Homo Religiosus?


By Thomas J. Whitley

In 1704, Peter Kolb travelled to the Cape of Good Hope in his capacity as an astronomer and mathematician. Though he was largely regarded as failure because of his penchant for smoking and drinking, he used his time there to write an ethnography of the area’s Khoikhoi natives. The Khoikhoi had been of great interest to Europeans since the Dutch East India Company had set up a station there in 1652. Prior to Kolb’s arrival, though, the Khoikhoi were understood as an utterly primitive people who lacked any religion. Kolb almost immediately decided that this theory was “rubbish.” Just look at them, Kolb implored in his writings. Their actions were obviously religious to Kolb.

In their Customs and Institutions they cannot be said to resemble any People besides the Jews and the Old Troglodytes. They resemble the Jews in their Offerings, the Regulation of their Chief Festivals by the New and Full Moon, and in their Withdrawing at certain Times from their Wives. They agree with that People in abstaining from certain Sorts of Good; in particular, Swine’s Flesh, which hardly any of ‘em will taste. At a certain Age, they undergo a Sort of Circumcision. And Women are excluded the Secret and Management of certain Affairs, much as they are among the Jews. And in several other Customs to the Hottentots [Khoikhoi] agree with that People.*

Kolb “discovered” religion among the Khoikhoi by employing a rhetoric of similarity. Kolb already knew what counted as “religion” and needed only to find similarities between the Khoikhoi and the Jews and “Old Troglodytes.” Kolb’s thesis was a stark reversal of how the Khoikhoi had previously been viewed by Europeans and how they would later be viewed. Once the relationship between Europeans and the Khoikhoi was no longer economically beneficial to the Europeans, the Khoikhoi were suddenly again a group with no religion.

Fast forward three centuries and we are again discovering “religion” and “spirituality” among a group where it’s never before been thought to exist: animals.

This hypothesis was renewed recently after the publication of a paper in Nature that details how some chimpanzees engage in a practice whereby they throw the same stones at the same trees repeatedly. As Barbara J. King is quick to note, the paper’s authors do not call this action spiritual or religious. Rather they say that it is “superficially similar” to activities performed by humans at “sacred” trees. It did not take long for the snow ball to grow and for publications to begin asking if we had found evidence of religion among chimpanzees. This was no doubt in part due to one of the study’s authors freely suggesting as much in a post about the article.

The question seems natural enough to many people. As Jane Goodall asked of Tanzanian chimpanzees who threw rocks at a waterfall and then sat and looked at it, “why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind of spirituality?” What is striking in Barbara King’s well-written piece for the Atlantic is the way in which so many scientists engage in acts of comparison to either suggest or claim outright that animals are, like humans, religious.

In his interview with King, Donovan Schaefer, author of Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, said:

People will always debate what is and isn’t sacred, what counts and what doesn’t count as religious. But if we encountered a group of humans who returned to the same trees over and over and performed the same inexplicable action near them and didn’t seem to have any practical reason to do so, there would be lots of people who would interpret it through the prism of religion.

Schaefer is one such person. But for such acts of comparison to lead to the “discovery” of religion in animals, we must first harbor ideas about what counts as religion in humans and then project these onto our subjects. For Schaefer that includes repetitive actions that aren’t “practical.” For Jane Goodall feelings of awe and wonder are prerequisites for “spirituality.”

Yet, that we see “religion” or “spirituality” in animals says more about us than it does about them. King agrees:

I’m uneasy with making 1:1 comparisons between the meaning of human behaviors performed at trees in the forest and similar chimpanzee behaviors performed there. After all, even if we unbind religion from language, texts, and beliefs – as I think we should – isn’t it incredibly anthropocentric of us to expect other species to think and feel the way we do?

Yes, it is. But what King has missed here is that seeing “human behaviors performed at trees” as “religious” deserves just as much attention. In other words, seeing religion in humans should give us just as much pause as seeing religion in animals. For neither is a given and both call for analysis of the act of identification.

Peter Kolb’s focus on practice allowed him to favorably compare the Khoikhoi with Jews and thereby “discover” their “religion.” Jane Goodall’s focus on awe and wonder allowed her to see “spirituality” among chimpanzees. Donovan Schaefer’s focus on actions that are repetitive and impractical (to him) allowed him to see “religion” among certain animals. Had Kolb, Goodall, or Schaefer harbored a conception of “religion” that took faith or belief to be the essential component, as do many modern religious people, they would not have been able to see “religion” among the Khoikhoi or among chimpanzees.

If we have found religion or spirituality in animals, it is only because we have put it there. The world is not ours to discover, it is ours to create.


*Peter Kolb, The Present State of the Cape of Good Hope: Or, A Particular Account of the Several Nations of the Hottentots: Their Religion, Government, Laws, Customs, Ceremonies, and Opinions: Their Art of War, Professions, Language, Genesis, etc., trans. Mr. Medley (London: W. Innys, 1731), as quoted in Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 115.



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