Why do we feel the need to promote animism of all things, while we could instead be advocating for ways to help fight climate change, to solve the plastic problem, to protect our rainforest, to stop overconsumption, … ?
The reason is that we believe all of these problems are fundamentally interrelated with the way we, as human beings understand our place on this planet and our connection to our environment. Not just on a practical level, but also on a relational, emotional and spiritual level. If we allow the destruction of our habitat to continue, then that can only be because we continue to believe that we are somehow separate from it.
No matter who you ask, everyone will consider it as self-evident that you treat your friends and family with love and respect. Any other suggestion would be considered as ‘below human standards’. That’s where the word ‘humanitarian’ comes from, after all..
Friends and family, that is: the persons you live in close relationship with. And this is precisely what we want to advocate: a world where it is once again considered normal that all persons are treated with the love and respect they deserve. That is really all that is needed to save our planet from disaster…
…on the condition that we are willing to extend this to all persons, and not just the human ones. If we are willing to define ‘being human’ as belonging to a race that accepts this as self-evident. If we are willing to return to the roots of the human race and become animists again.
For animism is not simply an outdated worldview that dates back to the time we were still cave-dwellers: it is a way of looking at the world that is probably more relevant now than it ever was in the past.
Unfortunately, when trying to look up definitions of animism, most of them seem to be stuck at the level of ‘the belief that animate and inanimate beings have a soul’, often with a mention that this is a thing of the far and distant past, or typical for ‘primitive societies’, before they had seen the light and evolved to more ‘advanced’ theological viewpoints. So let us take some time now to explore what exactly ‘animism’ means to us, and why it isn’t a primitive idea. We’ll do this through a series of questions and answers.
- Who am I?
- What does the first question have to do with the topic of animism?
- What is my relationship to the world around me?
- How can I restore those connections that are lost?
- What is the place of spirit in all of this?
- Is it fair to consider animism as a spiritual practice?
- If animals would have a religion, what would it look like?
- If plants would have a religion, what would it look like?
- What is ‘being’?
- If I were alone in the world, would I still exist?
- Why all these weird questions?
Who am I?
Have you ever asked yourself this question? Good. You are not alone. This is probably the one question that lies at the basis of every human culture since the beginning of time. This is about the universal need for understanding of the nature of the tribe, what binds its members together, and how they can be a close-knit entity that is sufficiently coherent to be able to withstand the unavoidable turmoils of life.
It is this shared experience that formed the basis of rituals, and in fact, still does. Any initiation ritual is, first and foremost, an affirmation that one is now part of the group. Through that ritual, the identity of the person is reshaped to deepen that understanding, and help the person with their process of becoming. This was the case for the first humans, any tribal society throughout history, but is equally true within the Abrahamic religions, the neo-pagan traditions, and even organized atheism.
What does the first question have to do with the topic of animism?
Why are you even interested in the notion of animism? Could it possibly be because you are on a spiritual quest? Or, at the very least, as an attempt to understand the world around you a bit better?
Any learning we do helps us to to shape our personal identity. It is important to realize this. Because it is something that can be used against us, by misinforming us. That is called propaganda, and it can easily create a feeling of ‘us versus them’. By presenting skewed and biased information, a group can try to assert their own superiority.
The first western ‘scientists’ describing a notion of animism were members of Western colonialist nations, who considered themselves to be thoroughly superior to the people they were describing. And so most of them didn’t have much interest in truly understanding the way these peoples were perceiving the world. Instead, they came to build an archive of the past, with the intention of then swiftly replacing it by their own civilization which they considered vastly superior anyhow. Also, they needed to convince the people at home of this, by showing them how peculiarly primitive and barbaric these conquered civilizations were.
It is admittedly an oversimplification to claim that every mission of discovery was having less than good intentions. Some people set out with the genuine intention to understand the world view of indigenous tribes. However, what they encountered was so very different from the monotheistic, human-centric worldview they had grown up in, that the barrier was extremely difficult to cross. And it is a barrier that still exists today, even for many of us.
