In a recent interview (see link), Jane Goodall proposed that chimpanzees have souls.
That’s a thought that needs a moment to simmer before we discuss it, so let me set it aside for a moment.
How are we do predicate Goodall? Sociologist, primatologist, ethologist, animals rights activist, UN Ambassdor of Peace, celebrity, genius. All of the above apply and yet “religious expert” are not among them. Criticism of Goodall, or should I say “dismissal,” is that she while is certainly experienced enough to discuss primates, it is debatable if she is qualified to speak of human concerns. Really. There are people out there who argue this (though I will not provide links to their “work” as I find it both incendiary enough to warrant both disgust and pity for the author).
Her comment has once again opened up a debate over the ethical treatment and care of animals, affirming implicit mandates of care our shared faiths (nay, humanity) have over creation.
Still not ready to get to Goodall yet? Fair enough. But let’s hold that thought: she proposes chimpanzees have souls. Let’s not forget let that escape our immediate thoughts.
This weekend, I found a copy of Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (1992) at a book sale. Didn’t buy it, but only because I own a copy (or two?) in the vault. Whatever your take on Gore, unlike Goodall, he is trained in religious matters, having studied at Vanderbilt. Like Goodall, Gore attempts to broaden traditional Evangelical thought in relation to the world outside steepled towers and pugnacious pulpits. In Earth in the Balance, Gore compels people of faith to renew the call to care for the environment not only because it is God’s creation (see Gen. 1:26-29), but because there is a long heritage in all faiths to do so. Native American religion may be the most well-known to American readers, but even this is debatable when so much ignorant rhetoric of “pagan” and “true religion” abounds. For Gore, to deny what millennia of our ancestors have known, practiced and encouraged is to deny the quadrilateral and make religion increasingly unbalanced (yes, play on words with the title there). There is an inherent sacredness to the Earth and its inhabitants – not just humans – which we simply cannot deny. We, as humans, did not give it, and we, as humans, can’t take it away. No matter how ardently our politics say this is so.
When Goodall points to evidence of animals worshipping, she affirms that same thought: that the world possesses sacred qualities which even animals (not “that animals” as though to acknowledge sacredness is a lower function of mammals, but “which even animals” in solidarity with them) recognize. But this was not the focus of the interview, not the headline – animals as worshipping creatures, but instead animals as possessors of souls, and so I turn here to the matter of animals possessing souls to we can keep the elephant as bite-size for our plate and palate.
When I was a religious consultant, I ran into this question frequently. What are we to make of the Hebrew prophets (e.g. Isaiah 11:6-9 and subsequent Talmudic commentary affirming this line of thought) who forecast lions and lambs in the Eternal Everafter? Precisely, Will my favorite pet be in Heaven?
What Goodall and other scientists are putting forward here is the granting something like humanity to animals. This is troubling not only for the way in which it promotes animals, even goldfish, to equality with humans, but for the way it demands humans affirm the dignity of the disabled. After all, if a banal creature possess a soul, what of the mentally disabled? Or the comatose? Echoes of Terry Schiavo and Congressional debate runs rampant and we feel safer, more comfortable, when we begin to cut off others. But we’re not content with “dehumanizing” animals. We must not stop until we have “murdered” other humans. The colored. The uncolored. The old. The weak. The unproductive. The sick. The prisoner.
There is the perception of limited resources, limited “blessing” and a limited God in all of this – questions far outside the scope of this article but which demand attention. And there is another question here, swimming under the surface: the way in which Goodall grants the soul, by virtue of religious practice. What of those who do not worship? Can it be said that atheists do not possess souls because they do not affirm the natural, the beautiful, the sacred?
Were this so, I can think of a handful of people immediately who lack a soul. It’s no far step to extend these parameters: those I have so casually yet meaningfully said are “heartless” for the way in which they have behaved outside the borders of acceptable “human behavior.” In some deeply painful way, we all know humans who have behaved in ways worse than animals. And, continuing this chain, we may go a step further and acknowledge that the faithfulness of certain animals in lifelong partnership surpasses that of humans. Is unfaithfulness and adultery grounds for saying someone lacks a soul?
