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No, chimps aren't religious

No, Chimps Aren't Religious
I've seen shorter versions of this claim made before by James Harrod, but with a longer paper on Academia, wanted to take a few minutes to refute it.

First, my rough-and-ready definition of religion is:

"A communal focus on engagement with believed metaphysical personages or entities involving communal rituals and actions to align the community with believed personages or entities."

First of all, this definition is written to include something like Theravada Buddhism, by noting "entities," not just "personages." Theravada believes in an incarnation of a metaphysical life force, even if it doesn't believe in a personal soul, let alone a personal deity. And it believes that laws of karma govern that reincarnation. I have discussed in detail before the fact that Buddhism is a religion, and had a follow-up. I have also noted karma is as offensive as original sin, and maybe worse in Theravada with its rejection of an individual soul. I've also noted how reincarnation and karma has other problems, mainly based in a "progress" mindset that's as wrong there as in misframings of evolutionary theory. OK, so with all that about Buddhism, we move on.

Second, religion is communal, and part of that alignment includes addressing things like "sin." In many religions, the focus is first on sins against a god or gods, but still includes communal sins as well. And, even sins against a god are only visible within the light of a community.

Third, the "rituals and actions" notes that all religions have elements of orthopraxis. They all also have elements of orthodoxy. I've covered this recently.

Now, let's dig in.

Do chimpanzees have compassion? Yes. And even, perhaps, something like compassion for the memory of dead fellow chimps? Yes, I think. So do elephants, cetaceans and a few other non-human animals.

Do chimps have metaphysics? Highly, highly unlikely. In other words, chimps, IMO, don't believe in chimp souls, chimp karma, or a chimp god. Nor do gorillas, neither in the 1970s nor this past decade:



Sorry, James.

And, unlike Caesar/Andy Serkis, chimpanzees, and other primates don't have the speech to organize a community to focus on abstract ideas. And, contra Harrod, who is letting other scholars and thinkers be his mouthpiece, it's tempting to overread what communication chimps have. Well, tempting to him and them, but not to me.

Cetaceans might. But, if they do, they don't have hands with opposable thumbs and can't really engage in metaphysically related actions.

A rich emotion life and symbolic play also prove nothing about chimpanzees possibly conceiving metaphysical concepts. Nor does it at all address the difficulty of communicating such concepts without language. The fact that chimps have neural substrate systems similar to something like Broca's in humans only proves that evolutionary biology is real and is a conservative workman.

And, a first-order theory of mind? Given the complexity of judging human actions that might be called sins against a community, that's not enough. But, let’s get to Harrod’s nutgrafs — his transspecific definition of religion. Here goes:
• Reverence (showing devotion, intense love, deep respect), which may involve a hush;
• Careful observance, which may involve a calling-out announcement or remark;
• Experiencing or expressing emotion of dread (awe in its terror or astonishment aspect) before that which overwhelms the subject by its magnitude, grandeur, beneficence, or lethality; mysterium tremendum
• Experiencing or expressing emotion of wonder (awe in its fascination, curiosity, or desire-to-know-more aspect) with respect to a phenomenon (especially a movement) which is surprising, non-ordinary, extraordinary, special, or ‘miraculous’; mysterium fascinans
• Binding individuals together or back together in empathic intimacy or communion with respect to experiences of aliveness and animacy, including other living beings or things that appear to be alive, which may secondarily involve the witnessing of this by a collective social group.

OK, first observation? He's clearly smoking some Rudolf Otto high-grade drugs. And the "mysterium tremendum" as a key to "religious experience" is by no means widely accepted. As the likes of Susan Blackmore note, psychadelic drugs or deep meditative experiences can induce this "mysterium" in the non-religious. Ditto for near-death experiences.

Harrod goes on to make clear that he is indeed adapting an Ottonian framework to animals.

He ignores entirely ideas of sin, guilt, and metaphysical entities.

As for his five actual points?
• I can love either a girlfriend or a bottle of whisky. I don't worship either one, even if I shout "oh my god" during sex.
• Careful observance? Chimps, like us, evolved to stay safe from snakes and predators, as well as to identify a variety of ripe foods. Careful observance is part of not being dead. It's also, in we humans, what's behind overuse of agency imputation and pattern detection in non-savannah civilized live.
• Mysterium tremendum? Since chimps don't have abstract language, no way I see for them to communicate that, let alone for us to see that they're trying to do so.
• Wonder? Many scientists still have great degrees of wonder for the facts of evolutionary biology, cosmology and many things in between, and they're not religious.
• Empathy for life? I have that, too, and again, I'm not religions.

What Harrod is missing is that, in reality, at some point in human CULTURAL evolution, some point AFTER the evolution of some degree of language in all likelihood, these five points were adapted for what developed into religion. Some of the adaptation, per my notes on point 2 above, may well have been non-conscious.

Should chimpanzees have an evolutionary twig that offshoots into a new species, that follows a similar bath, Harrod can contact me back in a couple of million years.

And with that, I've wasted enough time on him.


This post first appeared on The Philosophy Of The Socratic Gadfly, please read the originial post: here

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No, chimps aren't religious

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