While mucking around with my cats’ lives and seeing that they faintly comprehend that I enact my will on their universe, I often imagine that they see me as like unto a god. Will I feed them, let them out on the balcony, abandon them for several days … ? They undoubtedly notice that I exist in their world but that I also frequent a separate realm beyond theirs; I call it “outside” and “work.” To them, I must be awesome.
Here, then, is my hypothesis: Perhaps the roots of some religious beliefs lie in early believers’ imagination of how putatively less-conscious beings around them – such as domesticated animals – saw their relationship to humans. These incipient theologians might have taken inferences such as mine regarding my cats’ beliefs as analogous to humans’ relationship to other forces. In GRE fashion: ‘(semi-)domesticated entity is to human as human is to other entity.’
Thus, early religionists could explain how they could not explain all of the influences on them and their environment. Their universe would be partially comprehensible but partially beyond their faculties, in a qualitative sense. Like, say, cats, they could attempt to sway the understanding and will of the more-conscious being(s), but they would understand that such communications might fail because of the more-powerful being’s indifference, conflicting interests, or differing interpretation of reality. My cats scratch, meow, rub, and purr, but I often knowingly or unknowingly thwart their aims.
An interesting possibility within this scenario is that humans might have recognized their partial inability to understand the animals, plants, and other beings around them. Thus, they may have believed that spiritual beings had more power and greater awareness but still did not completely comprehend a human perspective. Other such potential permutations abound.
This idea first occurred to me relative to the ancient Greek myths. As we all learned, Zeus and the gang were not fixated on humanity – didn’t exist forhumanity – in the way that the Christian god seems to be. Human-like, they pursued their own interests, which included but was not limited to their relationships with humans. Humans’ understanding of the gods’ and other spirits’ effects on their lives was inherently limited. Perhaps ancient pastoralists or hunters first developed this set of beliefs by empathizing with their animal companions.
Recently, I’ve read an ethnographic account that provides better corroboration for this hypothesis. Eduardo Kohn, in American Ethnologist [34(1):3-24] describes the spiritual beliefs of the Runa, who live in the Upper Amazon region of Ecuador. The Runa see analogous relationships between dogs, humans, and forest spirits. “The hierarchical relationship that obtains between dogs and humans is analogous to that between humans and the spirit masters of animals.” Each type of being is able to understand and communicate imperfectly with less- and more-conscious beings. For example, the Runa drug their dogs and lecture them in a “transspecies pidgin,” just as they take hallucinogens to communicate with the “spirit masters.”
Logically, it is possible that humans first developed a startling variety of spiritual beliefs and then applied them analogously to their relationships with animals. Certainly this sort of cognition goes on regularly today. However, accepting this theology-first scenario leaves unexplained the original development of these very different religious beliefs. (For a mere sampling of this spiritual diversity, turn to the chapter on religion in an introductory textbook on anthropology.) In addition, the development of human-animal relationships seems to coincide roughly with the development of religious beliefs, insofar as we can plausibly infer them from cave paintings and other archaeological evidence.
Finally, I am not proposing that the same process occurred everywhere. In fact, I assume otherwise. It simply seems plausible that religion developed through humans’ empathy with (semi-)domesticated animals somewhere.
– Imagining Feline Spirituality