Volume 9, Number 2 - Spring 2018

Paul Robert Matthews

Why Animals and Religion Now?

Hegel’s Dog. In his preface to Herman Friedrich Wilhelm Hinrichs’s book on the “inner relationship” between “science” and religion (Die Religion im inneren Verhältnisse zur Wissenschaft) from 1822,1  Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel wrote, quite famously,

if religion in human beings only grounded itself in a feeling, a feeling with no further determination than that of a feeling of absolute dependence, then the dog would be the best Christian, for the dog feels this [feeling] most strongly and lives principally within it. The dog would also have a feeling of salvation, whenever it gained satisfaction from a bone. (Berliner Schriften 58)2  

These words were directed at Hegel’s esteemed colleague at the time, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and, in particular, at his recently published Glaubenslehre, or The Christian Faith, where Schleiermacher first defined the essence of religion as a feelinga feeling of absolute dependence (schlechthinnige Abhängigkeit). Of course, Schleiermacher had already, in his Speeches from 1799, defined the essence of religion as “neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling” (Schleiermacher 22). However, at that time, Hegel had nothing negative to say about Schleiermacher himself, even if he was already combatting philosophies of feeling propagated by the likes of J.F. Fries and F.H. Jacobi (Crouter 22-27). Yet, by 1822, something had obviously changed.

Perhaps Hegel had simply come to the conclusion that the need to reconcile religion with “science” had become so pressing that the time for niceties had passed. Or perhaps his time in Berlin had made it more difficult to “keep his natural tendency for sarcasm in check” (Pinkard 501). In any case, as Terry Pinkard notes, Schleiermacher, as well as many of Schleiermacher’s supporters, found his comments deeply offensiveand (Pinkard adds) “understandably” so. Hegel had, after all, accused Schleiermacher of “not being able to distinguish deep religious faith from the animal feelings of a happy dog wagging its tail after having been given a treat.”

However, this is not the only thing of which Hegel accused Schleiermacher; indeed, not even, as far as I can tell, the primary thing. Moreover, I highly doubt that this was the accusation to which Schleiermacher, in the main, took offence, and which we still find “understandably” offensive today. Rather, Hegel had accused Schleiermacher of promoting an “animal religion”a religion, quite literally, of and for the dogs. While it would certainly be worth our time to unpack the reasons why Hegel characterized Schleiermacher’s religion as an “animal religion,” that is not what I will be doing here; I bring up Hegel’s dog only to point out that, although almost 200 years has passed since this exchange took place, we still think that we understand why Schleiermacher would have taken offence at Hegel’s words even, that is, without much in the way of context. This, I want to suggest, is an indication that our working conception of “religion” has not changed a great deal since the time of Hegel, or at least not radically. That we still find Schleiermacher’s response understandable demonstrates that we continue to hold many of the same presuppositions about “religion” as Hegel and Schleiermacherthe same presuppositions which render effective Hegel’s rhetorical show of force.

Among these are the (related) presuppositions that other animals cannot be religious (or even have religious feelings); that, conversely, only humans are capable of being religious; and that religion belongs, as Aaron Gross puts it, to the “nonanimal part of the human” (Gross 13), which is to say that “religion” is a, or perhaps even the, (private) property of the human. Moreover, these presuppositions are themselves supported by yet a further, more basic presupposition: that humans are somehow, or for some reason, essentially different from other animals by virtue of a certain power or property such as reason, language, or even “religion” itself.

While it may still be “laughable,” or even “offensive,” to speak of animal religion, the time has come, particularly for those of us working in the field of religious studies, to take seriously the possibility of animal religion or, at the very least, to begin to take seriously the challenge of rethinking “religion” from the vantage point of “the animal.” Although it has become increasingly difficult in recent years to maintain the boundary line which has traditionally separated or walled off the animal from the human being, we continue to employ a variety of concepts which depend in some way upon a hard and fast distinction between humans and other animals for their conceptual integrity (including the concept of the concept itself).  Such concepts include freedom, culture, language, thought, reason, morality, and, as I will be attempting to demonstrate here, religion as well.

That said, the idea that other animals may indeed “have” religion or may be religious in some way has as of late begun to gain a bit of traction. To be sure, others have expressed the possibility of animal religion before: most significantly, Darwin, Teilhard de Chardin, Johannes Maringer, and Mircea Eliade. However, with the exception of Darwin, such “animals” were always of the homo genus. Yet, recent publications in the fields of religious studies, including cognitive ethnology, critical theory, and theology indicate that “the animal” or the question that “the animal” poses has found its way into the territory of “religion” and religious studies.

In what follows, I attempt to take stock of these recent developments and to provide an answer, or series of answers, as to why  these developments have come about now, and only now. I should emphasize that I am not interested in providing an overview of all of the work carried out in animal studies, as well as religious studies, that bears upon the question of the animal and religion. Nor am I interested in defining or developing a new concept of religion (such an attempt would be, at minimum, counterproductive). Rather, I am interested in tracing the effects that this recent intrusion of “the animal” into the territory of religious studies have had upon the way that we in academia conceptualize religion. I want to sketch out some reasons or suggestions which make sense of the question, “why animals and religion now?” Why is this question being asked now, why has it taken so long for us to ask it, and what does the fact that it has taken so long to ask say about the current state of the academic study of religion?

The first part of this essay examines the role that animals have played in establishing the limit or horizon of our thinking about religion. The second part is devoted to why and how this limit or horizon has recently begun to shift or, in some cases, dissolve (if only in part). Finally, I consider why now might be the timeand indeed, perhaps the only time we haveto respond to the question of the animal and its implications for the study of religion. I have attempted to engage with a variety of thinkers who, in their thinking about religion, have frequently touched upon the question regarding the animal. These engagements are by no means exhaustive, but I do take them to be representative of the way in which we, in the academic study of religion, have tended to approach religion until now.

Yet, before we jump in, I would like to return for a moment to Hegel and his dog, to remind ourselves of what is at stake in this line of questioning which runs from the animal, through the human being, to religion or, that is, to try to adumbrate the ways in which the animal, the human being, and religion have been historically bound together in such a way that, to (re)define one term, requires us to (re)define the other(s).

