We Should Be Careful And Not Presume That Only Humanity Is Religious

We Should Be Careful And Not Presume That Only Humanity Is Religious November 12, 2019

“How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?”[1]

Lkobi84: Elektrybałt, the electronic poet from the Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem / Wikimedia Commons

Science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem was skeptical that humanity would be able to communicate with alien lifeforms. He thought it likely that humanity would find itself dealing with something which is so completely other, something which thinks and acts and has potentials so vastly different from itself, that humans probably would not recognize an alien intelligence if it were right in front of them. Even if, by chance, humanity came across such a life form, their vastly different linguistic and cultural backgrounds would make it hard, if not impossible, for humanity and such alien life to properly interpret whatever they would try to say to each other. Thus, in novels like Solaris, His Master’s Voice, and Fiasco, Lem examined different attempts of communication between humanity and some alien species, and the problems which could emerge in such an exchange, showing how it could even lead to some great disaster.

Richard Saint-Gelais, in an article published by NASA entitled, “Beyond Linear B: The Metasemiotic Challenge of Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” expresses why he has similar reservations to Lem as to the ability for humanity to have any relevant dialogue with some alien species: “Communication as we all know, is a touchy business between human beings. So there is reason to doubt that it would be an easy thing across the universe.”[2] Indeed, what Lem demonstrated with His Master’s Voice, Saint-Gelais suggested would be a real, perhaps insurmountable problem, if humanity ever found itself on the receiving end of some alien communication:

Such communication, if it is to be successful, must overcome the difficulties inherent in an exchange where sender and recipient do not share a common language; the latter cannot rely on an already established language competence with which to work out the meaning of the message but must instead start with the message itself and try to infer from it, conjecturally, the lexical and syntactic rules that endow it with meaning. [3]

Lem, sometimes with a sense of humor, shows in his works the results of such miscommunication. He understood that the desire for communication would likely not be one-way. This can be seen in Solaris. In it, the very ocean of the planet Solaris is sentient; it tries to reach out to humanity by making simulacra of people found in the memories of the crew orbiting Solaria, people who reveal more about the thoughts and desires of the crew than themselves than they do anything about the thoughts and desires of the sentient ocean itself.

We do not have to go to other worlds in other to find ourselves interacting with, communicating with, and misunderstanding, what other life forms have to say to us. We can look around us and find the world is filled with a variety of sentient beings, each with their own intellectual capabilities, each with their own way of thought which we cannot entirely penetrate, no matter how hard we try. They are the animals (and possibly, plants) which we find all over the earth.

That we can observe animals, what they do, how they sometimes communicate with each other (and with us, if they welcome us into their sphere of interaction), does not mean we properly understand all that they are trying to communicate or how they process those thoughts in their own minds. We are interpreting our interactions with them by trying to understand them within human terms and the way humanity understands the world around itself. Because animals think and interact differently than us, we often misconstrue their intellectual potentialities. They do not seem to think about the same subjects as we do, but it must be asked, is that only because we cannot properly get into their minds? We seem to judge them based upon what little we can do to make them understand us, or what little some of them do to make themselves understood by us, such as the way people come to communicate with their pets. Thus, even if animals are contemplating the same kinds of things as we do, it would be difficult for us to know it.

This can cause many problems as we begin to limit what we think animals are capable of engaging. This can be seen in the way Robert Wennberg suggests humanity has an ability to produce meaning in a way which animals do not:

A crucial aspect of this “meaning-producing capacity” is our ability to understand the world and our place in religious terms, to interpret who and what we are by reference to the transcendent. For the religious believer, this capacity is absolutely fundamental, and it is a capacity not shared with animals. It is not that animals have a less developed religious capacity while humans have a more developed and sophisticated capacity. Rather, the capacity is uniquely human. And this capacity is found in all peoples, in all times, and in all cultures. [4]

How does he know this? How can he assert this without knowing what goes in the minds of animals? Notwithstanding the objections which can be made due to archeological evidence which suggests Neanderthals, among other non-human life forms, might have had some sort of religious understanding behind many of their actions, Wennberg (and others like him) confuse religious sentimentality as being univocal, manifesting itself in the same way for non-humans as it does in humanity for it exist in others. What we must realize to counter this is that the way we engage religion, and with it, God, will differ from the way others would do so, if they have a vastly different form of consciousness than us; to look for something identical to our practice would go astray. They could have their own overarching understanding of God; they can act in such a way that the act would be religious in nature for them (even if it would not religious if we did it). Their religious acts might be tied with some things which we do understand, such as eating, making us reduce their actions to what we know, such as their eating, ignoring the greater meaning they could have for their actions. But, if we think carefully, would that not possibly be the case with some alien species looking at us? Could they not think our prayers are just another form of casual conversation, so that they see nothing religious about them?

No author mentioned: Stork / Needpix

For many writers in Scripture, far from having a notion that humanity alone has a religious relationship with God, the world itself is filled with God, and all that is within nature interacts with God in their own way. God, likewise, is shown to make covenants, not only with humanity, but with all forms of life on earth.[5] All creation praises God (cf. Ps. 148), so why can’t all creation, especially sentient lifeforms, have a sense of the transcendent other which is God, each in their own unique way, and so have what is fundamentally a religious sensibility even if that sensibility is not manifested in a form which parallels any form of religiosity found in humanity?

We have alien forms of consciousness all around us. That they are united with us due to the process of evolution; we will likely understand those species which are more closely related to us better than those which are our distant cousins. Nonetheless, it is likely that we will share more in common with any life form which developed on earth than anything which developed somewhere else in the universe, so that it is likely we will be able to understand our distant earthly cousins far more than any sentient life form we could meet elsewhere in the universe. What is important for us to realize is that we do not have to look to outer-space to find species which we can try to communicate with and understand; we have them all around us. Through our encounters with them, we find that Lem is correct in asserting the difficulties inherent within cross-species communication. That lack of communication might mean we will not be able to easily share religious sentiments with animals (even if some saints, it would seem, could do so), but because of that lack of communication, we should reject the assumption that many have that says only humanity possesses a religious relationship with God. By suggesting that humanity alone has a religious sensibility, making humanity special, reads as a kind of justification for self-idolization. Thus, as many try to make God in their own image, so many try to make religion itself in their own image as well.  If we want to take seriously the suggestions of Scripture (and tradition), we should take seriously those writings which talk about all creation praising God as indicating all creation can have a religious or spiritual life of their own. This is why Christians, at least, have reasons to believe animals are not so unalike us in regards their religious potentiality as many suppose.


[1] Stanislaw Lem, Solaris. Trans. Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1987), 22.

[2] Richard Saint-Gelais, “Beyond Linear B: The Metasemiotic Challenge of Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” in Archeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication.  ed. Douglas A. Vakoch (Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2014; rev. 2017), 78.

[3] Richard Saint-Gelais, “Beyond Linear B,” 80.

[4] Robert N. Wennberg, God, Humans and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 209.

[5] “Do you see the unspeakable generosity of the promises? Notice how once again he extends his loving kindness to the animals and wild beasts – and rightly so: what I have often said before I say again now. That is, since these creatures had been created for the human for that reason they now share the kindness shown humanity. While the covenant with the latter and with the animals seems identical, in fact it is not. This too happens for the human’s consolation, you see, so that he may be in position to know how much esteem he enjoys, since not only is the favor bestowed on himself, but also that all the animals have a share in enjoying the Lord’s generosity on his account.” St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 18 – 45. Trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1990), 186.


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