Religion and Other Animals: An Essay from Paul Waldau

Paul Waldau, editor of Communion of SubjectsOver the next few weeks we hope to have a series of posts highlighting titles from our Animal Studies list. Yesterday, the list’s editor Wendy Lochner wrote about her interest in the field and in recent days we’ve had three Animal Studies books hit the shelves: Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation, by Gary Francione, Philosophy and Animal Life, by Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, John McDowell, Ian Hacking, and Cary Wolfe, and Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida, by Matthew Calarco.

We also recently published A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. One the book’s editors, Paul Waldau, recently wrote an essay for The Dallas Morning News. The essay begins with a discussion of the media attention surrounding the Chihuahua who joined in the daily prayers at a Buddhist temple in Japan. Waldau then considers the continuing fascination individuals and scholars have had regarding the relationship between animals and religion. Here is an excerpt from his essay “Religion and Other Animals”:

The debate over whether or not our animal neighbors can be “religious” is but one issue in the growing field of religion and animals. In the last decade, the field has also illuminated the significant roles played by religious traditions in our learning about and treatment of other living beings….This scholarly work emerges into a context where humans’ attitudes toward our cousin animals are more multifaceted than ever. At times, some humans seem driven by a refusal to inquire about the nonhuman lives within and near their communities. This refusal is evident in food practices, where many encounter animals most frequently. At the same time, more households in the United States today have companion animals than have children. Polls consistently indicate that an astonishing number of people–in some cases more than ninety-nine percent–hold their dog or cat to be a “family member.”

Communities of faith are among the institutions that are most responsive to the complex connections between humans and other animals. One increasingly finds that contemporary religious communities have reinstituted the ancient practice known often as “blessing of the animals.” Some communities of faith are quite creative in recognizing the pastoral value of concerns for their members’ interactions with nonhumans–some offer worship services in which believers can bring their nonhuman companions, and others provide grief counseling when a nonhuman family member dies.

Theologian Thomas Berry suggests, “We cannot be truly ourselves in any adequate manner without all our companion beings throughout the earth. The larger community constitutes our greater self.” Growing awareness of “religion and animals,” both scholarly and practical, opens the door to a fundamental question faced by people of divergent faiths–who will humans acknowledge as constitutive of their greater selves?

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