Defining or Divining the Subject of Religion. In Hegel’s critique of Schleiermacher, we can distinguish a certain pattern or way of thinking about the relationship between and among religion, the human being, and the animal, which becomes repeated throughout the subsequent history of thinking about religionin particular, about the “essence,” as well as the “origin,” of religion.

At least within “Western” thought, the distinction between human and animal has been most commonly justified on the basis of “the fact” that humans are the only animals that have the capacity to “reason” or to “think.” Indeed, in this respect, Hegel is traditional. Everything genuinely human, Hegel argues, has been and is a product or result of thinking, and it is only in and through thinking that the human comes to distinguish itself from other animals. Although feeling, for instance, has an important role to play in religion, religion is ultimately a matter of mind or spirit;3  it is only because the human being is spirit, or becomes spirit in and through thinking, that the human being is capable of religion. “Only thinking,” writes Hegel, “makes the soul (with which animals are also endowed) a spirit, and philosophy is only a consciousness of that content, the spirit and its truth, in the shape and manner of its essential character that distinguishes it [the spirit] from the animal and makes it capable of religion” (Encyclopedia 16).

In Hegel’s thought, as in that of so many others, thought or thinking, and all that thought or thinking usually entails (language, consciousness, self-consciousness, etc.), simultaneously provides the basis for the (re)production of the human/animal distinction and marks the essential determination or condition of “religion” as such. This formulation, as it turns out, can be found in many of the founding “fathers” of religious studies, from Durkheim to Jonathan Z. Smith.4 Although thought or thinking does not always play the role of  arbiter in these thinkers, whatever it is that distinguishes the human being from the animal also and at the same time determines the essential or necessary condition for the appearance of religion.

For the most part, this connection or relationship between the essence of “religion” and the essence of the “human being” has, within the history of Western thought, gone unthought or unquestioned. Most have simply assumed that the subject of religion begins and ends with the human subject. I am sure, at any rate, that it never occurred to Schleiermacher to question the logic behind Hegel’s polemical diatribethat is, to question whether other animals can in fact be religious. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, no one had ever seriously questioned whether, in fact, religion was an exclusively human phenomenon, limited to the realm of the human subject, until quite recently. While, beginning in the early 2000s, various works began to appear devoted to detailing how particular religions relate to other animals, there had been no single work devoted to examining the question of the animal and religion, in generalor, that is, from a critical perspectiveuntil the appearance of Aaron Gross’ The Question of the Animal and Religion (2014), followed shortly thereafter by Donovan Schaefer’s Religious Affects (2015).5

What differentiates the work of Gross and Schaefer from what came before is that they are interested not only in the way in which other animals have been regarded in particular religious traditions, but in the way in which “religion” as such, as well as the academic study of religion, has often excluded the animal from its purview. This is not to say that the animal has been absent from “religion” and religious studies. To the contrary, as Gross argues, “the animal” or the question of the animal has “always been at the center of the modern and contemporary study of religion, albeit in a camouflaged and forgotten manner” (Gross 61). Though the turn toward the animal and religion, at least within contemporary animal and religious studies, may be new, the question of the animal and religion has certainly been asked before, if only implicitly. The question then becomes, why has it taken so long for us, especially those of us working in the field of religious studies, to notice that there has been an animal after us, following us now for quite some time?

Animals and the Limits of the Understanding of Religion. I want to suggest that, while it certainly has taken a long time, perhaps too long, for us to notice the “absent presence” (to borrow from Aaron Gross and vicariously from Carol Adams) of other animals in and around the field of religious studies, it has always been a matter of time before the animal or the question of the animal and religion caught up with us. It could be argued that the question has been waiting for us since at least the dawn of the agricultural revolution, when we, or so the story goes, began to separate or distinguish ourselves from other animals through the construction of walls, both material and conceptual. The question of the animal has always been, in a strange, double sense, “after” us or “following” usboth before us, pursuing us, and after us, waiting for us (to follow).6 The question of the animal (and religion) has, it would seem, marked the horizon or limit of our thinking about religion for quite some time.

In her article, "A Report on the Animal Turn," philosopher and critical theorist Kari Weil suggests that the recent turn toward animals in the humanities and the social sciences has come about because we have begun to realize that animals are, to follow Lévi-Strauss, “good to think” (Lévi-Strauss 89), and in particular that they are good to think “the limit case of theories of difference, otherness, and power” (Weil 3). And, we might add, of theories of religion as well. Yet, animals have always been helpful for thinking the limits of such theories. Gross, in The Question of the Animal and Religion, demonstrates this through an analysis of four of the “founding fathers” of religious studies: Émile Durkheim, Ernst Cassirer, Mircea Eliade, and Jonathan Z. Smith. For Durkheim, as Gross points out, the “inquiry into religion is simultaneously an inquiry into the origins of conceptual thought (particularly the classificatory function), the emergence of the human out of animality, and the foundations of society” (Gross 63). Moreover, in Durkheim, these inquiries are intimately related; indeed, they hang together.

Durkheim, along with Marcel Mauss, argues in Primitive Classification, that the “classificatory function” that is, the ability to classify things and “arrange them into groups which are distinct from each other, and are separated by clearly determined lines of demarcation” is the “defining” property of the human being. Although “logicians and psychologists commonly regard the procedure … as being simple, innate, or at least as instituted by the powers of the individual alone,” the classificatory function, Durkheim and Mauss argue, is in fact a complex social behavior (4). “In the beginning,” the human mind finds itself “in a state of indistinction,” lacking “the most indispensable conditions for the classificatory function.” According to Durkheim, “our present notion of classification has a history,” even a prehistory; it has “been formed by a painful combination of elements borrowed from extremely different sources, quite foreign to logic, and laboriously organized” (3). To make their case, Durkheim and Mauss “descend to the least evolved societies known, those which the Germans call by the rather vague term Naturvölker,” where “there is a complete lack of distinction between him and his exterior soul or his totem. [Where] he and his ‘fellow-animal’ together compose a single personality.” Among Durkheim’s and Mauss’ examples of such societies, we encounter the “emblem,” if not the “totem,” of the discipline of religious studies: the Brazilian parrot of the Bororo tribe, whom the “Bororo sincerely imagines himself to be…” (6).

