Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.
Are Animals Spiritual?
It’s October, the month when many churches celebrate Saint Frances, the patron saint of animals. In honor of the good saint, many churches will have a special Saturday set aside to offer blessings for parishioners’ pets. People will bring in their dogs and cats, and perhaps even birds, rodents, and reptiles, while everyone enjoys a day in fellowship with one another. The atmosphere is very relaxed and friendly as the priest or minister says a special blessing over the animal, then people visit for awhile and leave secure in the knowledge that God loves our pets even more than we do. Most churches recognize that for many pet guardians, their pets are family.
The annual pet blessings are good, clean fun, but can it go deeper than that? Do animals have a spiritual side? To some Christians, the answer is an emphatic “No!” They believe that God made humans special and above other animals. They believe that the dominion that God gave to man implies an iron rule, and that humans alone are capable of worship and spirituality. Some atheists believe that religion is a human construct and has no basis in reality. To them, any claims that animals can be spiritual is nothing more than anthropomorphism and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Biblical Support for Animal Spirituality
Does the Bible support the claim that animals can be spiritual? Many Christians believe the Bible to be silent in regards to animals. Some Christians are turned off by mention of animal sacrifice and dig no deeper than that. Far worse are animal lovers who believe that God is harsh towards animals. They believe that since God doesn’t care about their dog, then they won’t care about God. These are the Christians who leave the church and join other, friendlier religions or become atheists. This is unfortunate, because to God every soul matters and to lose one due to a misunderstanding is heartbreaking. The truth is, God cares for all his creation.
The book of Psalms is a good starting point for those who wish to further explore God’s relationship with the animal kingdom. Many single out the compassion that God shows to each of his animals. Other psalms call for the animals to worship God, Psalm 148:7 sings:
“Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths…wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, young men and maidens, old men and children.”
The psalmist believed that all the earth should praise God. The Psalms is not the only place that we can find animals praising or worshiping God. The prophet Isaiah in chapter 43:20 writes that God provides for the wild animals and that they worship him in turn.
In the book of Revelation, 5:13, John writes,
“Then I heard every creature of heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: 'To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb (Jesus) be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!'
All creation praises God. The book of Job, chapter 12:7-10.
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air and they will tell you; or speak to the earth and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In His hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”
Do the animals know who provides for them? Job believed that they did, and that we could learn from their example.
Scientific Support for Animal Emotions
The above are only a few examples of Biblical evidence of the spiritual lives of animals. Time and space dictates that I not list them all. However, while the Bible is truth to those who believe, it is nothing more than a dry, dusty tome to unbelievers. Fortunately, science provides us with the answers we need to find evidence for the spiritual life of animals.
Throughout the centuries, philosophers, scientists, and theologians have argued for and against the souls, emotions, and even spiritual lives of animals. Most argued against these notions. These days we’re fortunate enough to turn to MRIs and the study of brain structures and neurochemicals to see that animals possess thoughts and emotions. However, long before such technology existed, Charles Darwin did extensive studies on the lives of animals. He believed that mental abilities and emotions existed along a continuum. Humans inherited emotions and spirituality from the animals through evolution.
Scientific Support for Animal Spirituality
Scientific progress has closed the gap that has existed between humans and other animals in regards to neural activity and emotions. So it stands to reason that it would close the gap in regards to spirituality as well. Jane Goodall has observed chimpanzees dancing at waterfalls. The chimps will sway, move from foot to foot, and jump around in the water. Each session may last up to 15 minutes, after which the chimps will sit and stare thoughtfully into the water. Goodall has noticed that this ritual usually precedes a storm. She believes that these dances may be the evolutionary basis for religious ritual. Considering that many tribal religions throughout history have danced before a storm, the idea does not seem so strange. Goodall is not the only scientist to observe such behaviour. Anthropologist Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University has recorded a male chimpanzee in Senegal dancing before his troop when a fire was present. Rather than panic at the fire, the chimpanzee remained calm, moving from the fire only when necessary.
We need not only base the idea of animal spirituality on field observations, research into the neurosciences can tell us much about whether or not animals are capable of greater spirituality. By studying the limbic system we can learn all we need to know about emotions, learning, and memory. Researchers have discovered that the basis for human spirituality is also located in the limbic system. This brain system is one of the more primitive areas of the brain and one we share with other species.
The ability to worship a creator isn’t really necessary for survival. So why did God create our brains to function this way? The Bible provides the answers to that. Many of the Good Book’s original authors believed that humans and animals alike possess spirituality and the ability to fall down and worship the King of all Kings. King David, the prophet Isaiah, and John the Revelator would not be shocked to learn of Goodall’s or Pruetz's discoveries. Revelations 5 teaches that the animals praise their creator, Isaiah 43 says that jackals and owls honor God, and Psalm 145:9-10 say that because God has compassion on all He has made, all He has made will praise Him. As you bless your pets this October, remember, there may be far more to it than we realize.
© 2017 Anna Watson
Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on October 15, 2017:
There is a theory that animals have group souls. This article even has animals reincarnating.
For me, a "soul" means "life" and all life should be treated with respect.