The trouble with animism

This is a history of ideas thing, I have nothing negative to say about animism at all, just to be clear. The trouble with animism is the way it seems to be classified in a particular kind of story about human progress. Druidry and the Ancestors has a lot of material in it about the kinds of stories we invent about history. This isn’t in the book, but is an example of how problematic those stories can be.

I’m currently reading K.M Sen’s book on Hinduism – which is fascinating, but includes as a statement of fact the idea that primitive people have primitive, animist beliefs and that advancing civilization goes with more sophisticated polytheism, moving towards monotheism. It’s not a new theory, I have seen it other places. I’m pretty sure it’s in The Golden Bough, and that it goes with more 19th century attitudes to ‘primitive’ people and ‘primitive’ belief. (Pile in if you know more than me or have your sources to hand, please!)

This is in essence a story about progress, in which moving towards ever more complicated ways of living is seen as a good thing. It’s a whole line of thinking that exists to prop up the status quo, to let us tell ourselves how much better we are than people of ages past, and of course ‘primitive’ people whose land we would like to appropriate. Progress theory is pretty much inherent in colonial attitudes and is underpinned by ideas about economic growth being an unquestionable good, industrialisation being an unquestionable good, and monotheism being also an unquestionable good.

Except that nothing works like that anyway. Hinduism seems to be a fine example of a complex dance between polytheism and monotheism, including turns with agnosticism and materialism. Once you get to a great big monotheistic belief then it’s very easy to go pantheistic. The one big all powerful all present God, is everywhere! So God is in everything. So everything has spirit, and suddenly you’ve gone round a great big loop and come back to animism again. It’s not a line of progress, it’s a circle, or a spiral, or a big mush of interconnected things, depending on who you are and how you do it. The only way you get a line is if you take atheism as some sort of exit trajectory. Then what you get is the idea that we only have what exists materially. At which point treasuring and honouring those material realities can start to make a lot of sense. At which point…yes… you’ve spotted the punch line.

The trouble with animism is what happens when you try and talk about it using the outmoded language of people with bloody stupid ideas and a very narrow view of the world. If you engage with people who use the language of separation and difference, mind body dualism, matter and spirit, us and them, the object and the subject, and you talk on their terms, you talk about animism in a language that by its nature, deconstructs animism and makes a nonsense of it. It can be tempting to want those mainstream languages of science, reason and philosophy, except that they make you fit. Which for animism, means make you into small, dysfunctional pieces of wrong.

Which leaves me wondering quite what we do with that.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

8 responses to “The trouble with animism

  • Gwion

    The fundamental problem, to my mind, is the concept of (human) progress at all levels. We seem to be programmed to equate movement/change with progress towards something inherently better. We fall into the same trap with the concept of evolution; thinking that it is heading from somewhere to some end point of perfection rather than just adapting what is already there to new conditions. The argument seems to be that, because we are present now (at the end point of history!!!!) and are a recently evolved species, we are the most perfect example around. If we could accept that we’re just well fitted to survive in the current environment and that we’re complicated, not because it’s necessarily good to be complicated (there are both advantages and disadvantages) but because we’ve just kept adding to what went before in our evolutionary history, we might be able to throw away this idea of human perfection/superiority and accept that we’re just one equal part of Nature, no better and no worse than anything else.

    This same “progress” paradigm pervades religion, not only in relegating “primitive” beliefs to less worth but also, in many reincarnation theories, postulating that we are heading towards some final goal. The problem is, if you throw out the paradigm you have to reassess so much and this hits at the heart of human self-confidence and self-worth: much easier to stick with the self-deception.

  • corvusrouge

    We now know that the genetics in the very first life forms on the Earth are also present in our own genetics, The building blocks of life. To my knowledge, they are present in every life form on Earth. Therefore the connectedness of animism in a materialistic context is a fact. Making the assumption that there is an end goal, which is the driving force of other religions, and applying it to animism just doesn’t, IMO, actually match what we see. Applying an end goal is a cultural thing and appears to be humancentric at this time. In all my experiences of animism, I have never been made aware of any end goal as such. As far as I can see at this time, humanity is just a step in the evolving complexity of life on Earth.


  • Speculating wildly « Druid Life

    […] and colonising culture they came from. As I commented on recently in the post about the trouble with animism, so much of this thinking is still ingrained culturally. Perhaps a little bias the other way is a […]

  • Alex Jones

    Animism and shamanism runs together belonging to hunter gatherer society. Such practices still work well amongst indigenous peoples. The ancient Celts to my knowledge is the only culture who appears to have made a good transition into civilisation as we know it with animism and shamanism intact. Modern attempts to force animism into a modern worldview is doomed to failure.

  • Alban Artur

    I’ve just read this again after a year. Still as good as I remember!

    I’ve come to think of Animism and Consciousness as being interrelated in the sense that if something is imbued with spirit then it must have some level of self awareness even if that self awareness is something that is hard for us to perceive or build relationship with. If everything has consciousness and spirit, even if it is the Pantheistic “God is in everything” context, then it seems to me that consciousness is likely aggregate rather than singular. Rather than my own consciousness being a unique structure, it is the result of conscious observance from every part going from the subatomic level on up, my brain, perhaps, acting as more of a central processing hub rather than the totality of my consciousness. That idea fits nicely with what you wrote, perhaps the last year of pondering such things was inspired by this very post…now if I could only get those nerve endings in my knees to listen to the rest of us and just ignore the pain…I really wanted to climb that mountain this spring! 😉

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