The problem with the new animism

“The Victorian anthropologist E.B. Tylor defined animism in terms of a ‘belief in souls or spirits,’ interpreted as a theoretical construct designed to elucidate the difference between life and death, the appearance of dream figures, and the apparently conscious actions of natural phenomena. New Animism proposes a radically different relational and ecological understanding drawn from post-colonial ethnography and dialogue with indigenous traditions, the hallmark of which is a this-worldly focus on respectful social and ecological relationship. As Graham Harvey puts it: ‘animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others.’ Whilst welcoming this development for the ethical focus it contributes, I have been concerned that ‘new’ animism may, once again, be marginalising extra-ordinary experience and ways of knowing, and in the process conceding vital ground to Tylorian scientism.”

– Brian Taylor, “Taking Soul Birds Seriously: A Post-Secular Animist Perspective on Extra-Ordinary Communications” in Greening the Paranormal

I have been having this exact same thought lately when listening to the discourse on animism within non-pagan (or at least not explicitly pagan) circles – for instance among environmentalists – and was very glad to see someone else finally mention it in the book quoted above.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with viewing our co-existence in this world with all manner of other physical, living entities (and even some complex ecological systems such as rivers and mountains) as one of interrelationship with autonomous, conscious-in-some-way, tangible persons. That’s certainly one important aspect of animism within pre-Christian and indigenous cultures, and one I’d be happy to see more people adopt even without any overtly spiritual component. But historically, animism is not only about what can be seen or heard or touched. I don’t know of any traditional animistic religion that doesn’t incorporate some type of understanding of discarnate, invisible (except in certain circumstances), independent spirits. Whether that be ancestors, fairies, nymphs (tied to a natural feature but not identical with it), or the most powerful and wide-ranging ones we call gods.

Sometimes I get the sense that these folks embracing and describing the New Animism, while comfortable with some level of vaguely spiritual response to nature, and ready to cede anthropocentrism to a more balanced, interdependent approach that treats the other denizens of our planet with respect and gratitude, are still mired in the aggressively materialist perspective of our culture in some ways – and worse, some of them seem to think that’s what all those other nature-worshipping types were really doing, too. As if all the talk of spirits was just a metaphor, or an unfortunate mistranslation, and they were really just acknowledging and responding to the animate (but still solid) world around them, without any messy, woo-woo, embarrassing notion of invisible beings with magical powers.

It’s bad enough being erased from most cultural conversations about religion in general, as if religion=monotheism, but it’s particularly frustrating to feel like you’re being erased from conversations about your actual specific form of religion, by people who theoretically mean well and share many of your values but just can’t get past their secular bias. I hope to see more practicing animists speak out and resist this uninformed and perhaps unconscious attempt to redefine the most fundamental, extremely ancient, one might even say innate spiritual condition of the human race.

~ by Dver on July 1, 2021.

13 Responses to “The problem with the new animism”

  1. Verily!

  2. […] The problem with the new animism […]

  3. Yes…

    And, that other term that gets used for those who don’t want to sound too animistic, especially by a lot of philosophers who deal with consciousness and such, i.e. panpsychism. Even though they often explicitly repudiate materialism, they still don’t want to sound “primitive” or to ascribe personality, individuality, or volitional qualities to these “non-human consciousnesses” in the cosmos, lest that sound too much like polytheism or anything theistic. (They also tend to be monists, i.e. they have not questioned the “logical” “unitary” nature of mysticism that is a direct inheritance and legacy of hegemonic creedal monotheisms, and have normalized it without questioning it, but then have just removed the volicition and personhood from it, and then “this is what is behind and is the root of all religions everywhere” can be said with a straight face by them…!?!)

    • Panpsychism?… If George Carlin were alive and a Polytheist he’d have a field day with some of the words people come up with…

    • Good to hear from you PSVL! And yes, I do think there is a fear of sounding “primitive” which if you think about it is probably based on some outdated, possibly even racist, conceptions of indigenous religions. Instead of fighting back against that bullshit, they just sidestep it by using a different term with a more wishy-washy sort of meaning.

  4. I have…complicated…thoughts and feelings about this. I mostly agree with what you said, and I find that often both secular and purely materialist types of animism lack a true sense of the autonomy, intelligence, and inherent worth of respect and dignity for other nonhuman persons that animism requires.

