Furry as an Alternative to Religion

Furries are a diverse bunch.

Our diversity means that we’re often excluded from the mainstream. This is particularly evident in our sexual preferences – only about a third of us identify as ‘heterosexual’ or ‘mostly heterosexual’ (Ref). Other traits displayed by some furries – gender dysmorphia, heavy internet usage, or even simple geekiness – can also play a part in our diversion from society’s definition of ‘normal’.

Not surprisingly, furries do not closely embrace religion, a societal construct that can embody and tacitly enforce the norms of the mainstream. A little more than 50% of furries are essentially areligious (Ref). This rate is about five times higher than for the wider American population (Ref).

Furry provides some of the benefits of religion – I identify two in this article, loosely defined as ‘spirituality’ and ‘community’ – that provide insight into how mainstream society might react to the challenges of our changing world. Furries embody some of the biggest challenges to religion in the twenty-first century: acceptance of diversity, the growing online world and, most importantly, the increasing rejection of religion altogether.

Religion is rightfully a sensitive and important topic. But before I go any further, I want to make two pre-emptive apologies.

Firstly, an apology to the religious, who may reasonably find this article offensive. I’m making a direct comparison between furry and God. To suggest that something as trivial and fleeting as furry can, and should, be compared to a deity would be ludicrous if I wasn’t so sincere about it. And possibly even worse, I’m also making an unsaid comparison between this article here on [adjective][species] – my interpretation of furry’s morals – and a holy book – a divine interpretation of God’s morals.

Secondly, an apology to the atheists, who may reasonably find this article condescending. Religion is an imaginary construct, so it’s ridiculous to give it any sort of regard beyond lip service. I’m being respectful towards belief systems that are demonstrably false instead of talking directly about the topic at hand.

These competing paradoxical reactions make writing this article potentially a lose-lose situation. It’s also one of the reasons why religion is such a difficult topic outside of conversations with like-minded people. The godly and the godless often see each other as the enemy: they respectively speak in ways that insult the other’s philosophy. It’s fertile ground for misunderstandings and angry escalation.

This article is intended to explore how our ad hoc furry community provides support to its adherents in much the same way as religious communities. I am not exploring theology.

For starters: furry is not a religion. As far as belief systems go, furry is reasonably comparable to totemism, a broad term covering those who believe they have a connection or kinship with a non-human animal. Totemism has been documented largely in indigenous populations in North America and Oceania, and a modern version of it still exists.

Modern totemists will often identify a ‘spirit animal’, with whom they feel a close personal connection. That spirit animal is usually imbued with superpowers that give strength to the totemist. These powers are often described as a result of the animal’s existence in a spirit world, from which they can provide guidance or provide literal physical support to the totemist.

Modern mainstream totemism (sometimes called animism) is considered to be a “new age” philosophy, along with other artifices appropriated from a range of cultures. Your patience for such quasi-spiritual guff will vary: your reaction to the usefulness of dreamcatchers, or perhaps your thoughts on the wisdom (or otherwise) of Chakotay from Star Trek: Voyager, might be a good guide as to whether totemism is for you.

If it sounds like I’m unfairly poking fun at modern totemism, I’m also poking fun at myself. I’m personally inclined towards a lot of this new-agey stuff – I’m vegetarian, I meditate, I’m a hypnotist, I own a lot of ambient music – although I would argue that I’ve appropriated useful aspects of newageism and discarded the dreamcatchers. I’ve read a fair bit on totemism and I wish I could recommend a good reference – probably the least worst is Ted Andrews’s Animal Speak (link), although there is a lot of nonsense to wade through, such as the author’s insistence that his personal eagle totem can disable highway speed cameras. If you can tolerate such intellectual bankruptcy, then the book is otherwise a pretty good reference for furries looking to reflect on their relationship with their species of choice. You could, unfortunately, do worse.

Having said that, totemism and real religions – and furry – help us manage our inner world. The totemists and the religious both provide an ‘other’ – a spirit animal or a God – that allows us to explore the most difficult aspects of the human condition. At the simplest level, using this ‘other’ as a sounding-board makes it easier to negotiate a route towards happiness, or acceptance of mortality, or manage personal failure. The presence of this ‘other’ means that we do not have to carry the mental load of complete personal responsibility.

