Can Animals Sin? (Inner Animalities Book Event)

person with tattoo holds python
Photo by Sean Patrick on

This response is from James K. Stanescu. He is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Mercer University and blogs at

The first half of Meyer’s book creates a theological archeology of human animality. I mean this very closely to the Agambenian understanding of archeology, in which we must interrogate that which is excluded in the human sciences so that we may actually understand that which has been traditionally included. As Agamben puts it, the point of philosophical archeology “is not properly a past but a moment of arising; however, access to such can only be obtained by returning back to the point where it was covered over and neutralized by tradition” (2009, 105).  As such, Meyer goes to the work of 4th century Christian theologians to trace the ways that animality has been excluded from theology, but also the stubborn fact of our shared animality always reasserting itself. Before I get too far into this engagement with Inner Animalities, I should note that I am not a theologian, or a religious studies scholar. Indeed, I am someone for who, to borrow a phrase from William James, belief in Christian metaphysics is not currently a live option. As such, while I found the archeological work of the first half fascinating, I have more to say about the second half of Meyer’s book. The second half is Meyer’s positive project, in which he seeks a “rethinking of traditional anthropological themes,” so that we can begin a “theological narrative [that] might revolve around human commonality with other animals.” (85) In particular, I am interested in the conception of sin that Meyer forwards.

One of the things that I constantly reflect on is the strange retelling of the fall in Spinoza’s Ethics. For Spinoza, our downfall is other animals, “after he [“the first man”] believed the lower animals to be like himself, he immediately began to imitate their affects (see IIIP27) and to lose his freedom” (152, cf. Sharp 201-209). In other words, humans were free, until we decided we were like other animals! Spinoza’s sexist and human exceptionalist views are well known, especially his notorious claim that “the law against killing animals is based more on empty superstition and unmanly compassion than sound reason” (135). But even being aware of that claim I have always been struck to see a conception of our fallen nature to be tied inherently to us refusing human exceptionalism. While Meyer does not take up Spinoza here, he explains the impulse that guides Spinoza. As Meyer explains, “the fall of human beings figures as a downward plunge from the heights of angelic beatitude […] into the mire of animal encumberment and struggle” (118). In order to counter this common understanding of sin Meyer engages in a rereading of Genesis 2-3, in order to argue that “fallenness […] is participation in a pervasive ideological construction; it is the unavoidable performance of humanity in sovereign differentiation from animality.” (119). Let me quote at length Meyer’s argument here:

Genesis 2-3 contain a veritable catalogue of the traits and capacities that cut the human-animal distinction in Western theological/philosophical discourse: knowledge of death; language; personal sexual intimacy (over against mere reproduction); moral reasoning; affinity for the divine; nudity, shame, and clothing; and self-reflective consciousness. Remarkably, as each of these traits distinguish humanity from animality in the narrative, they are simultaneously linked to human disobedience and expulsion from Eden. Thus, Genesis 2-3 does not authorize anthropological exceptionalism but offers a lament for humanity’s “fall” into self-differentiation, a mythic countertestimony that resists humanity’s pretension to transcendence. (130)

In other words, all the things that we normally posit as what separates us humans from other animals is presented in Genesis 2-3 as the condition of our fallen and sinful nature. It is not, as Spinoza would have it, that we are fallen because we are like other animals, we are fallen because we have pretentions against our shared animality. Thus, “original sin and proper humanity are two sides of the same coin” (136). In this way, the story of Genesis 2-3 is a story of anthropogenesis, which Agamben defines as “the becoming human of man” (2011, 68). The fall is a story of which we transform ourselves for the animal species into the conceit of humanity.

While I love this reading of Genesis 2-3 that Meyer forwards, I am left with a question: Can nonhuman animals sin? If sin is, as Meyer argues, the failure of humans to affirm our own animality, can other animals sin? I am asking this question, in part, because of what Agamben has to say about anthropogenesis. Agamben is one of the important theorists that Meyer engages with in his chapter on sin and redemption, and I think an examination of his view of anthropogenesis is helpful to explaining why I think this is an important question. Anthropogenesis occurs, for Agamben, when “man” enters into language. Which for Agamben means she does not have language naturally, but most be constantly acquiring language. This is opposed to the language (or communication) of nonhuman animals, which is already plentiful and natural. So, Agamben claims:

Language is not made for communication. It is made for something else, something perhaps more important, but also more perilous. Language is, in fact, the principle obstacle to communication, which animals know perfectly well. They watch us sometimes, filled by a strange compassion for us, caught up as we are in language. They, too, might have ventured into language, but preferred not to, knowing what might be lost. (de la Durantye, 2013. Emphasis added)

