Religion is uniquely human.

Or is it? Finding precursors or analogs to human religious behavior in animals would represent an incredible step forward in understanding the evolutionary and neurological correlates of religion.

Perhaps our assumption that animals could not believe in God has prevented us from seeing their particular way of doing so. As Stephen Jay Gould writes in Ever since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History:

Chimps…have long been the battleground for our search for uniqueness; for if we could establish an unambiguous distinction…between ourselves and our closest relatives, we might gain the justification long sought for our cosmic arrogance.

Intuitively, stating that only humans are religious has a dubious ring to it. We share a huge percentage of our genome with the primates. To me, it seems likely that we have simply failed to observe religious behaviors in animals, or, more likely, failed to correctly interpret them as religious.

We know that chimpanzees hold “funerals” for their dead, something humans would consider a religous ceremony. The chimp funerals involve

crying, displaying, and hurling rocks in all directions, the chimpanzees were embracing, mounting, touching, and patting tne another with big, nervous grins on their faces. Later, the chimpanzees stared at the body, one juvenile female for more than an hour.

Other than the mounting part, sounds like many funerals I’ve been to.

Another prototypical element of religous observance is ritual chanting or other rhythmic behaviors. It is known that chimps drum on hollow trees as a means of communication, but it has also been reported that such drumming may sometimes continue for hours—certainly much longer than necessary to alert your troupe to a nearby predator.

These and other observations of potentially religious behavior in animals could lead to the design of experiments impossible to carry out on humans. If in doing so we came to understand the neurological bases of the animals’ religious behaviors, we could then search for correlates in the human brain, roughly analogous to how scientists compared the FOXP2 language and speech gene in humans and chimps .

Of course, we can approach this problem from a different angle. A robust theory of neurotheoanthropology (the human equivalent of neurotheozoology) should provide us with clues to detecting religious behaviors in animals. Conversely, if a neurotheoanthropological theory does not provide such clues, that may indicate that it is flawed or circular. The neurotheology of Newberg and d’Aquili, for example, which I have not discussed here yet, seems to suffer from exactly that defect.

A toy theory and its application

Just to see how this would work, we’ll walk though a “toy” theory of neurotheology. In this theory, the development of the left-brained capacity to assign names to represent objects (or, more generally, to process symbols), while obviously of huge adaptive value, gave rise to an unending struggle on the part of the organism to reconcile the existential gap between the name and the named, or between the hemispheres if you will. In this theory, religion is an indispensable mechanism to soothe this tension, by engaging in a series of rituals which bring together the name and its referent in a temporary unity, or, in the hemispheric interpretation, leading to a particular type of information transfer across the hemisphere divide, or, possibly, causing physiological changes which promote such transfer.

Under this theory, if an animal can process names, which chimps can, it should have the existential tension, and is likely to have developed religious behaviors in response. The behaviors to look for would be those that would invoke some physiological change in brain state. Drumming on the tree is an obvious example, but chimps may also engage in meditative behavior—something the researcher sitting in his blind would hardly attribute to a chimp “just sitting there”. Other possible behaviors are those related to names and symbols, such as reorganizing and pondering objects.

Perhaps animal religion will be the topic of the research winning one of the increasing number of prizes in neuroscience, such as the Peter Gruber Prize, first awarded last year, or the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience scheduled to be awarded in 2008.

One Response to “Neurotheozoology”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Humanists hold funerals. Don’t make them religious. It might attract more people into the churches if the ‘mounting’ part became culturally normalised. Sex and religion is always a good mix sure to draw a crowd. It’d make those altars really entertaining.

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