    It’s interesting to see you making similar points about animism, particularly in your second paragraph, that I often see western polytheists making about polytheism. I’ve seen other polytheists state that ancestor veneration or animism are inherently part of all or nearly all polythiestic religions. But I’ve also seen the occassional polytheist who doesn’t engage in ancestor veneration, and I believe one or two who said they weren’t animists because they worshipped Gods of civilization and cities and felt no affinity with the natural or nonhuman world. That’s a huge part of why I use so many descriptors to explain my religion to others — such as listing polytheism and animism seperately. There are other reasons, too, though.

    This is getting my feet in some rather dirtier water than I’d like to, particularly because a lot of verbal communication doesn’t translate well online, and also because it sounds uncomfortably self-righteous to my ears, as well as overly critical but: another reason I use different descriptors is because I find that even with people who are polytheists and animists, the public (and thus not necessarily accurate measurements) aspects of their religion tends to lean one way or the other, and almost always towards polytheism.

    There are a couple of aspects to the opinions and actions of some polytheists that particularly annoy me, and chief among them is what I think is a lack of thought or following things through to their conclusion — or possibly just prioritizing Gods and Ancestors over Land Spirits or other Entities. A prime example of what I mean by this is leaving offerings, often in nature or in public places that are not biodegradable, that shed microplastics, or even offerings that are biodegradable but that are toxic or harmful to the local environment or contain seeds from invasive species. Yes, intent matters, and intent plus acknowledgement of intent makes an offering of would otherwise be litter. But, if someone leaves an offering to a God, even one that the God wants, but it harms the local wildlife and is something the noncorporeal local Spirits don’t want there, is that really a polytheistic and animistic practice, or only a polytheistic one? To be fair, most of my Gods are intimately connected with either the Earth, and/or with one or more element or primordial or elemental force.

    Another opinion that I frequently see, also not always explicitely stated is that because the Gods are bigger, stronger, more powerful, wiser, virtuous, creators and basically in charge of or at the top of the non-human hierarchy (none of which I dispute) is that polytheism is more important than animism and ancestor veneration in religions that have all three as parts of them, and also that it is objectively better than non-theistic animism in the same way that atheism and Christianity are often portrayed as better, more evolved, or more accurate than polytheisms and indigenous religions.

    I, too, wish people talked about animism — and specifically of the variety you mean — more often. But also, I’m someone who is the type of animist, deep down in my bones, to the point that I don’t think I could ever separate it from myself, and I’d be terrified and distraught if I did…but I also don’t talk about it much, for many reasons. First, I am functionally 3/4 or more a modern-day hermit, and I also have other things that get in the way ranging from serious health issues to general overwhelm. But also, I just…often don’t know how. There is shared language and experience for worship of and interaction with Deities, even though individual experiences are obviously personal, unique, and sometimes private. People of a variety of religions pray to their God or Gods, they form and participate in rituals to Them, they meditate on Them, they have places of worship, they have ecstatic experiences of Them. And even many Christians and even atheists and agnostics say they can feel the presence or communication of their Dead, and they engage in activities to honor their Dead from funerals to gravesites to memorials to genealogy to telling family stories or sharing recipes. There are *so many* people who engage in these beliefs and activities and who publically acknowledge engaging in them and discussing them, even if the experiences or actions themselves are private. That isn’t really the case in terms of much western animisms. And even when many of our actions relating to animism are the same as to those of polythesim, the experiences are sometimes similar, and sometimes very different. And just as I sometimes have no words for experiencing the presence of my Gods or Ancestors, I sometimes have no words for my experiences of other non-human Entities. I dearly wish I could write about the paces I love the way Terry Windling and Charles de Lint wrote about desert and urban spirits in fantasy, and about the way Terry Tempest Williams and Henry Beston write/wrote about the desert and the coast in nonfiction. But even though I am writer, it is probably my best skill, and I believe it is a gift I was given to apply in thee service of the Gods, Ancestors, and other Beings, I often worry very much about doing it well enough for the Gods and Ancestors and fret about paying them honor with it, but when it comes to animism, I feel wholly incompetent to the point that I don’t even know where to begin. And some things just simply don’t translate well to speech. How do you explain the pent-up sense of waiting magnified by what feels like every sentient being in the area beneath a green-ish yellow sky before a hurricane? How do explain the intricate and delicate balance of life and death in a marsh? And obviously, when Beings or Places don’t want their pictures taken or to be drawn or written or talked about, their wishes should be acknowledged, which adds another layer. And some things just “*can’t* be explained, whether they are Mysteries, practical wisdom, or internal knowing of which direction the wind almost always blows from. Saying “life feeds on death”, telling someone how to look for a rip current, or explaining that the wind almost always blows from one direction really does nothing to help someone understand them. And that isn’t necessarily a lack of desire on the part of either the person doing the telling or the person doing the listening. I guess that was a an exceptionally wordy way to say that some things can only be learned from time and experience.

