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date: 24 March 2019

Religion and Animals

Abstract and Keywords

What do animals have to do with religion? This article answers this broad question with special attention to issues related to animal ethics and animal philosophy. Topics covered include the religious dimension of human-animal relationships; the role of animals in human self-imagination; the formation of religions based on human-animal relationships, especially in responding to the dilemmas and tensions raised by killing animals for food and sacrifice; and central issues in the method and theory of critically studying animals and religion. Working at the intersection of the history of religions and animal studies, this essay provides grounding in the subfield of “animals and religion,” as well as references to a wide range of work on the study of animals. The article also cites studies of the subject in both the religions of traditional peoples, including the Cree, Koyukon, Naxi, Nivkhi, and Tuvan, and the so-called world religions, including Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions; Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions; and Daoist traditions.

Keywords: animal, animal ethics, human-animal relationships, sacrifice, philosophy, animal studies, food, violence, world religions


Animals play a wide range of roles as symbols and subjects in every religious tradition and in almost every major area of religious expression, including myth and scripture, visual arts, cosmologies, dietary practices, and ethical systems. To introduce the topic of animals and religion, this chapter will begin by clarifying a crucial distinction between, on the one hand, animals and, on the other hand, the multivalent category of the animal, and then provide an overview of the kinds of questions asked by academics today. It then considers several methodological and theoretical issues that have achieved some relative degree of consensus in religion scholarship, namely: the importance of attending to actual animals, the presence of a religious dimension of human-animal relations, the probability that fraught human-animal relationships generate much of what we deem religious, and the manner in which traditional views on animals tend to be conflicted and marked by internal tensions. In closing I consider a more controversial old-new hypothesis that animals may have their own religions, then conclude with a reflection on what is at stake in the nascent subfield of animals and religion.

Core Concepts and Questions

Animals and the Animal

Religious practitioners and scholars engage with animals, whether symbolic or actual, on at least three levels: as special individuals, like the unnamed ass that spoke to Balaam in the biblical narratives sacred to Jews and Christians;1 as discrete populations (contiguous groups of individuals), like the hundreds of monkeys that occupy the Swayambhunath Temple in the Kathmandu Valley visited by both Buddhists and Hindus; and, conceptually, as species, as in the observation that ravens (Corvus corax) function as divinatory messengers or deities among numerous religions of traditional peoples2 throughout Eurasia—in religious complexes of Tibet and Mongolia and other Asian religious communities, such as the Naxi in China and Tuvans in Siberia—as well as throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, such as the Koyukon of northwest Alaska.3 In the preceding observation, ravens are discussed as a species, and a literature has formed around examining them as such.4 But ravens can also appear as individuals, such as in the Quranic story of Cain and Abel, where God sends a raven to teach the practice of burial;5 or as populations, for example, the specific population of ravens in northwest Alaska that is physically interacted with by the Koyukon and understood by them as the descendants of the Great Raven.6

In addition, all the so-called world religions7 and, more rarely, the religions of traditional peoples also contain prominent streams of thought that draw a more or less strong human/animal binary, which creates an abstract notion of animality (in contrast to humanity) that serves important religious functions. For example, it is the idea of animality that is the basis of exhortations to rise above one’s own animality found in world religions as diverse as Christianity and Jainism. Similarly, an abstract notion of animality is implicit in the equally widely found exhortation to learn from or attune oneself with animals as, for example, in one representative form of Daoist experience, what Louis Komjathy calls “cosmological attunement,” in which the Dao is experienced as “Nature”—“Specifically, … Nature as animals forests, lakes … and so forth.”8 According to Komjathy, the classical Daoism of the Zhuangzi is marked by three views towards animals:

[E]mphasis on the importance of freedom and wildness for animal flourishing, whether human or “non-human”; (2) criticism of the human tendency to distort the natural state of animals and in the process to distort their own innate nature (xing) and inner power (de); and (3) recognition of animals and other dimensions of Nature as potential teachers of human beings.9

In some classical Daoist lineages, especially the Primitivist lineage, the tradition even goes so far as to argue that “humans may be the least realized when it comes to expressing their innate nature. In order to return to their original connection with the Dao, humans may observe animals and other living beings for guidance.”10 Similar ideas are perhaps expressed in the Islamic notion that animals spontaneously submit to God’s will and in this sense are Muslim (lit., “one who submits [to God]”).11 They are also expressed periodically in thinkers from all the Abrahamic traditions in the general idea that while humans have the potential to fulfill the divine will in a unique and special way, they also have the potential to deviate from God’s will in dramatic ways no other species can—to be in or out of what we might call an “attunement” with God’s cosmos—whereas other species attune themselves to and follow God’s will. The Tunisian Muslim scholar of Islam, Sarra Tlili, offers a contemporary interpretation of this notion: “Qur’anic nonhuman animals are there for humans not only to learn about them, but also to learn from them many valuable lessons, not least of which, perhaps, [is] obedience and submission to God (Islam), the very message of the Qur’an.”12 The widespread underlying assumption shared by all the traditions in these examples and beyond is that there “really are” important human/animal or culture/nature binaries of one kind or another; this division of reality is not universal, but it is one of the only ideas found in prominent parts of all the religions designated as world religions.

