Biologist Frans de Waal is convinced we’ve gotten it all wrong: morality does not come down from on high but rather emerges from the bottom up. In his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, he reveals findings from his careful study of primates that suggest they exhibit traits such as empathy and compassion, behaving ethically in ways that resemble human behavior. He proposes that morality is a natural product of evolution and that religion emerged as a later useful by-product.
There certainly have been some Christians who took a less than charitable view toward animals. (Descartes’ simplistic view that “animals are machines” comes to mind.) Many Christians have held that animals possess none of the ethical, religious, or rational capacities that humans possess. This view seems worrisome in light of de Waal’s research, which suggests that even primates may possess primitive forms of religion.
De Waal explains, “There is also the awe and wonderment at natural events beyond our control. That this may not be uniquely human is illustrated by the charging displays of chimpanzees at waterfalls or during downpours… With big, rhythmic, swaying steps, they walked around, leaving their shelter, getting completely wet. They sat down again when the rain eased. Having seen the same behavior several times since, I agree with those who call it a ‘rain dance,’ because that’s exactly what it looks like.”
Yet if we believe that man is a created thing, meant to worship His creator, then there should be no reason for us to think that animals couldn’t worship or have religious (or even ethical) inclinations as well. The scripture is filled with imagery of all creation worshipping God. Isaiah tells us, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” The Psalms of David are filled with reference to all creation joining in praise: “Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them” (Ps 69:34) and “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it!” (Ps 98:7). If the trees of the field and the fish of the sea will join in worship, we shouldn’t be surprised that the bonobos will join in, too.
[Image of Bonobos from Wikipedia]