Animal Spirituality

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It may sound strange to talk about the spirituality of animals. A lot of folks still aren’t on board with the idea of animal intelligence, although the data are definitely in on that. Scientists are confident that many species are intelligent, and some are beginning to talk about plant and fungal intelligence, too. We know that animals have rich emotional lives. There is also beginning to be widespread acceptance that animals of various species display moral standards and enforce communal moral codes. But these things are all traits that can be assessed by observation of behavior; a spiritual life or ability to feel awe has a strong interior aspect that’s hard to observe.

Still, there are hints. Early human burials, dating to almost 100,000 years ago, are often cited as evidence of spirituality or religion among those communities, or at the very least as proto-religious behavior. We know that some animals, most notably elephants, bury their dead. In fact, elephants have also been observed burying dead and sleeping humans! The burial ritual involves covering the dead animal with dirt or branches, sometimes burying them with food, flowers, and foliage. The mourners may make a rumbling sound, and close kin have been heard to emit a soft scream, similar to keening. If we have no trouble labeling early human burials as religious, or proto-religious, then we should apply similar standards to evidence of animal burial.

There are other stories that beg an explanation. One day, while hiking in the wilds of Utah, a naturalist named Craig Childs followed some ravens into a canyon. The canyon was filled with more ravens than he could count, and they began to caw at him and drop pebbles on him. There was no nest nearby, which might have explained this behavior. The only unusual thing he could see was a stone in the middle of the canyon, under which had been placed a feather, an owl’s feather, as it turned out. Childs came back to the canyon with his hiking buddies, and they found many owl feathers, often weighted down with rocks or wedged in cracks—these were not feathers that an owl had simply dropped; they had been deliberately placed. Childs climbed to a ledge up in the canyon wall, and found what he could only describe as an altar, made of stones and owl feathers with carefully shredded quills.

In his analysis of the find, Childs wondered whether the ravens’ rock-and-feather installation commemorated the ravens’ kill of an owl. Whatever prompted the ravens to build, protect, and visit this installation, there seems to be some kind of symbolic thinking going on, a level of cognition that is far above what we humans are usually willing to attribute to animals, at least in this day and age.

If it’s hard to grasp what other people think and feel about God, it is much harder to understand what—if anything—animals might feel of the numinous, the transcendent, an experience of something more than mere matter. Most humans of the ancient world would have had no problem believing that animals perceive God; in the Bible, for example, animals are depicted as praising God, as fasting and praying, and as receiving a prophetic utterance from God.

We early 21st century humans, though, have some serious blocks when it comes to attributing emotion and moral reasoning to animals, much less spiritual lives. Seventeenth century philosopher Rene Descartes argued that animals are automata, machines, beings without consciousness or even the ability to feel pain, and unfortunately, this approach to animals dominated for the next several centuries. Things began to change, ever so slowly, around the 1960s, as scientists began to understand the mind in new ways, and picked up speed as more and more people became critical of the human impulse to define animal as simply other-than-human. We now know what scientists resisted for a long time: that animals are capable of learning human language, of solving puzzles, of abstract thought. They practice deceit, enforce moral codes in their communities, and have complex methods of communicating among themselves. The title of one of Frans de Waal’s books is Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Much of the time, we haven’t been smart enough, because we’ve been too blinded by our prejudices of what language should sound like or what reasoning should look like.

So I’ve mentioned a few animal rituals around death, and a possible communal raven altar, but what might a more individual, reverential spirituality look like in animals? And how would we recognize it? Jane Goodall describes a male chimpanzee approaching a waterfall, his hair beginning to stand up on end: “As he gets closer, and the roar of the falling water gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he may perform a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls. Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. Sometimes he climbs up the slender vines that hang down from the trees high above and swings out into the spray of the falling water. This ‘waterfall dance’ may last ten or fifteen minutes. . . . Is it not possible that these performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe?” Marc Bekoff writes, in response to this and his own observation of chimps dancing in rainstorms and at the bottoms of waterfalls, “The actions are deliberate but obscure. Could it be they are a joyous response to being alive, or even an expression of the chimp’s awe of nature? Where, after all, might human spiritual impulses originate?”

Perhaps what we can learn from such observations is just how universal the spiritual impulse is, and that we ought to feel a lot more humility in how we organize and communicate our own spiritual experiences. Perhaps this sense of awe at the majesty and unpredictability of nature is common to many creatures. Perhaps, just like us, all creatures feel a sense of gratitude when their needs have been met, such as when rain falls after a long dry spell, or when they’ve enjoyed an abundant meal, or been delivered from a predator or other life-threatening situation.