Questioning Animals and Religion: Theory, Description, and Normativity

Thus, the vibrant subfield inquiring into animals and religion that has emerged in recent decades in both secular religious studies and Christian theology raises an astonishing range of questions. In order to make more visible the parameters of the field, we can analytically distinguish these ultimately inseparable questions under at least three headings: theoretical questions about how the category “animal” (“the animal”) is used to imagine religion; descriptive questions about how religions make meaning with animals; and normative questions asked inside particular traditions for confessional purposes.

Theoretical questions, the type that this article addresses, are asked more by scholars than lay religious practitioners, and they inquire abstractly about how the category “animal” has been associated with or disconnected from the imagination of religion: Can we speak about a religious dimension in human bonds with nonhuman species? How did human–animal relationships contribute to the development of human religion? Can animals be considered religious subjects? We will shortly consider how scholars have answered these questions.

Second, both scholars and religious practitioners alike ask descriptively how particular religions have made meaning with particular animals or through the use of the human/animal binary: What is the nature of India’s sacred cow?13 How do artistic representations of various mammals in Indian art compare over time?14 What is the meaning of new practices of pet burials in contemporary Buddhist Japan?15 How does the concept of ahimsa (nonviolence) apply to animals in contrast to the earth and self in Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain traditions?16 What is the nature of the association of so many Christian saints with animals?17 How do controversies about the treatment of animals in kosher slaughter reflect broader conflicts among Jewish identities?18 Are particular religions, say Christianity or Buddhism, speciesist19 or equally speciesist?20 Have particular religions increased or decreased their sensitivity to animal ethics over time?21

Finally, practitioners of a particular religion can ask normative-ethical questions working with the resources of their traditions: What can we Daoists learn about the nature of the Dao from watching horses, butterflies, fish, and other nonhuman animals?22 How does the Qur’an ask us Muslims to treat animals?23 How does Jewish ethics ask us to respond to factory farming?24 What does a consistent Catholic ethic toward animals require?25 These questions are asked by scholars, clergy, and lay practitioners alike. Particularly noteworthy in this connection is an explosion of theological works addressing animal ethics from the perspective of a range of Christianities, a vital development that I can only touch upon here.26

Methodological and Theoretical Consensuses

A Methodological Commitment to Real Animals

Many scholars and practitioners active in the animals and religion subfield actively insist on the centrality of exploring the religious meaning of actual animal lives, rather than the fact that animals are used symbolically or practically (say as parchment) in religious contexts. That such an insistence is necessary at all reveals that scholars of religion, like many religions themselves, often invoke animals or animal images in contexts that have nothing to do with the animals themselves. However, to study animals and religion properly, as Paul Waldau, an important theorist in the subfield, insists, is to explore how religions engage the “nearby biological individuals outside human communities.”27 Of course, these biological individuals are always in the process of also being transformed into symbols and ritual objects that stand for more than the animals themselves, and these are phenomena well worth exploring under the heading of animals and religion. Today scholars simply insist that we be certain not to render actual animals absent28 when we address how they have become “good to eat and also good to think with, as Plutrach observed some centuries before Levi-Strauss.”29

This insistence on addressing “actual animals” reveals the political nature of the contemporary juxtaposition “animals and religion,” which is ultimately a corrective to generations of scholarship that mentioned animals only in passing or as a means to discuss something else. It is helpful here to draw an analogy with feminist scholarship. Feminist studies of religion became necessary not because women and the feminine lacked discussion by scholars, but because their discussion was marred by false assumptions, misogyny, and a tendency to render women absent as women in order to discuss other concerns.30 Scholarship on animals and religion must overcome similar false assumptions, misothery (hatred of animals),31 and a tendency to forget actual animals.32 Thus, in animals and religion scholarship today, if we wish to discuss traditions that imagine Jesus as the Lamb of God, we need attend not only to theology but to actual sheep. Such attentiveness to animals leads us to see the living, dialectical process by which the category “animal” and the beings set within it come to be invested with meanings that shape how we treat actual animals, whose presence and behavior, in turn, constrains and shapes these religious investments.

The Human–Animal Relationship as Holy

It is these actual animals, along with the webs of meanings they proliferate, that scholars studying animals and religion have in mind when we argue that animals need to be better attended to as constitutive parts of a wide range of religious phenomena. Scholars working in the subfield of animals and religion today generally start from the assumption that, just as there is what Christian theologian Paul Tillich calls a “dimension of depth”33 in many of our relationships with human beings, so there is a religious depth often present in our relationship with animals. “The eyes of an animal have the capacity of a great language…. This language is the stammering of nature under the initial grasp of spirit,” reflects Jewish theologian Martin Buber.34 For Buber, human relationships with animals can have an I-You, not only an I-It, dimension—an experience Buber himself reported having with a cat.35

More Than Just Another Part of Nature

The new attention theologians and religious studies scholars are giving to animals has been shepherded into academic discourse by the larger, more developed subfield of “religion and ecology,” itself a development that followed the mainstreaming of environmentalism. However, scholars in the subfield of animals and religion argue that we can rarely adequately understand the religious charge of animals by reflection on them only as a part of nature at large. Animals, the argument goes, press upon the conscience and stir our emotions in a way that plants, rivers, and so forth do far less frequently. Although there are exceptions, such as complexes of tree worship,36 animals generally touch humans in more holistic and robust ways, creating potent religious possibilities.

