Angels or Animals? Remixing Religion and Evolution with Affect Theory – by Beatrice Marovich

Beatrice Marovich on Donovan Schaefer’s Religious Affects

Donovan O. Schaefer, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, Duke University Press, 2015, 304 pp., $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper
Donovan O. Schaefer, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, Duke University Press, 2015, 304 pp., $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper
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In the 1960s and 1970s, while observing chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream Reserve, primatologist Jane Goodall witnessed—on numerous occasions—what she could only describe as a kind of dance. In the wake of a loud storm, or standing near the spray of a massive waterfall, Goodall watched the chimps rhythmically sway in front of the water or swing above it from tree-hanging vines. After about ten to fifteen minutes of this, Goodall noted that the chimps would often stop and gaze at the water. Goodall found the behavior to be playful, but she mulled over the purpose of it. She even posited that there may have been no purpose to it at all. She has since reflected that perhaps this chimp display was motivated by something like what we humans call awe or wonder. And it is this suggestive parallel to human emotions, so often linked with religious worship, that led her to speculate that we might see—in this chimpanzee dance—something like a precursor to religious ritual.

There are, perhaps, numerous reasons to resist describing this animal behavior as “religious.” If we think of religion strictly as a system of beliefs or rituals, then this nondogmatic and nonsystematic physical posture would not appear religious. Or if we think of religion as a socio-cultural apparatus—a tradition built into, and encoded within, a complex society—then this spontaneous eruption would not appear to be religious. Perhaps most obviously, if we think of religion as something of which only human beings partake, then this chimpanzee behavior would not appear to be religious. In fact, some might already be asking, wouldn’t it be simple, misguided anthropomorphism to think of this display as remotely religious in the first place?

Certainly, a degree of anthropomorphism is involved. It inevitably is when we humans cast an eye toward the lives and behaviors of any nonhuman animal. We can aim for distance, remove, and objectivity. Yet, still, we always bring our own questions, infused and flavored with our human obsessions and emotions, to these inquiries. But for anyone whose curiosity, or research, takes them to those sites where human life and behavior begin to bleed into (or at least resonate with) lifeworlds of the nonhuman, questions like these—questions about where it is that human emotions like awe and wonder could have originated in the first place—may well fascinate, if not haunt. Arguably, to ignore or abandon an inquiry like this—anthropomorphic as it might be—is also to remove ourselves from, or make alien, our evolutionary origins as an animal species. Why should it be the case that feelings and experiences we associate with religion are only related to our human and not to our animal sides? Why should the behaviors, or rituals, that we tend to name “religious” not be among those that have evolved throughout our life as a species?

Religion and evolution are often like oil and water. Historically, they have rarely mixed well. While it may be the case that contemporary scholars of religion no longer believe in the sorts of angels populating a text like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Donovan O. Schaefer suggests that academics in religion are still likely to consider humans more akin to angels than we are to animals. In the epigraph of the Introduction to Religious Affects, Schaefer cites Benjamin Disraeli’s 1864 speech “Church Policy,” wherein Disraeli responds (to laughter and applause) to the Darwinian revolution with the following provocation: “Is man an ape or an angel? My lord, I am on the side of the angels.” Schaefer argues that like Disraeli, those in the contemporary study of religion still see religion as something that sets us apart from animals, rather than in continuity with them.

Even for those who no longer cultivate a belief in angels, religion is often said to lift us above the other animals, rather than offering us windows into our animal mortality. Schaefer argues that we must reorient the study of religion, such that we stop thinking of ourselves as exceptional angels, or ethereal, rational creatures. And he argues further that a focus on affect, specifically through the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of affect theory, can bring scholars out of the heavens and back into what is animal about religion—back to what is emotional, material, and embedded in our evolutionary origins and biological bodies. Religious studies, he argues, should be able to theorize the chimpanzee’s waterfall dance. And it should be able to see, in this dance, residues of the awe and wonder that drive our own worship.

Evolution has long kept religion and science polarized. Theology, of course, is often to blame for this polarization. In what sense can it be true that God created the world, and humans within it, if evolutionary theory tells us that humankind evolved from earthly ancestors? If we have evolved, how can it be affirmed that God made humans from almost nothing—from dust or dirt? Theologians have, of course, spent more than a century with evolutionary theory. Thinkers like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have worked to incorporate the theory of evolution into the structure of the spirit itself. Nevertheless, creation science remains a popular opt-out for many Americans who continue to see the theory of evolution as a religious violation. Schaefer, however, isn’t particularly concerned with theology.

Instead, he is more concerned with the discipline of religious studies. In other words, he is less concerned with how our concept of God holds us back from evolutionary reflections on religious life and is more concerned with how our concept of religion holds us back. The study of religion, Schaefer argues, renders it something entirely unique to humans: a function of human ritual life, human social culture, human discursive systems, or human reason. Why is it, he wonders, that we so studiously (so religiously, we might say) avoid animalizing our religious life? Why do we resist thinking of ourselves as religious animals?

