The Question of the Animal and Religion

Theoretical Stakes, Practical Implications

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Aaron S. Gross
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , December
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Throughout the corridors of the ivory tower no less than on the kill floor of the abattoir, the “anthropological machine” steadily hums, relentlessly doing its job of manufacturing “the human” by disavowing “the animal.” Aaron Gross, in his recent and important book, The Question of the Animal and Religion, explores the insidiousness of a human/animal binary that, because of its taken-for-granted naturalness, exercises its influence in ways that remain largely invisible.

Gross’s main aim is to reveal the significance of real animals and the category of the animal for the study of religion. That this may appear a narrow or peripheral concern is itself symptomatic of how entrenched the disavowal of the animal is in our culture. Far from peripheral, Gross persuasively demonstrates how the category of the animal acts as the linchpin that gives religious studies, and the humanities more broadly, its characteristic bearing. Indeed, its relevance may extend far beyond that. As Gross argues, “inquiry into animals is inquiry into thought itself” (15).

Gross wants to make room for animals in the theorization of religion, not by ceding old, or annexing new territory, but by unmasking the space animals have long occupied. If we would only look, and listen, we’d find ourselves already enmeshed in reciprocal and ethically charged relations with a more-than-human world. But theorization in religious studies has worked against this by making religion a narrowly human concern—narrow in its blindness to the nonhuman, and narrow in its blindness to embodied, non-linguistic, and non-rational ways of human knowing. The two, as Gross shows us, are connected: the tacit anthropocentrism that animates much of Western thought is built upon a violent disavowal of the creaturely that is both within and outside the human.

Early theories on the origins of religion, no less than modern ones, are united in treating the phenomenon of religion as emergent with hominization; a kind of juncture at which humanity was propelled into a world of symbols. Religion becomes the quintessentially human phenomenon through a repudiation—or, alternatively, a transcendence—of animality.

In such a view, the human and the animal unavoidably share an unstable border. Much like the alternating figure-ground images of a Rubin vase, one image “exists” at the expense of the other; only by backgrounding the animal can the human come into sharp focus. Gross elucidates the process whereby the human and animal are “co-created” (animals as ground to the human figure) in the writings of Durkheim, Cassirer, Eliade, and J.Z. Smith. Though these theorists were chosen because of their undisputed importance to the discipline, almost any would have sufficed, given the near inescapability of the human/animal binary in the social sciences and humanities. Indeed, Gross’s work demonstrates how the category of the animal plays a remarkably stable, nearly invariant role as an “absent presence” in a discipline otherwise known for its lack of consensus. Irrespective of the particular disciplinary lens, the “meaning” of religion is explored in terms of its relationship to the human alone, the typically unchallenged referential center of reality.

Gross offers a particularly penetrating analysis of the way this process informs the ritual killing of animals. Through an insightful analysis of the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse scandal in Postville, Iowa, Gross demonstrates how the sacrificial killing of animals plays a central role in the creation of “humane” religious subjectivities. The reader comes to see the literal killing of animals in abattoirs, and the symbolic killing of the category of the animal in the academy as distinct instantiations of the same process of anthropogenesis.

Gross problematizes the artificial compartmentalization of existence that the human/animal binary imposes, and proposes a consideration of the human in its engagement with the world beyond its symbolic mediation, to include the ethically charged common ground it shares with all embodied, sentient life. In such an approach, the body comes to be acknowledged as a powerful site of perception and of knowing, and the source for moral reflection. For instance, in a section of the book that is both moving and at places, painful to read, Gross recounts his own reaction to the horrific suffering of animals seen in the undercover video footage of the kill floor of the Iowa abattoir. He writes, “Something unfathomably old inside of me responded.” His reaction was “creaturely”: a deeply embodied, non-rational source of knowing that birthed moral reflections and later scholarly writings, culminating in this book. His readers too become witnesses to the spectacle of suffering through his writing, and share in the “anguish of this vulnerability of being flesh” (to use Derrida’s words). That the suffering of fellow creatures provokes in us such a charged response is itself compelling testimony to a solidarity of life that extends well beyond the human species.

The Question of the Animal and Religion persuasively demonstrates the need to extend our understanding of religion beyond the human drama to include, as Gross insists, the drama of living itself. This book deserves to be taken seriously. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anne Vallely is Associate Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
June 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron S. Gross is a professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego, cochair of the American Academy of Religion's Animals and Religion group, and founder of the nonprofit organization Farm Forward. He is also the author of Animals and the Human Imagination: A Companion to Animal Studies.



Joseph Blankholm

Lovely review of a book I've wanted to read!


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