Porous Boundaries

This is not to suggest that we can actually draw an unambiguous line between, on the one hand, our relationships with animals and, on the other hand, our relationship with elements of what we perceive as the nonsentient parts of the environment. Not all religions draw important borders between living plants, sentient animals, and rational humans, while most that do draw these borders do so in regionally distinct ways. The religions of traditional peoples in particular, especially those practiced by hunter-gatherer communities, are likely to draw the boundaries of the sentient world differently than the manner familiar to Westerners.

Arguably the most important difference in such boundary-drawing is that, for these traditional peoples, personhood is often not restricted to human beings. While the dominant Western tradition has operated with the notion that only humans can be persons, most indigenous cultures do not radically separate humans from nonhuman beings and regularly attribute agency and inner life to nonhuman, nondivine, and even nonanimal constituents of their environment. Anthropologist Tim Ingold explains that, for hunter-gatherers like the Cree, to the extent we can make any generalizations, “the difference between (say) a goose and a man is not between an organism and person, but between one kind of organism-person and another…. personhood is not the manifest form of humanity; rather the human is one of many outward forms of personhood.”37

Nor do all world religions draw the boundaries of the sentient in the same way. The famously animal-friendly Indian Jain tradition holds the position that all matter is sentient, but in differing degrees, dividing the world into one-, two-, three-, four-, and five-sensed beings (jiva). Most of the species called to mind with the word “animals” appear in their five-sensed-being category; animals like dogs, cats, horses, pigs, and chickens, along with humans, are put in this category. However, some animals, like insects and scorpions, are considered as being only three- or four-sensed; and others, like many worms, are considered as being only two-sensed. Plants, rather than being considered without sensibility, are considered one-sensed beings. Indeed, there is no term in Jainism—or in numerous other religions—that covers exactly the same territory as the English word “animal.”

Indeed, though we have been talking about “animals” as if it’s obvious what they are, there are even elements of the Western canon, such as the Bible and possibly the Qur’an,38 that simply lack any term equivalent to our modern usage of “animal.” Even Western scholars speaking in a single language will find themselves in disagreement if they try rigorously to answer the question, “What is an animal?”39 Fascinating developments in biology and recent philosophical works on the nature of plant life have demonstrated that commonsense and even earlier scientific understanding of the complexity and sophistication of plant life are inadequate.40 The same obsessive focus on human life, as distinct from the natural world, that has tended to obscure our understanding of the depths of human-animal relationships has similarly limited our understanding of religious complexes focused on plant life. Thus it may be difficult to see, let alone appreciate, the diverse ways in which human societies organize and make meaning from the world of the living.

Animals and the Human Imagination

Though the fact that diverse texts and communities categorize the world in different ways, thus making comparison a complicated matter, it is still possible to say that the beings we call “animals” (like the ones we call human) evoke religious responses across cultures and time. Most basically, evidence from multiple disciplines in the humanities and social sciences demonstrates that all human communities imagine what it means to be human in part through imaginative and real engagements with the beings we refer to as animals.41 Whether we look at the fraught border between humans and animals in the Western tradition from Aristotle to Heidegger;42 Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain tales of religious leaders’ previous lives as animals;43 medieval and early modern Chinese encyclopedias categorizing all forms of life;44 children’s literature45 and contemporary animal shows on television;46 or the hunting practices of the religions of traditional peoples, including tropical hunter-gatherers, northern hunters, aboriginal Australian peoples, and peoples of subarctic Alaska,47 what it means to be “us” is established through the detour of what they, the animals, are.

Animals in Child Development

The profound role that animals play in the cognitive, moral, and emotional development of children, which has only recently been given scholarly attention, sheds further light on the depth dimension of human-animal relationships. Gail Melson, approaching the subject via psychology, critiques most studies of children as “‘humanocentric,’ assuming that only human relationships … are consequential for development.” This view, she argues, “is at best a seriously incomplete portrait of the ecology of children. At worst, it misses potentially significant influences on children’s development.”48 The human ecologist Paul Shepherd argues that, from about year two, childhood attempts to discern among different types of animals and animal behaviors, as well as the mimicry of animals, enables children to create richer mental worlds and feel a greater range of emotions, thus contributing to the development of personal identity.49 This depth is captured in a beautiful reflection by the Jewish writer Bruno Shultz as he imagines a child entranced by a new puppy: “It was overwhelmingly interesting to have as one’s own that scrap of life, that particle of the eternal mystery in a new and amusing shape, which by its very strangeness, by the unexpected transposition of the spark of life, present in us humans, into a different, animal form, awoke in me an infinite curiosity. Animals! the object of insatiable interest … created, as it were, to reveal the human being to man himself.”50

