Tag Archives: Animals

Do Animals Believe in God?

Whenever we humans have been wrong about animals, it has been because we have underestimated them. As a schoolboy, I was taught that animals could not reason, solve problems, or use tools. False, false, and false. Earlier than that, scientists believed animals even as advanced as other primates could not feel pain. Way false.

Any dog-owner knows that animals can anticipate and even manipulate the thoughts of members of other species (their human companions).

Animals adopt children, display altruistic behavior, and wage organized war. Elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees have all been observed to take special care of their dead. All of this was unthinkable a hundred years ago.

If you are a religious person, you have your own reasons for believing in God. But think for a moment about people in general, especially primitive people. Why do they pray for rain? Why do they sacrifice their daughters to volcano gods? Why do they believe every tree and rock has a spirit? Surely humans’ hyper-developed sense of agency has something to do with it. We believe there are personal forces behind events, even when there are not.

It’s easy to see why we have evolved to go overboard in this way. If one of your great-great-…-great grandparents had seen the grass rustling on the savanna and mistakenly thought a lion lurked there, he might waste a few calories running away from nothing, but otherwise no harm done. The opposite error, believing there was no lion when it was right there stalking its dinner, would have been fatal and you would not be here. In that environment, it would not take long to evolve a bias for seeing animate forces behind events.

That environment was also the one that shaped the forbears of our animal cousins. Why wouldn’t the more cognitively endowed among them evolve a belief in some sort of god exactly as we have?

Maybe animals are smarter than we are, in a way: they know when to stop. After all, they have never been observed sacrificing their daughters to volcano gods, or doing rain dances. But why wouldn’t animals have an animistic view of nature? And isn’t animism a form of polytheism? And mightn’t that polytheism have developed into a proto-theology in some of the more advanced animals? Maybe they can’t talk about it with each other (or maybe they can), but who knows what’s going on in their heads?

What do you think?

Knowing We’re Animals Makes Us More Humane

Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers and Human Friend

Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers and Human Friend

Friends of the family texted one of my daughters this weekend to say, “Are you sure you don’t want to take our dog? We’re thinking of giving him to a shelter.”

This dog, a six-year-old wheaten terrier, is totally in love with my daughter, and she with him. She will often take him for a weekend just so she can give him some much-needed exercise in the woods near our house. He goes absolutely mental when she picks him up for his visit. Once at our house, he whines pitifully when he is separated from her by as much as a bathroom door, refusing to be consoled by anyone else.

How would he feel if he were in a shelter? Would he wonder what he had done wrong, or why nobody loved him anymore? And how could my daughter bear it? The tragedy would be unfathomable.

We are able to form these deep, empathetic attachments to members of other species because we know they are much like us. We think of them as cousins, and that is what they are.

They may not think as deeply about their attachments to us, but I’ve blogged before about how “selfish-gene” theory explains why one species would evolve loving and even self-sacrificing behavior toward members of a closely related species.

And that brings me to the point of this post. Now and then, we’ll hear someone opine, “When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it.” (Although pastor Rick Warren has denied that this Tweet, sent within hours of the Aurora, Colorado school shooting, was an attempt to blame the event on the teaching of evolution, plenty of people gave a hearty “Amen” when they thought it was.)

Rick Warren aside, I have been told personally on multiple occasions that the teaching of evolution is to blame for various ways we treat each other poorly.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Before we humans knew that we were of the same stuff as the animals, we were not only crueler to animals than we are now, but crueler to each other as well.

I think there’s a connection.

When we finally became humane enough to ban bear-baiting in the 19th century, we became more likely to ban gay-bashing and lynching in the 20th.

Our growing empathy with animals has made us better people.

P.S. – Of course we have no choice but to take that wheaten terrier — at least until a good, permanent home can be found for him. We’ll see how that goes — haha!