For the areligious, furry provides an alternative for managing our internal world.

All human beings carry around an internal critic that thinks and acts in a way that is often contrary to the rational, moral being we imagine ourselves to be. We all hear an internal voice that reminds us of our permanent failure to live up to our own expectations. We all secretly struggle with depression, or lovesickness, or anger, or mortality, or whatever our own inner voice’s favourite topic happens to be.

This inner voice is believed to be the cause of auditory hallucinations. People who ‘hear voices’, as is commonly associated with schizophrenia, may simply feel that their inner voice isn’t their own. Among the rest of us, our inner voice can still make itself known. We may find ourselves acting on otherwise repressed impulses when we are in a mentally delicate state, perhaps drunk or under stress.

The struggle to manage this conflict between our inner voice and our desire to be a perfect rational being is, for many philosophers, at the core of the human condition. Some people might over-manage their atavistic impulses and become uptight, while others might under-manage and become emotionally unpredictable.

To a religious person, a deity often represents a perfect and unattainable ideal who rewards those who try to improve themselves. This provides a motive force for the internal struggle, providing meaning as one strives towards self-improvement.

Our furry selves may help in a similar fashion. For many furries, the animal-person alter-ego represents an unattainable ideal, mentally and physically. Other furries may imbue their avatar with desirable qualities, and roleplay as a first step towards self-acceptance. The fact that our avatars are not human may be helpful, in that we can never feel like we have reached our destination, much in the way that a man can approach but never attain godliness.

Furry also provides social guidance. We do not have anything as formal as a set of commandments, but we’re still subject to unsaid norms that inform the boundaries of appropriate behaviour within the community. For example: furries place great value on tolerance; our friendships are more intimate; we talk freely about sex and sexuality.

These unsaid furry standards are explored regularly here at [adjective][species]. However they are difficult to pin down: I suspect that a non-furry reading these pages wouldn’t gain much understanding about what furry ‘is’. In general, we tend to discuss common experiences (Rabbit on Fursuit Magic) or explore unusual phenomena (Makyo on furry’s dearth of women, Eighty-Twenty) but we tend not to try to define ‘furry’.

It’s not through lack of trying, just that we furries aren’t easily categorized. I might propose, for example, that all furries have an animal-person alter-ego, that we create and name a furry reflection of ourselves. However this is neither mandatory nor universal – [adjective][species]’s very own Rabbit, aka Phil Geusz, doesn’t interact through an imaginary furry representative. (Having said that, his books are very ‘furry’, particularly so if you are inclined towards bunnies.)

We have also explored apparently simple topics, like species selection. Assuming that, say, furry wolves must have different motivations for species selection from furry foxes, we hoped to find evidence in the Furry Survey data. However several creative data-mining attempts have discovered almost nothing. I can think of exactly one significant correlation related to species: furry women are much more likely to choose a domestic cat for their fursona. (Ideas for future searches are welcome.)

The spiritual aspects of religion are difficult to pin down as well. Taking Christianity as an example, the world has changed to a point where the bible has ceased to be a realistic reference for behaviour. (Atheists sometimes suggest that failure to adhere to the word of the bible is proof that it’s at least partly false. I suspect that Christians roll their eyes at this criticism.)

The world is always changing, a process that become very rapid following the industrial revolution some 200 years ago. Huge increases in efficiency and income have led the world’s population to increase from about 1 billion to today’s 7+ billion, largely away from rural communities and into urban centres.

Religion has had to adapt to this change. Before cities started growing in the nineteenth century, people related to their religion at a community level. The church was at the heart of the community, a role perhaps comparable to that of the government today (as illustrated by the Soviet Union’s attempt to enforce universal atheism).

Population growth and the rise of the cities has changed religion. The paradigm of a community church has foundered in the wake of cultural diversity, social diversity, and – more recently – the advent of the internet. Furry is less than 30 years old and so has easily adapted to the twenty-first century. Most religions have centuries or millenia of history: they were once described to me as like an oil tanker, in that they take a long time to change course. By that metaphor, furry would be a speedboat.

