Non-Human Religions

29 Nov

The Hanar

(The Hanar are super religious)

Richard Dawkins was posed the following question on a Reddit AMA:

Q10- Richard, are there any examples of non-human species acting religiously?

A10- Hard to know what that would mean. Elephants have been said to mourn their dead. Some people have semi-seriously suggested that domestic pets might feel religious towards the people who feed and care for them. Not very convincing, I’d abandon that train of thought!

I thought I would take a stab at it; at least, explain why we probably should abandon this type of thought for the time being.

As I’ve written before, first and foremost, religion is something that humans invented. We invented it, just like we invented Diet Coke, because it’s something that appeals to a slew of human biases. If we were to find out if other animals were “religious”, we would first have to demonstrate that other animals have the same biases that humans do.

But even before that, we would have to show that animals have a way of propagating complex cultures from mind to mind. It’s not that religion is just one belief that infects other minds, religion is a complex system of interacting social mores and explanations. So for example, someone could believe in a general god (i.e. a “theist”) but that doesn’t mean that they’re religious. They would need a bunch of supplementing rules of behavior and secondary/tertiary/etc. beliefs that follow “necessarily” from theism to go along with it.

This is one reason why it doesn’t make sense to compare atheism with Christianity. Atheism is just one belief, Christianity is a multitude of beliefs; Christianity is not only theism, but belief in resurrection from the dead, the eternity of minds that are in reality ontologically basic units (souls, angels, demons), the concept of sin, blood atonement, eternal salvation, certain rituals/behaviors you’re supposed to perform for god and for other people… either other Christians or other non-Christians, etc. It would be more accurate (or fair) to compare atheism with theism, or Christianity with Buddhism.

Stepping back into unpackaging Christianity, these beliefs all have precedents in human cognitive biases. For example, we have cognitive biases like hyperactive agency detection, theory of mind/typical mind fallacies, that preceded and fed into the more primitive religions like animism. Do other non-human animals consider, say, rocks or trees, to have a mind that can be communicated with? This seems doubtful.

This general theory of mind is an outgrowth of our highly social mind; our tendency for tribalism and groupthink. Survival in groups meant modeling other minds accurately and doing the “ritual” to get that mind to do what you wanted it to do. It seems that even other primates don’t have this “do a ritual to get what you want” bias (I don’t know what the real name of it would be called) that would be a necessary condition for religious behavior.

If a non-human animal had all of these behaviors, then we might consider it religious, but how exactly would that singular animal spread it to others of his group? Even children aren’t naturally religious. They need to be taught to use supernatural explanations. And children have biases that make them want to follow adults moreso than in other animals.

We then have some subsequent biases like the just world fallacy (good things only happen to good people, bad things only happen to bad people), promiscuous teleology (everything has a purpose), that also seem to be necessary seedling cognitive biases that eventually sprout into a facet of religious belief. These biases are behind our thoughts on morality, which is what leads into a lot of the abhorrent behavior associated with religion. Especially the moral obligation to guard the truth at all costs.

We then have behaviors that we do that seem to either make us engage in self-punishment for feeling guilty (hence the concept of atonement), or as signaling behavior for showing our allegiance and dedication to our social group. If non-human animals didn’t show those sorts of behaviors, then I would be highly doubtful they could practice anything that resembles “religion”.

Lastly, the religious behavior — in order to be more successful than other memes and stay fixed in a population — would have to be something that increases group bonding. Which, in the case of the activities that go along with religion, seems rather specified to human evolution. Chanting together in some sort of fertility ritual might not actually improve fertility, but it certainly increases group bonding… in humans.

So it doesn’t seem to me that other non-human animals can be religious. It would take an animal that is probably at least as social as humans are — susceptible to all of the sociological biases and cognitive algorithms that humans have — to even begin to exhibit religious behavior.

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Posted by on November 29, 2013 in cognitive science, religiosity


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