Mourning Animals

The depth of human response to the loss of companion animals provides another window into the intimate and resonant place animals hold in so many hearts and minds. While the tendency to underestimate the emotional consequence of losing a companion animal is still persistent, psychologists today generally recognize that the grieving process for a beloved animal parallels the process of grieving for human companions and can cut to the same depth.51 A vivid example of society’s changing acknowledgment of the significance of the loss of companion animals is found in the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where evacuation squads were ordered to force people to leave animal companions to an all but certain death to make more room for human evacuees. So strong was the national reaction to heart-wrenching scenes of families, usually people of color, forced to abandon their nonhuman members,52 that formal evacuation procedures were changed so that such a situation would not be repeated. The power of an animal death in childhood to haunt one even into adult life is powerfully captured by Helene Cixous in her remarkable eulogizing of her dog Fips: “I admit, Fips you are unforgettable, … you are the most living of the departed…. At this very moment he is piercing the frail but solid cloud that separates our now from before, and I see him as if I saw him right here in reality, as if he saw me, as he looks at me, … as if he could throw his eyes at my eyes.”53

Structural Linkages: Race and Gender

Yet another window into the religious charge of human-animal relationships is the way in which our conception of animals has been bound up not only with self-imagination generically but also with an especially charged construction of race and gender. Consider, for example, the simultaneous religious objectification of women, children, and domestic animals in the frequently repeated biblical phrase, “your wives, your children, and your livestock.”54 Feminist scholarship, especially the work of ecofeminist theologians like Carol J. Adams and Rosemary Radford Ruether, has demonstrated that in Western religious traditions and beyond, women and the feminine have been drawn closer to animals, and men and maleness accordingly have been placed closer to the divine. The triad of animal, human, and divine, so central to all the Abrahamic traditions, functions not only to put animals in their place but also to rank women and peoples perceived as other.

The manner in which scholars of religion once played a role in supporting racist notions about the inferiority of the religions of traditional peoples is a particularly apt illustration of how attitudes toward animals and other others are linked together in the imagination of religion. Consider this entry on “animals” in the 1908 Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics:

Civilization, or perhaps education, has brought with it a sense of the great gulf that exists between man and the lower animals…. In the Lower stages of culture, whether they be found in races which are, as a whole, below the European level, or in the uncultured portion of civilized communities, the distinction between men and animals is not adequately, if at all, recognized…. The savage … attributes to the animal a vastly more complex set of thoughts and feelings, and a much greater range of knowledge and power, than it actually possesses…. It is therefore small wonder that this attitude towards the animal creation is one of reverence rather than superiority.55

The encyclopedia is so confident in the superiority of Western constructions of animals as inferior that it considers the fact that many religions of traditional peoples do not have a similarly low estimation of animal life as evidence of racial or at least cultural inferiority. In fact, the observation that the religions of traditional peoples make sense of the world without imposing our human/animal binary upon it was held up by decades of religious studies scholars, themselves following the lead of Christian theology, as perhaps the single most compelling reason to assign these religions to a lower stage of human development, a notion now thoroughly discredited. Thus the linking of animals with human groups perceived to be inferior is twofold: on the one hand, these communities are said to live a life closer to animals than “us”;56 on the other hand, these communities are denigrated because they do not share Western assumptions that the animate world must be sharply divided into humans and animals.57

Something Charged, Something Holy

All of these different observations—the diversity of ways that human communities draw the boundaries of “us humans,” the role of animals in human self-conception, the importance of animals in childhood development, the depth of mourning that animal death can evoke, and the way in which views of animals are knotted up with views of gender and race—make it hard to deny that our relationships with animals can be, as comparative religionist Kimberley Patton intones, “something charged, something holy, something that social construction can only partially interpret, but to which the religious imagination, with its unflinching reach into the depths of the human heart, must instead respond.”58 Whatever more particular understanding of religion one may adopt, there are compelling reasons to view human-animal relationships as possessing their own distinct religious charge.59 In sum, just as a diverse range of human-human relationships operate in a religious register, so, too, does a diverse range of human-nonhuman animal relationships.

Animals as Generators of Religion

Going beyond this more minimal conclusion about animals’ importance in human religiosity, a long line of religion scholarship preceding the development of the current subfield of animals and religion has speculated that tensions found within important human-animal relationships, especially in practices like hunting and in killing domesticated animals, are an important generator of human religious activity. Animals, in this line of thinking, not only appear in religions, but human interactions with nonhuman animals form and are formed by religions in much the same way that human interactions with other humans form and are formed by religions.60.

The Tension between Compassion and Killing as a Seed of Religion

Without trying to find a single “origin” of religion, a task the study of religion has largely, and wisely, abandoned, we can productively think about what the influential German scholar of classical religions, Walter Burkert, calls “formative antecedents.” Burkert and other theorists, including the Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade,61 arguably the single most influential theorist of religion in the US context, have speculated on one such antecedent: a tension created by, on the one hand, the human capacity for empathy with animal lives and sufferings—a capacity that can be sharpened in the process of learning to hunt animals or tend to their needs in husbandry—and, on the other hand, the social necessity or practical advantages of harming or killing animals. In broad outline, the hypothesis is that this tension between compassion and killing was an important factor shaping rituals surrounding hunting and, later, the killing of domesticated animals (animal sacrifice), practices that in turn shaped later religious institutions, rippling forward into contemporary religious life and sustained by ongoing experiences of this tension by later generations.