While the spiritual aspects of religion haven’t appreciably changed over this time, the community that once centred around a church has. In diverse cities, church-based community will necessarily be relatively monocultural compared to the greater population. This disconnects you from your citymates, a disenfranchisement from society.

If the inhabitants of a city are not engaged with one another, it can lead to weakening of the social contract. This causes problems on a personal level – a city can be lonely – and on a wider level – illustrated by the 2011 London summer riots. The furry community provides a solution, at least on a personal level.

Our mutual engagement in the furry community brings us closer together. The social contract within furry is strong: we freely offer shelter and company to furry strangers (The Furry Accommodation Network); we offer moral support to the depressed (A Rough Guide to Loneliness); when furry strangers pass away, we are personally affected and provide charity (Death in the Fandom). This sense of community is very similar to that traditionally provided by religion, bringing an entire community together, allowing the strong assist the weak.

The communal furry experience is more tangible than the spiritual side. Unsurprisingly, we at [adjective][species] regularly write about the furry community’s actions, and those articles are almost always the most interesting to read. So, if you’ve read this far, thanks – I hope you didn’t just read to the end so you can comment and berate me for being offensive/condescending [choose one].

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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12 thoughts on “Furry as an Alternative to Religion

  1. People use religion for different things. Naturally. My grandmother saw it mostly as a social construct. She went around the churches until she found a group of people she liked and a theology she could believe in. For that level, Furry fills the gap as well as any community.

    For those who need an idea, you mentioned totem animals and their related theology. I would be interested to hear from a devoted totem or animist about that. It seems like that belief system has suffered a great deal from the exploration of the planet and proliferation of technology. It’s easy for the remote deists; their god lives in another dimension or at least in another part of the universe (I’m looking at you, Kolob). You can say, ‘we find no evidence of a superpowered badger’ but it’s a lot harder to collect enough data to have a reasonable shot against something like a god in outer space. Especially for the J-Cs since up to a point, Genesis is surprisingly accurate to what science suggests actually occurred at the beginning of the universe right up to the point where the Garden of Eden occurs. Light, stars, earth covered in water, earth with land, whales, people. Lots of gaps, but the right stuff in the right order.

    At the risk of sounding like the Hitchhiker’s Guide V2, my personal approach to religion is that any real effect has a real cause. People act as if there is a deity, thus the deity has an effect through them. Deity exists. This means all gods are equally as likely to be. I especially respect the ancient Egyptians for actually building their gods a city. That’s dedication.

    1. Your approach to religion isn’t that uncommon among furries. A significant number of respondents to the furry survey listed their religion as ‘other’ and went to on to describe – as Alex puts it – a “bespoke combination of various other religions”. This may not fit your exact approach, but it sounds reasonably similar.

      I, too, would be very interested to hear form a devoted totemist. I’ve never come across one within furry, from I have met a few of furries – myself included – who have explored totemism for its similarities with their version of furry spirituality. I wonder if the comparison holds in the reverse direction.

  2. For me, I see the furry community as a new and exciting social group that I could learn a great deal from. My life is sheltered (to say the least), and furry puts me in contact with groups of people who I would not otherwise associate with on a regular basis, and I think that that is important for my personal growth, whether to become more open-minded and accepting, or at least to become more tolerant and understanding. (of sexually diverse groups of people, that is )
    On the topic of religion, I am more interested in the finer points concerning the afterlife, than any other tidbit. Each religion has its own interpretation of an afterlife or rebirth / reincarnation, and I simply choose to believe in the Christian spin on it. That said, I am personally going through a time of trying to figure out how I should separate religious beliefs or convictions from the rest of life, furry or not. “Conservative” Christianity definitely in my mind seems to clash with alot of different furries’ lifestyles or moral guidelines, if you will. I am not out to judge others or point fingers, but it is a bit difficult to overlook many furry friends’ … Lifestyles, I suppose. I think I may have gotten a little off topic, so I will leave it at that.
    Again, great article, JM!