In this move, Agamben joins a series of thinkers who construct a human exceptionalism that operates on the other side of the usual justifications for human exceptionalism. Normally, human exceptionalism is argued for by contending that humans are distinctly more important and impressive than other animals. We are smarter, we build things, we have morals, etc. However, there also exists an understanding of human uniqueness that argues we are special because we are less than animals, usually because there exists a gap between nature and ourselves that animals do not have to deal with. And Agamben is not alone here. Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition, has argued that humans are capable of stupidity, and animals are not able to be stupid, a position that Derrida famously takes issue with. The Lacan of Seminar I believes it is a fundamental lack that gives humans access to the Symbolic, whereas other animals only have access to the Imaginary. And it is this access to the Symbolic that gives humans language. Something very similar takes place in Bataille’s Theory of Religion, where he claims that animals exist in the world like “water in water” (19). And it is only because humans lack this immediacy to the world that we develop language and subjectivity. So Agamben is another iteration in which it is because of humanity’s lack that we become distinct from other animals, and is another demand for exceptionalism through negation. Such moves by these thinkers sometime take on obvious description of the religious. They might argue it is humanity’s fallen nature, as opposed to the animal’s non-fallen nature, which results in the gap from nature. Thus Agamben can claim “that animals were never expelled from Eden. […] If Elsa and Kafka were right, then through animals we remain close to paradise. Given that we live in the same world, however, this means that not even we have been expelled from paradise, only that for some reason we imagine that we have been. This is why we are so hard for other animals to understand” (de la Durantye, 2013). While our fallen nature seems to be farthest away from claims of human exceptionalism, it actually forms the other side of the same coin. If animals still exist in Eden, and exist fully and completely in communication and nature, they are therefore pre-political and pre-ethical beings. This is why Agamben is interested in distinguishing anthropogenesis of language from one of cognition: “With a tenacious prejudice perhaps connected to their profession, scientists have always considered anthropogenesis to be a problem of an exclusively cognitive order, as if the becoming human of man were solely a question of intelligence and brain size and not also one of ethos, as if intelligence and language did not also and above all pose problems of an ethical and political order, as if Homo sapiens was not also, and of course precisely for that reason, a Homo iustus”(2011, 68).  We are the beings that can speak, and it is our speaking that is the on-going event that makes us human (first there was the word…). The reason that “man” entering language matters for Agamben is because her entering of language is the way in which she is able to exist politically, ethically, and have history instead of mere nature. So, that which originally existed as a negative to other animals (language interrupts communication, we are confused and think we are fallen) becomes instead the very grounds upon which a certain power and potentiality exist (politics! ethics! history!). So, for this lineage of thinkers there is a kind of dialectical reversal in their description of the relation of humans to other animals. What begins as a way of describing humans as below other animals becomes, in the end, the very ground for human uniqueness.

I think Meyer’s rereadings of theology and the Bible are exemplary. Not just of Genesis 2-3, but throughout his book he carves a space that doesn’t just allow other animals to be included, but demands that theology takes seriously nonhuman animals and the animality of humanity. This is an important addition to the work of ending human exceptionalism, and forms his careful insistence that “standing witness to the precarity of creaturely lives—and feeling our own precarity in connection to theirs—gives hints […] for regarding these moments as the proximity of the basileia theou, the realm of God” (176). But it is because of this project to undo human exceptionalism that I still have to ask, can animals sin? Can they be fallen? If, as Meyer puts it, redemption depends upon understanding that “Jesus stands in solidarity with ‘all flesh,’” do animals need to be redeemed? (142) Can other animals want an exceptionalism toward the human? Can nonhuman animals recoil in the thought that humans belong in the same continuum of beings as them? In the time of the Anthropocene and the sixth mass extinction, can other animals desire not to have commonality with us? Perhaps we must affirm that our commonness is in our sin. Perhaps we must admit to fallen nature of all animality. Perhaps we must find redemption in and through each other. That is, if animals can sin.



Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 2010. The Signature of All Things: on Method. New York: Zone Books.

———. 2011. The Sacrament of Language: an Archaeology of the Oath. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bataille, Georges. 1992. Theory of Religion. New York: Zone Books.

de la Durantaye, Leland. 2013. “Animals, Humans and Hope. And Interview with Giorgio Agamben.” Bidoun.

Meyer, Eric D. 2018. Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human. New York: Fordham University Press.

Sharp, Hasana. 2011. Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. 1996. Ethics. New York: Penguin Books.


One thought on “Can Animals Sin? (Inner Animalities Book Event)

  1. Thank you, James, for this reflection!!! And thank you for your central question, which does get at a risk or danger in my inverted account of original sin. I am persistently tempted by an easy equation of original sin and human exceptionalism, and I often use that easy equation to push my students to think differently. But you’re exactly correct that such a move only turns the coin of an “angelic” anthropological exceptionalism over, turning it into a “demonic” anthropological exceptionalism that still imagines non-human animals as placidly non-political, innocent, and Edenic.

    My short answer to the question “Can animals sin?” is: yes. Here’s a passage that I’ve used in my classes to think through such a possibility:

    “Since the early 1990’s, for example, young male elephants in Pilanesberg National Park and the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa have been raping and killing rhinoceroses…. In July of last year, officials in Pilanesberg shot three young male elephants who were responsible for the killings of 63 rhinos, as well as attacks on people in safari vehicles. In Addo Elephant National Park, also in South Africa, up to 90 percent of male elephant deaths are now attributable to other male elephants, compared with a rate of 6 percent in more stable elephant communities.…Gay Bradshaw and several colleagues argued that today’s elephant populations are suffering from a form of chronic stress, a kind of specieswide trauma. Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss, they claim, have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.”
    Charles Siebert, “An Elephant Crackup?” New York Times, October 2006.

    I don’t know how to talk about these horrors from a theological perspective without invoking the category of sin. And while I’d want to be careful about how that invocation would be explained and conceptualized, it seems fully appropriate. I would want to talk about animal sin in the same way that I talk about animal intelligence, emotion, ethics, or spirituality. Namely, that there’s no single scale or spectrum on which such categories can be measured and compared in a linear way. There are dimensions of emotion and intelligence in octopi and elephants that we know almost nothing about (and mostly haven’t bothered to look for). Similarly, whatever sin means for the elephants of Pilanesburg, I assume that it is specifically elephant-shaped—even as its root cause (or exacerbation) might lie in human violence. And so, I don’t think that making anthropological exceptionalism the hallmark of *human* sin necessarily commits me to thinking that sinful elephants are performing an analogous exceptionalism. Alienation and fragmentation likely takes a different shape in elephant experience. Perhaps these questions start to get even more interesting when we start to ask them about creatures whose lives and experiences are more different from our own. What does the intelligence or the sin of a salmon look like? What of a fly?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.