The “Shock of Killing”

In his landmark study, Homo Necans, Burkert “held that the human hunter would be a special case: being trained to kill against his instincts and heritage, man would experience the man-animal equivalence and thus mix impulses of aggression with the craft of hunting.”62 In addition to feelings of consanguinity, Burkert reasons, “There might well be present, or develop in certain individuals, a special ‘killing instinct,’ a unique and thrill experience, an experience of power, of breakthrough, of triumph.”63 This killing instinct, Burkert suggests, would pose a threat to society given the relative proximity of human and animal—“in the hunt, you must treat an animal, which is so similar to a human, in just the way you must not treat a human”64—and thus social regulation via ritual becomes probable. Whether the feeling is of consanguinity or the thrill of domination, Burkert concludes, there is considerable evidence that these interactions with animals in the fraught moment of death were generative of practices, like many sacrificial practices, that we now connect with religion. While admitting that the reconstruction of these primal moments is inescapably speculative, Burkert insists that “we are still entitled to assume a ‘shock of killing,’ a mixture of triumph and anxiety, a catharsis of destructive impulses and the readiness to make amends”65—experiences that became drivers of religious formation.

The Comedy of Innocence, The Myth of Consent, and Zoo-ocentric Sympathy

Both Burkert’s and Eliade’s theorization of the importance of human-animal relations explicitly draw on the influential German scholar, Karl Meuli, whose 1944 essay on ancient Greek sacrifice continues to be a touchstone for scholarly studies of sacrifice.66 Meuli highlighted the way in which animal sacrifice in Greece was marked by what he called a “Comedy of Innocence”—that is, the human participants would go through considerable length to demonstrate the “assent” of the sacrificial animal and, in some cases, to also ritually deny that they were the actual agents of the animal’s death. Despite serious limitations to Meuli’s theorization, as one recent critic of Meuli explains, he “successfully showed that the Greeks shared with hunting cultures the anxiety and fear aroused by the killing of animals … for many notable features of the Greek ritual seem to be concerned … with reverence for the animal victim and awe before the act of slaughter.”67

Similar indicators of discomfort with killing are found in other sacrificial complexes all over the world, including the ancient Israelite sacrifices depicted in the Bible.68 As novelist Jonathan Safran Foer has pointed out, “the myth of animal consent” is alive and well in contemporary discourse where, Foer speculates, it is often used to deflect ethical questions about animal suffering in agriculture.69 James Serpell has helpfully described such phenomena as examples of a virtually culturally universal “zoo-ocentric sympathy.”70

All Religions Wink

However, following the highly regarded contemporary historian of religion, J. Z. Smith, I want to emphasize that we have no reason to believe that the widespread evidence for what Meuli called the “Comedy of Innocence” or related practices are a simple reflection of actual religious life. Smith, like Burkert, Eliade, and Meuli, finds a widespread (though not universal) anxiety regarding the killing of animals.71 However, Smith, unlike these others, points toward the conflicted and idealized nature of these seeming expressions of solidarity or compassion. Smith explains, for example, that “[t]he Nivkhi say that ‘in order not to excite the bear’s posthumous revenge, do not surprise him but rather have a fair stand-up fight,’ but the same report goes on to describe how they actually kill bears: ‘a spear, the head of which is covered with spikes, is laid on the ground, a cord is attached to it and, as the bear approaches [the ambush] the hunter [by pulling up on the cord] raises the weapon and the animal becomes impaled on it.’”72 Smith’s corrective is to imagine that there are no religious institutions that “don’t wink at all.”73 That is, there are no human institutions that aren’t also a sight of conflict. “Pluralism is as old as humankind,” Smith asserts.74 This seems an especially crucial point in relation to how animals and religion go together. Religions don’t so much settle on ways to imagine animals as settle into arguments about different ways to imagine and treat animals.

A War as Old as Genesis

Indeed, I am inclined to follow the French Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida’s reflections on sacrifice as a seed of Abrahamic religions and perhaps other traditions, where he imagines the religious impulse bound up not solely with a sentiment of solidarity with life—what Derrida calls a “sentiment of compassion”75—or with the transformation or denial of this sentiment. Rather, for Derrida, religion manifests through the very tension between these two possible responses to the drama of the living. Starting with the present moment rather than an imagined primal condition, Derrida sees the massive violence against animals, visible today in institutions that reduce animals to commodities like factory farming, as rooted in a “Judeo-Christiano-Islamic tradition of a war against the animal, of a sacrificial war that is as old as Genesis.”76 This sacrificial war, Derrida speculates, is between, “on the one hand, those who violate not only animal life but even and also this sentiment of compassion, and, on the other hand, those who appeal for an irrefutable testimony to this pity. War is waged over the matter of pity. This war is probably ageless.”77 For Derrida, animals have been and always will be central to religion because the drama of life—the drama of compassion and war against that compassion, the drama of sacrifice and the renunciation of sacrifice—is central to the “sacrificial heart”78 that animates Abrahamic religions and indeed many others.

