Animal Religion: Evolution, Affect, and Radical Embodiment

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John D. Caputo


Philosophy, religion and theology, Animal religion, Radical embodiment

Subject Categories



Animal religion explores a particular theoretical problem in theory and method in the study of religion: the relationship between religion and bodies. Where religion is often defined--in popular and academic contexts--as a belief in supernatural agents, the animal religion model suggests religion is best understood as emerging out of bodies. Animal religion can be used to understand not only instantiations of human religion, but also, building on the work of Kimberley Patton and ethologists such as Jane Goodall and Marc Bekoff, religion emerging out of nonhuman animal bodies.

To set up animal religion, this dissertation adopts a particular theoretical lens: radical embodiment. Radical embodiment is an interdisciplinary approach stressing the complexity of embodied systems, drawing on resources from evolutionary biology and brain-mind science, poststructuralist philosophy and feminism, and contemporary theoretical work in religious studies. Where classical ontologies have proposed a univocal human "nature" and built their philosophical systems on that basis, radical embodiment, in its Joycean mood, emphasizes that bodies are actually made up of a multiplicity of interlocking, overlapping, and shifting economies, muddy bodily technologies corresponding to organs, cells, circuits, limbs, and cognitive drivers. Radical embodiment also inhabits a Proustian mood; it fuses contemporary readings of Proust from poststructuralist philosophy and religious studies with the emerging field of affective neuroscience to demonstrate that bodies are not motivated by an ensemble of rational operations, but rather by a more fundamental network of affects or emotions.

Radical embodiment applied to religious studies, then, suggests that religion is a complex outgrowth of multidimensional, affectively determined bodies, not a rationally elected and cognitively streamlined set of beliefs. The dissertation closes with a series of case studies to illustrate how animal religion plays out: the Park51 controversy, New Atheism, and contemporary primatology. It closes with a study of the "dance of awe" discussed by Jane Goodall in her observations of chimpanzees in the Kakombe valley. Applying poststructuralist feminism to evolutionary theory, it suggests that this "dance" encapsulates the embodied play of forms that gives rise to religion in all animal bodies.

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