And maybe that’s what’s going on with Craig Childs’ raven story: gratitude at being delivered from a predator. Ravens often gather and “mob” larger birds, to protect their eggs and nestlings. When you consider that much of the Bible is an exhortation to the people to remember God’s saving acts to them throughout their history, the ravens’ shredded owl feathers do take on a new cast. I’m not suggesting that they believe in a deity, just observing that memories of deliverance or saving from disaster are powerful, and if they’re powerful to us humans, it would be arrogant to assume they’re not also powerful to other animals.

If you remain skeptical, and that’s understandable—perhaps the best attitude to take to the idea of animal spirituality is a combination of skepticism and humility—there is another way to understand “animal spirituality,” which is a spirituality that encompasses animals as revealers of the mind of the Creator. A pet or barnyard animal, or even an encounter with a wild animal, is an opportunity to learn a little bit about the diversity of approaches to the world. I often find myself studying my cat Soph, who resembles a very small gray catamount, and seeing echoes of the mountain lion’s behavior in the way she stalks moths. I try to interpret the way she leaves mouse heads for me in my workspace; is it an offering of thanks? An indication of what she thinks of my hunting skills? Maybe reciprocity for all the treats I’ve given her? I can’t know, but I do know that she meant the gift for me, because she always leaves it here, on my seat where I work.

A few weeks ago I talked about sheep and the shepherd metaphor, and how I realized that we humans were imposing our human-centered, predator-centered, perspective on them, which is why we think of them as stupid. It’s not that they’re not smart, it’s that they don’t have the kind of smarts we’re familiar with. I try to remember this when challenged with the apparent stupidity of my chickens or cats, and then slide my mind sideways to try to see the world from their avian or feline perspective.

Years ago, a friend gave me a book of “Cat Psalms.” I was a little taken aback by it at first. The author first imaginatively considers an aspect of cat behavior, and the facing page has a prayer that uses cat behavior as a metaphor. For example, the author considers the way cats react when something about their territory changes; if you have cats, and if you’ve ever moved with them, or even moved the furniture around in your home, you probably noticed your cat inspecting the new arrangement. The accompanying prayer deals with changes in human life: the seasons changing, the loss of a friendship, the changes we observe in others. The prayer basically affirms the practice of deep attention to the world around us, and the way that attention can slow us down. The book is a little hokey, but sweet, and it was valuable in prompting me to think about the diversity of approaches to life, and even more, to examine some of my natural, animal reactions to things: the ways I resist change, my defensiveness around solitary time, my intense feelings of embarrassment or pride or excitement. And having sympathy with myself then helped me have sympathy with others, understanding that the animal part of ourselves, the part that is older than human language, often reacts to situations in ways we can’t control. It can be very helpful to see other humans as furless, bipedal animals who aren’t necessarily reacting to you personally or rationally, but to a sense of threat or a need for affirmation.

One of the most pressing moral challenges for human spirituality today is to displace humans from the center of the religious world. We’re so used to thinking of the world around us as resources to be used, to writing off a certain number of animals, even whole species, as acceptable losses to economic growth and development. Thinking seriously about animals and their perspective on the world may be the single most inconvenient thing people of faith can do to the powers that be. If we are capable of imagining a cat’s-eye view of the world, or an elephant’s-eye view, or a raven’s-eye view, we’re that much less likely to mistreat those animals or see them as acceptable collateral damage to feeding our own needs and desires in development or global warming.

In Genesis chapter two, the storyteller depicts God making animals specifically to be companions for the first human. The animals are almost like siblings to the human. This is arguably not meant to be literal, but to symbolically emphasize the similarities between humans and nonhuman animals. After making the animals, God “brings them to the human,” and then steps back, “to see what [the human] would call them.” There’s an interplay between God, human, and animal, a sense of relationality, almost playfulness. God is curious about how the human and the animal will interact, and we can imagine the human’s response to these various creatures, inspecting each new thing, a donkey here, a lion there, a beetle, an eagle, maybe even a groundhog.

What if we imagine God watching us now, seeing what we’ll name our fellow creatures? How would that change our approach? Will we call them “thing,” “object,” or “brother,” “sister”? Will we call them “resource,” or will we call them “friend”? Will we call them “trivial,” or will we call them “teacher”?

Sources include Barbara King’s Being with Animals and How Animals Grieve, both of which are highly recommended.

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