Internal Diversity of Animals in Religion

While traditions certainly have horizons—limits on, for example, the range of ethical standards that are viewed as credible—when speaking about how entire religious traditions engage animals, the most straightforward path of description will usually be to present contrasting tendencies within that tradition rather than constructing positively an unambivalent and unparadoxical “standard” view. As the eminent Chinese geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has shown in his landmark study on the making of pets, opposing attitudes toward a given human or animal, exemplarily dominance and affection, are often bound together: “[A]ffection is not the opposite of dominance; rather it is dominance’s anodyne—it is dominance with a human face. Dominance may be cruel and exploitative, with no hint of affection in it. What it produces is the victim. On the other hand, dominance may be combined with affection, and what it produces is the pet.”79 Almost everywhere we look and in diverse ways, animals are both pets and victims, beloved and consumed.80

For example, while dominant streams of Abrahamic traditions certainly elevate the human in a radical way, other prominent elements of these traditions—such as certain streams of interpretation of the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible,81 medieval tales of talking animals,82 or some stories of St. Francis’s animal ministries—undo this elevation or lean against it. In the dharma traditions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, humans are radically elevated above animals ontologically and ethically in different-but-parallel ways to those we find in Abrahamic traditions, but in other ways humans are drawn comparatively closer to humans, especially so in Jain traditions. For example, consider, on the one hand, the inclusion of animals in the basic dharmic ethical prohibition on himsa (violence) articulated in the principle of ahimsa (nonviolence), or the common view that animals are fellow subjects in the wheel of samara, the chain of rebirth from which dharma practice aims to liberate adherents. The renowned Jain scholar of Jainism, Padmanabh S. Jaini, recounts what he argues is “perhaps the most celebrated story concerning an animal” in Indian traditions, the “Liberation of the Elephant” (Gaja-moksha), arguing that, among the story’s other purposes, it is “probably intended to demonstrate the capacity of animals to attain salvation [moksha].”83 Jaini narrates:

[A] certain elephant arrives at the bank of a lake to quench his thirst, only to be caught by a crocodile and dragged down into the mire. The elephant, realizing his hopeless position, happened to recall a hymn that he had learned in a previous life and uttered it with utmost surrender, begging Lord Vishnu to rescue him from his calamity. The Lord appeared atop his mount, Garuda, killing the crocodile and saving the elephant. The narrator hastened to add that, at that very moment, the elephant lost his animal body and assumed the form of a four-armed Visnu, suggesting thereby that he had attained a state of similarity (samaya) with the Lord.84

But, on the other hand, consider the notion in all dharma traditions that the highest state of realization requires birth in a human body and that nonhuman births are often conceptualized as punishment.85 Similarly, the only indigenous Chinese religion recognized by the highly problematic taxonomy mandated by the modern state of China, Daoism, reflects a tension between, on the one hand, the position that it is natural and in accordance with the dao that animals be used for “food, sacrifice, and service” and, on the other hand, that “animals should not be used in ways that make them act contrary to their own natures.”86 In the “Liberation of the Elephant” story recounted by Jaini, an elephant is able to achieve salvation, but this is so in part because this elephant was previously a human—a male and a sovereign human. Examples of these tensions could be proliferated endlessly.

A New Frontier: Animals as Religious Actors

Going still further, some recent scholarship has followed numerous religious traditions by opening to the possibility, disavowed in dominant Western discourses until recently,87 of animals participating actively in their own religious lives distinct from the world of human religiosity. Virtually all early scholarly definitions of religion have sought to define religion in a manner that excludes animal behavior as religious,88 conceding at most that we can identify proto-religious elements of animal behavior that evolved into what became the uniquely human domain of religion.89 Currents in contemporary scholarship, however, are imagining animals as religious subjects by, on the one hand, taking seriously ethological studies that imply that some animals, especially nonhuman great apes, already exhibit behaviors that fit within current understandings of religion; and, on the other hand, reconsidering our deep intuitions about the nature of religion and proposing new, more adequate understandings of religion that, for example, emphasize the affective and embodied dimension of religion in a manner that leaves room for animals to have their own “animal religion.”90

The Importance of Ethology

For example, primatological research, especially the studies of Jane Goodall, have provided scientific descriptions of primate behavior difficult to explain without recourse to religious vocabulary. Arguably, the most famous description is of the chimpanzee waterfall dance,

Deep in the forest are some spectacular waterfalls. Sometimes as a chimpanzee—most often an adult male—approaches one of these falls his hair bristles slightly, a sign of heightened arousal. As he gets closer, and the roar of 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 for ten or fifteen minutes.91

Commenting on these dances in an interview with Goodall, Patton reflects:

[S]o often theorists and scientists, particularly sociobiologists, will try to reduce human religious ritual, saying, “Well, it’s like animal ritual; animals have ritual too.” But what you suggest to me is that maybe we’re thinking about it backwards. It’s rather that ritual action is a natural response to living in a world of mystery and beauty and divinity. It is a response that is shared by animals with human beings. So it’s not clear that we can reduce human ritual behavior to instinct “because animals do it too,” but rather that animals need to be brought conceptually into the sphere of human religious experience; animal ritual action might be “elevated” to the world of human ritual action.

