Do any other animals have religion? © Daniel Bright

Do any other animals have religion?

Asked by: Rodney Minns, Hampshire

Although my dog may stare at me like I’m a deity, there’s no evidence to suggest that non-human animals have religion. They don’t worship, pray or believe in gods of any kind, but they do perform ritualistic behaviours, prompting some to speculate that animals could have a spiritual side.

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Elephants, famously, ‘mourn’ their dead. Family members visit the bodies of deceased relatives, and smell and touch them. There are claims that magpies have been seen placing ‘wreaths’ of grass next to dead individuals. In 2018, a ‘grieving’ orca carried her dead calf through the icy waters of the Salish Sea for more than two weeks before finally letting it go.

Putting aside the use of anthropomorphic terms such as ‘mourning’ and ‘grief’, these and other incidents still hint that some animals at least have an awareness of death and the capacity to ritualise their dead.

Rituals have been perceived in other areas, too. Jane Goodall witnessed chimpanzees dancing at waterfalls, and pondered whether the animals are experiencing feelings of awe or wonder. Other scientists have watched elephants waving branches at the waxing Moon, prompting some to wonder if the Moon holds symbolic significance for them.

It’s a tough call. On the one hand, why shouldn’t intelligent, socially complex animals feel awe in response to the natural world or the night sky? Maybe ritualistic behaviour does hint at a level of spirituality. On the other hand, maybe chimps just like having a boogie, and elephants just like waving sticks. Until we can read their minds, we should keep ours open.

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