Animals and Religion - Lynn Poland

Animals and Religion

Lynn Poland
Department of Religion
Davidson College

Animals have been significant presences in nearly all religious traditions—appearing in sacred texts, symbols, myths, and rituals. Scholars within these traditions have written about animals for as long as the traditions have existed, in forms including textual commentaries, bestiaries, etymologies, natural histories, instructions for sacrifice, and devotional literature. All of this pre-modern work is now, at least potentially, of renewed interest to contemporary scholars interested in animals. ‘Religious Studies’ is a collection of sub-fields that includes historical studies of particular traditions, both institutional and intellectual, and of religions in specific geographic locations; there is comparative work of various kinds and studies of religious art, music, and literature, including sacred texts. Some approaches to religion are influenced by sociology, anthropology, or psychology. The normative enterprises of theology and ethics belong here as well.  There is ample room for attention to animals in all of the above. With this much diversity all I can do is try to provide here a brief sampler of the sorts of issues and topics that have appeared under the rubric “animals and religion.”

From 1996 to 1998 the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University mounted a three-year intensive conference series on “Religions of the World and Ecology.” In 1999 this project was extended to non-human species in a conference on “World Religions and Animals” held at the Harvard-Yenching Institute. This conference resulted in volume called A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. It includes 47 essays divided into sections on animals in each major world religion, and on animals in myth, ritual, and art. There are also sub-divisions on ethics and science, on factory farming, and a final section on additional contemporary legal and social justice concerns. Publication of the volume could be said to mark the “arrival” of animal studies, together with the establishment of a consultation on “Animals and Religion” within the American Academy of Religion. From 2003 to 2007, this consultation sponsored 22 papers presented at the Academy’s annual meetings, on topics ranging from the theoretical (e.g. “The Animal, Critical Theory, and the Study of Religion;” “The Ideal of a Communion of Subjects: A Challenge to Classical Liberalism”) to specific religious traditions (e.g.”‘Bearly’ Understandable: Transformation from Human to Bear and Man to Woman;” “Animals, Jainism, and the Religious Imperative”), to myth and ritual (e.g. “The Symbolic Connection between Birds and Spirits of the Dead”), to contemporary ethical or social issues (e.g. “’Liberation’s Crusade has Begun’: Hare Krishna Hardcore Youth and Animal Rights Activism”).

In a recent “Sightings” from The Martin Marty Institute, Paul Waldau points to still another interest—the notion that many non-human animals have religious sensibilities.  He mentions Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), for example, who wrote that elephants, “closest to man,” have been seen “worshipping the sun and stars, and purifying [themselves] at the new moon, bathing in the river, and invoking the heavens.” A related concern explores ways that animals may have a special relationship to the divine, independent of human mediation. One of my favorite essays in this vein is Kimberly Patton’s “’He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs’: Recovering Animal Theology in the Abrahamic Traditions.” She begins with a reference to the Rabbinic tractate ‘Abodah Zarah in which Rab Judah suggests that God laughs every day. God spends the day’s first three hours with Torah, the second three in judgment and mercy.  In the third quarter “He is feeding the whole world, from the horned buffalo to the brood of vermin,” and “during the fourth quarter he is sporting with the leviathan, as it is said, ‘There is leviathan, whom thou hast formed to sport therewith?’” Rab Judah here quotes Psalm 104, a hymn to God as creator, which shows God creating animals directly, along with springs, grass, and trees to nourish and shelter them. Patton comments: “I am always transfixed by the image of the Creator of the Universe unwinding at the end of the day by seeking out the only creature big enough to play with Him.”

The normative disciplines of theological ethics and theology have been concerned with the well-being of animals since at least the late 1980’s. Theologians draw on different philosophical—e.g. Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Ricoeur—and ethical traditions—e.g. the utilitarianism of Peter Singer, the rights argument of Tom Regan, or alternatives such as virtue ethics or an ethics of care. In addition, however, they must argue that the religious tradition itself demands that adherents be concerned with animal welfare. Christian, Jewish and Islamic theologians, for example, must overturn traditional readings of Genesis that interpret human “dominion” to mean God created the world for human utility and enjoyment. Two anthologies collect many of these early theological efforts: Good News for Animals? edited by Charles Pinches and Jay McDaniel and Animals on the Agenda, edited by Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto. With an increasing number of publications exposing the cruelty inherent in the industrial confinement operations that produce our meat, contemporary theologians and ethicists are also readdressing ancient religious questions about what, when, and how humans eat. Theological reflections on food, gardening, and keeping the Sabbath may be about animals only in their exclusion from human consumption, but, as Norman Wirzba notes, in Genesis animals are commanded to observe the Sabbath too. In fact he argues that the whole point of creation is its consummation in rest, enjoyment, and the simple pleasures to be had in the company of other creatures. Human relationships with other animals are considered in the context of what it means to live a good life.


Linzey, Andrew and Yamamoto, Dorothy, eds. Animals on the Agenda. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Patton, Kimberly, “’He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs’: Recovering Animal Theology in the Abrahamic Traditions.” Harvard Theological Review, 93/4 (October 2000): 401-434.

Pinches, Charles and McDaniel, Jay, eds.  Good News for Animals? Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1993.

Waldau, Paul. “Religion and Other Animals.” Sightings, 5/29/08, The Martin Marty Institute.  Online at

Waldau, Paul and Patton, Kimberly, eds. A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Wirzba, Norman.  The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age. Ada, MI: Brazos Press, 2006.

Wirzba, Norman and Berry, Wendall. Living the Sabbath. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.


Ruminations 6 
"Animals and Religion"
Lynn Poland
Date Published September 4, 2008