This is something to keep in mind when reading much, especially older anthropological work on animism. And while this attitude has luckily vastly improved now by serious scientists, you will still find many dismissive and reductionist viewpoints being expressed online, for example on (fundamentalist) Christian websites that are trying to justify the need to evangelize the whole world. What you read on such sites about animism is not fact, but is propaganda. Alternative facts with a rather sinister agenda behind them.
What is my relationship with the world around me?
This is the foundational question behind animism. It recognizes that we are not ‘alone’, that this is not an exclusively human world, and that we can only possibly exist in relationship with the world around us.
Acknowledging this fact is the first step towards becoming animists again. The next step is learning to listen with different ears, see with different eyes.
How can I restore those connections that are lost?
All relationships are based on the same fundamental rules. Just take a moment to think about what constitutes a healthy relationship between two human persons, and then apply the same rules to your relationships with the non-human world. (In what follows below, the word ‘person’ may apply to both human and non-human persons.)
Here are a few fundamental principles:
- Start from a position of mutual respect. Without recognizing the intrinsic value and personhood of your conversation partner, there is no proper base for a relationship
- Make an effort to understand the point of view of the other. Projecting your own way of understanding things on the other person shows lack of respect, and takes away the other persons right of individuality
- Communicate. Practice ‘being in relationship’. Accept that this is a constant work-in-progress
The practice of animism is essentially nothing more than making a constant conscious effort of applying these principles in the wider context of human – nonhuman relationships.
What is the place of Spirit in all of this?
The word animism can give one the mistaken impression that we make a distinction between persons that are ‘alive’, like animals and plants, and persons that are not, like rocks. The right question to ask is what it means for a person to be ‘inspirited’.
In doing this, we would first like to stress that such spirits can have extremely diverse natures. There is nobody who claims that there is a complex nervous system hidden within any pebble or tree that allows them to perceive the world in a way similar to us, and hence that they have a type of personhood that is similar to ours. Obviously, vastly different ways of experiencing the world will lead to vastly different ways of being.
Animism cannot be fully understood when assuming that the visible, material world is all that exists. If a rock were nothing but a collection of inanimate molecules, then the notion of that rock having a type of consciousness would indeed be absurd. There cannot be consciousness without a way of experiencing the world.
However, if you accept time as something that is fundamentally nonlinear, then we can start painting a much different picture. What we see as a stone now, may well have been part of a mountain one day, was then blown apart by a volcanic eruption, and then slowly eroded into almost-nothingness by a river. During all that time, it experienced sensations like hot and cold, and many changes of shape.
Now, think of that stone as a computer that can store a single memory: its shape. During its whole lifetime, that creates a complex narrative of growing and shrinking. Moreover, that growing and shrinking happened in relationships: the river slowly eroding the stone is a primitive form of conversation. During its lifetime, that stone has had many such encounters. Taken together, when played in fast-forward mode, they form a rich web of experiences. Now, what else is a person but a being that can have experiences and relations with the world around it? Never mind that a single ‘stone-thought’ can take quite a long time when measured in human time.
And before you cry out in protest that all of this is just poetic license, and that this does in no way prove that this stone has personhood, think a moment of what it is that makes you a person. Isn’t that just a (admittedly vastly complex) web of just such tiny small experiences?
Another, more relevant question, is how this even matters. For surely, it remains a purely academic exercise to endow a rock with a notion of personhood, unless there is also some way for a human person to communicate with a rock person. As we have just explored, rock thoughts happen at a much slower speed to human thoughts, and so it is reasonable to object that this obstruction will make communication pretty much impossible.
Except when we remember that we are more than what we are in this very instant. We are the sum and total of all the experiences we have had throughout our life. And we can travel back in time: we can relive these experiences, change our perception of them. We can dream, that is, we can have experiences that do not take place in the material world. But still, they are part of who we are. All of that constitutes our spirit. And it is that spirit that can have experiences.
