The Worshipping Animal

Every once in a while, a new definition of “human being” gets floated around, in order to distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  I think this effort has taken on a new intensity ever since biology revealed a supposedly unbroken connection between human beings and our suspected primate ancestors.  Unfortunately, these definitions don’t tend to hold up, leading to National Geographic or Discover articles touting the unremarkableness of human beings (for example, see this recent story about a study that compared the relative intelligence of human toddlers with chimpanzees and orangutans). Some proposed definitions have included man as the animal that uses language (debunked by Koko the gorilla and countless parrots), man the toolmaking animal (debunked by chimps that use sticks to hunt food), man the animal who uses tools to make tools (a convoluted definition if there ever was one), etc., etc.

But what about man the worshiping animal?  George Orwell, I think it was, once said that horses would create their god in their own image.  Good quote, one that gets bandied around a lot in late-night college discussions.  Except that, as far as we have ever been able to tell, no animal except man has a concept of God. No animal does anything that could be construed as religious or which does not have an obvious practical purpose. 

Only human beings worship.

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2 thoughts on “The Worshipping Animal

  1. But yet. But yet. There is still something unsatisfying about the definition “man the worshipping animal.” The point of reference is still man. The behaviour is still man’s behaviour. Worship is an important feature of being human, but it seems we’re still at the level of epiphenomena. It seems to be a signpost to something else and not the destination.

    I’m reminded of the remark C.S. Lewis made in Mere Christianity:
    “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

    Anyhoo. Thanks for the thoughtful post. Hope you all are doing well!

  2. Yes – you are absolutely right about worship being a signpost and not a destination. That’s where a Christian (or at least, religious) explanation of worship would disagree with a purely biological/sociological explanation. The current vogue is to explain worship and religion in naturalistic terms – i.e. as some sort of survival mechanism or an outgrowth of our abnormally big brains. Great quote from C. S. Lewis, BTW. He is (as usual) dead on.

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