The easy work here (don’t worry, I have not yet begun to ramble) is to start cutting and not stop until we reach our own space. Everyone else is damned… I am not. The world is irredeemable… My things are the exception.
From my own purview, I am fairly generous with who and what has a soul. I affirm that animals have souls, indeed some divine quality that expresses sympathy and empathy with humans. The dog who bows their head, grieving with us when we are sad. The gorilla who cuddles with a doll. The eagle who mates for life – committing suicide if need be, but who cannot live without love. The cat who cuddles and purrs with gratitude when we read a book. Animals possess some quality beyond the nebulous existential space we, as their masters, have written of in philosophy and theology books.
My first pet was a Guinea Pig named Oreo. Looking back, I’m not sure why I cried as much as I did when he died. Even as a small child, I was not particularly fond of him. He would eat and sleep, smelled bad, made strange grunting noises, and when I tried to play with him, he would run away. Yet, at five, I recall feeling the loss of a friend. I regularly talked to him, asked how his day was, fed him and petted him with care, looked for ways to make him happy with toys or sticks, special snacks and so on. As I grew older, I found great love for my pets who crawled, flew, ran, and nibbled their way through the house. Cats, dogs, fish, lizards, birds, if it could be bought from a shop, adopted, rescued, picked up, had legs, gills, tails, or wings? Chances are I owned one. I’m sure, looking back, my mother felt this made me a more well-developed child, better equipped to express emotion, even as I a sure my father felt it made me more responsible. As an adult, I find myself longing for a cat, even a dog, now and again, but for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with caring for a soul, I gladly do not own a pet. Chalk this up to overextending myself with pets as a child (both parents refused to care for the animals, making theme entirely mine – even if they were “their” pets, purchased by and for them to the exclusion of me), the demands of work and school, and a traumatic incident with a dog. All of this to say, I “don’t have a dog in this fight.” I am not trying to protect my pooch nor kill the kitten, and I do not have a particular pet who I am trying to argue for or against. I have had pets, but I’m not an activist on this matter.
That said, I again affirm the souls of animals. Every piece of the world, according to my reading of scripture, is “good,” but some are uniquely different. As far as we know, coal does not “feel” anything and a grain of sand does not possess the capacity to think and differentiate itself from other grains of sand. Even “higher” forms of creation (those closer in nature and order to humans) like plants do not possess the rational functioning to care for other plants, to seek the interest of another, or desire to copulate with other plants.
Animals, however? Mammals, bipedal or quadirpedal? This is where differentiation begins – not with humanity. Humans, especially those who are of the conservative persuasion within religious circles, privilege their own rights and recline on Genesis 1 (or a variation of same) to defend their “mastery” over species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, domain and life. Never content to master our own house, we stamp down those tent pegs – even in another’s head, if we have to. As long as we are protected, our violence will know no end. And yet, again, the distinction of soul does not begin with humans but animals.
As Christians define it, the human makeup is a trinity. Spirit, soul, body. Body, we accept, is the physical and visible collection of vitamins, minerals and biology (bodies generally seen as male, female, or “other”). “Soul” is the triumvirate of mind, will, emotion. Spirit? Well spirit, we haven’t a clue on and so we leave it to eternal mystery. all of this, again, is stapled together by the Christian exposition of systematic categorization. We are made in the image of God, as trinity, and thus we must be a trinity.
Jews, however, do not see it exactly in this same way. Some distinguish between body and soul, that is the physical and the “real” person distinct from limb and sinew. We are more than our composite parts. Other Jews see it, like most other Eastern/ Levant faiths, as indistinguishable. We are our body, our body is us, and the two are not separable. There is scientific ground for this, of course. How else are we to understand phantom limbs?
Continued in pt.II