Hardcore materialist atheists may balk at this, but there is no reason to assume that a similar thing wouldn’t be true for a rock as well, and that it also has a part of its being that extends beyond its material form. And it is precisely at this spirit level that communication can take place. On this otherworld level of dreams where time has a different meaning, the spirit of a rock person and the spirit of a human person can meet and exchange experiences.
There will of course be some kind of translation that needs to take place. It is unavoidable that we will receive any message through the lens of the world as we understand it. And hence, use concepts as saying that a rock thinks, and remembers, and speaks, and feels, and have the human version in mind when the rock tries to explain ‘rockness’ to us. But then, is it even possible to fully understand another human being without living their life through their eyes first? Even when keeping in mind these limitations, there is value in learning to look at the world from viewpoints that are so fundamentally distinct from our own.
Is it fair to consider animism as a spiritual practice?
Is it fair to tell you that your life is disconnected? That you are only your daughter’s mother when she celebrates her birthday, or that friendships are only real in the big moments but cease to have importance outside of them?
Is being human a part-time thing for you?
This is what we do when we put animism in the category of religion and spiritual practice. We see it as something out-of-the ordinary. We forget who we are. We forget to connect. Your daughter is your daughter every second of every day, just like you are an inhabitant of this planet every second of your life.
That does not mean that there is no value in taking the time to celebrate special moments, or heighten our awareness. But we should be wary of making it a go-to-church-on-sunday-but-be-a-jerk-the-rest-of-the-week-type practice. If you want to call yourself an animist, then that should really be a 24-7 practice.
If animals would have a religion, what would it look like?
The mistake made in asking this question is the very point made in the previous part of this questionnaire: that there should be a wall between the spiritual and the mundane. Otherwise this question does not even make sense.
But let us try to answer it anyway. Not describing what kind of rituals animals perform, but asking what their relationship is with the non-material world and the world beyond the veil. Or, what their relationship is to the world they live in. For there is no true separation between these two questions.
A criticism that is likely to come up now is how I am even qualified to try to answer this. For I am human, right? Well, there you have the answer. I am an animal of the human species. Thinking that I do not possess animal consciousness is one of the issues that brought our planet to the point where it is right now. This separation is artificial and we need to learn to get over it.
So, let us look at human religion for a moment. Not the modern version found in the monotheistic traditions. For this is indeed very much a construct of an abstract mind. This is a cult of words and rationality. This is where, in essence, we have shaped the divine into our own image and have become blind for everything that exists outside of that.
Older versions, however, are much more based on our physical, that is, animalistic experience of being part of this world, with gods representing passion, and death, and every possible physical phenomenon. This is the world of the senses speaking to us. And this is the way an animal sees the world.
The world in its raw state, not ordered by words and categories and boxes. If we want to learn to be a creature of this planet, a human animal, we need to relearn thinking through our senses. We need to become animals again. This is one of the core goals of animism.
And to return to animal religion once more, we can be helped in that quest by realizing we are not alone. And we have never been (except maybe in modern times, when we have chosen to be alone). For if you look at any of the pre-monotheistic religions, then you will realize that many of the deities present there are very closely connected to animal spirits. For this we do not need to steal ideas from Native American cultures, as the idea is everywhere: think of ancient Egypt with its animal headed deities, Celtic deities like Epona (the horse goddess), or the Morrigan (the battle raven),… and the list goes on and on and on.
Why is this so? Why do we consistently find this pattern within any religion (and if you think Christianity is free of it, think again: Jesus is equated with a lamb, the evangelists are usually depicted with an animal companion,…)? It must be because our mind is simply wired that way: to find companionship in our fellow creatures, and to turn to them when we are in search for wisdom. I leave it for you to decide whether you believe in the existence of these deities and animal spirit guides. But the human animal tends to be pretty pragmatic and is usually quick in discarding ideas that do not serve him. Yet this one is very persistent throughout history…
If plants would have a religion, what would it look like?