    And sometimes, too, the experiences, interactions, or activities themselves are fundamentally different than other types of religious experiences. Animism is often highly personal, and usually highly local. When I am far away from from home, I, personally, feel sick, lost, uprooted and disoriented. Even if I am going somewhere I am looking forward to, I feel as if I am in the wrong place the whole time, I look forward to going home, and I feel like there is an invisible cord connecting me to and pulling me towards my home (which is a specific place, but notably not my house).

    I can relate to feeling like you are being erased from your own religion. I often feel like I have more in common with non-theistic/secular animists and an Indigenous aquaintence of mine who is a practicing Buddhist than I do with my co-religionists.

    I didn’t intend to write this long, I probably should have made this a blog post instead. Sorry about that.

    While I’m posting here anyway, though: Just from reading your blogs and books over the years, I know The Labyrinth is pretty important to you. I recently came across info that there’s going to be a tarot deck based on it released this year, and I figured I’d mention it here in case you hadn’t seen it yet.

    • I agree with many of your critiques.

      I think one further consideration, though, which is ignored and even resisted amongst self-conscious devotional animists/polytheists, is that animism and the spirits it involves are not just “out there” in “nature,” they are as much “in here” in the everyday objects with which we interact all the time, most of which are made from the remains of things once living, whether the cotton fibers in our clothing or the plastics all around us that are the current forms of long-dead organisms subjected to many transformations into various liquids and solids. If the souls of a mountain and the rocks upon it exist, then these do not pass away when the minerals in those mountains are transmuted into metal utensils, lead in pencils, and the change in our pockets. I have heard people dismiss “mass-produced plastic junk,” but the fact is, such things can become enspirited even if they do not start out that way from the fact of their once-living components.

      Animism is a totalizing conception, not unlike all religious systems, and thus there is no part of life that is outside of it and exempt from its premises and its effects and the personhood it implies. We can lament our lack of connection to and contact with nature all we want to, and can relish it all the more when it does happen, but what about the rest of the time? If animism is only available to us when we’re on a hiking trail, camping in the woods, on a beach, or up in the mountains (or deserts, or on the ocean, or whatever), or even in a park or on our lawns in the back yard, what about all that time we spend indoors for good and for ill? If our religious frameworks and practices do not apply to an entire sphere of our lives that encompasses the majority of what most of us have as “our lives,” then it is really useless to be wishing that we could be outside in order to “do animism” when we might have to work a job and other things that are done indoors. Just like all the polytheists who do almost no ritual because there aren’t temples, their full ritual calendar and all of its festivals have not been composed by them yet, and so on, who think about their religions (and type an awful lot about them on the internet and social media!) but never actually do any of it, so too do the animists who leave their animism for “nature” and, at most, their shrines indoors in their homes, it really begs the question of the effectiveness of the discussion around any of this if it is not actually carried into practice.

      None of that may apply to you, however; and if it doesn’t, then well done! 😉

      • This conversation is utterly fascinating.
        I’ve got a Japanese friend who lives in a little jewel box on the side of a mountain in Utah. I love visiting her, (not the least because she makes the most divine cold noodles on the planet). She says, ‘Gods everywhere! Microwave god. Vase god. Boulder god. Everything has god.’
        It can all be a little overwhelming to a simple gal like me, but she’d fit right in with you two.

        • My very first spiritual teacher named all of his appliances and would talk about them like they were people. I thought it was kind of cute and silly at the time (I was a teenager), but it also kind of stuck with me, and later on I realized he had been modeling a deep animism for me.

      • “animism and the spirits it involves are not just “out there” in “nature,” they are as much “in here” in the everyday objects with which we interact all the time”

        This is SO important and so often overlooked! It’s something I’ve been coming to feel even more strongly as time goes on. It’s why I have a very intense and complicated relationship with the things I “own”, the things I share my space with. And yes, as much as I personally dislike the stuff on principle, even mass-produced plastic junk can have spirit. Sometimes even a stronger spirit than something made of wood or stone (or at least, a spirit that speaks to one personally more strongly).

