Frans de Waal is among the sanest of popular science writers. I’ve been following his non-technical work since Our Inner Ape through The Age of Empathy to The Bonobo and the Atheist. As de Waal himself explains, he tended to leave religion out of his earlier works since, for a scientist such topics are generally taboo. His direct address to religion in The Bonobo and the Atheist is refreshing and enlightened. As he notes, de Waal does not believe in God, but he doesn’t believe in the abolition of religion either. This sets him against his fellow biologist Richard Dawkins, who is so bright that the rest of us are burnt out dimmer bulbs by comparison. As de Waal soberly asks: what does science offer in place of religion? What is the point of taking away something that has evolved from our early primate days without offering anything to fill its spot? Even an ape would object.
What makes The Bonobo and the Atheist so engaging, apart from de Waal’s writing, is the openness of his outlook. De Waal suggests that the origins of morality and empathy can be glimpsed in apes and monkeys. He cites the reaction of chimpanzees to rain storms and even waterfalls that hint at early religious development. As I’ve suggested on this forum before, religion may even be allowed to animals. Their experience of religion is certainly not the same as ours, but there is evidence of both thought and feeling. When these are brought together they form religious belief in Homo sapiens. Why not in our ancestors and fellow animals? No, animals don’t develop elaborate doctrines or precious rituals. They do, however, reverence the powerful, ponder death, and feel emotion. Some of our great thinkers are ready to cast all that aside in the name of progress. More humbly, and circumspectly, de Waal considers that evolution is telling us something. And when evolution speaks, its children should pay attention.
Descriptions of reactions and behaviors that we consider unique to humans among the animal world draw me to de Waal’s books. As a scientist de Waal has to draw logical conclusions, and those conclusions point to an inner world that is not so much unique in humans as it is evolved. Religion, I believe, is one of those traits. If animals show some of the early stages of religious development, including a basic form of ethics, how does that devalue our human efforts to explain our universe? Religion is in good company, along with opposable thumbs and basic language comprehension. Looking at how we treat each other, I consider being related to animals a compliment most of the time. Without a doubt some of the ethics Frans de Waal illustrates among the bonobos exceed those I’ve experienced at the hands of many who think of themselves as made in the image of God.