To be sure, the Bororo did not, in fact, claim that they are “men and parrots at one and the same time” (Smith, “Parrott” 272). This much Jonathan Z. Smith makes clear in his essay, “I am a Parrot (Red).” As Smith himself points out, to determine that this is indeed the case we need only turn to the original (German) text from Karl von den Steinen, Unter den Naturvölkern Zentral-Brasiliens. Yet Durkheim and Mauss must have been aware of this as well, for, though they claim that, “the Bororo sincerely imagines himself to be a parrot,” they note that he believes that he “assumes the characteristic form only after he is dead, in this life he is to that animal what the caterpillar is to the butterfly” (Durkheim and Mauss 7). Nonetheless, Durkheim and Mauss go on to include the Bororo among their examples of people who cannot make or who avoid making distinctions. In doing so, Durkheim and Mauss appear to follow “von den Steinen’s mistaken lead in assuming that the key to exegesis [of the Bororo’s statement, “We are parrots”] lay in the fact that the Bororo cannot distinguish between animals and men or between different species of animals” (Smith, op. cit.) But, Smith asks, what if they did? What if the Bororo did in fact claim, apparently contrary to fact, “that they are men and parrots at the same time.” How would we, as scholars of religion, respond?

This question turns out to be relatively easy to answer because, as Smith notes, the majority of scholars that have attempted to make sense of the Bororo’s purported declaration, “we are parrots,” have indeed taken the declaration at face value, that is, literally. After examining a range of interpretations, Smith concludes that scholars who take the Bororo’s declaration literally inevitably come to one of two conclusions:  either that the Bororo “mean it and they are wrong, or they mean it, but we can never understand what they mean” (286). Smith, for his part, does not attempt to answer his own question, although he does suggest that the key to a satisfactory interpretation, for him, depends in some way upon Lévi-Strauss’ observation that the Bororo “differentiate between aquatic, terrestrial, and aerial realms and the animals associated with them: the Bororo were fish, they are now men, they will become birds” (272).  In any case, it is clear that Smith himself do not wish to offer a literal interpretation of the Bororo’s declarationto do so, to paraphrase Smith and Malinowski, would make the scholar feel silly and the speaker look ridiculous (266).  Accoding to Smith, this “thought experiment” demonstrates the need for a consideration of the question of truth and a (re)examination of the principles of intelligibility upon which we construct our interpretations of phenomena which appear to be contrary to fact. If we fail do so, “then it is we rather than the Bororo who are unable to make distinctions” (287).  

I have not invoked Smith, Mauss, Durkheim, or the Brazilian parrot of the Bororo to offer a new interpretation of the statement “wir sind Araras” (von den Steinen 512). I have done so to draw attention, first of all, to the fact that, pinched for an “illustration of the alleged inability of primitive man [sic] to make distinctions” (Smith 273), Mauss and Durkheim turn to examples of people who supposedly do not or cannot distinguish human beings from other animals. In other words, in the thought of Durkheim and Mauss the human/animal distinction is a, if not the, fundamental distinction upon which the classificatory function and its subsequent development are based. “Without the human/animal binary,” Aaron Gross notes, “no more advanced and properly human classificatory function will develop” (64). The human/animal distinction, or the ability to think this distinction, marks the beginning of distinctly human thought.7

Second, I want to draw attention to Smith’s question, “What if we only knew that the Bororo insist that they are men and parrots at one and the same time” (272), and ask the question once again, albeit differently, under the assumption that the Bororo (or the Sioux, the Bakairi, or the Trumaí, or anyone else) do not or cannot make distinctionsparticularly, between humans and other animals. Under these conditions, how would we, as scholars of religion, respond? Would we respond by denying such people their “humanity”? Or by denying that such people can be religious?

Because Durkheim and Mauss already took the Bororo’s statement to mean that they did not or were not capable of drawing distinctions, it is for us quite easy to say how they might respond. Such people would, in the first place, still be human, but of an entirely different sort. They would be, as Freud speculated in his Totem and Taboo, like children, caught in a sort of arrested development, akin to a “missing link.” Similarly, they would still be “religious”; however, their religion would most certainly be “primitive.” A religion in which, once again, “there is a complete lack of distinction between [the individual] and his exterior soul or totem” (Durkheim and Mauss 6). Moreover, such a religion would constitute only a stage in the development of religion, and an “early” one at thata “passing,” liminary phase, through which the Bororo never passed. 

Although I do not want to engage in too much speculation, I believe Smith would have to deny that the Bororo could be religiousat least in any strict, anthropological sense. After all, according to Smith, one’s capacity for religion depends in large part, just as with Durkheim and Mauss, on the ability to perceive discrepancies, incongruities, and contradictions, for it is “the incongruity between the expectation and the actuality that serves as a vehicle for religious experience” (“Map” 301). Furthermore, it is the “perceptions of discrepancy and discord which,” according to Smith, “give rise to the symbolic project that we identify as the very essence of the human being” (“Parrot” 297). Thus, although Smith admirably comes to the aid of the Bororo, defending them against the attempts of Durkheim and others, such as Lévy Bruhl, who characterize their way of thinking or mentality as “primitive,” he nonetheless reinforces the idea that for one to be religious one requires the ability to make or draw distinctions or to think, and to do so in a very particular (Kantian) way. Moreover, he also appears to reinforce the idea that it is precisely this ability to think which, insofar as it gives rise to symbolic thought, characterizes the essence of the human being.

