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Religious Behavior in Primates

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Western Lowland Gorilla Cincinnati Zoo
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Anthropologist 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.

Magazine Cover courtesy of science and religion.

Trapped Within Each One -- Jane Goodall

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"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:

"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."

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Experience Feelings of Awe

Chimpanzee Rain Dance at Gombe Waterfall

"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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Jeffrey Dach MD

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Jeffrey Dach MD is a physician and author of two books, Natural Medicine 101, and Bioidentical Hormones 101, both available on Amazon, or as a free e-book on his web sites. Dr. Dach is founder and chief medical officer of TrueMedMD, a clinic in (more...)

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