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When children draw pictures of animals, they give the animals human-like facial expressions. This is true of children the world over. It is also true of the entertainment adults devise for children. In cartoons and storybooks, the animals talk, feel emotions, and solve problems. They have faults, virtues, personality quirks, and individual names. Animals in children’s literature always have a soul life because children perceive animals as having souls.
The belief that every living thing has an individual soul is called _animism._ (_Anima_, which means “soul,” is also the root of the word “animal.”) Anthropologists have found this belief to be universal in children, though the children themselves don’t think of it as a belief. It is, to them, one of the most obvious features of the world around them, and the most obvious way of interpreting what goes on in that world.
Animism is also the norm among adults in preindustrial cultures. As a general rule, the less technologically sophisticated a culture is, the more likely its adults are to view the world in an animistic way. The most obvious examples of this are indigenous tribal cultures whose religions incorporate spirit animals. But it is also true of many rural people who practice religions that are not officially animistic. In the paintings and tapestries of medieval Europe, the animals often look like children drew them. They have expressive, cartoonlike faces. These pictures come from a time when people had intimate daily contact with animals, and depended on their help with farming and hunting. On cold nights, they would bring their animals inside their homes and sleep alongside them for warmth—not just dogs and cats, but cows, oxen, horses, and sheep. Just as you know full well that your dog or cat (if you are fortunate enough to have one) has a soul, rural people can perceive the souls in the other animals with whom they have daily contact. If their religion teaches otherwise, they simply assume that, on this point, their religion doesn’t know what it’s talking about.
In avowedly animistic religions, animals are regarded as spirit guides, and gods are often depicted as animals. Such religions are more common in tribes than in nations, and when, as usually happens, a tribal culture gets conquered or absorbed by a nation, its religion gets conquered as well. Like nations themselves, the religions of nations tend to have a more centralized and hierarchical power structure. This is particularly true of the monotheistic religions, which consolidate all of the local deities into one God, and regard the veneration of animals as a heathen superstition.
Perhaps the misguided belief within modern, postindustrial religions that animals are lesser beings, simply neural networks firing, incapable of feelings or emotions, is the real “superstition.” This belief can be called a modern superstition because it is not based on the experiences of contemporary people who know or live with animals. Believing that in place of thoughts, emotions, and aspirations, animals have only instincts and drives, that their lives are about nothing more than a Darwinian struggle for survival, could only take hold among people who don’t know any animals personally. Like the dragons of medieval times, the soulless, instinct-driven animals imagined by postindustrial people are mythological beasts.
This modern belief is partly the result of ignorance (in this case, due to insufficient contact with animals), but for it to take hold, it also has to serve some psychological purpose. People have to be motivated to believe it, and motivated to convince others of it. So what is the motive for this particular false belief? Why does it appeal most to people who have attained a high level of prosperity and technological sophistication?
For an answer to that one, you need look no further than your last serving of chicken. As you probably know, most chickens nowadays come from factories rather than farms. These factory-raised chickens reach physical maturity four times faster than normal chickens. Their breasts are so big in proportion to their legs that they couldn’t walk even if there were anywhere to walk _to_. There isn’t, because they are packed together as tightly as passengers on a plane. Imagine being born on a fully booked flight, spending your entire life confined to your seat, and dying there. That’s the life of the chicken whose flesh and eggs have become commodities. We would think it unpardonably cruel to do that to someone if we believed him capable of mental or emotional suffering.
Although I recommend a diet that does not include meat, that we eat chickens and their eggs is not the issue here. People in animist cultures are seldom vegetarian, and they often depend heavily on animal labor. The difference is that they don’t regard animals as commodities. They understand and respect animals and assert that they have a willingness to serve—with their labor, with their companionship, with their milk and eggs and wool, and even with the surrender of their lives so that others may be nourished. Later in the book, I describe a deeper understanding of the prey-predator relationship, which is little understood by humans, especially in Western culture. It is this altruistic impulse in the animal’s soul that we violate when, out of a sense of entitlement, we seize and exploit rather than permit the animal to give.
In the deepest sense, to name the animals is to recognize their dignity, their individuality, their nobility, and the meaning of their lives. Of late, we’ve really been falling down on the job.
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