I was ready to move on from this entire question when I came across a book published last year. In Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, Donovan Schaefer of Oxford University argues against our “lingering sense that religion makes us human by severing our animality.” 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.
For Schaefer, animals who may not imagine God or spirits may connect with “things of power in the world” in religious ways. “Animal religion,” he emphasizes in the book, “is more than just a turn of phrase. Animal religion means animals have religion.”
The “prelinguistic dance” of wild chimpanzees at a waterfall, then, is religion for Schaefer, who goes further than Goodall in interpreting the meaning of apes’ rhythmic bodily movements in certain natural contexts. When I contacted Schaefer, he underscored in an email message to me the embodied nature of all religious practice: “The really thick, powerful elements of religion seem to come about in a sensory relationship with the world (whether that’s the natural world or the cultural world of stories and communities) that evokes awe and reverence.”
As Frans de Waal explains in his most forthcoming book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? the history of primate behavior as a discipline conveys a firm message: We must keep an open mind about what our closest living relatives can and cannot do, because often they will surprise us. In Schaefer’s work, the necessary questioning of human uniqueness with respect to complex communication, tool-using, competitive status-striving and compassionate empathy is expanded in a fresh way: to embrace religion.
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.”
Chimpanzees’ excited response to heavy rains and winds has been cited by Goodall as another window into animal spirituality. Schaefer, once again, goes further than Goodall: Bowerbirds who dance in stylized ways during courtship feature in his framework just as much as do our closest primate cousins. In both cases, it’s not just the motion itself that counts: It’s the act of creativity as these animals “draw from the matrix of thick material forces flowing through them.” Because bowerbirds collect and artfully arrange objects as part of courtship, Schaefer calls them “shrine makers.”