Anthropologist Discovers Religious Behavior in Primates

Gorilla ThinkingAnthropologist Discovers Religious Behavior in Primates

Have anthropologists really discovered that primates have religious behaviors? Or, is this just another example of academic monkey business?

According to anthropologist Barbara King, gorillas and other primates demonstrate early religious behavior.(7,8)
1) They belong to a group with a social structure.
2) They have “meaning-making”,  the ability to convey meaning through gestures, vocalizations, posture, etc.
3) They demonstrate imagination.
4) They demonstrate empathy with others
5) They follow rules of the primate group.

SCience and Religion Gorrillas and God

.Left Image: Magazine Cover courtesy of science and religion.

Trapped Within Each One – Jane Goodall

“Jane Goodall, who is such a renowned and loved figure for her chimpanzee studies, has said very provocatively that chimpanzees may have an incipient sense of religious awe.” 



A quote from Jane Goodall:

Jane with Uruhara pant-hooting, 1996.“From my perspective, I absolutely believe in a greater spiritual power, far greater than I am, from which I have derived strength in moments of sadness or fear. That’s what I believe, and it was very, very strong in the forest. What it means for chimpanzees, I simply wouldn’t say. Since they haven’t had the language to discuss it, it’s trapped within each one of them.”

Experience Feelings of Awe

Chimpanzee Rain Dance at Gombe Waterfall

waterfall_Jane_Goodall_Chimpanzee_Gombe“Second, primates respond to what appears to be the “awe” of nature in ways that could be described as “religious.” The chimpanzees of Gombe “dance” at the base of an enormous waterfall in the Kakombe Valley. This “dance” moves slowly and rhythmically alongside the riverbed. The chimps transition into throwing giant rocks and branches, and then hanging on vines over the stream until the vines verge on snapping. Their “dance” lasts for ten minutes or longer. For humans, this waterfall certainly instills awe and majesty. Obviously, no one can know the internal processes of a chimpanzee. That said, given the champanzees’ reaction to the waterfall and their evolutionary nearness to humans, it is not far-fetched to think that they too may experience feelings of awe when they encounter that waterfall.” Quote from Animals May Have Religion, Science and Religion Magazine.

Conclusion: Can scientists actually determine that our genetically similar cousins the gorillas, chimpanzees and primates experience moments of awe, and think about god and religion, even though they lack the symbolic language to communicate these thoughts?  Or are these scientists just “monkeying around” ?  Could this be another example of academic “monkey business” ?

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1) Jane Goodall Talks about primate spirituality:
Click Here  Goodall talks about Primate Spirituality


3) Animals Said to Have Spiritual Experiences
Feb 11, 2013 Discovery Newsletter.

4) Animals may have religion

5) God and Gorillas Open Salon.

6) Jane Goodall on Chimpanzees, Language and the Soul
By Steven D. Greydanus

7) Anthropologist Barbara J. King explains what our distant cousins can tell us about religion

8) Barbara J King, Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion

9) Review of Evolving God


Last updated on by Jeffrey Dach MD

Anthropologist Discovers Religious Behavior in Primates
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Anthropologist Discovers Religious Behavior in Primates
Anthropologist Discovers Religious Behavior in Primates
Jeffrey Dach MD
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