would support Bekoffs claim:

“By one kind of barking the horse knows a dog is angry; of another sort of a bark he is not afraid. Even in the very beasts that have no voice at all, we easily conclude, from the social offices we observe amongst them, some other sort of communication; their very motions converse and consult.”

How does this concern religion? Emotions are only one of the many prerequisites for religion that have been shown to exist in species other than our own. Social structure, intelligence, self-consciousness, language, empathy, sympathy and morals are others. If we move to our closest living relatives amongst the hominids we may possibly add fantasy, a sense of esthetics, and even a limited degree of abstract thinking, according to Barbara King.

She has used the study of higher primates in an attempt to find the basic foundations for religion amongst our own species. Her book, “Evolving God: A provocative View on the Origins of Religion”, might remind many of a primatological version of Émile Durkheims search for “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”, based on the studies of aboriginal totem-cults in Australia. Such a parallel springs to mind based on the surprisingly similar conclusions in the two works, that religion is something that arises from our nature as social beings.

We can most probably, at least for the moment, rule out religion amongst our relatives in the animal kingdom.

 Does that mean that we are ready to walk in Montaignes footsteps and speculate in animal religion? If we want to walk down this most uncertain path, we need to clarify the meaning of religion, a term that in itself is controversial. One possible approach is to start by dividing form and content, religion and religiousness, something that was first done by sociologist Georg

Simmel. For our purpose we may say that religiousness is the emotional, subjective religious experience, while religion is the cultural form that religiousness might take if it is institutionalized and linked to rituals, myths and dogma. We can most probably, at least for the moment, rule out religion amongst our relatives in the animal kingdom. Religiousness, the foundation of religion however, is something quite different, and we can give a few examples.


Dogs can be sad and grief stricken too. Photo: Tim Dawson.

Love and grief

One emotion that plays a central part in most religious traditions is love. Many social animals spend a significant amount of their time nurturing intimate bonds with each other, something that have obvious evolutionary advantages that gives the collective a greater chance of surviving and reproducing. These emotional bonds also have unintended consequences however, to use a weberian rather than biological term. They lead to what appears to be feelings of loss and sorrow when the objects of this affection disappear. There are countless stories of dogs that are deeply stricken by grief when their owner passes on. This is a behavior that, according to Bekoff, can also be seen among wild canines.

Do the animals speculate on the fate of their dearly departed?

The legend of the elephant burial grounds presumably originated from similar observations of the ritual displays of grief by these animals, something that can delay a wandering herd of elephants for days. Do the animals speculate on the fate of their dearly departed? That is something that we will probably never know, since the thoughts of the animals are “concealed from us”. If Bekoff is right, however, that emotions are a language that transcends the divisions of species, then we can at least conclude that the same emotions of grief and sorrow that have inspired human notions of the afterlife is present also amongst other animals, even if the cognitive premises for conceiving such ideas should prove to be lacking.


“The Unknown” by John Charles Dollman.


What of awe? Jane Goodall have observed chimpanzees who in an agitated state dances a “waterfall dance” when confronted with mighty natural phenomena such as waterfalls or thunderstorms. Could it be that the chimpanzee experiences something akin to the numinous feeling of terror and fascination that, according to Rudolf Otto, characterizes mans meeting with the sacred?Another animal, possibly in danger of losing its status as a separate species after its DNA has been found in Europeans and Asians, is the Neanderthal. Perhaps the Neanderthal was the first animal that moved from the subjective religious experience to the cultural form of religion?

There are no archeological evidence to proof that Neanderthals were religious, or that they practiced religion, but there are a long line of possible indications that this could be the case. These include objects that might have served decorative purposes, color pigments, signs of cannibalism and possibly graves, all things that are commonly associated with religious practice and religious notions amongst Homo sapiens.

The evolutionary benefits of religion

More important, however, is the evolutionary benefits of religion, if we assume that this cultural phenomenon is merely a human addition to the toolbox we share with other social animals. A tool that can be used to weld individuals into a functioning collective, inspire acts of selflessness, encourage social harmony and instill the necessary respect for social hierarchy that provides the discipline required for success in hunting dangerous prey, or in offensive or defensive wars over resources or territory. If this is how our species have implemented religion, is there then any reason why our closest relatives should have refrained from using this evolutionary advantage, given that they could?

Perhaps they were not quite as adept as our direct ancestors, however, when it came to tapping into the enormous resources that religion holds? Even today modern man shows his masterful manipulation of religion as a means to a great many ends. The way Latin American pentecostalists pull themselves out of poverty, seemingly by the hair, is one example. How salafi-jihadists are able to inspire their adherents into sacrificing their own lives in the struggle against their enemies is another. Is it possible that our ancestors skillful use of religion as a means of amplifying desirable behavioral traits whilst repressing others was the evolutionary advantage that made it possible to displace the Neanderthals?

Many of these questions will remain unanswered for the foreseeable future. Still, the temptation to speculate whether religiousness, one of the very last attributes particular to Homo sapiens, is shared by other species is irresistible. In the meantime we may agree with Montaigne that we should not conclude upon something of which we lack sufficient knowledge, nor should we, however, rule it out.

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Previously published in: 
  • First published in on the 16th of September 2010
  • Published in the newspaper Klassekampen on the 17th of September 2010