Books: The Council of Animals by Nick McDonell

A fable is a story that imbues animals and imaginary creatures, along with any manner of natural or supernatural forces, with human-like traits to convey any part of its plot, meaning or narrative. It seems that fables have been a staple of human storytelling for as long as humans have had stories to tell. Even the oldest documented story currently know, The Epic of Gilgamesh, contains elements of fable carved into tablets.

Given this fundamental position of fable in human culture, it should be no surprise, that fable retains a key role in contemporary story-telling. Human connection, whether individual or collective, to the natural world is too vital for fable to ever be completely banished. Fable may be considered as humanism over-lain on the natural world.

We do tend to used fable where it seems to have proven highly effective: story-telling to convey a moralistic message. Often that means children’s stories, but fable is certainly not exclusively for children.

The Council of Animals, by Nick McDonell was published early in 2021 and is a contemporary fable. The storytelling is not particularly innovative nor is the story itself novel and compelling. At the beginning of the story, a council of animals is gathering to decide the fate of humanity – will the animals decide to exterminate the last of humanity or leave them to live out their lives in peace?

In reading the story, other fables readily come to mind and it seems only marginally necessary to state their titles. Pick the first five fables that come to mind and you’ve probably stitched together much of the plot and much of the narrative style. Mentioning McDonell’s willingness as an author to mug for the camera via animal-themed puns and set-pieces and that might be the end of it. It’s almost unworthy of a book review.

Except that the book feels as though its original intent, a story where Kingdom Animalia renders judgment on humanity, had been leant a new direction when the global pandemic came to town. Over the course of the story, it is revealed that some unspecified pandemic had struck down humanity’s population and provided animals (and some mythological creatures) the opportunity to finally gather their collective strength and dominance to be able to decide what to do with the stragglers that had survived.

The efficacy of fables is not their reality. The efficacy is in their ability to convey a moralistic meaning. McDonell’s novel expresses existential concern regarding humanity’s relationship to nature and existential panic in the face of pandemic. Whether that should be considered to be moralized fear-mongering, naive hand-wringing or something else entirely may be up to the reader.

Whether the book is viewed as any of these things should not preclude recognizing that the matter of the book’s panic (a human-created pandemic that threatens to end humanity) is the smaller consideration compared to the book’s concern ( humanity’s relationship to nature).

The book does not seem to be a book of humanism, however it is a book which offers a reminder that contemporary humanists, or perhaps more accurately, contemporary human societies whether they’re humanist or not, currently have the significant challenge to set aside human-centered existential crises in order to address the larger and more significant concern of this planet’s capacity to support life in any form at all. We need a new and vigorous Biophilic Humanism – a humanism, and a humanity, that places its interest in itself within the sustaining interests of the natural world we inhabit.

The moral of the story, when it comes to reading The Council of Animals, is that the time for fables, this over-laying of human priorities and characteristics onto nature, seems to be reaching its limits. Now is the time for laying of nature’s needs and priorities over human character.

Citations, References And Other Reading

  1. Featured Photo Courtesy of :
  2. http://www.nickmcdonell.com/

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

Harvard Chaplains Elect a Humanist as ‘Chief Chaplain’

According to their website, The Harvard Chaplains are a professional community of more than thirty chaplains, representing many of the world’s religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions, who share a collective commitment to serving the spiritual needs of the students, faculty, and staff of Harvard University. “

In August of 2021, it was reported that this organization elected a Humanist as their ‘Chief Chaplain’. As one may expect, such a generated media attention and is seen by some as a kind of controversy.

Greg Epstein, the subject of that controversy is one of the organization’s chaplains. Again, according to the organization’s website: Greg M. Epstein serves as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, as well as the president of the Harvard Chaplains, Harvard University’s corps of over forty chaplains from more than 20 different religious, spiritual, and ethical traditions. Greg also serves the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as humanist chaplain and as Convener for Ethical Life at the MIT Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life. For nearly two decades, he has built a unique career as one of the world’s most prominent humanist chaplains — professionally trained members of the clergy who support the ethical and communal lives of nonreligious people.