Goodall’s own pithy response to Patton is quite remarkable: “What I saw was an expression of what I think is a spiritual reality.”92

Animal Subjectivity as an Old Idea

The idea that animals too may be responsive to religious realities strikes most people today as a rather new idea, appearing only after the pioneering studies of primatologists like Goodall, but the notion is in fact found in far older streams of thought. In his study of the Koyukon, Richard Nelson records that “most interesting of all is animal behavior interpreted [by the Koyukon people] to be religious. ‘Even animals have their taboos,’ a woman once told me.”93 Nelson goes on to describe several examples recorded by the Koyukon. Where scholars once denigrated such thinking as “animism,” arguing that it represented a primitive stage of human development, now both scholars and practitioners are reclaiming the idea of animism, proposing it as a helpful corrective to an impoverished contemporary understanding of the living world.94

Perhaps more surprisingly, the notion of animal religion is arguably present in most or all of the so-called world religions. Even traditions generally conceived as strongly anthropocentric nonetheless harbor within their corpus stories of animal religion. In her masterful study of the Qur’an and animals, Tlili observes, “The Qur’an mentions a few forms of active and passive worship in which the so-called nonrational creatures partake, such as tasbih (praise/glorification of God), sujud (prostration), and fear of or submission to God (khashya), and some of the exegetes even include ritual prayers (salat), fasting (sawm), and even self-sacrifice for the sake of God in these creatures’ forms of worship.”95 Examples could be multiplied.


At stake in all the theoretical positions surveyed here, from the less controversial argument that there is a depth dimension to human-animal relationships to the controversial thought of animal religion, is a more basic question: Should we attempt to discuss animals and human-animal relations in religious terms? Perhaps the most fundamental issue at stake in the discourse of animals and religion is not any particular conclusion about how best to interpret the hard-won conjunction “animals and religion,” but whether we want to grant animals the dignity to be included prominently in the lofty discourses of and about religion at all. It is certainly possible to define religion in more or less coherent ways that exclude nonhuman animals from any role of pride. Such a definition, though, may distort the reality of human animals and our religions as much as the “lives of animals.”96 What is emerging today in the subfield of animals and religion may provide a more intuitive and productive mode of imagining religion, one in which the beings we call animals, the phenomena we deem religious, and even our own self conceptions will shift together.

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(1) For discussion, see Crane and Gross 2015.

(2) For an overview of the category “religions of traditional peoples,” see Smith, Green, and Buckley 1995. See n. 7 on the world religions/religions of traditional peoples binary.

(3) On raven augury from Tibet to Alaska see Smith, Green, and Buckley 1995; for a detailed study of the Koyukon that highlights the role of the raven see Nelson 1983.

(5) For discussion, see Marzluff and Angell 2005, 100–101. Marzluff and Angell emphasize that while this raven is an individual in the sense of being the “primary actor” of the story, there is no attempt to give the raven individuality in the sense of giving the bird a personality.

(7) For purposes of accessibility, this essay follows the highly problematic but entrenched practice of dividing religions into so-called world religions and all other traditions, here called “the religions of traditional peoples.” World or “universal” religions is a category that has historically ranged from only three traditions—Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism—to more recent expansive lists that add Judaism, Hinduism, and as many as six other traditions. In the early days of religious studies the thousands of remaining traditions were usually called “primitive religions,” a practice now considered the product of colonialism and racism more than any objective consideration. As we will see, this conceptual division is in part related to issues connected with animals, another reason I retain this vocabulary. As an alternative to “primitive religions,” I use the problematic though expedient phrase “the religions of traditional peoples” for collectively designating a range of cultures and religions that an earlier generation of Western scholarship branded as fundamentally different from—and usually inferior to—the so-called world religions. For discussion, see Masuzawa 2005, Smith 2004, and n. 57.

(8) Komjathy 2014, 164.

(10) Ibid.

(12) Tlili 2012, Location 7225 of 8054.

(15) See Ambros 2012.

(17) For an extensive analysis of the political and functional uses of stories about saints and animals during the Middle Ages, see Alexander 2008. For a more theoretically rich discussion of this topic, see Salisbury 2011; Hobgood-Oster 2008, 63–80.

(18) See Gross 2015.

(19) To be speciesist is to be irrationally biased against nonhuman animals merely because they are nonhuman instead of on the basis of actual differences.

(20) See Waldau 2002.

(21) For an argument for increased concern for animals from ancient to medieval times in both Abrahamic and Buddhist traditions, see Perlo 2009, 2.

(22) For background, see Komjathy 2014, 45, 53, 102, 143, 164; Anderson and Raphals 2006.

(23) For background, see Tlili 2012.

(24) For background, see Gross 2013.

(26) Particularly noteworthy here is work by Richard Bauckman, Charles Camosy, Stephen Clark, David Clough, Celia Deane-Drummond, David Grumett, Laura Hobgood-Oster, Andrew Linzey, Jay McDaniels, Rachel Muers, Christopher Southgate, and Stephen Webb.

(27) See Waldau 2006, 40.

(28) On the concept of the absent referent, see Adams 2010.

(29) Clark 2013, 15.

(30) For a brief but careful consideration of how rendering both animals and women absent is linked, see Adams 2006.

(31) “Misothery” was coined by lawyer and animal rights thinker, Jim Mason; see Mason 1993, 6.

(32) For discussion, see Gross 2015, 10–12.

(33) See Tillich 1959, 7.

(34) Buber 1996, 144.

(35) Buber 1996, 145–146. For Buber’s defense of this experience, see Buber 1996, 172–173.

