The words provide me with comfort too, especially as I write this post: a dear friend of mine's cat was run over last night. She is devastated, and this comes in the face of a particularly tumultuous time for my dear friend. Life feels so random and cruel sometimes; I’m mulling over the old unanswered question, why do bad things happen to good people? I look at my two beautiful kitty babies playing silly buggers in the lounge and shudder at how quickly a life, no matter how small, can be extinguished.
I love animals. I grew up with cats and dogs and they have been present during profound moments of joy and tragedy in my life. Tiger and whale and komodo dragon thrill me equally. Fish enchant me, though they invariably end up floating belly-up in the tank when I’ve tried and keep them; I’ve realised I have bad aquatic juju. (Not as bad as my wife – she managed to kill a cactus.) Even the tarantula and the anaconda fascinate me, although I’d need Schedule 7 tranquilisers to come close to one of them. As far as I’m concerned, animals have souls. Some of you may might chide me for seemingly equating a feline life with a human one. Feel free. I need to write tonight, and I’m going to explore whether I can justify whether animals have souls.
Regular readers of this blog will know that, try as I might, I haven't been able to conceive of a Universe without there being Something Out There, no matter how in vogue it might be to join Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins’ New Atheism. I bear them no ill will and recognise they pose potently rational arguments against religion. But I believe - see an earlier post here if you want to delve deeper in to my disorganised soul-searching. And I have always believed that animals have souls (and no, we’re not going to fret about whether this applies to tiger or earthworm equally; I don’t know; deal with it.)
Of course it brings me comfort to believe that All Dogs (And Kitties) Go To Heaven. My heart feels this and my brain, bless it, refuses to comment. Both science and a lot of religion would beg to differ, the former supposing it is not necessary and the latter warning me that only Man has a soul.
This is an ancient debate. Aristotle believed that animals did have souls, but only primitive ones, whereas humans possessed a uniquely “rational” soul. Descartes was dismissive of the idea altogether, this stemming directly from his famous statement Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am); implying animals were not self-aware, and that the concept of a “soul” for them was unnecessary.
I’m sorry Monsieur Descartes. That is too cold for me. Here I conveniently turn to religious traditions for comfort. I realise now I don’t need – nor want – proof. I need to believe that the little kitty who gave my friend so much love is now part of something eternal, something beyond my understanding.
In Judaism, it is generally agreed that all created beings have a divine spark in them which is a manifestation of God; this divine spark is considered a soul (however primitive) and is furthermore immortal.
Christianity - starting out as it did as an offshoot of Judaism – follows generally the same belief, however the concept of an animal soul is not stated in any New Testament text that I know of. Islam is perhaps more explicit. In the the Qur'an it reads, “All of Allah’s creation, including the animals, will be resurrected. After Allah has judged between the animals, He will order them to turn to dust” (Surah Takweer 81:5). Buddhism, however, embraces the concept of animal souls directly and unequivocally, asserting that every creature has the potential to become divine through the cycles of birth and rebirth.
But Christian tradition does sometimes push the anthropomorphic envelope quite tantalisingly: consider Saint Francis of Assisi; the Catholic tradition has him as the patron saint of animals. (There is no patron saint of rocks.) St Francis’s Canticle of Creatures is high poetry, calling on “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” (never mind all living breathing things) to praise their God. For those Christians who are Romophobic, the exhortation for all creatures to praise God occurs in the Psalms too - the book actually closes with this very thought in Psalm 150. The Psalms are, of course, revered by all Christians and Jews, whether Catholic or Protestant, Reform or Orthodox. Now, to praise something would mean to be aware of something other than one self, and this implies self-awareness, and… you see where I’m going. Call my definition of soul a desperate cherry-picking of logic, but it makes me happy. And while there are no equations for happiness that I know of, it takes a nanosecond for my soul, if you like, to assume that any God it would believe in wants me to be happy.
As an aside, I think people who are allergic to existentialism forget that the philosophy is not incompatible with the concept of happiness. Rather, I think Sartre, Camus and Co. urge that we have to create (what a loaded word) our own happiness in order not to go insane in an absurd reality. But the Absurd doesn't have to be so utterly depressing. From my limited perception as a human being, locked in three dimensions of space and a fourth of linear time, an absurd reality may sometimes be heartbreaking, but it is also very frequently hilarious. Is this not the same as "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away?" Why does black humour come so naturally to us when the existential chips are down?
My favourite author, Douglas Adams, put it beautifully:
There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened...
(All this from a self-professed atheist who - unwittingly, or in a mammoth exercise of poking fun at himself - wrote one of the most spiritually moving books I have ever read, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I just love the fact that Douglas ended up having an Anglican funeral for all his atheist sensibilities.)
I could go on and on, and so often I do. But before I stop I have to mention the astonishing account of Temple Grandin, a respected professor of animal behaviour who is also a highly functioning autistic. Before autism was described as a medical / psychological condition, many traditions would have labelled an autistic individual as… soulless. Grandin’s bestselling book Animals in Translation tugs at both brain and heart-strings: she discovers her own humanity (and her soul?) through her work with animals.
So what can I conclude? Not much, except what I feel, and my mind - still - is happy to shut up. And what I feel is this:
If a single purr from a single kitten can flood a single mind with warmth and fuzziness, surely it’s immaterial whether this is purely a cocktail of serotonin and dopamine tricking the brain, or a ripple of love traversing a cosmos that actually gives a damn. And if this fellow creature - fashioned like me from gnarled strands of DNA and proteins that look like coral forests - makes me stand in ancient awe, damn straight it has a soul.
So I say this on behalf of all those who have lost a loved one, whatever the amount of chromosomes they possessed when they flashed their divine spark across the planet.
(Hear my prayer; unto Thee all flesh shall come. Grant them eternal rest o Lord, and may perpetual light shine on then.)