Described as a “godfather to the [humanist] movement” by The New York Times Magazine, Epstein was also named “one of the top faith and moral leaders in the United States” by Faithful Internet, a project coordinated by the United Church of Christ with assistance from the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, for his efforts to bring together atheists, agnostics, and allies, as part of an ancient and ever-evolving ethical tradition that can be called humanism. As Greg believes deeply: in a changing world where faith in humankind has become more difficult to maintain, it is more important than ever to fight for our common humanity, and for each other.

As an author, Greg’s New York Times bestselling book, “Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe,” continues to be influential years after its initial publication helped popularize the notion that the rapidly growing population of secular people can live lives of deep purpose, compassion, and connection. More recently,Greg’s 2018 move to join MIT, in addition to his work at Harvard, inspired an 18-month residency at the leading Silicon Valley publication TechCrunch, in which he published nearly 40 in-depth pieces exploring the ethics of technologies and companies that are shifting our definition of what it means to be human, often in troubling ways. Greg is currently writing a book on technology, religion, and humanism, based in part on this initial research. His writing on topics such as humanism, ethics, technology, and politics, has also appeared in The Boston Globe, CNN.com, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, Critical Inquiry, and The Humanist.

In 2005, Greg received ordination as a Humanist Rabbi from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. He holds a B.A. (Religion and Chinese) and an M.A. (Judaic Studies) from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Masters of Theological Studies from the Harvard Divinity School, and he completed a year-long graduate fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

That Epstein’s appointment is a controversy is not really any great surprise. Whenever religion and organization politics (regardless of that organization’s nature) combine, controversy seems to be an automatic outcome. The real question here, is whether the controversy is about the right questions(s). In 2021, there are still a great many people who seem to feel it is perfectly acceptable to deride a person’s election to some form of public office based on whether they personally believe in a God.

The Harvard Chaplains unanimously elected Epstein. To those who are interested to object and cause snide, disrespectful and deriding headlines and commentary, is seems reasonable to ask two questions.

The first question is, “Since he was unanimously elected by his peaers, What’s the problem?” That question can easily be turned-into a two-or- even-three-parter, with a variety of follow-ups. But let’s leave that one as it is.

The second, and the more considerable question is, “Why do you think it’s OK to discriminate against someone who is merely living the best life that they can within their freedom not to believe what you happen to?”

It certainly seems that a world which continues to move toward allowing religious freedom and the freedom of belief must still be encouraged to recognize that these freedoms include, most fundamentally, the freedom not to believe. There’s the real controversy.


Citations, References And Other Reading

  1. Featured Photo Courtesy of
  2. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/09/20/harvards-atheist-chaplain-controversy
  3. https://www.ncregister.com/blog/harvard-not-heaven-0a2nx6py
  4. https://chaplains.harvard.edu/
  5. https://www.ncregister.com/cna/harvard-catholic-center-responds-to-spin-on-atheist-chaplain
  6. https://www.humanistchaplaincy.org/
  7. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9929315/New-Harvard-chief-chaplain-atheist-ordained-humanist-rabbi.html
  8. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2021/9/2/greg-epstein-president-chaplains/
  9. https://www.christianpost.com/voices/can-an-atheist-chaplain-glorify-god.html
  10. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/26/us/harvard-chaplain-greg-epstein.html
  11. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/08/27/metro/harvards-new-head-chaplain-is-an-atheist-unanimously-elected-by-his-peers/
  12. https://angelusnews.com/faith/harvard-catholic-center-responds-to-spin-on-atheist-chaplain/
  13. https://nypost.com/2021/08/26/harvards-new-chaplain-is-an-atheist-and-good-without-god/
  14. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2021/9/9/harvard-chaplain-atheist/
  15. https://www.washingtonpost.com/

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.