Could my monkey be religous ?

Is it possible other animal species could believe in God ? or is this strictly a unique phenomenon of the human species ?

Posted: June 18th 2011

George Locke

The idea of monotheism is highly abstract, so much that I doubt that any animals are capable of comprehending it besides us. (It may be that there are other animals as smart as we are, but I haven’t seen any reason to believe it.) To understand God, one must be able to conceive of cause and effect far beyond immediate relationships of the “rock fall on head make ouchy” variety. One can see a rock, but one can’t see an invisible being who’s ultimately responsible for everything. You have to think deeply in order to imagine such a thing. Notions as abstract as that surely exceed the mental capacities of a monkey.

Posted: June 20th 2011

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Dave Hitt www

That depends – how gullible is your monkey?

Posted: June 19th 2011

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Blaise www

Religious belief is the product of an interaction between two related aspects of our minds, 'self-awareness’ and 'sense of agency’.

Self awareness is the ability to understand that we are not the only real entity in the universe, but rather that objects in our environment can also be entities that are “not us”.

Sense of agency is the impulse to describe any event as being the result of some other entity’s actions. When you were a monkey, sitting on a branch, and a nearby leaf moved a bit more than the wind would seem to explain, it paid to believe something moved it. You might jump off your comfy branch a couple of extra times a day, but you never got eaten by the snake that was there 1% of the time. That’s a pretty significant survival trait, and one that we probably still need, at some levels.

Given self-awareness and a sense of agency, religion is not hard to comprehend. It’s a meme that opportunistically fits our programming, like a virus co-opting the cell’s machinery for it’s own purposes. Think about how many times you’ve stubbed your toe on a rock, barked your shin on a coffee table, or lost a file when your computer crashed, and felt an irrational urge to curse at it. That’s your sense of agency, telling you that that bastard table is out to get you, despite the clear knowledge in your mind that an exceedingly small percentage of tables, rocks, etc. are in fact are sentient. It’s a very short hop from there to animism (the spirit of the rock has it in for me), and not much more to supernatural beings (the rock-god punished me for not sacrificing enough corn last week). The mind is wonderful at filling in the gaps where what we feel to be true doesn’t quite align with what we know.

Given all that, it is very likely that your monkey could develop a belief we might call 'religious’, or at least 'superstitions’, since many primates exhibit both a rudimentary self-awareness,and a sense of agency. However, abstract concepts like “god” require a complex mind and language to “flesh out” the natural tendency toward superstition into a full, rich belief system. I’m not aware of any primate other than humanity with minds and languages sophisticated enough to support an actual god belief system, but I’m no biologist, so I may be wrong…

Posted: June 19th 2011

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Ophelia Benson www

Well, your monkey probably thinks you are a kind of “god.” But “God”? Well no; that is a human construct; that’s what the capital letter means. Other animal species could no more belive in “God” than they could believe in “Hamlet” or “Antigone” or “Bart Simpson”.

Posted: June 18th 2011

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