Animal Religion: a Proposal
Author: Trottola the Cat
I asked my human friend to write down these words for me. You may wonder why a cat wishes to express an opinion on a subject – religion – usually considered of exclusive human interest. But the problem is exactly that for too long it has been considered only a human matter.
For millennia humans have been told that they are the ‘masters of the planet’, made on image of a bossy all-powerful god. That made them feel free to use and abuse the environment and to take the lives of all other living beings at will. Unsurprisingly, most people still have no problem in believing this convenient absurdity. Which thief or murder would not like to believe that it is in his right to perform heinous crimes?
In relatively recent times some people have begun to raise doubts about the idea of an old man in the sky that allows them to do everything they want to those – like me – who are different from them. Those doubts grew and brought many changes in language and thought, except in the most important one: humans continued to feel ‘special’, ‘superior’ to all other living beings, no more because of their ‘soul’ but because of their ‘reason’. What a progress! The god of reason has proved to be as destructive and oppressive as the old creator god from whom it was derived. It has produced the most extensive disappearance of species and natural habitats in the last sixty millions years. It has produced uncountable sufferings to human and non-human animals and represents the greatest threat that ever existed to life on this planet, as the pressure on the environment as well as on human societal structures is approaching a breaking point.
Modernity (no matter if late or post-) is like a drunk driver speeding up in the night: unless he stops soon, the result will certainly be a disaster. But it is very difficult that he will understand the danger as long as he continues to believe that something (god or reason, it does not matter) will protect him from the consequences of his foolishness. No amount of technological power can suffice when the problems to solve are also those caused by that same power.
Certainly human beings are powerful: I can see it every day when my friend can provide me with the equivalent of a long hunt’s bounty simply by opening a can. And I admit without problems that I enjoy the comfort of the house that we share. But when I look at him I see another animal like me, someone – like me – who can do certain things but not others and whose life – like mine, like those of all living beings – is surrounded by mysteries.
Mystery: does this word surprise you? Of what does it make you think: ghosts? Aliens? The Bermuda Triangle? If so, this is another evidence of how much humans have deluded themselves. Reserving the word ‘mystery’ for those arguably dubious phenomena is equivalent to denying its presence in all other aspects of everybody’s experience. Only hubris can make someone believe to know what happens around him and what he can expect from the world.
Any other animal recognizes that she lives in an uncertain world that has to be taken one step at the time, sniffing around cautiously. ‘Is that bush hiding a prey or a predator?’ ‘Is this plant eatable or poisonous?’ ‘Will I find a place of solace or a trap behind that corner?’ These – and many more – are the questions that even without words all animals must ask themselves at each step. And do not believe that this condition is limited to life in the wild, on the contrary. Human society, with its complexity, has only added to the mystery. Every day you can receive announcements about the dangers represented by substances or activities that seemed perfectly safe just a short while before. Events occur all over the world: how will they affect you and me? How can they be better understood? Who can be trusted or not?
For a very long time, the answer that humanity in its pride has given to mystery has been deeply contradictory. Monotheistic religions on one side affirm the ineffability of their god: ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ is a common saying. But, at the same time and without finding any problem with that, the followers of those same systems of beliefs can assert to know very well what God wants, beginning with their ‘ten commandments’ to whatever prohibition or enterprise to which they wish to give divine support. One God, one faith, one certainty, zero mystery.
What if, just for a moment, perhaps a moment of madness, humans would consider to embrace mystery instead of rejecting it? What may be the consequences of such a radical step?
To begin with, it would mean the end of that old trick called ‘truth’. Like all other animals, humans would have to recognize that what they grasp are only fragments, partial images of what occurs inside and outside of their minds. They could find patterns based on the data in their possession, but they would have also to admit that their collection of data is pathetically limited and that any apparent order may dissolve as soon as more data are acquired.
Ethics would be another delusion to be left behind. That would not mean that any kind of destructive behaviour should start (as if there is an absence of destructiveness now!) but that it could not be possible any longer to call ‘evil’ others’ positions and ‘righteous’ our own. Time would come for a real search of agreements and compromises. For sure it would not be easy nor always pretty and peaceful, but it would remove forever one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of those who exercise power over others: the pretence of ‘moral superiority’.
It would also mean the possibility – perhaps for the first time in the last ten thousands years and more – of recognizing all impulses and desires (those of ourselves as well as those of others) as equally valid and respectable, even if not necessarily all equally achievable. For too long ‘bestial’ has been the insult launched against all that challenges the conformity and the familiar ways of living. Humans without certainties would not have any claim of excellence above all other animals.
But perhaps the most important change would occur exactly in religion: all the religions and systems of beliefs (even if they emphatically deny to be religious) that profess to hold the explanation of what is beyond ‘appearance’ would loose their foundation. That would not mean – at all! – that a narrative of nothingness would prevail. Currently, the world is mostly divided between those who believe that there is a unity beyond the ‘confusion’ of experience and those who affirm that there is nothing. The humans who recognize their animalness could finally retrieve an ancient forgotten path: that of multiplicity.
Ancient Polytheism, in its many forms, is now mostly remembered as a collection of fanciful tales. Even when a sort of serious attention is paid to it, it is mostly to affirm that ‘at the end, in reality’ all the Gods are One. That is not Polytheism in its richest potentiality, but monotheism in disguise. The Many who are countless, not only in their number but also in their attitudes and inclinations, are powerful representation of the plurality of experiences and sensations for all living beings. They offer infinite images of what is and can be, not of what should be.
This is not the time to discuss what or who the Many are, to provide lists of names and to narrate their stories. A radical, consistent Polytheism can never close its Pantheon nor make definitive its theogony. This is a very important point: the acceptance of Mystery is also and primarily an embrace of creativity in all its forms and applications. Without certainties, without a god/reason that forces humans to believe and behave in only one way, an infinite realm of possibility would open to all, humans and not. Efforts would be necessary and the transition would not be easy, but the reward would be the greatest that could ever be imagined.
The message that I want to give you – as a non-human living among humans – is one of hope. Life is hard and precarious and suffering is everywhere, but so is the possibility for joy. Non-human animals have much to share with their human cousins if these are open to listen and watch. There is a great strength in a worm that endures its daily struggle for survival. There is a great wisdom in birds, rodents and reptiles as they adapt and flourish in ways that may seem impossible. Strength and wisdom are offered to human beings as gifts: now more than ever, you may need them.