When one of my human friends comes through the front door, I like to greet them with a ritual.
Basically, the ritual involves walking in-between and all the way through the human’s legs three or four times, stopping to have my back patted on the way, and wagging my tail to tell them I’m pleased to see them. I do much the same first thing in the morning, when they come into my kitchen to make coffee.
Does performing a ritual mean I’m religious, or at least doing religion when I do this?
Perhaps an observer would say ‘no’, since there’s no evidence of belief in God here (I have no intention of telling you whether I actually believe in God).
But I think this presupposes religion is a certain kind of thing – and this is a presupposition that emerged from a very particular Protestant Christian, early modern, and colonial, context. Because of the Protestant reaction against Catholic ritual, interiority (an individual’s relationship to God) got prioritised over the more communal and practical aspects of Christianity. Because of the early modern nation states, Christian religion was relegated to the private sphere – allowed primarily as a sort of holy hobby – so that being Protestant or Catholic wouldn’t get in the way of political affiliations and relationships. And because of colonialism, this privatised, individualised and belief-centred view of Christianity was imposed on other examples of what looked like similar kinds of thing – in other words, on to other religions. And so, religions became associated with things to do with what an individual believes – someone belongs to religion x if they believe a certain set of things, usually though not always about supernatural entities.
The problem with this is that not all religions seem to be this kind of thing at all. Buddhism is often cited as example of a religion without belief in God (Buddhists are regarded as religious as they have other beliefs instead). But many religions seem to be much more about practices than beliefs. Judaism is one example of a religion that’s more like this. I’ve recently read a book by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg about his dog, where he discusses another human-and-dog ritual – one that involves a game of hide and seek and hunting for bits of food. As Rabbi Wittenberg relates, his dog Mitzpah:
‘knows when it’s Passover, the festival towards which, in accordance with the biblical injunction to eat no leavened foods, we rigorously remove all bread, biscuits, cereals, pasta and flour-based products from the house. He especially enjoys the ritual of ‘searching for the leaven’, the ancient custom of checking that the house is truly free of all proscribed products. The practice is to search the home by the light of a candle at dusk on the night before Passover for any remaining undiscovered crusts and crumbs. To ensure that the activity is taken seriously, a small bit of bread is consumed in each room prior to the search. In our family, the women generally do the hiding and the men the looking; Mitzpah, who counts among the latter, offers his team a considerable advantage since he frequently sniffs out the hidden pieces well before his humans find them.’
I like the sound of that ritual – and I want to know why doing a ritual like that should count less in terms of making one religious than having a particular set of beliefs.
The idea that non-human animals might be religious has support among some human scholars. For example, James Harrrod gives a ‘non-anthropocentric, trans-species definition of religion’, arguing that chimps experience and express things we would define as religion and spirituality if we saw them among humans – for example, celebratory actions indicative of awe, wonder or fascination when seeing sunsets, waterfalls or fires, and announcements of births and deaths.
Awe and wonder are not the only contenders for a definition of religion that would include non-human animals. As Volker Sommer points out, some groups of chimps eat ants but not termites, while other groups of chimps eat termites and not ants. Both have equal nutritional value – so why don’t both groups eat both? Perhaps eating ants (or termites) for each group is just ‘something that isn’t done here’, a bit like a food taboo in a human society. Might something like a food taboo be what it means to be religious, or to do religion?
I’ve really enjoyed talking to the human Religious Studies scholar Graham Harvey about these things, and some of the really good ideas here are his. You can find out more about them here.
I also loved Rabbi Wittenberg’s stories about his dogs, which you can find in his book Things my dog has taught me about being a better human (2017).
Mental walkies with Lola,