In a sense this is surprising, for in “Map is not Territory” Smith proclaims that it has been “one of the great ironies of history” that we have used those “activities of man which are unique,  especially language and historical consciousness,” to “dichotomize the world into human beings (who are generally like-us) and non-human beings (who are generally not like-us), into the ‘we’ and the ‘them’ which are the boundaries of any ethnic map” (“Map” 294). This dichotomy “has resulted in much mischief.” What kind of mischief? Well, quite literally, the creation of dangerously inaccurate mapsmaps replete with errors and plagued with false distinctions, which were subsequently used by scholars to construct the category of “religion,” as well as “world religions.” A world religion, Smith argues, is a religion which “is like ours; but it is, above all, a tradition which has achieved sufficient power and numbers to enter our history, either to form it, interact with it, or thwart it. All other religions are invisible” (295). Invisible religions are those which have not yet become “religions” in the proper sense of the word and which belong to “other” peoplepeople who, again, for some reason, are not “us.” Any distinction can make all the difference between “us” and “them.” “In classical Greek anthropology,” Smith notes, the distinction between “us” and “them” was drawn on the basis of language: “to be, in a cultural sense, non-human was to be a barbarian, to speak unintelligible, stuttering, animal or child-like speech.” In the 19th and 20th centuries, the distinction came to be drawn on the basis of “history,” that is, whether one has or does not have a history or a concept of history (294). The list, just like the list of all that is “proper” to the human being, could be extended infinitely to include “a nonfinite number of other concepts” (Derrida 5), including that of the “classificatory function.”

It does not take much imagination to imagine an alternate reality in which Smith is, in fact, writing a tract on the way in which scholars of religion have systematically excluded non-human animals from the purview of religious studies. Indeed, all of the “nonhuman” traits which Smith brings up could be applied not only to other humans but to other animals as well. However, from the start of his essay, Smith “takes the terms ‘Human Sciences,’ ‘Humanities’ and ‘History’ … as limiting perspectives” for his understanding of religion. For Smith, religion is an “inextricably human phenomenon,” by which he also seems to mean exclusively human (“Map” 290). Thus, when Smith refers to “non-human beings,” he does not mean to include other animals; instead he is referring to something like von den Steinen’s (or, for that matter, Hegel’s) “natural man.”

That said, Smith does recognize that the idea that there exists an essential difference between the “primitive,”“inhuman” being and the modern, “human” being is highly problematic. Indeed, he goes so far as to claim that this idea “has prevented us from realizing what is human and humane in the worlds of other men” (308). Although it would be easy to extend this train of thought to include not merely “other men,” but other animals as well, Smith stops abruptly at the boundary of the human world, leaving the boundaries of the nonhumans’ world largely unquestioned. “Human lifeor, perhaps more pointedly, humane life,” Smith writes, “is not a series of burning bushes. The categories of holism, of congruity, suggest a static perfection to primitive life which I, for one, find inhuman” (Ibid.).8 In contrast to the inhuman world, the human world allows “incongruous elements to stand … [T]hey seek […] to play between the incongruities and to provide an occasion for thought” (309). Thus, “human” life is marked off, as with Mauss and Durkheim, from “inhuman” life because it is capable of holding together disjunctive, incongruent, or even outright contradictory elementsa capability which presupposes the ability to make or draw distinctions, to think. Thought or thinking ends up playing the defining role in the determination of what is “human” and what is “non-human,” as well as what is and what is not capable of religion or being religious. In Smith’s taxonomy, “our” Bororo would not be considered “properly” human. They would have to be placed under some “other” category, a third category reserved for that ever evolving “missing link.”

In both Durkheim and Smith, “the animal” is what remains unthought (and unthinking); it remains the unquestioned horizon or limit of “religion.” In Smith’s essay, “The Bare Facts of Ritual,” the consequences of this way of thinking in which the distinction between the human and the animal frames or sets the boundaries of “religion” become evident. There, the “bear,” like the Brazilian Parrot of the Bororo, cannot be thought of as anything but a bear, or as anything but a “mere” animal (that is, as an object, as food, etc.). Perhaps it is indeed we (rather than von den Steinen’s Bororo) who remain caught in the dilemma of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, who cannot tell whether he was dreaming he was a butterfly, or if a butterfly was dreaming that he himself had dreamed he was a butterfly, or if a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhuangzi. Yet, if religion is, as Smith argues, “a creativity which both discovers limits and creates limits for humane existence” (“Map” 291),  then would it not be precisely the task of religious studies to question such limits, especially those which border on the human/animal? But, again, why has it taken so long for those of us working in religious studies to question this limit, and why have we only begun to question it now?

Why now? While it is clear, from a Darwinian perspective, that we are animals, it is also clear that we are not animals, that a rupture has taken place between humans and other animals. Moreover, if Derrida is correct, then the difference, the abyssal gap between the “‘I-we,’ and what we call animals,” may indeed be necessary for thought and religion (Derrida 47). That said, it is precisely this thought that we must call into questionthat thought which again and again appears to separate us from other animals, if not from the start, then from a very young age; and which, at the same time, constitutes the “origin of the religious” (at least, in Derrida’s estimation, of the Abrahamic sort), insofar as it amounts to a movement of guilt or “shame” (49).

Such a move is, admittedly, “dizzying,” as Aaron Gross reminds us (8). To question whether or not one is thinking amounts toby all Cartesian measuresthe very definition of insanity. Yet, perhaps there is a way to include other animals among the taxonomy of thinking beings, such that “thought” no longer, from the outset, defines humanity or sets it apart from other animals. Scholars working in the fields of anthropology, primatology, and zoology, among others, have been moving in this direction for quite some time. Alongside the field of “animal studies,” a relatively new field, devoted entirely to the thought of other animals has emerged: animal cognition. Although today, “animal cognition” rolls off the tongue relatively easily, not too long ago “animal cognition” would have raised quite a few eyebrows in most circles and, to be sure, in some circles, it still does. As Frans de Waal remarks, the idea of stringing “the words animal and cognition togetheras if they might even belong together,” was, itself, almost inconceivable until the late 1970’s (de Waal 265).

Recent research into the thought processes of other animals has forced even the most “speciesist” among us to recognize that other animals possess capacities for thought and emotion far beyond what most would have expected not too long ago. Of course, if we had been taking Darwin seriously all along, we would have expected to find “human” capacities and traits, or at least traces of such capacities and traits, such as, culture, morality, emotion, etc., in other animals.  But for some reason we have been slow to attribute such properties to other animals, preferring to treat them as entirely “other.” Hume, more than 100 years before Darwin, demurred that, “when any hypothesis … is advanced to explain a mental operation, which is common to men and beasts, we must apply the same hypothesis to both” (Hume 177). However, even in cases where it would appear that, for instance, the external actions of animals resemble our own, we have been reluctant to attribute to them corresponding internal actions or internal states, fearing that to do so would amount to a form of anthropomorphism.

