Animals in Religion

I N THE ANCIENT EGYPTIAN PANTHEON, ANUBIS GUARDED THE WAY TO THE AFTERWORLD. This handsome dog presided over funerals, weighed the hearts of the dead, and fed the souls of those he judged guilty to the hungry crocodile/hippo who sat licking his chops under the scales. (Mmm, had humans. Yummy!)

Across the Mediterranean, in Greece, Cerberus guarded the gates to Hades. He was reported to have three heads, making it extra difficult for nosy people to get past him and go visiting back and forth between the two worlds. (One who did was Herakles, who, according to some versions of the story. figured out that the key to getting around this big old scary pooch was not to fight him but to be kind to him. No one had ever treated old Cerby that way before, and the dog just lapped it up.)

Both dogs spoke directly to what psychologists call our existential terror: the fear of death. Both sat at the portal between life and death, Cerherus reflecting the fact that there is no return, Anuhis acting as the guardian of our souls as they pass from here to ...... to where?

And that has been the central question of philosophy and religion since the dawn of civilization: how to relate meaningfully to the inevitability of death.

Indeed, philosophy, religion, culture and civilization itself are all attempts to protect ourselves from the terror of death, which is why Anubis was respected, even beloved, for thousands of years as being the guardian of every soul who made the crossing.

Eventually, Anubis, along with all the other animal-related deities of that time, could no longer keep up with the tumultuous growth of civilization. As the Egyptian empire gave way to the Greeks, then to the Romans, and then to the altogether new culture of Western imperialistic monotheism. Anubis himself succumbed, with no one even to watch over his own passing.

Dogs didn’t have much place in the new religious hierarchies that deemed humans superior to all animals. Eventually, they would be viewed as simply “unclean.”

Not that our modern civilization is any closer to coming to terms with the implacable issue of death and mortality. Mostly, we simply try to keep it at a convenient distance. Our friends and relatives die in hospitals, surrounded by expensive equipment to help them eke out a few more days of existence. Our government tries to shield us from the sight of our sons and daughters as they are returning from foreign wars in coffins. Our food arrives in shrink-wrapped plastic, so we don’t have to imagine that a few weeks ago it was a living, sentient creature like ourselves . Our abandoned pets are “put to sleep,” unseen by us, at places we call ~shelters.”

Meanwhile, we create endless distractions and entertainments to keep our minds off the prospect of death; we work harder than ever to have our name, our family, our legacy, our fortune or our good works outlive us; and we subscribe to religions or belief systems that promise some form of life after death, some hope of immortality.

But the animals and nature no longer play any real part in most of those belief systems. Beyond the occasional nod to pets — perhaps an annual blessing of the animals in church — our mainstream modern religions ignore them almost entirely

.That’s because death is an integral part of the natural world, and we want to be free of all that. So keeping death at a distance always goes hand in hand with objectifying animals. They are part of the physical, natural world,” we tell ourselves. “But our nature is spiritual.” And that means working overtime to suppress our own animal nature. Many of us deny that we are even related to the rest of the animal kingdom. We’re above all that ... a special creation ...... different.

By the time of the so-called Enlightenment, Western philosophers were putting so much distance between themselves and other animals that they’d reached the point of claiming that animals weren’t living beings at all, but simply biological machines.

That kind of thinking is still pervasive in religions today when they claim animals have no souls no consciousness or self-awareness. And it has led to the catastrophe of the natural world being designated as nothing more than a warehouse of food and other commodities, all available for consumption, sport, experimentation, and the general comfort and advancement of the superior human society.

But all such efforts to cope with our terror of death are doomed to failure. As long as we try to separate ourselves from nature (and our own nature), we’re simply in denial which only makes us even more uncomfortable . Like it or not, we come from the same ‘dust of the earth” as every other creature.

The real solution is to reverse course, embrace our fellow animals, and accept our own true nature as part of the animal kingdom. When we do that, we not only find peace of mind and acceptance of death; we actually discover our spiritual nature, too.

That’s because the fundamental spiritual value is kindness. Kindness dissolves the sense of separation. It speaks of fellow-feeling, respect, understanding and coming together. Through kindness, we identify ourselves with other people, other animals, all of creation.

Albert Einstein talked about “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Ernest Becker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book The Denial of Death, wrote that “only by surrendering to the bigness of nature on the highest level can man conquer death.” Becker considered this to be the highest aspiration of religion and of all our cultural aspirations.

Throughout history, religions have been adapted, and even revolutionized, in order to address the concerns of the time . For religion to remain meaningful, our spiritual leaders need to do that again.

Today we live in an era of global anxiety human population swelling, the animals endangered, nature under the gun, the earth in crisis. We can’t control nature; we probably never will. And we’ve found no technology capable of overcoming death.

Nature itself is no less beautiful and awesome, and no less frightening and powerful, than it ever was. We can fight it, ignore its laws and deny that we are subject to it. Or we can become truly free of our mortal terror by caring for nature’s creatures and treating all living beings as we ourselves would want to be treated.

And when, finally, we discover that all creation is one sacred whole, we have found

the key to immortality..



January/Frebury 2007 (Pgs 4-52)

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