There’s no question that religion is a distinctly human phenomenon. Although the concept of “religion” is used to lump together all kinds of belief and praxis systems around the world, it is now an aspect of every culture ever studied. When on an interview recently for a religion teaching post, I pondered whether to be entirely frank or to play it safe: should I discuss the origins of religion or a more conventional topic? (I went the safe route and did not get the job, if anyone wonders if there might be a moral to all this…)
For several years now I have been exploring whether it is possible to trace religion back to the animal coinhabitants of our planet. While my musings have taken me from singing Neanderthals to mourning penguins, it has become quite clear that at least the most basic levels of religion also exist in what is often termed “lower” life forms. My epiphany began while watching David Attenborough discussing the purpose of birdsong. Religion and music have been nearly inseparable in human experience (if one can overlook some extremist reformers). My thoughts turned to elephants who “bury” their dead with branches and penguins who clearly mourn the loss of their young — watch March of the Penguins if you doubt it! Death and religion have walked the long and disjointed journey of humankind hand in bony hand. By the time we get to primates we find baboons stopping to watch the rising sun (an act the ancient Egyptians supposed to be solar worship) and chimpanzees raging against thunderstorms as if they despise Baal even more than Hosea. A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word “yes” to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates! For those who doubt that animals are capable of worship I would suggest the true acid test — purchase a dog.
We guard far too jealously that which makes us better than our animal companions. As observation and research progress and that line in the speciological sand grows ever more effaced, I wonder why religion might not have its roots in our very animal nature. While reading a book on biblical flora recently, I pondered if a even larger step back might be taken. Consider the heliotropes, for indeed they do toil and spin.