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Forty Years with Birds and Dogs 

The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain--12. Man, The Only Religious Animal

Mark Twain’s twelfth Horrendous Commendation of the Human Race as inferior to all other animals because of the abuses he has done in the name of religion.
Quotes cited below are from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.”

In this one, MT goes for the religious jugular with a well-known sarcastic cliché: “Man is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them.” He goes on to list horrendous events in history that show that “He is the only animal who loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.” He mentions the Caesars, Mahomet, the Inquisition, France a couple centuries, Mary’s England, and “...today in Crete.”

It’s true that animals don’t seem to be deliberately cruel in order to support a theory of Existence or requirements for the Hereafter, which they are supposedly forbidden. I’ll make the case that they have religion in some sense of the word—at least some do.

We struggle with the definition of religion. The 2007 American Heritage College Dictionary says religion is “1a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe”... or “3a. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.” Or “4. A course...pursued with zeal...”

Well, that’s descriptive, but not very useful when it comes to animals, unless, as one must, you interpret some of the descriptive words in a broad sense. Two examples: 1) A dog’s devotion to a kind master, and 2) an animal parent’s care of her young. Call it genetic programming if you like. It is no less than religious devotion, even to the point of sacrifice.

Definition # 4 could apply to fandom of all sorts. I remember a riot that broke out during a high school football team when some fans decided to take their zeal off the stands into the fieild. I was supposed to stop the flood of angered teenagers pouring out of the stands. Animals?

The other problem with MT’s argument is that we know very little about animal thinking. It’s been only a few years since animal behavior theorists could publish words expressing emotions, such was the fear of anthropomorphism--as if sincere scientists and honest pet owners produced anecdotes that were re-inventing Bugs Bunny.

At least, now we admit that animals feel real emotions very similar to ours. We know without a doubt that we all came from the same biochemical stock of miracles. We have learned recently that we share a few genes with algae. The evolutionary process simply did not fix some things that weren’t broke. Human uniqueness is a matter of degree and good luck, like hands and a large brain that can invent its own excuses, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

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