Are there any proto-religious or ritualistic behaviors in animals?

I often see various things popping up as some supposed cited source of ritualistic behavior in animals such as Jane Goodall seeing chimpanzees dancing before waterfall, or a bunch of cats all in one tree staring at the moon and so on. Much of it also seems fake. Such as elephants waving branches at the moon seems to be cited a lot but seems to all be trust being placed in Pliny the Elder actually seeing this but I can’t find anyone claiming to have seen it themselves.

I was thinking back to previous podcasts on how genes may influence the likelihood of someone being religious. So while I know there is no religious behavior in animals, I was wondering if there was anything that talks about how religion could evolve through certain traits of animals now. Such as could elephants morning their dead, and things such as elephants burying various corpses they find , and any work done on their genetics, show any reason for a instinct becoming a ritual even after it has little use becoming a foundation for a proto-faith.

Now I think like with many things , the act of elephants burying dead corpses could simply be them trying to remove attention from predators or scavengers. This thread is not animal specific just using them as examples of my question.

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We talked to Jane Goodall about this in the podcast episode that comes out tomorrow (the chimps and the waterfall). You might also look at the Cognitive Science of Religion for elements of the natural development of religion. The first podcast episode we did with Justin Barrett (episode 30) was about this.


Glad to know. I was hoping it was going to be part of the discussion and thought there was a chance it would be ever since I saw the email about the upcoming podcast.

I’ll go back and listen to those podcasts again. It was one of the ones I was thinking of that originally got me interested in how did emotions, thinking and snd religious draw potentially evolve within our species , and others.

I have never understood the reasoning which seeks to make the treatment of the dead out to be an example of religious behavior. I frankly think this is like making out that the toiletry habits of burying our wastes is some kind of religious behavior. Both of these sound very foolish to me since there are excellent reasons why such behavior could be a product of evolution.

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There’s no evidence of intentionality in any species but man. You need that to be religious.

I agree but it’s the most common one I hear brought up and that’s why I tried to go ahead snd mention that it makes plenty of sense that they are trying to hide something that may attract predators.

Though it’s also interesting that animals can register and feel sad over the death of someone in their tribe meaning they understand a bit of life and death and I am curious of by recognizing that if within their parameters they have any thoughts on what happens to them once they are dead and if not will that concept eventually evolve into some sort of religious or spiritual afterlife. I imagine something similar had to have happened with us.

But in general I’m interested in any fantasy development and emotional intelligence within other species. I don’t think I anyone, with the exception to some pagans, believe in animals experiencing spirituality.

I’m not 100% convinced of this. I guess it would depend on the exact usage of intentionality. My cats can definitely express hope for treats or fantasize by guessing what they believe I’ll do next and preparing for it. Like if I walk towards the door they will dart towards it thinking maybe we are all going outside to play. But I agree there is no evidence that I’ve seen to suggest religious or spiritual beliefs among animals.

While I think the claim that there is no evidence of intentionality in any species but man is utterly absurd. Intentionality is part of the very nature of life itself.

Yes, of course. It is always possible to define things so they only apply to human beings.

I think religion has more to do with abstract imagination and seeing patterns in random data – like for example, seeing flowers and giraffes in the shapes of the clouds.

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By gut instinct is that other species lack the skills needed for religiosity.

  1. Language would seem to be needed in order to form the seeds of religion.
  2. An idea of self.
  3. The ability to athropomorphize, or whatever the term would be for other species.
  4. Being able to put yourself in the shoes of others (i.e. empathize).
  5. A brain that has a strong tendency to make free associations between events and thoughts.

We can see some of these traits at a very rudimentary level in other species, but I don’t think they are developed enough to form concepts that we would consider religions.


So, if your dog religiously makes a circle before lying down, is that religious behavior? Could such ritualistic behaviors be a precursor to actual religion?

I doubt that could. But I imagine Proto humans were doing something before we were doing what we are doing now.

The question is not “ is every random thing being done now by animals a precursor to religious acts hundreds of millions of years from now”.

A better example would be if elephants will migrate years later to visit a gravesite well after the death of the elephant and will act different could this potential recognition of death lead to belief in the afterlife. If various genes are though to be somewhat indicators of higher possibilities of religious views then can we find similar mutations in other species. If we believe in evolution it seems possible that there will be non human descendants of creatures living now that will become something similar to us in how we can respond.

I think there is a good possibility that ritualistic behaviors can lead to religious concepts over a species evolutionary path. If in 20 million years chimps descendants begin watching lunar cycles and knowing how to travel by constellations and then in 70 million years they were painting pictures of constellations as a map system I would not be surprised if much further down the road there was some kind of astrological based faith.

I would have mentioned elephant regard for their dead too. It isn’t a recognizably human style religion but the question specifically asked for behaviors which were “proto-” and I agree that counts. It shows that the elephants have a caring regard for their dead and that they still think of them and feel something. Do they feel their ‘presence’? Probably.

But they don’t bury them, they simply handle the bones with what seems like warm regard.

I kept reading conflicting info. Everything seems to be a biologist in this or that place saw this or that. I can’t help but feel like maybe some of the stories was a bit embellished. But read a handful about corpses of even people found with lots of limbs and stuff tossed on top. I knew it was not buried as in covered with dirt. Ive read reports of elephants just quickly covering them and leaving to stories of elephants coming back hours out of their way to visit a long dead elephants burial spot and would handle the bones and place them back down and cover them. That’s definitely more than just trying to cover a scent.

I have always been way more into plants and native insects and reptiles so I never looked into this particular subject. But I will definitely try to plan in a few weeks or months and try to dedicate a week or two to reading books, watching things on it and reaching out to biologists I trust.

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Aye, they all require intentionality which only humans demonstrate, from a very early age.

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