Indeed, many have argued, and continue to argue, that we should refrain from using “human” categories such as thought, language, culture, etc., to describe what other animals do, as long as there are “simpler,” more parsimonious explanations to be found. While such a position sounds reasonable enough, when unconditionally applied it becomes entirely unreasonable (and anthropocentric), for those who take such positions often take the human mind as the measure of what is simple or complex, and, as philosophers and neuroscientists have often claimed, nothing is more complex than the human mind. It was perhaps Jane Goodall, in particular her In the Shadow of Man, who first successfully challenged this position, leading many in her field to the conclusion that sometimes it is more parsimonious to explain, for instance, the mourning behavior of chimpanzees by assuming that they do indeed mournthat is, in virtually the same way as human animalsthan attempting to explain such behavior using “nonhuman” categories.  Still, the acceptance of animal cognition has come slowly and, although “the wall,” as de Waal writes, “between human and animal cognition has begun to resemble a Swiss Gruyère full of holes” (de Waal 268), it remains difficult to imagine a world without any walls at all.

While the advances in the field of animal cognition have contributed to the arc of the animal turn, many of the implications of this cognitive revolution, as well as, for that matter, that of Darwin’s some 150 years ago, have been lost on scholars in the humanities and, in particular, religious studies. Despite the fact that, as Donovan Schaefer puts it, “almost every other presumed indicator of human uniqueness has fallen apart (cognition, language, tool use, morality) … we don’t think of animals as religious” (Schaefer 2). The question is, “why not?” If we deny that other animals can be religious, it is probably because we believe, like Hegel, that “genuine religion, the religion of the spirit, must have […] a Credo, a content” (Encyclopedia 16), that it must be reasonable or believable. We believe that religion requires a certain capacity for thought or thinking, or like J.Z. Smith, that religion is primarily about thought or thinking. However, this belief can be contested in two complementary ways. First, as already suggested, it has become increasingly difficult to argue that other animals do not have the capacity to think. It could, of course, still be argued that other animals do not think the right way, or that animals do not really think, at least not in the way that we do. After all, how could they think, since thinking, as many have argued, requires language. In any case, even if animals do think, they certainly do not have a concept of the divine or the supernatural, or of any number of such concepts that presumably only human beings “have” or possess.

Yet, have we not grown skeptical of definitions of religion that prioritize thought, belief, language, etc., every definition of which exhibits a Christian and/or Protestant bias? A bias that exhibits itself in the tendency to prioritize action over passivity, interiority over exteriority, reason over emotion, mind over body, and, of course, human over animal? Indeed, thanks to the work of scholars of religion such as of Talal Asad, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Daniel Dubuisson, many of us have become skeptical of “religion,” because of the concept’s undeniably Christian (if we follow Dubuisson) and/or Protestant-Christian (if we follow Asad) history. The modern concept of religion was, and continues to be, shaped by political and economic forcesforces which are themselves always driven by certain powers. The quest to define or locate the essence of religion, Asad argues, has been part of a larger strategy “(for secular liberals) of the confinement, and (for liberal Christians) of the defense of religion” (Asad 28). Although Asad, as well as Dubuisson, tend to flatten out and/or disregard important differences between and among Post/Enlightenment thinkers regarding the definition or essence of religion,9  their critiques have nonetheless brought attention to the fact that, insofar as our “religions” require a credo, something to believe (where to believe means to put your faith in the validity logical or otherwise of a certain proposition), they remain (for better or for worse) thoroughly Protestant and/or Christian.

We have rightly become skeptical of Hegel’s “religion” because, according to Hegel, for someone to be capable of religion, they must be capable of thought orwhat amounts to the same thingto be able to say “I.” This is why, to return for a moment to Hegel’s dog, a dog could never be religious and why Schleiermacher’s religion in Hegel’s view may as well be a religion for the dogs. It is the “I”as Kant argued in his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of Viewor “the fact that the human being can have the ‘I’ in his representations [which] raises him infinitely above all other living beings on eart h… [and which makes the human being] through rank and dignity an entirely different being from things, such as irrational animals, with which one can do as one likes” (Kant §6). It is this unique capacity of the human being to say “I,” at all times to be able not only to feel itself, but to think itself, which grants human beings, or more specifically human consciousness, the ability to relate to God. Moreover, it is this ability to relate, consciously, to God that constitutes for Hegel the essence of religion; it is what religions “is” (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion 1.61).

If Talal Asad is right to argue that it is “preeminently the Christian church that has occupied itself with identifying, cultivating, and testing belief as a verbalizable inner condition of true religion,” then we are right to be suspicious of Hegel’s definition of religion (and, for that matter, its corresponding, Enlightenment subject) (Asad 48). Furthermore, if Asad is right, any theory of religion which excludes other, nonhuman animals from its purviewwithout, that is, any justification, or without questioning the age-old assumption that there exists a decisive or definite difference between non-human and human animalsis in danger of perpetuating certain Christian, or at minimum, Enlightenment ideas about what religion “is.” Even scholars who subscribe to a purely functionalist definition of religion, or who would refrain from defining religion or using the term altogether, nonetheless betray their “religion” in and through the choice of their subject matter. As long as we in religious studies continue to exclude other animals from the purview of religious studies we remain committed to an Enlightenment or Post-enlightenment “religion.” 

I realize that such a claim may, to many, appear extravagant. Yet, if it is true, how can we, as scholars of religion, respond? How can we begin to include other animals in the study of religion not merely as religious objects, but as religious subjects, or better, agents? Donovan Schaefer asks, “if religion in the Protestant key that underpins the Enlightenment axioms of Western culture is a matter of beliefthe cognitive manipulation and the autonomous affirmation of a set of propositional assertions about the nature of realityhow could animals, who are prelinguistic bodies who don’t fit the mold of speaking, reasoning, choosing subjects, be religious?” (Schaefer 2).

