Up high in the hills of Eastern Italy, inside the imposing Fonte Avellana hermitage, a whip lashes across the back of a Benedictine monk. Instead of feeling just pain, he feels a lightness inside himself as his humanly sins are forgiven. In the bustling heart of Istanbul, a young Muslim man celebrates as Ramadan comes to an end. He is elated and relieved, as he has successfully proven his moral obedience to Allah and has obtained taqwa. Deep in the south of the United States, at an annual Purity Ball, a girl pledges her virginity to the man she will one day marry, while her father promises to protect her purity until this day comes. As the ceremony draws to an end, the pair dance together, finding comfort in the thought that she will grow up to be morally clean.
Throughout history, us humans have had a complex relationship with our more animalistic tendencies. In the eyes of some, our biological instincts, passions and emotions are perceived as immoral and ungodly. Some dark and beastly nature that needs to be removed from deep within our psyches. To aid in this, millions of people turn to religion, looking upon a higher-being to judge them for their sins and keep them on the path to moral righteousness. If they succeed, maybe they can reap the benefits of their hard work in the after life. Or their next life. I guess it depends on what they believe.
But as we try to further ourselves from our animal instincts through the practice of religion, are we assuming that humans are the only ones that strive to live a moral life? Or are animals also spiritual beings in their own way?
Lucky for us, teams of scientists are trying to figure all this out! And their answers may surprise you, as an accumulation of data over the last several years suggests that a sense of morality is not just something that humans exhibit. Turns out, some of our animal friends are a lot more spiritual than we give them credit for.
Let’s start by looking at our cousins the chimpanzee, who scientists now believe may have the precursors for spirituality. Jane Goodall herself witnessed a lone chimpanzee wondering through the dense tropical forest, stumbling upon a massive waterfall, and crying out in awe at the amazing sight before it. The chimp ran back and forth, hammered his fists against a tree, and than stopped completely, entering a deep state of contemplation. She has also observed chimps preforming a sort of rain dance at the onset of rain, and others dancing in a trance like state during thunderstorms. Her conclusion – that these elemental displays are a form of spiritual ritual. Chimpanzees are also well known for having funeral rituals. In the instance where a young chimp dies, the mother will carry the lifeless body around for weeks, or even months, grooming the body as if it were still alive, therefore slowing down the decaying process and giving her enough time to grieve. This process is so common that many zoos have taken it into account, leaving the mother with her deceased child for several days. Similar behaviour has also been observed in other monkeys, including gorillas, lemurs, and baboons.
Elephants and dolphins are also known to grieve their dead through a form of ritual. After the death of an elephant, the group will stand guard next to the body, while other nearby groups of elephants call by to pay their respect. This process can last several days before the group moves on, and they have even been seen returning to the site years later to pay respect to the remaining bones. Dolphins have also been observed staying close to the body of a friend for several days, showing aggression towards any species (including divers) that try to get too close. Other unique death rituals have been observed in giraffes, wolves, llamas, foxes, and several species of birds. Although this may not indicate religion in animals, it does serve as a reminder that humans are not the only animals that have a deep response to death.
So back to us humans!
I think it’s relatively clear that religion still has its teeth sunk firmly into human culture. Whether you believe in a god or not, you’re still going to end up hearing about religion a whole lot. Just head to your local pub, have a few glasses of house sav, and you’re likely to somehow end up debating it with gusto. However, these days the tone of religion has changed a bit. While many people still practice religion in the traditional sense, the concept is taken a bit lighter in certain crowds. For example, with some people religion can be used as a get rich quick scheme (eg. L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Scientology), a way to appreciate your favourite Italian cuisine (eg. Pastafarianism), a way to pay respect to your favourite football player (eg. Iglesia Maradoniana, the religion of Diego Maradona), or a way to harness the Force (eg. Jediism).
But in all seriousness, how did religion even come to be?
Well we can thank our big, beautiful brains for that. 500,000 years ago, our brains underwent a massive growth period, tripling in size to what they once were. An area of the brain that underwent the biggest transformation was the neocortex, the space responsible for language, emotion, and processing higher order thinking. This growth ultimately allowed early humans to be able to comprehend the world around them, and reflect on the inevitability of our personal mortality. Ultimately, it allowed us to get deep. Our new found language skills also allowed us to share our thoughts and feelings about the world around us to other people.
Add to this the relative mayhem and harshness of the environment our ancestors lived in. With no scientific knowledge of why the heavens open up and pour water on us sometimes, or why the ground can crack open and spew molten rocks down upon us, it can be easy to see why our ancestors began to believe in a wrathful higher-power that needed to be pleased. In a way to appease the gods and curry good favour, early humans started partaking in rituals involving dance and music, and began fashioning figurines to pray too, such as fertility deities.
Religion was born.
As population sizes increased and humans began a more structured and hierarchical way of living, religion was now needed for another reason – to control peoples behaviour. Religion created a moral code for people to live by so that society would run smoothly, and the inclusion of the ever-watching and judgmental eyes of ancestors, gods and spirits kept people in check. Chuck in a few human sacrifices to the gods, and you have yourself a terrified and rule-abiding population that is easy to control, and more likely to survive compared to those societies that don’t practice religion.
So at the end of the day, spirituality and religion runs deep through human evolution and our history. Whether you choose to count your rosary beads, worship a flying spaghetti monster, or dance around in awe at the beauty of nature like a chimpanzee, it is your biological right!