A central reason, Schaefer suggests, is that religious studies has come to focus more on language and discourse than on the messier realms of affect and embodiment. This is exemplified in the work of influential theorist Jonathan Z. Smith who reads religion, culture, and society as texts that have been “inscribed” by “systems of power.” Within this critical framework religion becomes a “text-like” form of social control, exercising power and influence. Those who study religion can pose critical questions to, and about, these texts. Schaefer notes that Smith’s work helpfully prompted a shift away from scholarship that was dominated either by metaphysics, or by highly privatized (and allegedly nonpolitical) forms of individual experience. This style of theory, typified by scholars such as Rudolph Otto and Mircea Eliade, seemed to suggest that religion itself was something ahistorical and transcendentally meaningful. But Smith’s critical turn also makes theoretical work in religion subject to the “linguistic fallacy”: the notion that religion can be reduced to a set of “linguistic nodes” that function purely within the realm of ideology. The angels, within this perspective, have faded into mere figments of old ideological imaginaries. But we are still far from the fur, the flesh, the odor, or the emotive contemplation of the apes. We may be able to see the angels as agents of discursive control. But we are still living within their realm.

In his critique of the linguistic fallacy, Schaefer echoes a cadre of other critical projects in religious studies, such as Manuel Vasquez’s in More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion, which proffers a materialist shift in religious studies, informed by work in queer theory, feminist theory, postcolonial studies, and poststructuralism, which together bring religion into closer conversation with living bodies. There is also an element of this turn against the linguistic in Ann Taves’ Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things, which argues that the focus on humanist methods of approach in religious studies keeps the discipline isolated from emerging work in the natural sciences. Schaefer is certainly attempting to bring religion into intimate conversation with material reality, as well as scientific research. But what most distinguishes his approach, perhaps, is his attention to animal bodies and the affective pulses that run through, and animate, them.

Affect theory focuses on what Schaefer calls “the mobile materiality of the body.” It attends to the body’s relationship with its environment, tuning in to aspects of embodiment that precede the linguistic. Moreover, it also examines the ways in which language itself becomes thick with “embodied forces.” Language is not merely a cognitive phenomenon but something that alters the shape and texture of a body’s experience. Religion is a part of our embodied life (the way we live, and move, and breathe, and relate) and not merely a byproduct of language or discourse. Affect theory helps to analyze the “economies of affect”: the economies of pleasure, rage, wonder, shame, dignity, sorrow, joy, and hatred that all play a role in shaping the substance of this thing that gets called religion. Because these (somewhat religious) emotions are built into, and encoded within, our animal bodies they become “artifacts” of “an embodied evolutionary history.”

One of the hard lessons we have certainly learned, over time, is that there can be devastating political consequences when the lines between human and animal blur or collapse. Lamentably, the lines have often blurred selectively. Given that animals, in western cultural history, have often stood to represent the worst (or least desirable) aspects of human nature, becoming more animal has been code for becoming beastly—becoming violent, ravenous, sexually licentious, irrational, or merely mortal. While recent work in animal studies has attempted to question and counteract these cultural tendencies, the traces of animalization have left a ruinous mark on cultural life and politics in the West.

Those with intellectual and cultural capital, who have considered themselves properly human, have deemed people whom they want to enslave, take political or social advantage of, or merely look upon with cultivated disdain, as more animal. Animalization has been used, in countless instances, as a mark of racial, sexual, and/or economic oppression. Better we should think of all humans as closer to the angels, some have inevitably decided. There can be, certainly, a kind of egalitarian impetus in the emphasis on the uniquely human capacities that bind us together.

Smith was actually concerned about the impact of animalization on the history of religion, for similar reasons. This focus was part of his ideological critique of religion. Animalization has often been used, in religious life, to distinguish between civilized (or acceptable) forms of religion and those forms of religion that are alleged to be more primitive—religious forms of life that civilized people have outgrown. As Aaron Gross has noted, in The Question of the Animal and Religion, Smith recognized the way in which the division, or parceling out, of the world into human versus nonhuman terrains frequently turns into a division of the world into categories of people who are like us (i.e.; more human) and those who are not like us (or, more animal). Smith was aware, in other words, that there tends to be an overlap, particularly, between the human/animal binary and the modern/primitive binary. Ideological critique, then, is actually deeply important when we begin to talk about the nexus between religion and animality. Discussions about the evolutionary origins of religious life can quickly become encoded with only lightly veiled sexist, or racist, presumptions.

This has inevitably affected the anthropology of religion wherein the so-called religious life of indigenous or non-western people was often described as more proximate to the life of animals. Early anthropologists were fascinated, and often baffled, by the role that animals themselves played in material objects such as totems or in ritual performances that involved the evocation of animals through masks, bones, or vocalization. These traces of animality were often read as signs and signals of civilizational inferiority and marks of racial or economic difference. Such traces were often read as the less evolved forms of religious life—those forms of religious life that must be closer to our evolutionary origins. Thus, the history of reflecting on the evolutionary origins of religious life, and the entanglement of religious life with animals and animality, is rife with the deep scars of racism and colonialism.