Schaefer, in his Religious Affects, attempts to construct an affective theory of religion, which pays attention to the way religion feels, to “the things we want, the way our bodies are guided through thickly textured, magnetized worlds,” to “the way our bodies flow into relationshipsloving or hostilewith other bodies.” Schaefer asks, “how is religion made up of clustered material forms, aspects of our embodied life, such as other bodies, food, community, labor, movement, music, sex, natural landscapes, architecture and objects. How is religion defined by the depths of our bodies?” (3). To my knowledge, Schaefer’s work represents the first attempt to theorize what animal religion could be, and, more importantly, how it could be studied. In the final chapter of his book, Schaefer turns his attention to the phenomenon of the chimpanzee waterfall displaya phenomenon which, Jane Goodall speculates, may be the result of “religious” “feelings of awe” (Goodall and Berman 213)and attempts to develop “an understanding of animal religion as a dancea play between bodies and world” (182).

“Animal religion” has generally been regarded to be a contradiction in terms, much like “animal cognition” was some 30-40 years ago. Of course, this is because religion has, in the main, been thought to require thought and/or language. But perhaps, as Schaefer suggests, religion has more to do with dancing, or with, as theorist of religion Kimerer L. LaMothe cited by Schaefer writes, “the patterns of bodily movementpatterns of sensation and responsethat humans create and become as they exercise their potential to bring into being the network of relationships that will support them in becoming who they are” (LaMothe 592). In LaMothe’s thought, religion becomes “an affective, radically embodied encounter with the world, our histories, our relationships, and the semistable forms of our bodies” (Schaefer 192).

However, as Schaefer recognizes, even if we conceive of religion as a dance, we are only part of the way to an explanation of the chimpanzee waterfall display. We also need an explanation for why chimpanzees are drawn to waterfalls, and for that Schaefer turns to E.O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia. In chimpanzees and many other animals, “a biophilic fascination with the natural, life-giving worldan ensemble of affective triggers designed by evolutionary biologysurges through their bodies” (199). Animals, Schaeffer argues, are drawn to features of their natural environment, such as trees, mountains, waterfalls, other animals, etc. Such features call out to them and they respond and the result is a dancea dance which, at least when performed by human beings, gets called “religion.”

While I would rather not set (human) linguistic bodies in opposition to prelinguistic (animal) bodies, Schaefer’s work helps us to imagine what animal religion might look like. As Smith notes, religion has long been perceived as an “exotic category.” Perhaps, we have been overly concerned with large-scale phenomenon such as “world religions,” or even “myth” and “ritual,” that is with, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest, “collective representations, which are generally binary, resonant, and overcoded,” representations which “presuppose exactly what needs explaining” (Deleuze and Guattari 218). If we as scholars of religion are to take seriously the critiques of religion levelled by Asad, et al., we must begin to interest ourselves “in the world of detail, or of the infinitesimal: the little imitations, oppositions, and inventions constituting an entire realm of subrespresentative matter” (218-219; emphasis added). This would mean taking a cue from Smith and beginning to map the as yet invisible religions of other animals and nonhuman beings.

Thus far, I have concentrated upon internal pressures, developments which have occurred within the discipline of religious studies and, in particular, on the way that the discipline of religious studies has relied upon the “given” of an essential distinction, maintained through thought or thinking, between humans and other animals to fashion its subject matter. Yet, I would like to point toward two developments which, though more or less “external“ to religious studies, have contributed to the turn within religious studies toward other animals and have little to do with thought or reason; although, both “reasons” nonetheless have forced us to rethink or reimagine the possibility of animal religion.

Other animals have a tendency to appear on the outskirts of perimeters of discussions surrounding religion, especially those surrounding the origins of religion, as well as its end(s). It has perhaps “been some time since the question of the origin of religion was seriously entertained,” but the question, as Masuzawa notes, “continues to hold sway in the popular imagination,” as well as in the academy (Masuzawa). In 1994, the questions surrounding the origins of religion erupted once again with discovery of the Chauvet cave in southwestern France. Although there is no reason why we should necessarily attribute religious significance to such a site, or to the myriad mammoths, horses, lions, and other animals, and hand dots and prints which grace its walls, or even to the “bear stone altar,” the cave has become, as Kimberly Patton puts it, the “locus classicus” for the “contemplation” of  the question of the animal and religion (Patton 29).

While we cannot know for certain what significance these animals held for the Aurignacians who painted them, they certainly have held and continue to hold a religious significance for many who have visited the cave; at the very least, they evoke from many who have visited the cave a religious response.10 They force us, just as the animals in Lascaux did some fifty years before, to consider the animal in a different lighteven in a divine light. They challenge us, as scholars of religion, to take them seriously as religious agents, not merely as food, clothing, or decoration. “The iconography and archaeology of the cave,” Patton writes, “testify to an extraordinarily complex relationship between animals and human beings. The existential nature of that relationship cannot be ignored, but neither can it be satisfactorily interpreted” (Ibid.).

For some time, these animals, not only of Chauvet but also those of Lascaux, Altamira, Trois-Frères, etc., were taken as “having a magical character in relation to the hunt” (Bataille 49). Abbé Henri Breuil and Johannes Maringer, the most well-known prehistorians of their day, theorized, following the suggestions of James Frazer, that Paleolithic artists had painted such animals to help to guarantee the success of the hunt. Yet, we now know that, at least in the case of Chauvet, the majority of animals that appear upon the walls of the cave were never hunted (Clottes).  Indeed, they appear to escape such functionalist or utilitarian attempts at understanding. Describing a well-known scene, located “in the base of a small offshoot of the main passage of Lascaux,” Georges Bataille writes that, “it is certain that … the depiction of the horse falling from a cliff initially had, beyond any utilitarian meaning that magical belief would have designated, an emotionally moving sense. From the moment it attracts our attention, not seeing it or ignoring it would be inconceivable” (137). Such animals force us to turn in their direction, to face them, and respond.

