People sometimes wonder if pets or companion animals go to heaven when they die. Those of us who do not believe in heaven might hope that the animals with whom we have built caring relationships will be with us again in whatever afterlife we hope to achieve. Judging by responses to internet searches, dogs seem to be of most concern when people wonder about animal futures. Searching for “do dogs go to heaven?” returns more results than the same question about cats, horses, snakes, spiders, llamas, budgies or tortoises. There again, some people are surprisingly serious in responding to the question “do lawyers go to heaven?”.
In response to online or in-person queries about animal afterlives, leaders of different religions offer interpretations of their authoritative texts and traditions. For example, the Hindu Mahabharata tells us that the hero Yudhisthira refused to enter heaven without his beloved but rather scruffy dog, in the Norse sagas Odin is always accompanied by two ravens, and there’s a mention in the Christian Book of Revelation of the heavenly armies riding horses. On the basis of texts like these some interpreters seem more certain than others that dogs, horses or other animals will or will not continue to exist in some form after death.
Discussions about animal afterlives often begin with anecdotes about the recent death of a loved companion animal. This might suggest that the issue is an emotive and immediate one rather than a cause of sustained philosophical or religious debate. Nonetheless, there are significant issues that reward contemplation even if you are not in mourning. If it turns out that humans alone are able to go to heaven, what is it that makes us unique? Is the difference between humans and other species one that might be considered “religious”? For example, do humans have different kinds of soul or spirit to other animals? On the other hand, if animals can achieve enlightenment or enter paradise, in what other ways are they like us? Are the similarities ones that should make it difficult for us to consider eating them? Should our caring attachments to our pets encourage ethical consideration for other animals?
Let’s rephrase the question about dogs and heaven. Asking whether dogs want to go to heaven might help us understand the world and ourselves better. Marc Bekoff (former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has devoted his career to understanding the cognitive, emotional and relational capabilities and behaviours of dogs and other species. His research demonstrates that many animals demonstrate complex abilities to anticipate and plan future possibilities. Cows and crows solve problems, thereby indicating their ability to want better situations. We may never know whether dogs believe in heaven or not, but there is evidence that animals can and do want things, and that they act on those desires to shape their futures. These brief examples underpin some of my thinking about the meaning of indigenous peoples’ claims that eagles, bears and other animals participate in religious ceremonies and even, sometimes, in ecological activism.