Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ptolemy Tompkins on the Divine Life of Animals

I have a mental image of the dogs I've lost, now in heaven, young and healthy: my dalmatian running in a field, my yellow lab resting comfortably in a cool breeze. Playing with other dogs. Happy. Do animals really go to heaven?

Ptolemy Tompkins set out to answer this question in his book, The Divine Life of Animals: One Man's Quest to Discover Whether the Souls of Animals Live On. (Crown, 2010). Ptolemy is here with us today to celebrate his book's release and to share his thoughts on some of our deepest musings about our pets.

Ptolemy Tompkins is author of This Tree Grows Out of Hell (2008), The Beaten Path (2001) and Paradise Fever (1998). He is contributing editor at Guideposts and Angels on Earth magazines and writes a monthly column for He's currently working on a book about the afterlife of humans. You can buy The Divine Life of Animals at your favorite bookstore, or Amazon.

Q- Thank you for joining us, Ptolemy. You were in search of the answer to the question: Do animals have souls? Did you find the answer?

Ptolemy- I already thought they did, of course. But I was curious why it was that people are often so embarrassed about taking this question seriously. If you tell people you're writing a book about whether animals have souls or not, they're likely to respond with laughter, or by saying: "Well, of course they do." People feel strongly about the question, but it's an awkward one for them to know how to talk about. Of course, one reason for this is because we're not all that good at talking about the HUMAN soul anymore either. The word has become kind of soft-edged for us in the modern world, and we aren't all that comfortable, I feel, talking about the specifics of what the soul might really be.

Q- Did a personal experience with one of your pets inspire you to write this book?

My dog Mercury, who kept me company through writing most of it, died at the very end of my work on the book. It was interesting that at just that point, after spending so much time thinking about these questions, I would undergo the kind of experience that inspired me to write the book to begin with. People in the modern world, I felt, simply don't know what to DO when they lose a pet. That is, how do they fit their sadness, the emotions they feel, into their picture of the universe? So his death reminded me very strongly just how important it is to find answers to some of these questions.

Q- Is it possible to have hard scientific evidence for this issue, or is it simply a matter of faith?

Ptolemy- No, science has a lot to say to us today, if we're interested in asking if the soul really exists from a scientific point of view. The chief thing it has to tell us is that after a century of trying to do so, scientists aren't anywhere near proving that the brain produces thought. In fact, the brain is like a radio receiver, picking up and processing our identities. If you have a radio and you drop it and the song that was playing on it stops, that doesn't mean the song is gone. It just means the transmitter that was making you able to hear it broke. In a very small nutshell, that's what a lot of recent brain research is demonstrating.

Q- What comfort does this book offer for grieving pet owners?

Ptolemy- Your dog or cat or Guinea pig or ferret didn't die when its body did. Nothing does.

Q- So you think that our pets go to heaven?

Ptolemy- Yeah they do, to my thinking. But we need to rethink what heaven is, because our conceptions of it are too simplistic. We need to conceive of a heaven big enough to accommodate the world in all its dimensions. Not just a little room with some harps and halos and a "no pets" sign at the door!

Thank you Ptolemy!

What do you think? What have you experienced with your pets? Share with us Ptolemy says, it's good to talk about it!


  1. Rieke Burnett BaizeJune 9, 2010 at 8:06 AM

    Peggy as you know I have been interested in Ptolemy from his writings in Guidepost. I thought it was a very good interview and even though I don't have a pet now I would be interested in reading it. I am glad to hear of Ptolemy's other books and about the one he will be writing in the future.

  2. What a great topic for a book, since so many of us deal with this. Thanks to both of you!

  3. This is an interview I'll read to Mom. Great job! Thanks, Meg and Ptoley.

  4. Thank you for commenting Rieke. I'm sure others who are familiar with Ptolemy's writings in Guideposts will enjoy his book.

  5. Yes Alexis, sadly, most pet owners do have to face this...but the book gives us hope.

    Thanks for sharing the interview with your Mom, Julie!

  6. Great interview and nice to see you, Ptolemy. I finished Paradise Fever not so long ago, actually, and found it fascinating.

    When I was a child no question was more important to me then if my pets went to heaven. I remember pestering my mother about it and being wholly unsatisfied with her answer: God will provide a copy of the pet you loved so much. I still can't say I know for sure what happens to the pets I love, but I still think about it--as does my eleven yo daughter. Guess I need to read your book!:)

  7. Thanks, Ptolemy and Peggy, for this post! It comes at a very sad time for me, as I lost a beloved cat on May 25, and am still feeling blindsided by grief. It is comforting to know that someone has considered so thoroughly, from a scientific standpoint as well as a spiritual one, the fact of animals having souls and moving on along with us.

    Ptolemy, you make an excellent point about the narrowness of our "default" conceptions of heaven. We can grasp and appreciate the vastness and diversity of life on earth. Why is it so hard to believe heaven could be just as vast and complex?

    I have lost many animals over the years -- my two childhood dogs, two cats, three parakeets. In all cases I have been provided some kind of sign that he or she "made it" to the other side. One could argue that we convince ourselves of signs, that we see what we want to see, but I have always chosen to take those signs as confirmation that I will meet up with my animal friends again.

    Thanks again for the post -- I will be buying your book! :)

  8. Catherine, maybe your daughter will give YOU the answers you seek!

    Allison, I'm sorry for the loss of your special pet, you must miss your cat very much.


  10. Thank you for commenting Rieke. I'm sure others who are familiar with Ptolemy's writings in Guideposts will enjoy his book.


Kelly and Ike say thank you for your comments!