Bataille, though greatly influenced by the work of Bruhl and Maringer, saw that “the apparition of the animal was not, to the man who astonished himself by making it appear, the apparition of a definable object, like the apparition in our day of beef at the butcher that we cut up and weigh.” Rather, the animal which appeared had, originally, an indefinable quality, “a significance that was scarcely accessible, beyond what could have been defined” (135). “Modern” categories, such as “beef,” or “food,” or even “animal,” cannot contain these animals. And it is precisely their “equivocal, indefinable meaning” that, for Bataille at any rate, suggests their religious significance.

Bataille believed strongly, on the basis of much of the same research upon which Durkheim and Mauss constructed their theories of “primitive” classification, that, “in the eyes of archaic man, animal life was not intrinsically different from his own” (140). In particular, Bataille based his reflections on research by A. Irving Hallowell in his 1926 Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere, and Éveline Lot-Falck in her 1953 Les Rites de Chasses Chez les Peoples Sibèriens, regarding the significance of the bear and its cults, particularlyin the case of Lot-Falckamong the Alaskan Koyukon and the Japanese Ainu. Quoting Lot-Falck, Bataille writes, “among hunting peoples, as among Siberians, man feels the most intimately linked to animals.  Between the human species and the animal species, domination would have been unfathomable: they were essentially indistinguishable from each other. The hunter sees the animal, at the very minimum, as his equal…. The bear could speak if it wanted…. ‘Wild game is like man, only more godlike’” (qtd. in Bataille 131). From this passage, Bataille advances the thesis that “among prehistoric human beings” animals stood on the side of divinity or the sacred, whereas humans stood on the side of the “animal,” or the profane. “What in the development of religious history,” Bataille wonders, “concealed this movement, which … is the passage from the initial opposition between animality-divinity and humanity to the opposition which still prevails today, that reigns over even minds foreign to all religion, between animality devoid of any religious signification and humanity-divinity” (141). What, in other words, has made it so difficult to grasp the significance of these animals, to interpret this “statement” “written” upon the walls of so many caves, which suggests an entirely different way of relating to other animals: of identifying with other animals?

Perhaps, to return once again to Jonathan Z. Smith, and in particular to his “Bare Facts of Ritual,” we have simply drawn the wrong conclusions from the archaeological and ethnographic data. Perhaps the difficulty lies not with this movement or passage per se — that is, with Bataille’s passage from animal-divinity/humanity to animality/humanity-divinity — but with the way scholars have tended to represent this passage as a passage-way to an entirely different or other world, a passage-way to an “extraordinary, exotic category of experience which escapes everyday modes of thought” (“Parrot” 6). While Bataille suggests that Paleolithic religion, which is to say religion in its “original” form, is about “the destruction of the world of understanding” (Bataille 139), Smith suggests, drawing on the many of the same passages from Lot-Falck as Bataille, that religion, or at least one of the “fundamental building blocks of religion,” is about “its capacity for rationalization, especially as it concerns that ideological issue of relating that which we do to that which we say or think we do” (“Ritual” 57).

Smith attempts to contrast the idealized, ritualized enactment of “the bear hunt” with the way that bears were actually hunted.11 Yet, significantly, Smith never asks the question of the animal. He assumes, as Takeshi Kimura points out in his essay “Bearing the ‘Bare Facts’ of Ritual,” that “a bear is always a bear and is the same everywhere all the time” (Kimura 113). For “a group which depends upon hunting for food” (“Ritual” 60), Smith reasons, a bear must necessarily be at bottom nothing more than “beef at a butcher that we cut up and weigh” (Bataille 135). However, while it may be helpful to imagine the bear in this way for the sake of “ritual” or for the sake of constructing a theory of ritual as “compensatory symbolic action” (Ray 159), it turns out that, like the animals of Lascaux and Chauvet, this bear escapes purely functionalist and/or utilitarian attempts at definition. Despite Smith’s suggestion that the peoples of the circumpolar north depend on the bear for food, it is clear that such “hunting” rituals are not about food — or, at least, not primarily — nor are they primarily about hunting (Ray 157).

Although I cannot go into details regarding the religious significance of these rituals, suffice it to say that to understand the significance of the bear ceremony, especially among the Ainu, it is, as Kimura argues, “absolutely necessary to take into full consideration the Ainu notions of personhood and agency … rather than to impose uncritically the conventional modern Western categories of human, animal, plant, and world on the Ainu materials” (Kimura 102). “What is at stake in these fundamental Ainu categories,” Kimura continues, “is the relationship between the visible material forms of things and creatures and their invisible spiritual forms” (108). As the Ainu see it, during the time of the bear ceremony the bear is not a bear, but rather a divine or spiritual being, known as a kamuy. Thus, even to refer to the Ainu bear ceremony as a “bear” ceremony is, at best, misleading (indeed, we should have been referring to the Ainu “bear” ceremony all along by its Ainu name, Iyomante, which means something like “to send off”).

Smith would have us believe that, when the Ainu (or the Bororo or any other group) claim something “contrary to fact” — for instance, that a “bear” or any other “mere” animal is not a “bear” (that is, in the “modern” sense) — they cannot actually mean what they say. The “bear,” for instance, must be a “mere bear.” Rather than attempting to construct a theory of ritual which takes seriously what the Ainu and other peoples of the circumpolar north say about “the bear,” Smith ignores “the crucial issue of different cultural understandings of personhood and the ontological status of animals” (101). In the end, he rationalizes away the religious significance of the bear as a (religious) subject or agent and forces the bear — and, for that matter, the Bororo parrot — to conform to the strictures of critical reason. In short, to demonstrate that ritual and religion in general is about “rationalization,” Smith forces his “ordinary, commonplace, common sense understandings of reality” upon the data (Smith 61). The lesson to be drawn from this, it seems to me, is that we must learn to include other animals in the study of religion, to take them seriously, if we wish to chart an accurate map of the dimensions of religion. Indeed, such a turn has already begun to take place. But why has it come about only now?

