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Question: Is it possible for animals to believe in God?

Lionel Tiger: It is very difficult to make that leap.  However, in our book God’s Brain McGuire and I actually have a chapter on chimpanzee religion.  Religion in the sense that there are periods during the day, normal day of a group of chimps when they seem to engage in what we would, could call a religious type service, that is after they have had breakfast, they’ve closed their nests and so on and they feel safe they’ll usually sit in someplace which is like a clearing and they’re protected by trees.  You might well say that it’s almost cathedral-like, depending on where they are and they exist with very reduced tension.  The dominant males don’t bother the youngsters as much.  The females interact with each other and the youngsters and there is a lot of grooming that goes on.  People… not people, chimps grooming each other and that lasts for awhile and then they go back to their regular business and so you could see that there is in our repertoire a predisposition to some kind of let’s take time off behavior and just be friendly to each other.

Question: What would happen if humans suddenly lost the ability to believe in God?

Lionel Tiger:
We’ve seen what happens when communities become convinced that they are entirely on their own.  I guess the Nazis were a very good case.  They really didn’t believe in God even though Germany had been a Catholic community and Protestant and some of the great religious thinkers came out of Germany like Luther and so on.  It would be very hard to answer your question because so many of the world’s most terrible events have been because people believe in God and it therefore would be irresponsible to say that we should have no religion because people would act more nicely.  I’m not sure that is true and we have only to look for example at the history of modern communism, which was really quite nasty and that wasn’t associated with God at all and yet people in what was the former Soviet Union were very unclear about where they stood, so for example, it’s highly symbolic that in Red Square, the center of Moscow, the ceremonial heart of the Russian empire, the cathedral there, Saint Basil’s had a crucifix at the top of its steeple.  Now after the revolution what do you do about hat crucifix?  It took them 20 years to decide that things were okay now and they replaced it with a red star.  The Russians were just a little concerned about this atheism business and as we’ve seen, now that Russia has changed people are going back to the churches.  There is much more attention to religion, so again, it’s not a proof.  It does suggest however that if you have a completely secular theory as the communists did it can produce menacing and awful behavior and did.

More from the Big Idea for Thursday, July 08 2010


Can Animals Be Religious?

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