(37) See Ingold 2012, 50.

(40) See Marder 2013 and, for a stimulating popular discussion, Marder 2012.

(41) For a book-length treatment of the issue of the universality of human self-conception through the detour of animality, see Gross and Vallely 2012.

(42) For example, see Agamben 2004; Buchanan 2012.

(44) For example, see Nappi 2009.

(45) For example, see Superle 2012.

(46) For example, see Chris 2006.

(47) See Ingold 2012.

(48) See Melson 2001, 5.

(49) See Shepard 1996, 1998. For discussion of Shepherd see Patton 2006; Mason 1993.

(50) Schulz 2008, 41–42.

(51) For discussion, see Sife 1993.

(52) A 2011 poll conducted by Harris Interactive found that 91 percent of American pet owners consider their pet to be a member of their family. See Corso 2011.

(54) For discussion, see Person Jr. 2013.

(55) See Thomas 1908. For discussion, see Waldau 2006.

(56) For a study demonstrating humans were literally treated like animals in the context of British colonization of India, see Pandian 2012. For the linkage of the figure of the Jew and animal, see Benjamin 2011. For the links between slavery and domination of animals in the United States, see Spiegel 1996.

(57) For an influential early work denigrating indigenous peoples for their lack of the human/animal binary, see Durkheim and Mauss 1963. Significantly, these racist-colonial notions are arguably a main reason that nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars of religion and much of the contemporary educational establishment in the Western world has essentially arbitrarily selected a handful of the world’s religious traditions to be designated as “world religions,” simultaneously relegating all other religious expression to the inchoate category once known as “primitive religions” (see n. 7). If this were an article for advanced scholars instead of the general reader, it would have eschewed the categories “world religions” and “religions of traditional peoples” altogether. In this context, however, retaining these still-common categories of religion has an important benefit: it exposes the profound role that attitudes toward animals have played in the very categorization of religions. Ultimately, critical reflection on this binary reveals that by privileging the “world religions” for study in our educational system, we have given an essentially lopsided vision of human religious expression, promoting the false notion that as humans “evolve” their religious expression ceases to be concerned with animals as religious actors in a primary way and articulates humans as radically different than the rest of the biotic world.

(58) Patton 2006, 36–37.

(59) In adopting this approach, I follow classics scholar Richard Sorabji’s reflection on the limits of a single approach to animal ethics: “I do not think we have to adopt any moral theory at all…. Whatever protects our fellow humans … the same will protect animals, to the extent that they do not differ in morally relevant ways” (Sorabji 1993, 217).

(60) Scholars attending to animals have thus enlarged an important insight into the nature of religion associated especially with the work of Emile Durkheim, namely the insight that the relationship between the human being and society, including society’s religious dimensions, is dialectical. The character of the human shapes and is shaped by the character of human religions. Scholars attending to animals have simply enlarged the actors involved in this dialectical process. For discussion, see Gross 2015, 63–69.

(61) For a discussion of Eliade, see Gross 2015, 74–81.

(62) Burkert et al. 1987, Kindle Locations 2219–2221.

(63) Burkert et al. 1987, Kindle Locations 2221–2222.

(64) Burkert et al. 1987, Kindle Location 2374.

(65) Burkert et al. 1987, Kindle Location 2224.

(68) See Milgrom 1991, 712; Burkert et al. 1987, Kindle Location 2301.

(69) Foer 2009, 99–101, 243.

(70) Serpell 1996. For similar ideas, see Burkert 1983, 12–22, 1996, 150; Frazer and Gaster 1959, 471–479.

(71) Smith 1988, 59.

(72) Ibid., 61.

(73) See Smith as quoted in Burkert et al. 1987, Kindle Location 2413.

(74) See Smith as quoted in Burkert et al. 1987, Kindle Location 2427.

(75) Derrida 2008, 28–29.

(76) Ibid., 101. For more of Derrida’s understanding of sacrifice see Derrida 2002, 85–88. For discussion, see Gross 2015, chap. 5.

(78) Ibid., 90.

(79) Tuan 1984, 2.

(80) For an interesting recent discussion, see Herzog 2010.

(81) For an excellent analysis of how select psalms have shaped attitudes toward animals see Seidenberg 2015.

(82) On the subversive nature of animal tales, see Bland 2009, 2010.

(83) Jaini 2000, 254.

(84) Ibid.

(85) For a fascinating discussion in the Hindu context, see Nelson 2006.

(87) On Derrida’s understanding of disavowal, employed here, see Gross 2015, 122–137.

(88) Gross 2015, chap. 3.

(89) On animals exhibiting proto-religious behavior see, e.g., Bellah 2011; Goodall 2005, 1304.

(90) For a range of essays on this topic see Deane-Drummond, Clough, and Artinian-Kaiser 2013. For a monograph working in religious studies see, e.g., Schaefer 2015. For a systematic reconsideration of core Christian theological concepts in light of animal subjectivity see, e.g., Clough 2012.

(91) Goodall 2005, 1304.

(93) Nelson 1983, 21.

(94) See especially the work of Graham Harvey, e.g., Harvey 2006.

(95) Tlili 2012, 166.

(96) I take this phrase from Nobel laureate, J. M. Coetzee. See Coetzee 1999.