Concluding Thoughts. The animals which we encounter in caves such as Chauvet demand that we take them seriously, in part because they have been painted with such care. The beauty of the images, the skill with which they were created, challenge or call into question all of the notion that, somehow, “animal religion” is “primitive” or “childish.” Moreover, they remind us of what “animals” once were: the caves “offer us a cognitive, spiritual map of part of the observable world: a world lost to us, but peopled by animal powers—or ‘powerful animals’” (Patton 30). Yet, if we have begun to recognize that these animals demand to be taken seriously, it is perhaps also because—as Bataille suggests—they portend something grave. Or, we might say, that the recent turn toward animals, especially animals and religion, portends something grave, or even solemn or sacred.

Scattered throughout his reflections on Lascaux and the “birth” of humanity, are reflections on humanity’s end, upon its “eventual extinction” (Bataille 87). Indeed, who cannot be struck, as Bataille was, “by the fact that light is being shed on our birth at the very moment when the notion of our death appears to us” (Bataille 87). Or, that is, by the fact that we have only just now to turn our attention to other animals now that other animals have begun to vanish into extinction in mass? Bataille wonders if whether “we might have a sublime idea of the animal now” because we have “ceased being certain that one day a nuclear bomb will not make the planet an unlivable place for man [sic]” (Bataille 178).  While nuclear war remains an ever present possibility, we know now with certainty that our activities on this planet our causing it to warm, threatening to wipe out vast populations of animal species, including our own, and causing an immense amount of suffering. This, coupled with the immense suffering we as human beings have unleashed upon animals for the mass production of meat, as well as for clothes, cosmetics, and other products, makes the question, “why animals and religion now?,” ever more urgent.

Unfortunately, I cannot push this train of thought further at this time; although, I believe it it’s easy to tell where it goes. The question that scholars of religion have asked, often unconsciously, for such a long time to frame the limits of their subject is “can they think?” or “can they talk?” But perhaps we should have been asking, as Jeremy Bentham encouraged us to do in a long footnote in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation in 1780, “can they suffer?” (Bentham 311). The radical nature of this question, I would wager, has yet to be felt. If we take Bentham’s questions as our starting point, the question of the animal becomes, not a question of a particular power or capacity to speak or to reason, but rather of a particular impotence or incapacity: namely, to suffer or to bear, to undergo, to endure. “Being able to suffer,” notes Derrida, “is no longer a power; it is a possibility without a power, a possibility of the impossible. Mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life…” (Derrida 28).  

And is there not something about this question, Bentham’s question — “Can they suffer?”which, given the fact that so many religious traditions have tended to gravitate to and around images of suffering and sacrifice, makes this question “religious?” Or, at the very least, deserving of what we might call a religious response? And, I do not mean, necessarily, a theological response; although perhaps that as well. The events which took place at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowawhich, if you have the time (and the stomach), I would encourage you to look updemand a religious response, not merely because they occurred within the confines of a kosher slaughterhouse. They demand a “religious” response, in so far as they force us, or should force us, to reconsider what constitutes the subject of religionand that is to say both the subject of religion, as well, as the religious subject. This is especially required if Arron Gross is right when he writes, “by limiting the religious subject to a human subject, the study of religion has become implicated in both the ‘disavowal’ of regard for animals and the ‘war’ against them… Rather than study the ‘sacrifice’ of animals, religious studies participates in it” (Gross 122).


1. The German term Wissenschaft, often translated as science, had and still retains a much wider meaning than the English term “science.” Hinrichs’s book is, in the main, concerned with detailing the relationship between and among the religion of feeling (des Gefühls), faith (des Glaubens), and thought (des Gedankens). Following Hegel, Hinrichs argued that the religion of feeling could not be divorced from the religion of faith and thinking.

2. Unless otherwise noted, translations from German sources are my own.

3. The German word Geist is, as anyone even vaguely familiar with Hegel is aware, notoriously difficult to translate, for it can mean at the same time “mind” as well as “spirit.” In Hegel, spirit remains the best translation, for by Geist Hegel has in mind in the entire world-process by which Spirit comes to know itself in and through the “minds” or “spirits” of human beings.

4. To be fair, for Smith, “religion is not a native term; it is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes”; it is always possible to redefine religion when necessary (“Religion, Religions, Religious” 281). Nonetheless, Smith demonstrates, in and through his thinking about religion, that religion ultimately depends upon human thought or thinking.

5. To be sure, a few essays had already appeared which took a critical look at the relationship between religion and animals, such as Kimberly Patton’s essay, “Caught with Ourselves in the Net of Life and Time” in A Communion of Subjects.

6. Jacques Derrida discusses the meaning of this “after” in his Animal that therefore I am (10-11).

7. Of course, this presents a chicken and the egg problem (as Gross points out). If the human/animal distinction is required for distinctly human thought, then how does one arrive at the distinction in the first place, that is, before thinking, properly so called, takes place? Durkheim and Mauss’ answer is distinctly Hegelian. The classificatory function develops along with the development of society, becoming ever more “scientific” with each successive generation until it reaches something like perfection in the mind(s) of the “modern” European.

8. A point could be made, or rather a question asked, as to why Smith here choses the term “inhuman,” rather than “inhumane” or “nonhuman.” It would appear that Smith leaves open the possibility that human beings could still be non-human or else that non-human beings could still be human. While I take Smith to mean non-human (indeed, he does not clarify what precisely he means by “humane”), there is certainly some ambiguity hereambiguity where distinctiveness is of the utmost importance (“Map” 308).

9. Hegel criticizes Schleiermacher, as well as Kant, Fichte, and Jacobi, because of their tendency to privatize, or subjectivize religion. From early on, we find Hegel arguing for a Volksreligion, or public religion. For more, see Thomas A. Lewis’ Religion, Modernity, and Politics in Hegel.

10. Kimberly Patton notes that when speleologists Eliette-Brunnel, Christian Hillaire, and Jean Marie Chauvet entered the cave for the first time they fell on their knees (Patton 29).

11. As both Benjamin C. Ray and Takeshi Kimura point out, there are numerous problems with Smith’s description of “the bear hunt” or “bear hunting ritual,” beginning with the fact that is very difficult to speak of the “bear hunting rituals,” as Smith indeed does, in the singular, as if there were a common set of rituals practiced by “paleo-Siberian peoples” (“Ritual” 57). Significant differences exist, for example, between the rites of the Ainu and the Koyukon, to which both Ray and Kimura attest.

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