Do gorillas have spiritual or religious beliefs?

Answer by Rory Young:

File:Male gorilla in SF zoo.jpg

GREAT question!!!

Firstly, we need to clarify both “religious” and “spiritual”.

According to wiktionary the word comes from relegō (“I bind back or behind”) and from re + legō (“I choose, select; collect, gather”).

There are four meanings for the noun “religion:

1. “The belief in and worship of a supernatural controlling power, especially a personal god or gods”. I think we can exclude gorillas from this form of religion.

2. “A particular system of faith and worship“. I think this can also be excluded for gorillas.

3. “The way of life committed to by monks and nuns“. Nope, not really gorilla behaviour.

4. Any practice that someone or some group is seriously devoted to. Ah! Here we loop back to the origins of the word religion. Yes, I do believe then that this could fit with gorilla behaviour. Let’s examine this further.

I recently read a review (see story) of a new book written by primatologist Frans de Waal. (sorry it will take me a while to get hold of a copy of the book itself).

The book’s title is, “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates“. As the article explains, Frans de Waal argues that we believe in God because we are moral rather than we are moral because we believe in God. In other words morality has evolved over time as we have.

De Waal says, “there is little evidence that other animals judge the appropriateness of actions that do not directly affect themselves, yet, in their behavior, we recognize the same values we pursue ourselves.

“I take these hints of community concern as a sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and we don’t need God to explain how we got to where we are today,” he writes.

As you can see, we keep getting back to that raw definition (number 4) of what religion is. So, morality, community, binding… Being “religious” is not dependent on a belief in God.

Now let’s leap forward to today and look at a new and extremely interesting religion called Syntheism. (See

Syntheism also fits this definition number four. Furthermore, it does NOT meet the requirements of 1, 2 or 3! So, if Syntheists are religious then so are gorillas! There are other ancient religions that also do not fit into the mainstream  expectation for religiosity. Look at…

Now let’s look at “spiritual”.Spirituality lacks a definition but here is what wikipedia says:”social scientists have defined spirituality as the search for “the sacred,” where “the sacred” is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration”.

To answer this question let’s return to the article reviewing de Waal’s new book; “Some say animals are what they are, whereas our own species follows ideals, but this is easily proven wrong,” de Waals writes. “Not because we don’t have ideals, but because other species have them too.”

I don’t want to steal the well-deserved thunder of either de Waal or Lee Dye (who wrote the article) so will stop there as the point is made. For further evidence, read the article or the book.

Lastly, the question clearly says “belief”. I believe gorillas are true monists. They are not dualists which many would argue is purely an invention of the ancient Egyptians. I would also like to point out that the term “moral” is pretty much accepted as a “religious” term itself denoting good and evil. I prefer the pragmatic “what works and doesn’t work’ of ethics. In this too the gorillas are true.

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