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The spirituality of other primates

The spirituality of other primates

Writing in the Atlantic, Barbara J. King explores some of the evidence for spirituality and even religious ritual among some of our closest relatives, chimpanzees.

A study out of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology published in Nature last month postulated that the rock-throwing activity of some West African chimpanzees may be a ritual act, comparing it to the way in which people build cairns to mark sacred sites.

King, who is a chancellor professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary, points out in her discussion that the authors of the Nature paper do not themselves use the word “spirituality” in their commentary on the chimpanzees’ behavior. Others have not been so restrained. The evolution from the question of a possible ritual act, reason unknown, to the question whether we now have proof that chimpanzees believe in God was completed by the Mirror and the Daily Mail, both British tabloids.

King dismisses the escalation of explanations of the behavior, saying that

The chasm between apes’ repeated throwing of stones taken from a cache at a tree, and apes’ creating the sacred through repeated action, is immense, and for Stanford, not navigable by science. Apes, as I have noted in my book Evolving God, do engage in certain acts of the imagination, including pulling an imaginary toy on an imaginary string (in captivity), and caring for a log apparently envisioned as a companion (in the wild). I’ve used instances like this, in addition to evidence for things like ape empathy and rule-following, to argue that the very deepest roots of human religiosity can be found in our primate cousins. But that’s a far cry from anointing them with a spiritual sensibility.

However, she was given pause by the arguments of Donovan Schaefer in his book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power.

Donovan rejects the Euro-American tendency to equate religion with belief, text, and language. Religion is something we feel in and express with our whole bodies, Schaefer insists, and once we realize this, we are free to see religion in other animals in certain instances of their embodied and emotional practices. …

Compared to us, other animals, Schaefer told me, “have different life-worlds, different fascinations, different interests emerging out of their complex evolutionary histories. That could be waterfalls, wildfires, storms, or features of the landscapes where they live, work, and play that somehow stick out for them. Their religions will be built out of their fascinations, just as our religions are built out of ours.”

By the end of their conversation, King remained unconvinced that it is appropriate to compare our sense of religion and spirituality with whatever is going on inside the minds (and souls?) of our closest relatives; but if we leave behind as too anthropic the question of whether or not chimpanzees “believe in God,” do you think that it is possible for animals to be “spiritual” and/or “religious”?

Read the original Atlantic article here.

Featured image: Eine Gruppe Schimpanse (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) beim gegenseitigen Lausen, Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania by Ikiwaner via


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Lexi Grant

Well said Phillip. I did a paper on companion animal spirituality a few yrs ago; the research was most interesting.
And, thankfully, I have seen abused, broken animals heal & regain their spirit (although they never forget).

Philip B. Spivey

We err when we conflate religion with spirituality: spirituality came first, then religion. How we express and experience our spirituality is what separates humans from other sentient beings.

We don’t have to reach for our not-too-distant cousins the chimpanzee, to discern early forms of spirituality; I see it in babies, young children and in man’s best friend, dogs.

It’s reductionist to compare and judge spiritual realms among sentient beings. In fact, I would say that we humans are probably the only species that has a problem with spirituality; the rest of creation takes it for granted and do not question it; it’s part of their body and mind which is nestled in the limbic portion of their brain and says: “I am complete; and I’m even more complete after a good meal.”

A sense of completeness and wholeness is the
hallmark of spiritual wellness for us, as well. This is not a thought or description; this is the deepest sense of oneness with my universe—however large or small. In Christian terms, it is being one with the Trinity.

We see it in babies; we see it in the questioning minds of young children; and we see it in most canines that exude a palpable spirit. We don’t see it in babies, young children and dogs who have been neglected or abused. In these cases, their spirits have been broken, literally.

Spirit is no mystery to most other species; they are living it; it is their life force; it follows them from their first breath till the last. Some mammals, like elephants, grieve the loss of family-spirits and keep them, at the same time. We are the only species that routinely breaks spirit; commodifies spirit; manipulates spirit for the sake of social conformity.

The chimps described above don’t have to attach language or even cognition to spirit; they embody it. It has been enfleshed.

Michael Reilly

I was fascinated by this story when I read it last month. Can we imagine our distant ancestors somehow being rewarded for an odd behavior–like throwing rocks at a tree–then having such a behavior be the roots of ‘religious’ activity? It’s a sobering thought. Perhaps a chimp made some odd connection between hitting the tree with a rock and eating, or mating, or…something that associated an unrelated behavior (rock throwing) with a reward (food or sex). Have you heard of Pavlov (the name should ring a bell…)? This is basic behavioral psychology. Interesting stuff.

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