Animals and Religion
Southwestern professor finds her teaching and research at the forefront of an area that is becoming increasingly popular with both scholars and the public
The idea of having dogs in church has never seemed odd to Laura Hobgood-Oster.
When she was growing up, her family often brought its dogs to the church where her father served as the minister. And later, as a church youth minister herself, Hobgood-Oster would often bring in her border collie when she was giving a sermon for children.
When her career path changed from ministry to academics, Hobgood-Oster naturally leaned toward animals and religion as the focus of her teaching and research. Today, the Southwestern University religion professor finds her expertise in demand on a wide variety of fronts as topics related to animals and religion gain increasing popularity.
Her first book, Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition, has been popular with both academic and lay audiences and she has several publishers vying to publish her next book, which will focus on animals in various aspects of modern society. And even though the manuscript for that book has not been turned in yet, she’s already thinking about her third book, which will be devoted just to dogs historically and in contemporary culture.
In the past month, Hobgood-Oster has been interviewed for stories that have run in newspapers, radio stations and television stations across the country. One particularly prominent story was an Associated Press story about a minister in California who has started “dog-friendly” services as a way to boost attendance at his church. That led to another story that aired on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” program.
In the fall of 2001, Hobgood-Oster became one of the first professors in the country to offer a class on animals and religion. Today, that class is so popular that she is having to teach an extra section in the spring to meet demand. Hobgood-Oster estimates that some 15-20 universities now offer classes on animals and religion.
“Classes on religion and ecology fill quickly, but classes on religion and animals fill even faster,” she says. Students in her class have done research on everything from elephants in Buddhist tales to sharks in South Pacific cultures to genetically modified animals.
The reason for all this interest in animals and religion, Hobgood-Oster says, is that some animals have become more central to people’s lives the past few decades in the form of pets. “Instead of just being workers, animals have become members of our families, especially in the United States and Europe,” she says.
Hobgood-Oster also says that a growing number of Christians – particularly those in mainstream congregations – believe that animals have souls.
“In the history of Christianity animals were sometimes considered to have souls and other times considered to be more like machines. But they were often included in rituals and stories and images. Even the word ‘animal’ has its roots in the idea of a being with a soul,” she says.
Hobgood-Oster notes that the inclusion of animals in religious services isn’t new. It’s simply returning after 300 years.
“Around the time of the age of Enlightenment animals were excluded from the sanctuary in response to the rise of humanism,” she says, explaining that during the 17th and 18th centuries, prominent thinkers elevated humans to a status other than animals.
For her first book, Hobgood-Oster conducted a survey of several hundred churches and asked them why they do blessings of animals. Next year, she plans to do a survey on why a growing number of churches seem to be offering pet-friendly services.
“I think we will hit the whole gamut, from attracting new members to recognizing the inherent value of animals themselves,” she says.
Hobgood-Oster says her research is part of a larger trend of increased focus on animal studies in general. For the past six years, she served as chair of a section of the American Academy of Religion that focuses on animals in religion. “There are so many people doing research in this area that we only accept 10 percent of the papers submitted for presentation at our annual conference,” she says.
Hobgood-Oster says all this research is another step toward better understanding our own history. “For many years history just focused on wars, rulers and kings,” she says. “The next step was history of ‘average’ people. Now we’re extending that to their pets as well. It would be incomplete to think of our history without them.”