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The Spirituality of Animals
It is a sad fact that not only secular human thinking but also most of our religions assign to animals an inferior spiritual capacity and status.
Why is this so? Does the fact that our religions developed from a human viewpoint to meet the needs of humans justify viewing all our fellow species as ancillaries (at best) or anthropomorphized superstitions (at worst)? Hardly, especially when science is continually stripping away both the superstitions and the animals’ perceived inferiorities.
How many times have we heard a Christian say, “animals are spiritually inferior to humans because they cannot pray”. How do we know this? How do we know that this wild assumption from the Dark Ages holds true? This sort of thinking stems from shallow, undeveloped minds who equate prayer with the reciting of words. Of course animals can’t recite the Mass in Latin! (I feel that even if they could, certain people would find another excuse to relegate them to inferiority status.) It is precisely this attitude that also breeds racism, sexism etc. “You are inferior because you do not match the mould into which I think you should fit.”
There are a few religions which genuinely view animals as equals, such as Jainism, philosophical Taoism and some native animistic religions yet here too, the natural world is not seen for what it is but cloaked in cultural trappings and myths.
I have been studying animals (scientifically) and religion (theologically) for years and the more I learn about the true goals of religion, - meaning those common objectives to which the religions’ followers aspire - the more I realize that animals have achieved them. For example, detachment from emotions is emphasized by certain eastern religions. This means that, although one still feels the emotions, one’s peace unaffected by disturbances; one is not pulled into negativity.
Scientists have long since proven that animals have emotions. Now, if an animal’s mate dies, or its young are eaten by a predator, or if it loses a limb, it responds precisely in a way which probably about one billion spiritual seekers world-wide aspire to(!) When was the last time you saw an animal beating itself up over a mistake, blame others for its own misfortunes, commit suicide or for that matter, when was the last time your cat become addicted to rare Peruvian cat grass because of an inferiority complex? Of course, animals mourn and can display ‘negative’ emotions but how long does that last? Not long – they get on with their lives. Anyone who has ever had a disabled pet in their lives will know what I’m talking about.
Personally, I would go so far as to claim that animals are spiritually, physically and emotionally more evolved than humans. That may come as a shock, I know, but let’s examine this statement:
Physically – this is the easiest to quantify. Even the fastest man in the world is slow compared to most animals. Comparatively, humans are neither very strong nor particularly good climbers, swimmers etc. Our senses are not exceptionally well evolved compared to most of our fellow species. In fact, the only noteworthy physical attributes we have are our moveable thumb joint and the fact that we can think in ways which animals can not, or do not, think. Whether or not the latter is an advantage, I leave for the reader to decide(!)
Emotionally – as shown in the above example an acute observation of animal behaviour (anyone can do this) shows that animals have their emotions under far better control than most humans. Now, a quick word about all those supposed ‘cruelties’ found among our fellow species. Firstly, animals struggle to survive in the world just as we do, and in the wild, survival sometimes dictates behaviour, just as it did for our ancestors. But all this supposed cruel and bloodthirsty behaviour, when not distorted by our superstitions, serves a very good purpose in the scheme of life and, upon closer examination, is not cruel at all. Animals do not share the human traits of cruelty and deceit. And is it crueller for a wild animal to find a quick death in its natural surroundings so that another can feed its young, or to keep scores of mistreated animals in dark sheds stinking of blood and death just so that a certain species can eat another hamburger which it doesn’t need?
Spiritually – animals are totally in tune with their bodies, the environment and all life forms around them. If we accept that the divine can be found in nature, then the conclusions are obvious. If we don’t accept this, then we are left with an argument that can be neither disproven nor proven – empirically. Given the animals’ level of connectedness, it would be somewhat awkward to argue that animals share no divine connection whatsoever, especially if we go by more modern definitions of spirituality. If of course we go by dogmatic definitions (devised by humans for humans and concerning humans), most Christians for example would argue something along the lines of: as it is highly unlikely that animals know of Jesus, they have no or little spiritual faculties. I’m not quite sure how they figure this but I’ve heard it many times. The first part of this statement is correct, yet it is in keeping with traditional Christian teaching that Jesus came into the world for human salvation, not for animals. This does NOT mean however, that we are a spiritually superior species – on the contrary, we are the ones who need help badly enough for God to intervene. It was not the animals who were kicked out of the Garden of Eden(!)
Another case in point. To all those who share their lives with a cat: have you ever watched your cat in that state between deep sleep and wakefulness? Have you ever wondered what it’s doing? Is it thinking? Meditating? …Of course, we cannot answer such questions for certain but scientists have measured the brainwaves of cats in such states and they are remarkably similar to the waves of the human brain when in deep states of prayer or meditation.
In conclusion – Animals are not spiritually inferior to humans. Nor, incidentally, are they little cuddly things in need of our protection and stewardship - a very modern misconception. The problem we have, of course, is that if we were to acknowledge animals as anything other than soulless Cartesian machines, we would have serious moral issues regarding our treatment of them! But each of us can make a difference: we can buy products not tested on animals, go vegetarian (or at least buy non factory-farmed/organic meats), cease hunting, and we can leave the animals alone to walk their spiritual paths and concentrate instead on walking ours.
By T. Köberle
6th June 2006
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