Tag Archives: animist

The Pragmatic Animist

I’m not much of an evangelist, but today I would like to persuade you to take an animist approach to life. Not necessarily to believe in animism, but to make the pragmatic decision to act as though you do.

Western humans have become far too prone to treating the world like a bunch of objects that exist for our convenience. We collectively treat the rest of life as resources to exploit. We don’t respect life, and we do not consider that other living things have any right to autonomy, or any feelings about their lives that might matter. The factory farmed animal in a tiny pen, turned into a food producing machine for humans, is a case in point.

Our human-centric view of the world is destroying the world we live in. To survive and thrive, we need to adopt more sustainable perspectives. This is where I think the case for pragmatic animism comes in. If you assume that everything around you could have ideas, intentions, preferences, feelings and so forth, it’s a lot harder to treat these individuals as objects and resources.

Here we simply sidestep the question of which living things have which kinds of thoughts, feelings and experiences. (I think this is the clever bit.) Reject that whole line of questioning. It is enough to consider that anything else you are dealing with could be aware and purposeful. Currently we are most willing to give care and rights to things we see as most like us – although not reliably then. We prioritise thinking and feeling in other beings even though we have little scope to measure or understand it.

Whether we can prove that something non-human thinks and feels is less important than how we behave if we adopt the idea that thinking and feeling are options. If you treat everything as though it exists in its own right and does not exist purely to answer some need of yours, you treat everything with greater respect. The pragmatic animist has reasons to seek co-operative solutions that serve life, not merely human life. It creates a context for not putting human wants centre stage all the time.

It’s a curious irony that our survival as a species won’t depend – as we’ve long imagined – on our out-competing everything else, but on our ability to support and nurture life. Survival of the fittest, going forwards, will not be about the human conquest of the natural world, but our ability to learn to live in balance, harmony and peacefully, with more care and respect.

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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.


The valuing of people

We all make value judgements about people, and we all act to some degree based upon those. It’s a pragmatic necessity. Time, energy, resources are all finite and life requires us to pick and choose. We inevitably pick the people who matter to us in some way – those we need for practical reasons, those who share our blood, or a lot of our history and to whom we feel a sense of duty. We give more to those we admire, whose work we value, who we consider useful or anticipate may become useful to us. How much do we judge the value of another person in terms of their power, status, income and usefulness? How much do we each judge ourselves on those terms? How do we treat the people who do not live up to our value judgements?

Many Druids are animists, understanding spirit to be present in all things. This means all people, too. A little bit of something sacred in every one of us. Often it’s easier to recognise that spark of sacredness in a tree, or a bird, than it is to see it in a drunkard, a loudmouth, a layabout, or whatever else it is that seems worthless to us. Most of the time, most humans do not treat each other as though they see a spark of the sacred within. Even though monotheistic faiths have us created in God’s image, we don’t collectively honour God by honouring that which is divine within each other.

What makes a person worthless? What attributes make a person beyond care or respect? And if we feel the worthlessness of another keenly, should we express that in some way, or keep it private? Our politics are full of the langue of dismissal and denigration – the unworthy poor, the frauds, the scroungers, the cheats…. It’s all about the devaluing of those who lack money, power and status. How much do we believe that, buy into it, support it? Do we only value other humans in terms of their economic power, or their potential for having power over us?

If I tell you that I earn very little, will you value me less? If I tell you that in person I am scruffy and shabby looking, would that change things? What about my work this week, does that matter? If I’ve worked hard, am I a better person than if I took a few days off, or was too sick to do much? Is there anything I could do that would convince you I was a person of particular value and merit? (Or that anyone else could do, for that matter).

I think life is precious. I think the life flowing through any human is just as important as any other kind of life, although in practice, to eat, I have to kill things. They were not less deserving than me of life, to my mind, but this is one of the more challenging facets of how nature works. There are life choices I don’t agree with and ways of being that I don’t value – cruelty, and malice heading up the list there. But I think spirit is everywhere.

Give me any kind of chance, and I will try and see what is best and brightest in you, what is most worthy of praise. Give me chance and I will like you for who you are, not what you earn, or what you might do for me. For my own sanity though, perhaps there are value judgements that I need to make and act on. I’ve spent most of my life jumping through hoops trying to please people. I’m starting to question whether some of those people are capable of being pleased. I can say ‘I respect you as a manifestation of spirit, but frankly your behaviour and attitude suck so I’m not sticking around.’ It’s an interesting theory. If I ever have the nerve to try it in practice, I’ll let you know what happens.