Now the matter starts getting a bit more interesting, as we now arrive at a class of beings that is physically much farther removed from the way we experience life than animals are.
Here we need to start posing some of the harder questions. If we see a plant as a being capable of having experiences, and of making decisions, then what does that mean? For rational considerations would seem to quite convincingly argue that plants do not have a brain in the way animals do. And yet they respond to their environment…
Maybe a way to think of this is that beings with more sophisticated senses and motor skills have need of a built-in computer to be able to process information quickly enough to allow them to react to the world around them instantly, whereas for plants and trees a different kind of system has evolved, something which is more akin to what we in modern language could call cloud computing. They have a mind like we do, but it is not stored within the body, and it may not even be uniquely connected to a single plant.
Hold on to that idea, and let us have a look where this thought experiment brings us. If we think of plants as having more of a hive mind, then that would imply that they are not individuals in the way we are, but rather that they see themselves as but a single manifestation of their species. And so if they were to have religion, that would have to be reflected in that.
Recall that in this discussion religion does not mean worship but rather conscious connectedness. And there we immediately notice how plants indeed seem to be adepts at making alliances: for what else are flowers but an alliance between pollinating plants and insects? And what to make of the way plants have divided the growing season between themselves, each finding their niche, and at the same time making sure that food for the bees is present year-round. For
If you want to rationally understand this miracle, you can consider whether maybe there has been inter-species communication at work here. Or, if you prefer ‘hard science’, be my guest, only… random blind trial-and-error seems like a very bad solution to the problem wouldn’t you think?
Then what is plant religion? It would appear to be the ways plants communicate, and the way each plant holds themselves bound to their part of the web of life, realizing that all are needed, and that working together is in the best interest of all.
Now, you may or may not believe me in this, but next time when you work your garden, I invite you to do a little experiment: make the effort of talking to your plants, and seeing them as an ecosystem rather than as individual objects. And ask yourself how you can make the whole ecosystem thrive. Then compare to the ‘rational human’ approach, and ask yourself which one brings you most joy and connectedness. That is practical animism. You do not need to believe anything, you need to ‘be’ instead.
What is ‘being’?
So, you are still reading along with this essay? Great! We are slowly approaching the core question of this essay.
We started out with the question of who we are. Now let us deconstruct that very question. What does it mean to ‘be’ someone? What is personhood? Who is entitled to call themselves a person?
It would seem that a necessary property of a person is a form of individualized experience. For there can only be an ‘I’ if there is an ‘Other-than-I’ as well. What we experience between the boundaries of that ‘I’ is who we think of as ourselves.
But that is a fluid concept, even in a hyper-individualized society like the one we live in. For we have the shared experience of being human, of gender, of being members of a family, of supporting our country at the Olympics,…
In all of these, we are part of a person. One that sometimes coincides with the boundaries put upon us by our bodies, and sometimes is far wider than that, or sometimes far more restrictive, if we compare our experience as a working professional to our experience as child, parent, friend, artist, athlete,… We are many persons, all within this single package.
This is the paradox of being. Our experiences define who we are, but they also connect us to the world around us. And so ‘I’ is not something static, but a cloud of spirit that dances around in a puddle that confuses and delights us all at the same time.
If I were alone in the world, would I still exist?
Could you have experiences if there was nothing to experience? Could you have interactions if there was nothing to interact with? My idea is that you would cease to exist, or more correctly, you would never be able to come into being.
Why all these weird questions?
Now, why don’t I simply cut to the core and give you a nice and concise definition of animism, so you can get on with your life? Because that is not possible. Animism is us. It is not a definition in a dictionary or something to be dissected by anthropologists. It is simply the art of being alive.