Schaefer is acutely aware of this history, and understands the way that animals, animality, and animalization have impacted the history of politics and religion. But this is yet another place where he sees affect theory as a constructive resource. Like Smith, Schaefer is deeply attuned to the way that power functions through religion. He finds Smith’s focus on religions as “text-like technologies of social control” significant. And Schaefer is careful to note that, when it comes to conversations about power, the affective turn in religious studies should be seen as a supplement to (rather than a simple critique of) the linguistic turn. But affect theory, says Schaefer, can help us to see how power relations “touch and move bodies.” Affect theory recognizes that “power is more expansive than discourse,” however, and that power “choreographs bodies on registers that exceed the linguistic.”

Schaefer, himself, uses affect theory to illuminate facets of what he calls animal religion in the places where we might least expect to see it, or to read it. He is not interested in reinvigorating the evolutionary discourses of religion that placed indigenous traditions closer to what’s understood to be the evolutionary origins of our religious life. Rather than a rationally ordered system that develops in clear, simple, or linear directions (as if following some sort of telos), Schaefer stresses, evolution itself is chaotic and proceeds like something accidental.

His position is informed by what he calls the “pluralists” of evolutionary theory: Stephen Jay Gould, Elizabeth Vrba, Niles Eldridge, Stephen Rose, and Richard Lewontin. And he echoes their critique of adaptionist models of evolutionary theory (from evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins), which insist on “the radical intelligibility of evolutionary processes according to their adaptiveness or survival value in withstanding the acidic currents of natural selection.” Instead, Schaefer argues, pluralist approaches read evolution as a sedimentation of accidents, refusing to seek a rational logos working through the process. In its resistance to the rational, or the metaphysical, this approach is closer to what he calls animal religion—in all of its embodied mess and chaos. Affect, Schaefer also argues, “suggests the complexity, clunkiness, inefficiency, and heterogeneity of bodies themselves.” Thus, thinking evolution and affect theory together can stress the jagged, fluid, or uneven nature of evolutionary development (and the bodies that develop within it).

This focus on the accidental nature of evolutionary development, on the lack of a rational logos or telos in animal religion, and on the complexity, clunkiness, inefficiency, and heterogeneity of bodies that are driven by affects, leads to a very different model for thinking about how it is that we religious humans exhibit animal religion, in a way that resonates with our evolutionary development as an animal species. This means that animal religion is not something to be cited in allegedly “primitive” (as opposed to “modern”) social contexts, for instance. Instead, it is something that stirs and circulates within the most modernized, globalized, and highly technological aspects of our religio-social interactions as contemporary humans.

Schaefer is interested, for instance, in the traces of animal religion in Islamophobic affective postures. While many Islamaphobic pundits may use a kind of animalization (via the category of the “savage”) to primitivize and make a racial/religious other of Muslims, Schaefer analyzes the animal affect of Islamaphobia. He discusses the way that Islamophobic pundits use the Internet (blogging or writing) and television as technologies for channeling and expanding rage. This results not only in a politics of exclusion—the felt experience of an embattled “us,” thought to be contesting the power of a savage “them”—but in the political opposition’s performance of compassion. Calls for religious understanding (coming from those who attempt to muffle the rage of Islamophobia) can, in their own right, be thought of as part and parcel of animal religion—a “religious strategy of circulating prosocial affects” that can even be compared to the affirmative prosocial behaviors of other primate species, such as chimpanzees.

Once we begin to uncover and stir up the long-buried, or -muted, animal traces within even the most highly “civilized” or “humanistic” aspects of religious life, animality appears everywhere in new guises. It may even be the case, I would submit, that angels themselves are much more animal than we often assume.

If we humans have, so often, sought to become angels rather than animals—what are the affects driving this aspiration? And what are the animal traces that get buried, or embedded, in the aspiration to be an angel? Of course there is, on one level, a drive to erase that which is mortal, animal, messy, and embodied. The fervor or passion for the angelic is, certainly, about the erasure of the mortal and the material, on at least one crucial level. But is that relationship to materiality not, still, an affective one?

And why is it that we humans first developed the notion that there was a world beyond this world (one that we could access with a flight away from the world) in the first place? The wings of angels once beat with the sound and rush of feathers. What would the work of the angels, and the spheres of the heavens, even look like without the flight of birds and our desire to soar like them? What would an angel even be, what passions would we have for the flight of angels, without the animal body?

Beatrice Marovich is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Hanover College. Her research is concerned with the intellectual history of Christianity and the secular afterlives of theological concepts. She is interested in both the erasures and the endurances of the theological within secular frames of thought, especially in how these traces of the theological have influenced the way we think about the natural world and other creatures.