Animal Spirituality

Do animals have spiritual experiences? Yes they do! We’re not the only spiritual beings by Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. in Animal Emotions

In conjunction with Psychology Today blogger, Steven Kotler, I’ve been pondering whether nonhuman animals (“animals”) have spiritual experiences and are they religious. Here, Steven and I want to offer some ideas and hope readers will weigh in. As I’ve discussed in many of my PT blogs ample evidence shows that animals are extremely smart and that they demonstrate emotional and moral intelligences ( see also).

But what about their spiritual lives? Do animals marvel at their surroundings, have a sense of awe when they see a rainbow, find themselves by a waterfall, or ponder their environs? Do they ask where does lightning come from? Do they go into a “zone” when they play with others, forgetting about everything else save for the joy of playing? What are they feeling when they perform funeral rituals?

We can also ask if animals experience the joy of simply being alive? And if so, how would they express it so that we would know they do? Wild animals spend upwards of 90 percent of their time resting: What are they thinking and feeling as they gaze about? It would be nice to know. Again, science may never be able to measure such emotions with any precision, but anecdotal evidence and careful observation indicate such feelings may exist.

So too does evolutionary theory. Recall Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolutionary continuity in which differences among species are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. The bottom line is that if we have something, they (other animals) do too, and it would behoove us to study the questions at hand rather than dismiss them because animal can’t possibly do or experience something that we think is uniquely human. For years it was thought that only humans were rational, self-conscious, linguistic, or moral beings, but we now know this isn’t so (see also). Darwin also commented that we really can’t be sure that animals don’t reflect on past pleasures and pains, for they have “excellent memories and some power of imagination.”

So, what can we say about animal spirituality? Of course much turns on how the word “spiritual” is defined, but for the moment let’s simply consider nonmaterial, intangible, and introspective experiences as spiritual, of the sort that humans have.

Consider waterfall dances, which are a delight to witness. Sometimes a chimpanzee, usually an adult male, will dance at a waterfall with total abandon. Why? The actions are deliberate but obscure. Could it be they are a joyous response to being alive, or even an expression of the chimp’s awe of nature? Where, after all, might human spiritual impulses originate?

Jane Goodall (2005. Primate spirituality. In The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. edited by B. Taylor. Thoemmes Continuum, New York. Pp. 1303-1306) wonders whether these dances are indicative of religious behavior, precursors of religious ritual. She describes a chimpanzee approaching one of these falls with slightly bristled hair, a sign of heightened arousal. “As he gets closer, and the roar of the falling water gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he may perform a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls. Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. Sometimes he climbs up the slender vines that hang down from the trees high above and swings out into the spray of the falling water. This ‘waterfall dance’ may last ten or fifteen minutes.” Chimpanzees also dance at the onset of heavy rains and during violent gusts of wind. Goodall asks, “Is it not possible that these performances are stimulated by feelings akin to wonder and awe? After a waterfall display the performer may sit on a rock, his eyes following the falling water. What is it, this water?”

Goodall wonders, “If the chimpanzee could share his feelings and questions with others, might these wild elemental displays become ritualized into some form of animistic religion? Would they worship the falls, the deluge from the sky, the thunder and lightning – the gods of the elements? So all-powerful; so incomprehensible.”

Goodall admits that she’d love to get into their minds even for a few moments. It would be worth years of research to discover what animals see and feel when they look at the stars. In June 2006, Jane and I visited the Mona Foundation’s chimpanzee sanctuary near Girona, Spain. We were told that Marco, one of the rescued chimpanzees, does a dance during thunderstorms during which he looks like he is in a trance. Perhaps numerous animals engage in these rituals but we haven’t been lucky enough to see them. Even if they are rare, they are important to note and to study.

Like Jane, I too would love to get into the mind and heart of a dog or a wolf even if I couldn’t tell anyone about it afterwards – what an amazing experience it would be.

We can also ask if animals are religious (see for example ; see also) and we will consider this question at a later date.

For now, let’s keep the door open to the idea that animals can be spiritual beings and let’s consider the evidence for such a claim. Meager as it is, available evidence says “Yes, animals can have spiritual experiences” and we need to conduct further research and engage in interdisciplinary discussions before we say that animals cannot and do not experience spirituality.

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He has won many awards for his scientific research including the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Marc has published more than 1000 essays (popular, scientific, and book chapters), 30 books, and has edited three encyclopedias. 

by Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.