Saturday, October 16, 2010

Liberating Spiritual Experiences in Nonhuman Animals

(Photo by

Last week news broke stating the strong possibility that nonhuman animals have spiritual experiences.  Kevin Nelson, a professor of  neurology at the University of Kentucky, told Discovery News that since we cannot communicate in human spoken language with nonhuman animals  " it is unlikely we will ever know with certainty what an animal subjectively experiences."

"Despite this limitation, it is still reasonable to conclude that since the most primitive areas of our brain happen to be the spiritual, then we can expect that animals are also capable of spiritual experiences," added Nelson, author of the book, "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain," which will be published in January 2011.  Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, finds common ground with Nelson.  Dr. Bekoff defines spiritual experiences as those that are "nonmaterial, intangible, introspective and comparable to what humans have."  By way of example, he writes about chimpanzees dancing when seeing a waterfall or a thunderstorms. "The actions are deliberate but obscure. Could it be a joyous response to being alive, or even an expression of the chimp's awe of nature? Where, after all, might human spiritual impulses originate?"   Dr. Jane Goodall has also written of primate spirituality (in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature) and has wondered, "If the chimpanzee could share his feelings and questions with others, might these wild elemental displays become ritualized into some form of animistic religion? Would they worship the falls, the deluge from the sky, the thunder and lightning — the gods of the elements? So all-powerful; so incomprehensible."


Of what importance, you may be asking, is this question of whether nonhuman animals have spiritual experiences?  Is this  news nothing other than curious and fascinating material for dinner table conversation?  For me, it is much more than food for thought, it is nourishing for the flourishing of all beings on this planet.

For too long we humans have felt separated from existence.  Perhaps it's having too big a frontal cortex, but for whatever reason we humans have felt "different" from other animals. This results in perceived human superiority and risks that we treat other animals with less respect and compassion. Indeed history has borne out, and current practices support the idea that because we humans operate from the stance that we are so fundamentally different from nonhuman animals, we may use them as we wish. Great harm arises from this thinking, not just for other species but for our own kind.  When we think we are apart from creation, we suffer from feelings of fear and angst, for we cannot trust that we belong and all others belong on this planet.  Suffering and injustice knows no species boundaries. Humans and nonhumans fall prey to the results of believing that our we need only extend compassionate action to our kind and not to our kin of many different species.

I resonate with Marc Bekoff who writes, "I like to think that the bumper sticker for evolutionary continuity between humans and nonhuman animals would simply be: "If we have something they have it too."  I wrote about this recently in my other blog,  A Year's Rising with Mary Oliver:


    We are here not to be separate from others, from animals, from earth, or from God. In fact, we     cannot be. We are God’s body. We are the earth's body.  So if we are all one body together, so is our     monkey mind – imperfect yet perfect, and fumbling and bumbling, yet graceful. We have no climbing     towards an external perfection to do. As my favorite poet said (Mary Oliver),  "We only have to love     what the soft animal of our bodies love.


This love flies free in many ways, but can also be constrained, sometimes subtly, other times not.  A recent report describes how an Anglican priest spontaneously and graciously gave a dog a communion wafer during a service.  She received criticisms for her action and was compelled to offer an apology.

I wonder if there was greater good in sharing a communion of love between humans, nonhuman, and God/earth/existence than in adhering to the finer theological points that frankly over the millennia have contributed to our feelings of separation, superiority, and its counterpart, inferiority.  Aren't we all of one body?  Doesn't communion affirm that?   I'm not saying the dog had the spiritual resources to understand the grace of communion, but right now, in this moment, I like to think that you and I do.

 In Romans 8 (New Revised Version) we read:  

 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.


Hicks, Edward, Peaceable_Kingdom

From my experiences and understanding of the text, all life (creation) is here to be liberated.  Hope, as the text invites us to consider, comes from things we cannot see, such as our own spiritual life and longings, which includes our deep faith in the interdependence of life. This leaves us open to the possibility that we are not nearly as alone on this planet as we think we are, nor separate, nor better.    


Mark Bekoff,  writes, "Meager as it is, available evidence says, 'Yes, animals can have spiritual experiences,' and we need to conduct further research and engage in interdisciplinary discussions before we say that animals cannot and do not experience spirituality."

We do not know for certain about the spiritual experiences of others, but we do know what love is.  We can use that love to lead us into an open and unconstrained relationship with the holy other, so that we may grow love beyond thought into word and action.  Isn't that what faith is?  That we don't go it alone, meager as the evidence is?



 Painting by Cindy Capeheart (Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville)