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.