Chimpanzees believe in God. This news, widely reported last week, is only a slight exaggeration. Using hidden cameras, scientists have indeed captured footage of chimpanzee behavior that resembles religious ritual. The rocks pile up to create something resembling an altar. This “ritualized behavioral display” apparently has no evolutionary function, and instead resembles religious rituals from humanity’s archaeological past.
This isn’t the first discovery of animal behavior resembling religion. Elephants and dolphins, for example, have burial rituals for their dead.
More importantly, if animals were conclusively shown to have religion, this would represent yet another blow to the longstanding notion that humans are, somehow, fundamentally different from other animals. Octopi use tools. Capuchin monkeys have symbolic language. Orcas have culture. Dolphins have self-awareness. Is religion, too, something that we share with beasts? If animals can in fact have religion how might this change our ethical obligations towards them?