    1. Thanks for the kind words Nimadro.

      It sounds to me like you’re 99% of the way to reconciling your religion with furry. Your focus is on other people first: you’re looking for ways to accept and tolerate the unfamiliar aspects of furry, even though that doesn’t easily sit with your religion. I think that’s brilliant and I think you should be proud – it’s a rare and laudable trait. In a Christian context, I dare say you could call it charitable.

      (If you’ve any doubt as to how rare you are, think about how most people react to things that clash with their pre-existing beliefs. For example: how atheists often treat Christians, or how Christians often treat atheists.)

      There’s a tendency for people – all people – to think of the familiar as “normal” and the unfamiliar as foreign or wrong. Even in the storied Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (aka DSM-IV), psychological disorders that don’t appear in the western world are loosely collected as “culture-specific” and hidden away in an appendix. So someone who believes their penis has been magicked away is “culture-specific”, and anorexia gets serious treatment in the main body of the text, even though anorexia is “culture-specific” to the western world. So even experts in psychology can make the mistake of assuming they’re the centre of the universe. You’re doing a lot better than that.

  3. Hey,
    It’s that one statistical outlier here to speak again. Your article gave me another chance to reflect on about personal beliefs, goals, meditation and, generally speaking, a lot of things. First of all, I’d like to say that you did an admiral job comparing aspects of Furry and Religion in a reasonable manner. It’s true that no-matter the route that we take, we all have the same goals of happiness and understanding in life.
    Personally, when it comes to my Furry-ness, it has been (and still is to a great deal) rather difficult to resolve certain things with my religion (LDS/Mormon). In our little Mormon Furries Facebook group that we have, the topic came up one day comparing certain aspects and desires that one would have as a Fur (namely becoming our fursona) with the fundamental desires that we have in religion (such as the concept of Resurrection). As I was thinking about the concepts, I came to a realization that, although many things could be reasonably accommodated, My religious understanding of the nature of things trumped personal Furry wants (If you want to talk specifics, we can talk). So, for me, Being a Furry has taken a secondary position to things.

    Not gonna lie though: I’ve dreampt of, and researched ways to turn myself into a Malamute.

    1. Hi Leon, thanks for the kind words. Religion is a difficult topic largely because it’s hard to talk about while being respectful towards all belief systems. So it’s really nice to hear that my article reads okay to you.

      I like the way you’ve approached the incompatibility between furry and Mormonism. You don’t talk about it as conflict, rather as an exploration of the ideas. I think this is an area where atheists often get it wrong: they point to an inconsistency in a religion and suggest that it’s proof that the whole thing is a lie. I think that’s missing the point, and I think you’ve neatly captured that in your comment.

  4. So in my Zen and hypnosis and political explorations, I came across this gem: Bill Moyer’s PBS interview of Joseph Campbell on mythology (the importance of it, how it affects our lives, the differences between and consequences of interpreting myths literally and figuratively, and more). Partway through 2/6, I realized that you (and likely Makyo) should really see this if you haven’t already.

    The reason I am posting this is because it seems to me that furry seems to be not so much a religion to me as a mythology–a public story about ourselves, an ideal, a created fiction that we all play in that comes from our dreams and psyche.

    It can be found easily enough on TPB. Anyway, cheers!

  5. Have you heard of Shamanism? I heard a sermon about it recently and it reminded me of the furry identity. I have a Facebook group for Unitarian Universalist furries called fUUry.

    1. Hi Ms Q, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I certainly this you could broadly lump Shamanism with Totemism, at least in the way this article is written. Neither are synonymous with furry, but I think they both have some features that are reminiscent of the furry experience.

      There are a fair few Unitarian Universalist furries out there. A few months ago, I was helping Khed research his recent article about furries and Pentecostalism (http://www.adjectivespecies.com/2014/01/14/tongues-of-beasts-and-angels/). He asked about how people responded to the Furry Survey religion question, which includes a text box for people who answer “other”. Dozens of furs each year answer UU – it’s probably the most popular “other” response outside of Wiccan. How are your numbers? How do, um, fUUries find you?

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