Posted on August 2nd, 2012 | Filed under Featured, Interfaith, Learning, Social Issues, Theology
Tagged with animal rights, evolution, Hinduism, imago dei, interspecies, native american culture, vine deloria
One source of controversy in modern religion concerns the amount of deference given to the discoveries of science.
(Note to self: cross “write world’s most profound understatement in one sentence” off bucket list.)
While such differences split along liberal/conservative lines within religions, I also see a gradient scale between religions: In revealed religions such as the Abrahamic faiths or Sikhism, there might be more resistance to changing ideas than one finds in more philosophically or praxis-oriented traditions such as Buddhism.
It’s not so surprising to read this quote from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama:
If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.
Meanwhile, religious explanations are trotted out to deny global climate change (just ask U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-IL), to reinforce negative attitudes toward LGBTQ persons (witness this year’s Southern Baptist Convention resolution that marriage equality is not a civil-rights issue), and of course to cripple science and sex education in America’s schools.
But I’m really here to talk about monkeys and apes. And dolphins and whales. Elephants, too. And this may apply to a few other critters, besides. One of these days, I suspect scientists are going to tell us that while these creatures are not human, they are in some significant way persons; the accumulated evidence of language, abstract thinking, emotional bonding, ritual behavior, artistic creation, and play are going to reach a tipping point where the religious community will have to decide whether it’s going to stick its head in the sand and deny this scientific consensus as has happened before or else it’s going to have to rethink what it means to be created “in the image of God.”
When this happens, by the way, the Native Americans and the practitioners of Hinduism will be fully within their rights to say “Told you so.” As the late Vine Deloria Jr. observed:
Behind the apparent kinship between animals, reptiles, birds, and human beings in the Indian (sic) way stands a great conception shared by a great majority of the tribes. Other living things are not regarded as insensitive species. Rather they are “people” in the same manner as the various tribes of human beings are people. [Vine Deloria Jr., God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th Anniversary Edition (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 2003): 88. Kindle edition.]
The State We’re In is a great English-language show from Radio Netherlands Worldwide, similar in sound, tone, and content to This American Life. The March 1 episode, titled “Sounds Like Home,” featured a lot of really striking content as usual, but the part that touched me most deeply was the segment “Ape Opus,” about gibbon songs.
Male and female gibbons sing these duets, you see; younger couples’ songs are slower call-and-response conversations, whereas the older couples who have been together for years speak more quickly, almost completing each other’s sentences in the same way as human couples. Their voices harmonize better with age as well, Scottish primatologist Susan Cheyne observes.
The songs of the gibbons in a community provide counterpoint to one another, a conversation that spreads across miles (though they have nothing on whales), and one can’t help but draw comparisons to the town criers of old or the newspaper society page in hearing these, our cousins, going about their lives in the trees.
We have taught some apes to communicate in American Sign Language. Prairie dogs distinguish between varying encounters with non-prairie dog animals according to threat level. And science has largely smashed the notion that humans are the only animals that have sex for reasons other than reproduction.
David E. Kelley’s late TV show Harry’s Law did an episode with a lawsuit regarding a gorilla that had learned to sign, addressing issues of zoo conditions and animal personhood. Granted, David E. Kelley does tend to go for over-the-top cases in his legal dramedies, but there’s almost always some grounding in actual case law when you look for it.
If the legal or scientific professions do recognize a form of personhood in non-human animals, I think the most likely recipients of this status would be other primates, dolphins or whales, or elephants. Such recognition to elephants or the water dwellers would be less obvious but also less explosive: Primates are key to medical research, and there are decades of evolution denial to overcome in seeing or most obvious relatives as relatives, absurd as it is.
Goethe is quoted as saying: “You can easily judge the character of a man (sic) by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” … And the quote is attributed to a whole lot of other people, besides. It’s a good idea, whoever said it, but it’s one of those tests we fail as a species on a regular basis.
If it is determined that personhood is not limited to we the “two-leggeds,” will we face our responsibilities to these other creatures -- will theology move from talking about Imago Dei to Imagines Dei -- or will we deny signs of personhood and sentience among them because they suggest God’s image is more complex than we thought? I know what I hope, and I know what I predict, and oh, how I wish they were the same.
Here's a parting thought: If bonobos can ask Anderson Cooper to dress up in a bunny suit, I'd rather have a conversation about theology or basically anything with them than with any member of the Westboro Baptist Church.
Tennessee native Jason R. Tippitt is pursuing a master of arts in theological studies at Andover Newton Theological School in the Boston area. He is a "religious independent" with an interest in collaborative efforts within, between, and beyond religious communities for the common good. Follow him on Twitter: @TippittJason