        “If our religious frameworks and practices do not apply to an entire sphere of our lives that encompasses the majority of what most of us have as “our lives,” then it is really useless to be wishing that we could be outside in order to “do animism” when we might have to work a job and other things that are done indoors.”

        YES. I think it’s an extra challenge for most modern folks to take their religious worldview and truly embed it into their whole lives in that way, to understand everything through that lens, to really *live* the principles rather than relegating them to times of overt ritual or prayer. We weren’t brought up with it naturally, and we live in societies that actively fight that kind of perspective and awareness. It’s an ongoing process that one has to be dedicated to and actively work on.

    • “one or two who said they weren’t animists because they worshipped Gods of civilization and cities and felt no affinity with the natural or nonhuman world.”

      That kind of thinking baffles me – as if anything on this planet is not, ultimately, part of the natural world, including our cities. But more than that, as if animism is somehow confined to the woods. I think there’s a deep misunderstanding of animism there. It seems obvious to me that if a stone can have a spirit, a building can.

      “That’s a huge part of why I use so many descriptors to explain my religion to others — such as listing polytheism and animism seperately.”

      Yes, I too started listing “animist” in addition to “polytheist” several years ago, when I realized there was a lack of awareness of animism within many polytheist circles. I think this originally comes from so many modern polytheists having found the major gods and myths of ancient cultures first, and often being called by a particular god, and therefore having a tendency to focus on that part. Which isn’t bad, but becomes unbalanced if they never take it further and broaden their spiritual worldview. Especially since animism is a strong part of all those ancient polytheist cultures we’re reviving. This is also why I started harping on nymph worship early on in Hellenic polytheism.

      “A prime example of what I mean by this is leaving offerings, often in nature or in public places that are not biodegradable, that shed microplastics, or even offerings that are biodegradable but that are toxic or harmful to the local environment or contain seeds from invasive species.”

      Yes! This is so important. I do think it is sometimes a journey, as I know I myself made these mistakes early on and it took awhile for me to get my actions in line with my intentions – but that’s why we need to be talking about it more, to help people examine it. I think part of this comes from city-dwellers who are out of touch with nature and, going back to the first point, don’t even consider nature as part of the city. So they don’t think about what happens to their pretty offerings they leave out in the world, and how they could harm and pollute.

      “Another opinion that I frequently see, also not always explicitely stated is that because the Gods are bigger, stronger, more powerful, wiser, virtuous, creators and basically in charge of or at the top of the non-human hierarchy (none of which I dispute) is that polytheism is more important than animism”

      Which is funny because I think in many traditional polytheisms, especially for the majority of lay people (i.e., not the priests, shamans, etc.) it is the ancestors and spirits who are considered more accessible, more involved in human life, and therefore the ones people make primary relationships with, whereas the gods are so big you might only go to Them here and there.

      “There is shared language and experience for worship of and interaction with Deities, even though individual experiences are obviously personal, unique, and sometimes private.”

      Yes, I think you nailed it here as to one major reason people aren’t talking as much about their animistic experiences as their deity-focused ones. Especially as we are all spread out and most of us have few if any people in our daily lives with whom we share this. So the points of commonality become the focus. Even if your personal experience of a god is unique, you still have some kind of shared frame of reference with others who know that god. But no one else may know the spirits of the woods near your home, so it’s harder to talk about, or feels irrelevant to anyone else but you.

      “And obviously, when Beings or Places don’t want their pictures taken or to be drawn or written or talked about, their wishes should be acknowledged, which adds another layer.”

      Absolutely. And that’s something I actually wish more people paid attention to, because I suspect some are ignoring those wishes. Not everything is meant for the internet, for public consumption. The problem is that we have this culture that’s entirely built on sharing Every Single Thing about our lives with each other, often with total strangers, and I think people struggle with finding value and meaning in something they may never be able to share with anyone else.

      “I know The Labyrinth is pretty important to you. I recently came across info that there’s going to be a tarot deck based on it released this year, and I figured I’d mention it here in case you hadn’t seen it yet.”

      Thank you! I hadn’t heard that yet. Looked it up and it seems like it may actually be pretty good so I’ll probably get a copy.

      Anyway thanks for your long comment and interesting discussion. Really good to know there are others out there on the same page.

  5. Do Animists tend to be pluralists rather than monists?

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